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Tech Talk: Bikes for Heavy Riders

Q. I am a very overweight person, and I'm thinking about getting into cycling to improve my health. Is there a bicycle for me?

This is a question that we receive on a regular basis. We commend these individuals for their commitmet to get in shape, and we assure them that yes, EVERYONE can enjoy the benefits of cycling.

In choosing a bicycle, you'll have many of the same considerations that any person would have. You'll want to choose the right style of bike for you, based on your comfort level, and where you'll be riding the bike. There are a couple of extra considerations that heavier rider should take into account, however.

Frame Material

While there are advantages to an all-steel frame for any rider (mainly durability and comfort), the majority of entry-level and mid-range bicycles these days are made with aluminum frames. Steel, aluminum, or titanium would make an excellent choice of frame material for any heavy rider; all would hold up under normal non-aggressive riding conditions for recreation and fitness. The exception would be extremely lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber racing bike frames.

Wheels

In contrast to the actual bike frame, the wheels are the most common failure point we see with heavier riders, even among riders who are only slightly above average weight. So, this is the first upgrade that we recommend doing up front.

The original wheels that come on a new bicycle typically have 32 spokes per wheel, but more is better. Enty-level bikes usually have single-wall rims, but better bikes have more durable double-wall rims. Some rims are still available in steel, but these are usually very cheap single-wall models. The best and strongest double-wall rims are made of aluminum.

Cross-section of a single-wall rim

Cross-section of a single-wall rim

Cross-section of a double-wall rim

Cross-section of a double-wall rim

For even more durability, the rims should have metal eyelets on the spoke holes. Stainless steel spokes are pretty standard.

For multi-gear bikes, there are two type of rear hubs--freewheel hubs and cassette hubs. The difference between the two is in the design of the axle and in the coasting mechanism. The important point, though, is that cassette hubs are much stronger and more durable.

Freewheel rear hub

Freewheel rear hub

Cassette rear hub

Cassette rear hub

So, we recommend using 36-spoke wheels with double-wall aluminum rims and a cassette rear hub. If you upgrade the wheels immediately when you buy the bike, rather than waiting until your original wheels inevitably fail, we can give you credit for the original wheels, since we can re-sell them to somebody else.

Bike Styles

As mentioned before, the style of bike you choose is mainly driven by your riding comfort level and where you want to ride.

For paved and unpaved bike paths or riding around your neighborhood, a basic hybrid bicycle works well for many people. Most of these bikes have large cushioned saddles, very upright handlebars, and shock absorbers on the front wheel and the seatpost. Some of these bikes come with 26-inch wheels, while some come with 700C wheels (roughly 28-inches). Either wheel size should work fine, although especially heay riders might want to consider going with a 26-inch wheeled bike, as the smaller-diameter wheels are inherently more durable. (For more information about different wheel sizes, see: Tech Talk: Know Your Tire Size.)

Hybrid bicycle with 26-inch wheels

Hybrid bicycle with 26-inch wheels

Hybrid bicycle with 700C wheels

Hybrid bicycle with 700C wheels

Some overweight folks have issues with mobility, flexibility, or balance. If this is your situation, you might want to consider a flat-foot bicycle. These bikes resemble the old-fashioned beach cruisers, and they have a different frame design that allows the seat to be positioned low enough so that when you're sitting on the seat, you can put your feet flat on the ground. This provides a more stable-feeling and comfortable riding experience for many novice riders. The bikes are available in single-speed, 3-speed, 7-speed, and 21-speed versions, with traditional frames and step-through ("women's") frames, so there's something to suit everyone's needs.

Flat-foot bicycle with traditional frame

Flat-foot bicycle with traditional frame

Flat-foot bicycle with step-through frame

Flat-foot bicycle with step-through frame

If you're a little more athletically inclined, and want to get a bike that will grow with you as get in shape, you might want to think about a standard mountain bike. These bikes usually have front suspension; the more expensive models have full suspension front and rear. However, if you're just looking for a very sturdy, beefy bike to cruise around the bike paths on, a fully-rigid mountain bike might be more to your liking. You'll be in a more aggressive riding position (i.e. less upright, more leaned forward) on a bike like this, compared to a hybrid or flat-foot bicycle. You'll still have a nice wide tire for plenty of traction and support.

Front-suspension mountain bike

Front-suspension mountain bike

Rigid (unsuspended) mountain bike

Rigid (unsuspended) mountain bike

A "road bike" is what we might have referred to years ago as a "10-speed" bike; they are distinguished by their skinny tires and drop handlebars. There is a special class of road bikes called cyclocross bikes; this would be a good option if you want this style of bike, because they still allow you to use a fairly wide tire.

Road bicycle

Road bicycle

Cyclocross bicycle

Cyclocross bicycle

Most bicycles are available in several different frame sizes, but don't worry; we'll help you pick the size that's best for you.

Whether it's been 2 years or twenty since you've been on a bike, there's one out there for you. By picking the style that works best for your needs, with some consideration of potential parts upgrades, you'll be well on your way to pedaling the pounds off!

This article was published on October 16, 2012.

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