EVERYBODY'S GUIDE TO BUYING AND UPGRADING BIKES!

Best Bikes and Bike Upgrades for a Heavy Rider

A heavy-set man rides a mountain bike down a hill.
Enjoy cycling, regardless of your weight!

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In this article, I will describe the challenges and considerations for cyclists that weigh over 225 pounds. If you’re a heavier rider, chances are you’ve found it difficult to find a bike that is reliable and comfortable. Although cycling is available to most people regardless of race, gender, or economic status, the majority of bikes are made with “average” folks in mind. Manufacturers follow trends and mainly focus on style, rather than on practicality and durability. If you fall outside the norm (for our purposes, if you weigh 225 pounds or more) your choices of bikes and cycling equipment are more limited.

Common Cycling Issues for Heavy People

The truth: most bicycles are not made for riders weighing more than 225 pounds. The majority of frames and components just aren’t strong enough to support a lot of weight, and issues like flat tires and broken spokes are common, especially in the rear wheel. What’s more, heavy cyclists can experience some discomfort from riding a normal bike. The parts of the bike that contribute to its comfort, namely the saddle, pedals, handlebars and grips, tend to be designed for lighter, more average-sized riders. Most any bike can be made more comfortable with some basic component upgrades, like a wider cushioned saddle or ergonomic grips, but often it requires getting a different bike altogether.

By the way, I’m choosing to use the word “heavy” instead of terms such as “fat,” “obese,” “plus-sized,” or “overweight,” since I’m writing this for anyone who is over 225 pounds, regardless of your fitness level. A bike doesn’t care if it’s being ridden by a 250-pound obese person, or a 250-pound super-fit Navy SEAL. You, on the other hand should care about the kind of bike you ride, especially if you want to have a safe and enjoyable experience. So keep reading, whether you want to ride a bike for fun, commuting, or fitness!

The Types of Bikes Suitable for Heavy Riders

First off, you must know that there isn’t a type of bike that is the single best choice for a heavy rider. There are durable bikes that can support a lot of weight in just about every style; finding a good one just takes a bit more time. Also, there is not one standard maximum weight limit for bicycles – this varies by manufacturer and model. Since it’s rare to see a bike’s weight limit posted along with its specs (why this is so elusive, I truly don’t know), finding out this crucial bit of information usually requires a phone call or email to the manufacturer.

If you weigh more than average, and can afford to spend $1,500 or more on a bike custom-built just for you, there are several companies out there that actually specialize in bicycles for larger people. This is undoubtedly a great way to go if you can afford it, though here I’ve chosen to focus on reasonably-priced bikes under $1,000, with many closer to $500. They’re great for those just getting back into cycling, and for more casual riders.

My Criteria: What to Look For

These are features you should look for in any bicycle, whether you’re shopping new, used, or making upgrades to your current bike:

  1. FRAME & FORK: Choose a steel or aluminum frame for strength. Carbon fiber, besides being expensive, is more fragile. Titanium is very strong and light, but much too pricey to be considered here.
  2. FRAME SIZE & STYLE: The frame should be correctly sized for your height and allow for ease of entry, especially for folks with limited mobility. Step-through frames that are common in comfort and cruiser bikes have low top tubes for this reason.
  3. WHEELS: These should consist of double-walled rims, which are stiffer and more durable, with at least 32 spokes per wheel.
  4. REAR HUB: A rear wheel with a freehub body and a cassette supports the axle better. No worries if you don’t know exactly what this means, just remember that you should avoid the older style, less expensive freewheel hubs. These are very prone to having bent or broken axles when they’re under a lot of stress.
  5. TIRES: Look for stout, puncture-resistant tires from a reputable brand such as Schwalbe, Kenda, or Continental. As a general rule, I recommend a minimum tire width of around 1.5” (35mm) and a minimum inflation pressure of 60psi: anything less than this might get you flat tires.
  6. BRAKES: When adjusted properly, most types of brakes can work well, though disc brakes are generally the most powerful, especially for heavier loads and in inclement weather.
  7. GEARS: Make sure the bike has enough gears (or speeds) for the type of riding you want to do, and take note of its lowest available gear. This is the “granny gear” which will make getting up hills easier. Generally speaking, you want to look for a bike that has at least 7 speeds, and a large rear cassette cog of 32 teeth or more.

