Riding an E-Bike as a Plus-Size Person Reminded Me That Exercise Doesn’t Have To Make You Suffer

Photo: W+G Creative
I spent a good part of my childhood having fun with my neighbors. In the evenings, we'd run around, our long little shadows stretching across our lawns. We were always rolling around in the grass, or starfishing our limbs in the mud.

On a particularly nice days, our dads would shove all of us into an SUV, sticky with sunscreen, and pile on bikes for everyone from biggest to smallest. Southern Ohio has a lot of paved bike paths that stretch for miles along the Ohio river. They slope along the riverbanks, keeping in the trees like a ribbon around a bouquet of flowers.

And yet, I'd always spend more than half of these bikes rides in tears.

I don't really know when I became aware that I was a bigger kid, stockier, not skinny. Maybe it was when one of my party tricks at birthday parties became picking the other kids up (two to three at a time). Maybe it was when, at recess, I was sitting sweaty on the sidewalk, noticing my shins were covered in bug bites, and the two girls next to me (who would probably equal my size when put together) giggled and said that mosquitoes are attracted to "fatty skin."

Now, I pay bills in part by writing about how much I value who I am—fat and all—but that doesn't change the fact that I've spent however many years since thinking about that comment.

"If you put the pedals on your toes, you can pedal faster," I can hear my neighbor's mom, Kathy, saying helpfully, as her white tennis shoes slowly pedaled her bike next to me. She had fallen back to stick with me while all the other kids went zooming ahead. The autumn leaves on the trees may have looked like glowing embers in a dying fire, but my young, middle schooler thighs felt like them. Hotter than that were my red cheeks, wet with salty tears. I was both angry and embarrassed that I couldn't keep up.

It would later turn out that I was riding at the hardest gear, and no one noticed, so of course I was falling behind. But even when I eventually figured out how to shift gears in my favor, I still struggled.

Being slow was so frustratingly familiar for me. I was the last in the mile; I was the last on the swim team; I was the last on our fun neighborhood bike ride. And I didn't make it easy for people to encourage me. I'd argue with my gentle dad, who would try to get me to catch up with the other kids. I'd purposefully go slower to obfuscate my genuine frustration with my pace and make it seem like I was falling behind because I was too cool for an ice cream bike ride.

Even now, no matter how old I am, no matter if I'm dealing with a flat tire or a clunky CitiBike from New York City's bike share program, the minute I fall behind and see my friends pedaling ahead, my eyes start to well up, and I am again 12, on my lime green Mongoose bike.

I told myself then and tell myself now: Just go faster.

It's kind of like being in a dream, just trying your best to catch up, but destined not too. The faster you pedal, the firmer and stiffer your thighs get. Not to mention the soreness, chafing, and downright pain you can experience at the hands of an uncomfortable seat. If you're a plus-sized cyclist, you're not imagining it: Bikes can be a lot less pleasant for bigger people to ride.

Now, I'm no Earthbender from Avatar the Last Airbender, so I can't change the geography around me. If I want to enjoy a bike ride, I need to accept the route—hills and all. That's long made the challenge just... not appealing. Our culture of "no pain no gain" fitness has always made me feel sort of ashamed that I'm not ready to suffer. And so, for a long time, I did what anyone does when they feel an uncomfortable combo of shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, and distaste: I just avoided biking altogether.

Why I decided to try an e-bike, after hating bike rides since forever

Trying an e-bike really wasn't even on my radar until Retrospec got in touch with me about their Beaumont Rev Electric City Bike, claiming its powerful electric motor and long-lasting battery make it a breeze to cruise through the city or country, no matter how hilly the terrain. I thought to myself, What the heck, I should try new things!

When I first hopped on the bike they sent, my initial thought was, "I am far too accident-prone to be doing this." But soon I felt like a witch on her broomstick gliding so freaking fast down my block. I made it to new parts of Brooklyn in minutes. The feeling was incredible—the antithesis of the way that I'd furiously pedaled away until it felt like my thighs were kindling for a bonfire.

Beaumont Rev Electric City Bike

ebike beginner
Beaumont Rev Electric City Bike — $699.00

This bike is a game-changer for anyone who want to get around in style and comfort: The sleek design is sure to turn heads. And it comes equipped with all the features you need for a safe and enjoyable ride, including lights, fenders, and a rear rack for carrying your gear.

When I hobbled off at my destination (DUMBO's park with the golden carousel), my legs didn't feel white-hot, or like jelly. I walked the bike over to a bench, making sure to keep it near me (um, hello, this thing is fancy), and sat down, waiting for my friend to meet me. When they arrived with two ice cream cones fat and peppered with rainbow sprinkles, we caught up about life and, obviously, my sick AF ride.

She said something about it being a nice day to bike around, and I said something like, "Yeah, but too bad I'm cheating."

"Cheating?" She waved at me, "Are you a hologram?" She touched my shoulder and said, "Hm, thought so, real person sitting here."

I licked my ice cream cone, looked at the water. Touché. She was right, though; I wasn't pretending to be in DUMBO watching strollers with kids dropping goldfish crackers on the ground and little dogs eating the discarded snacks. I did bike there, wind flying through my helmet, wicking away the sweat that was clinging beneath. It was just that instead of arriving stressed AF, covered in sweat, and probably super late, I'd been able to switch to e-bike mode when I reached the hilly bits of the journey, and was able to climb them without hating myself.

It's time to expand our concept of training wheels

I'd start to bike around here and there for fun, experimenting with sometimes using the electric-powered feature and sometimes not. And when I was taking out a CitiBike, sometimes I'd choose an e-bike, sometimes not. Going back and forth really helped me increase my stamina.

Still, in many ways, it did, in fact, feel like cheating. It felt like it didn't "count" because I wasn't pushing myself to the absolute limit. Using an electric boost meant I couldn't keep up with what other people were doing so easily on their fixies.

I started to think about ways I had this philosophy ingrained in me. If I went to the gym, I always felt like it needed to be an hour-long session to really matter, or if I ever talked about running with someone I considered a "real" runner, I'd couch anything I said with things like "but I'm soo slow." In my daily life, I love finding hacks. For instance, I use Grammarly's spellcheck religiously and I don't for a single second feel less proud of my writing because I had AI clear out the spelling errors and passive voice. So why couldn't I accept something like this in my exercise life?

Average Joe Cyclist, a blog for cycling lovers, has a guide for fat cyclists that highlights how we face different hurdles than our straight-sized counterparts: There can be a lack of adaptations in cycling groups for people who want to go slower or a shorter distance, there's a one-size-fits-all mentality for a lot of bike gear. Even the assumption that fat cyclists are out here on the pavement to lose weight can be its own burden.

The truth is that cycling is and should be for anyone who wants to get on two tires and pedal for however long they want. Heck, it's the sport that gave us the universal "training wheels" metaphor. I think, now, we have the right to expand on the concept of training wheels though. Spin class counts. Pelotoning your heart out in your house counts. So does flying around on an e-bike, wind in your hair, smile on your face, enjoying a beautiful, sunny day.

It seems simple now: It actually really doesn't matter where anyone else is on the bike path, or how your fitness journey compares to theirs. I know now, as an adult, my crowd of neighbors and friends was never going to just disappear into the horizon without me. I could've gone any pace and eventually made it to Sally's ice cream store, thrown my bike on the pile, and gotten my cone just like everyone else.

The ice cream is sweet, all the same, no matter how—or how quickly—you got there.

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