What to look for in a new bike for a plus-sized female wannabe cyclist?
March 30, 2013 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I want to commute by bike to my job and bike on the weekends as a way to enjoy myself and get in shape outside but am overwhelmed by all the choices out there. I am plus-sized and want to be somewhat comfortable biking for an hour a day. Not sure if a larger seat will solve my problems? Is a mountain bike the answer because it has shocks? What components would you recommend that will make a new bike work for me. I'm a thirty-something with no health problems, just a lot of weight to carry.

Some background, a friend lent me a bike that I think is not quite the right size for me. I've ended up getting minor repairs done at least monthly over the last year- things to do with the chain, the gears- flat tires etc. I hope to find a bike that doesn't need constant visits to the bike store. As well I read that heavier cyclists put more stress on their bike and this can lead to problems for the bike. Can anyone verify this? The roads I'm riding on are far from smooth, so I speaking specifically about going over bad roads.
posted by outdoorslady to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
If you've been lent a used bike that maybe doesn't have a stellar maintenance history, minor problems like the ones that you describe are fairly normal. The good news is, they should more or less sort themselves out and then the bike should be fine with just regular tune-ups. Except for the flats, that is. Flat tires happen, but if you upgrade to kevlar-lined tires or get some anti-flat liners put in your existing tires, you'll get way fewer of them. I am a total kevlar-tire evangelist, they've changed my life.

As far as choosing the right style of bike, it just sort of depends on what balance of speed/comfort you are looking for. Probably the best thing for you to do, especially since you also have some specific needs as far as durability and fit, will be to go down to a nice bike shop where someone who knows what they're doing can take the time to try fitting you to a bunch of different bikes, and let you ride around on them a bit so that you can get a sense of what you like best.

That said, you've got four basic styles of bike. There are plenty of gradations and finer distinctions in here, but this is the first-order breakdown:

Cruisers are going to be the most comfortable ride in a city, and also the slowest. They will have the most chair-like sitting position, and very relaxed handling geometry. They will generally be big, heavy, and durable and will have big fat tires relative to most other bikes. The main drawback is the slowness -- if you are riding one as a commuter, you may find that the low top speed quickly becomes frustrating for you. This can be somewhat offset if you get one with a three-speed hub gear (which I would highly recommend if you go for a cruiser) but they will always have a definite top speed. They also can be difficult to ride up hills -- not a problem if you live somewhere flat, though.

Mountain bikes are a bit faster and a bit sportier, but in my opinion they're not really well-suited for town riding. The shocks on a mountain bike rob a lot of power from the pedals, and don't really provide a lot of extra comfort for regular rough-road riding. The shocks on a mountain bike are meant to deal with larger obstacles and drops -- most of the shock absorption for smaller bumps like potholes and cracks in the road comes from a bike's tires, with fatter tires obviously providing more cushioning (again at a cost to speed, but you are at least getting something in return). They can also be a bit twitchy -- the geometry of the bike is set up to enable a lot of tight, sharp maneuvering at lower speeds which is not really something you need for the road. Their tires also have very thick tread, which on a hard surface like a road does nothing but eat up power.

Hybrid bikes are the next category. Mountain bikes do have some characteristics that a lot of people like for road riding though, and the next category of bikes takes some of those and blends them with road bikes to create what is either a "best of both worlds" bike or a compromise bike, depending on your views. This might actually be a good option for you. Unlike road bikes (which I'll talk about in due course) hybrids have a more upright and comfortable posture similar to what you would get on a mountain bike. They tend to be robust and more heavily-built for durability compared to road bikes, though a bit lighter than mountain bikes. They will generally have medium-width tires with a light tread on them, to provide a balance between comfort and speed while giving a little bit of soft-surface traction. The steering geometry will often be more like a road bike, though like a mountain bike they'll tend to have flat rather than drop handlebars.

Road bikes are the last group of bikes, and the fastest. They also have the thinnest frames, thinnest tires, and the most forward-leaning ride posture. Some are certainly more aggressive in this regard than others and some of the more relaxed versions might suit you fine, but in general these may not be what you're looking for. They will often (but not always) have drop handlebars, or at any rate some kind of handlebar which allows for multiple grip positions so that the rider can shift his or her hands around over the course of a long ride (a nice feature that you might look into on a hybrid bike as well, if you go that route). They can be quite comfortable for the right rider, but they definitely don't deal as well with rough or soft surfaces. The handling geometry can be all over the map, depending on what you get -- you'd want something in more of a touring or commuting geometry, rather than anything racy.