Bike Recommendations for Heavy Riders

I’ve focused my research on bikes by Raleigh, Diamondback, Biria, and sixthreezero (yes, that’s the correct spelling!) All four are highly-rated brands that are widely available online and at independent bike shops. Here are the rider weight limits for each:

  • Raleigh: 300 lbs
  • Diamondback: 300 lbs
  • Biria: 260 lbs
  • sixthreezero: 300 lbs

Note: most Raleigh models are denoted with a 1, 2, or 3, and the higher the number, the higher the quality and price. I’ve intentionally avoided the least expensive ones, chiefly due to the weaker rear wheel. Also, some of the Amazon bike links below offer a range of sizes, and other times they have just one, so be sure to order the correct size for you!

Comfort Bikes

Raleigh Detour 3 Step Thru
Raleigh Detour 3 Step Thru

Comfort bikes are built to be easy to ride, and are fantastic for beginners. They’re great for shorter trips around the neighborhood or to the park, and most models already come with relatively wide saddles and ergonomic handlebar grips.


Hybrid/Fitness Bikes

Raleigh Cadent 3
Raleigh Cadent 3

Hybrids or Fitness bikes are lighter, sportier bikes that are more efficient for commuting and longer day-rides. They can accept fenders and a rear rack, and the disc brake models I’ve listed here perform great even in the rain.


Mountain Bikes

Raleigh Talus 3
Raleigh Talus 3

Mountain bikes (or MTB’s) are the “Jeeps” of bikes, made especially for off-pavement riding with extra-sturdy frames and components built to handle rough riding. They’re great if you live outside the city, but they also work great for in-town riding once the stock knobby tires have been swapped out for tires with smoother tread. If you ride mostly on paved roads, stick to non-suspension or “hardtail” (front suspension only) mountain bikes.


Cargo Bikes

Raleigh Lorry One
Raleigh Lorry One

Cargo bikes are built to carry lots of weight and look very unique. They come in lots of variations to suit different types of loads, i.e. children or groceries. If you regularly want to carry, say, your small dog in a carrier, a bike like the Raleigh Lorry One pictured here might be perfect for you!


Fat Bikes

Diamondback El OSO Uno
Diamondback El OSO Uno

Fat bikes are the “monster trucks” of the bike world. Specially designed stout frames have room to fit extra-wide rims and tires, which take out the bumps from roads and trails without the need for shocks. Fat bikes can handle all types of terrain, but truly excel on sand and snow (you can even get some studded tires like these these Vee Rubber Snow Shoe XL for icy conditions!)


Trikes/Tricycles

Raleigh Tristar 3-Speed Trike
Raleigh Tristar 3-Speed Trike

Trikes or Tricycles are a wonderful option for seniors or those that lack balance, mobility, or endurance. They are meant to be ridden slowly and gently, and as most models come outfitted with a rear basket, they fit the bill for short rides to the park or grocery shopping. Featuring an upright riding stance, they make the rider very visible. As an added safety feature, many trikes have a “parking brake” much like a car. They are rather bulky and heavy, weighing almost twice as much as a normal bike, so I recommend getting one with at least 3, or better yet, 7, gears.

A Few Words on Used Bikes

If your budget is under $400, buying a used bike may be a great option, with some caveats. If you do find a second-hand bike that you like, get it checked over at a bike shop. In fact, I’d recommend that you offer to meet the seller there (if they refuse, they may be trying to hide something). Most bike shops will perform a basic bike assessment for no charge, especially if they know that you might be bringing that bike in for a tune-up or upgrades later on.

Say you find a nice, basic hybrid bike (Raleigh, Trek, and Specialized are all generally good used choices) for around $150. The bike mechanic tells you that it needs a tune-up and a rear wheel upgrade, so you have to spend perhaps another $150 for all this. When all is said and done, you’ve got yourself a sturdy bike for $300. Always keep in mind that the condition of a used bike will depend on how much it’s been ridden and where, and whether it’s been properly maintained. Every second-hand bike has already experienced some amount of wear and tear, so choose wisely, and avoid used bikes which the seller knows nothing about.

This is very important: get a bike that is the correct size for your body! Time and time again I’ve seen people purchase a used bike that did not fit them, because it was a deal too good to pass up. Don’t fall into this trap, as I have a couple of times in the past. Trust me, you’ll be much happier with a $200 bike that fits you perfectly than with a $100 bike that’s too small (or too big).

In the short term, an inexpensive used bike might seem tempting, but in the long term, a new bike may actually be a better bargain. I can’t deny that there is a special type of joy that one can only experience when riding a shiny, perfectly tuned-up new bike.

Types of Bikes that Heavy Riders Should Avoid

  • Department store bikes: not only are these very cheaply made, but what’s even worse is that they’re often assembled poorly (and often incorrectly) by employees that aren’t experienced bicycle mechanics. I realize that a cheap bike from a big-box store is all that many people can afford, but if your budget is quite low indeed, opt for a good used bike instead.
  • Lightweight carbon-fiber road racing bikes: this expensive frame material does not handle extra weight very well, and a crack can develop with just a surface scratch. Also, carbon-fiber bikes are theft magnets.
  • Single-speed cruisers with back-pedal coaster: this type of bike may seem comfortable, but having only one gear will make it harder to pedal, plus the coaster brake might not have enough stopping power for you.
  • Fixed-gear or “fixie” bikes: These often come in some really neat color schemes, but are only suitable for riders who already have good cycling skills.

Simple Upgrades to Make a Bike More Comfortable

If you already own a bike that you like, don’t rush out to get a new one just yet – that old trusty steed that’s been collecting dust in your garage may do just fine! Take it to your favorite bike mechanic to get it checked over, especially if you haven’t ridden it for a while (and if they don’t charge you anything, do leave a tip). If you are a heavy person, these simple upgrades will make any bike much more enjoyable to ride:

Further Considerations for Heavy Riders

Keep in mind that certain components on a bike used by a heavy rider could require more frequent maintenance and may wear out quicker. Please don’t let the following list intimidate you from getting on your bike, but you’ll be better off if you keep these things in mind:

  • Wheels may require more frequent truing, which involves adjusting the spokes in order to make the wheel straight. If you notice one of your wheels getting wobbly or one of the spokes has broken, take it to a bike shop immediately.
  • As it takes more force to stop a heavier bike, the brake pads will wear out quicker.
  • The bearings (components that support any part of the bike that rotates) in the hubs, bottom bracket, and headset may need regular adjustment.
  • Pedals may bend or break, and wear out quicker.
  • Tires will wear faster – remember to keep them inflated to at least the minimum pressure, which is always stated on the tire itself, to avoid flats.
  • The drivetrain (chain, cassette, and chainrings) will wear out more quickly.
  • Saddles may sag and saddle rails may bend or crack. Also, the seatpost could bend or break as well, especially if it’s a thin steel post on an older bike.
  • Check over your bike at least once a month – or have a mechanic look it over – especially if you’ve taken a spill on it. The frame, fork, or handlebars may bend or crack, and if this happens, must be replaced right away.

What About E-Bikes?

This is a topic for another post, but in short, I’m generally a fan of e-bikes. This type of bike has a large battery and a motor that provides an adjustable amount of pedaling assist, making you feel nearly superhuman when you’re accelerating from a stop or pedaling up a hill. An e-bike can be a great choice for work commutes, as it can allow you to avoid getting stuck in traffic, get some exercise, get to work on time, all without sweating through all your clothes. E-bikes have allowed more people to ride bikes instead of cars, and that is good for all of us!

Conclusions

A couple enjoying cycling on an autumn day.
A couple enjoying cycling on an autumn day.

Don’t let your above-average weight keep you down, and know that somewhere out there exists the perfect bike for you. I’ve tried to cover all the bases in my article, but if there’s something I’ve left out, please leave any comments or questions below. Wishing you all happy cycling!

Cycling Resources for Heavy People

A great post: Biking while fat: 4 things I wish I had known when I started riding

A Bicycling Mag article about self-acceptance and cycling: I’m a Fat Cyclist—And I Don’t Need to “Fix” My Body

Bicycle Manufacturers Specializing in Bikes for Heavy People

Worksman Cycles – simple and sturdy steel bikes and trikes, made in Ozone Park, NY, since 1898

Zinn Cycles – custom bikes for very tall (and very short) men and women

Clydesdale Bicycles – titanium bicycles for big & tall people

Zize Bikes – bikes for heavy riders


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