That's basically how I see the breakdown of general bike types, and I hope it's a useful guide for you. I would like to reiterate my earlier advice though, that you get yourself down to a nice local bike shop and find a helpful salesperson who can listen to your needs, fit you to some different types of bike, and let you take a little ride around on them. That's really the best way to settle your question.

Happy riding!
posted by Scientist at 8:28 AM on March 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

If you weigh less than 300lbs, you are not really putting any particular stress on any normal bike.

Mountain bikes are very slow, specifically because they have fat tires and shocks. They build mountain bike shocks for riding through riverbeds and off jumps and over logs. They are absolutely 100% overkill for riding on paved roads, even in bad condition.

The trick to riding a bike on a potholed road is to not just go straight through all the holes as if you were in a car, but to carefully adjust your path so that you avoid most of them. This works very well, even on lousy roads.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:33 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a fat female city cyclist in my 40s. I commute, do leisure riding, and run errands and whatnot on my bike. I have a Jamis Explorer, a hybrid as Scientist explains above. I am very happy with it. I selected it after many test rides of many bikes and in consultation with a good bike shop. Unless you are over 300 lbs, I wouldn't worry too much about your weights impact on a hybrid.
posted by Pineapplicious at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

It makes a big difference to get a bicycle seat that's specifically designed for women to take the pressure off sensitive areas; Terry makes some good ones.
posted by Jeanne at 8:38 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're riding on paved surfaces (roads, trails, etc.), and even on smooth dirt or gravel roads, you don't need suspension (shocks). A good suspension system is expensive, while the cheap ones are heavy and prone to require maintenance, which you want to avoid. Suspension is for off-road riding.

If you're riding on bad roads, the best thing you can do is ride a bike that's designed to take wide tires. By running wide tires at a lower pressure, you'll absorb bumps without the weight and complexity of suspension; you'll also get fewer flats, because the tire will more easily be able to roll over sharp objects (within reason; you still want to avoid riding through broken glass if you can avoid it!). That means a mountain bike (if you can find an old one without suspension) with wide, slick tires; a touring bike, which is made to take wider tires than a racing bike; a cyclocross bike, which is designed for racing over rough ground and so takes wider tires than ordinary racing bikes; or a hybrid.

My wife is looking for a new bike (not very hard, though), and one that we've considered is the Jamis Coda. They make a couple of models that are designed for women (who tend to have longer legs and shorter torsos than men), such as the Coda Sport Femme. A bike like that might be worth considering.

If your rear end hurts, a new saddle might be a good idea. Not necessarily a wider one, though: that depends on how far apart your sit bones (AKA ischial protuberances) are located. They tend to be further apart on women than on men, but that's a statistical regularity, not true of every individual. Harder saddles are, in general, better than softer ones. On a hard saddle, your sit bones contact the saddle and, after the soft tissues over them adapt to the pressure, the rest of your soft tissues are spared. On a soft saddle, your sit bones sink into the padding, which then puts pressure on the other soft tissues on your butt. I use a leather saddle which feels comfortable even after several hours of riding--once my butt adapts to it. (I cycle year-round so that I don't have to readapt every spring!)

Terry makes good saddles, including some designed for women. Selle An-Atomica also makes saddles with cutouts in the middle to relieve pressure there. Some people swear by them; others swear at them.

Heavier riders don't necessarily need a special bike, unless you're talking really heavy (over 300 lbs.). Those of us who are larger, though, would benefit from avoiding the really lightweight, racing-oriented bike. Most bikes have wheels that are built by machines. They're not as sturdy as hand-built wheels because the tension is usually too low. I recommend that heavier riders have their wheels re-tensioned by a mechanic; that will make them a lot stronger and is worth the few extra bucks it will cost.

As for the other problems you mention:

Chains do need to be regularly cleaned and oiled. Sheldon Brown explains how and why (with comments by John S. Allen). Learn to maintain your chain, and you can avoid many trips to the bike shop.

Derailleur-shifting systems do sometimes get out of whack, but normally only if they're banged around or the cables are either brand new or reaching the end of their life (i.e. they've started to fray and break). With a new bike, you'll want to go back to the shop after a few hundred miles for a tune-up (which should be free, if it's a decent shop). Otherwise, you can learn to verify that your brake pads and tire rims are OK (having brakes fail is a bad thing), and then just take the bike to the shop once or twice a year for a check-up and tune-up (just like changing the oil in your car).

Finally, flats happen. But running wider tires at a lower pressure reduces their incidence. You can get tires with Kevlar belts, as Scientist suggests. I use them on my commuting bike, but I don't use them on my other bikes because they slow me down. Even if you use Kevlar-belted tires, you may still get a flat every now and then. Learn to fix it yourself: with a bit of practice you can fix a flat in a few minutes, and all it costs you is a spare tube (a few dollars) and a patch kit (a few dollars). You can patch and re-use tubes over and over again, and the initial cost of one extra tube and a patch kit is less than most shops charge just to fix a single flat.

(In case you're wondering: the extra tube is so that you can take out the old tube, put the new tube in--after removing whatever object caused the flat--and then patch the old tube when you get home, instead of doing it on the side of the road. And sometimes a tube will pop in a way that can't be repaired.)
posted by brianogilvie at 8:40 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I totally agree with Scientist - find a good bike shop and test some out. I also got my bike for commuting/weekend purposes, though it sounds like I have better roads to ride on. I got a Bianchi Torino, which is another hybrid and I like it.
I also use a comfort bike seat. They distribute your weight so that it is on your butt rather than your sensitive lady parts.
posted by florencetnoa at 8:40 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been commuting on a hybrid (Kona Dew Deluxe) for about 3 years. When I picked it I was ~270lbs, and I just went to a bike shop, told the sales people I wanted a commuter bike, and spending an afternoon riding hybrids. Regarding seat comfort, a saddle with a cutout in the middle works for me. The euphemism is anatomic relief saddle. There are fancier options but I have been on 70 mile rides with the $40 Planet Bike women's saddle and been very happy! I have a road bike now for longer rides but the hybrid is still my preference for commuting--it is sturdy and stable, and with a rack and fenders is very practical for rolling around town.
posted by esoterrica at 8:41 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fit. Fit. Fit. The bike that "isn't quite the right size" isn't a good choice if you're going to be spending an hour or more on it each day. The bike you buy now should fit you well with little or no guesswork.

A cyclist's weight is distributed across three points: hands on the handlebars, butt on the saddle, and feet on the pedals. Depending on the bike geometry, you may have the handlebars significantly higher than the saddle, which can put more pressure on your butt. So if your current bike is very upright and your hands are placed well above your butt, that may be less comfortable across a long distance. That posture also makes it harder to engage your core to go up hills or carry a heavy load on your rear rack in panniers.

(This doesn't mean you have to go for hands at or below the saddle level. Hands slightly higher than saddle can work, too. Using Scientists's handy list of bike types above, start your shopping by looking for a hybrid, which doesn't force a road-bike-style crouch, but which can handle a variety of human proportions and postures, especially if the handlebar height and angle can be adjusted as seen in this model -- roll over the image to see the hinge on the handlebar stem.)

You might think a wider saddle will be good for you, but that all depends on the distance between the "sit bones" in your pelvis. The bones should rest on the saddle rather than hang over the sides. If your sit bones fit well on a medium or narrow saddle, there's no additional comfort to be gained by adding width to the saddle.

In addition, wider saddles are often softer saddles, and those actually aren't comfortable over a distance. Part of getting used to cycling is adjusting to a little butt pain in your first week or so. Look for a women's style saddle, like this one, which takes pressure off your ladyparts.

So if you're going to buy a bike from a bike shop (which is probably a good idea for a beginner), go to a shop that will make sure the bike frame is the right size for you. Most shops include bike fitting free as part of purchase.

A bike shop can also swap out parts as needed on the bike. For example, the bike you buy may have flimsy plastic pedals. They can swap those out for sturdy metal platform pedals. (One of these days, you may be very excited to go for clipless pedals, but it's perfectly fine to stay with platform pedals. I've stayed with platforms since 2008.)

One component that you may consider asking the bike shop about is the collection of cogs on the rear wheel of the bike. Cassettes are supposed to be more durable than freewheels, especially if you're carrying some extra weight, so tell them that you're looking for a hybrid with a cassette.

Spring is coming! Have fun!
posted by maudlin at 8:49 AM on March 30, 2013

Look into recumbent bicycles. Riding a recumbent is like riding on a lawn chair. I recommend them for most commuters, and when I see plus size people on those tiny standard bike seats -- even the larger standard bike seats! -- I especially want to tell them that they could be riding in comfort. I have had three. My first was new and cost about the same as a decent upright. My second two were both purchased used for about the same price but a higher quality, and they each had thousands of miles on them, but they both had been meticulously maintained. Better parts on the bike means the bike works better. Recumbents look weird but it doesn't take long to learn to ride them. Mine have all been able to carry little me plus a heavy load with no problem. Cars tend to give a wide berth because they're not used to seeing recumbents. It is a pleasant way to commute.
posted by aniola at 8:50 AM on March 30, 2013

A good commuting hybrid bike will do you wonders - you can get bikes with front suspension (to help with the bumps), and a lot of them come with kevlar-protected tyres that are a bit more puncture-resistant. Plus, you can get them with mudguards and a luggage rack, which makes commuting so much easier.

I don't own a bike at the moment, but I write descriptions for an online bike retailer, and, right now, I'm a bit in love with the Schwinn Rendezvous 2, and not just because it has a coffee cup holder (although, oh, that fact amuses me to no end).

When you do get a bike, see if your local bike shop or any group nearby has bike maintenance classes. Learning how your bike works and how easy it is to fix some of the problems will make a big change in how you keep it going.
posted by Katemonkey at 8:52 AM on March 30, 2013

One thing to note: whatever bike you do get (I think hybrid is a good idea for you. Look at Specialized) you will undoubtedly be somewhat uncomfortable at first. Meaning, your butt will be sore, hands (padded glove help), maybe back... Etc. But the more you ride, the less you'll experience this. Muscles get stronger and you adapt.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2013

If you want to search for more information, the term for a larger rider is "Clydesdale" (for men) or "Athena" (for women). For example, bikeforums.net has a Clydesdales & Athenas forum that would be a good place to repeat this question.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:12 PM on March 30, 2013

Also, I just saw a not-slender woman on a 16-spoke wheel today, and I think that's just a mistake. Look for at least 32, if not 36. Touring bikes can have as many as 42.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:17 PM on March 30, 2013

A word about bike seats: Bigger is rarely better. It's counterintuitive. I know more than one plus-sized folk who went for the comfy looking larger seat and found the chafing to be quite uncomfortable.
posted by funkiwan at 7:18 PM on March 30, 2013

In addition to finding the right seat, you may want to check into a seatpost with a shock built into it. My wife and I ride a tandem; she's in the back where she gets the worst of the bumps from both the front and the back wheels. The new seatpost made a big difference to her.

Oh, and another vote for hybrid. If you're going to be on bad roads, one with 35 wide tires.
posted by azpenguin at 9:53 PM on March 30, 2013

Sheldon Brown, generally respected as one of the internet's best authorities on bikes, has a page dedicated to saddles: http://sheldonbrown.com/saddles.html

In short:
- squishy isn't always better
- width should be based on the spacing of your sitbones
- "gel" is hype
- proper adjustment is crucial.

Also, they're called saddles rather than seats because they don't support your full weight; your weight should be split between the saddle, the pedals, and the handlebars.

Have a look at the last section on that page too, regarding recumbents. I ride them almost exclusively these days because an upright just can't compare, comfort-wise. I know a lot of Clydesdale/Athena folks prefer them in part because the seat (an actual chair-like seat, not a saddle) comfortably supports your entire weight. /requisite recumbent plug

Regarding maintenance and quality: get a good bike. Do NOT get a bike from Target or Wal-Mart or the like. Go to an actual bike shop and ride lots of bikes and expect the mechanics to adjust them to fit you for your test rides.

If budget is an issue, ask around to find a local, reputable used bike seller, or find a friend who knows about bikes to go with you when looking via Craigslist. A quality mountain bike from the 80s with new tires/chain/brake pads will last longer than many a brand new "full suspension!" bike, and they tend to be priced similarly - I've spent several years volunteering at bike collectives and there are few bike problems I haven't seen. Many new bikes suffer from poor manufacturing. Anything that's survived a few decades in good shape can probably survive a few more.

As someone mentioned above, take a basic maintenance class, learn to take care of your chain and brakes and identify potential problems. You can learn a lot of that stuff by simply visiting a local bike shop (or bike collective) and asking questions. Learn to identify a variety of problems. The earlier you catch something like a loose bearing cone, the easier it is to fix.

Hope you find a bike you enjoy! I know the pain of riding something that doesn't fit and feels like it's falling apart underneath you. Riding a good, well-fitted bike is an entirely different (and far more pleasant) experience.
posted by sibilatorix at 10:23 PM on March 30, 2013

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