Breaking Down Stereotypes: Plus-Size Cycling

By Megan Flottorp

“I started to feel I could do more and go further.”

Being a plus-size woman, Heather-Grace Hayward didn’t always feel that cycling was an accessible hobby. Like many recent cycling recruits, though, the lockdown that began in March 2020 got her dreaming about the freedom of a bike.

Despite not having cycled since the age of 12, Heather-Grace, a 30-year-old retail associate from Dorset, got tired of watching. She decided she wanted to see for herself what all the fuss what about. She invested in a hybrid, and a year later she’s fallen in love with the sport, has a newfound appreciation for her body, and is setting more ambitious cycling goals by the day.

A bicycle in nature

Heather-Grace has also been documenting her cycling journey on Instagram, sharing photos of what she discovers while riding and proving that cycling is for people of all shapes and sizes. We talked to her about how the cycling industry could be more inclusive, maintaining a positive attitude in the face of judgement, and some of her top tips for other plus-size cycling lovers.

We often hear from people who are curious about cycling, but they just can’t imagine themselves on a bike. How do you think more diverse representation in cycling advertising could change the sport?

Plus-size models, pure and simple. I think I would have bought a bike sooner if plus-size ladies and men were used more frequently as activewear models. Exercise is accessible to all and should be promoted as such. This is one of the reasons that I like Nike as a brand. They use plus-size models for their Curve range, which makes me feel at ease looking through their goods online. A., because I know that they are catering for my size, and B., because I can see how the product will look on me.

This is so important, because we internalise the images we see. Have you ever been judged about your ability on a bike due to your body type? How did you respond?

​​It actually happened when I was out completing my longest ride to date. I was aiming for 25 miles and stopped at a pub with about 4 miles left to go. Whilst I was sat enjoying a cold one in the beer garden, a group of men began to make comments about my weight, my attire, as well as the fact I had been cycling. As I was getting ready to depart, I decided to say something. When I told them I had covered over 20 miles that morning, and I still had 4 to 5 miles left to go, they were very apologetic and seemed embarrassed.

Plus-Size Cycling

Not everyone would have been able to stand up for themselves! Any advice for cultivating that kind of confidence?

I am a size 18 to 20 and have been since I was about 15 years old. I’ve often been ridiculed about my weight, and I’ve found exercise hard, with being asthmatic as well. About three years ago, I was approached to help with marshalling a running event. Having never had anything to do with the running world, I had this prejudice that those who entered such events must be ripped and extremely fit. I ended up having an amazing day admiring those finishing both events and felt so silly about my assumptions. There were people of all ages, shapes, and sizes!

I realised that there were people bigger than me achieving amazing things. If they could, why couldn’t I? So, I started entering myself. By taking part, I gained the confidence to get on with my cycling. I decided not to be afraid or concerned about my appearance. It has taught me that exercise in any form is now more inclusive than it ever has been, and that people exercise for many reasons. Body shaming is slowly being eradicated from our culture, and more positive views are emerging.

Absolutely. We’re not quite there yet, though! Society still seems to feel quite comfortable making assumptions about why women exercise, regardless of their size. Have you encountered this at all, and if so, what was your response?

​​Yes, I think the main assumption as to why I cycle is to lose weight. Even though, for me, getting into cycling was never to lose weight. I started cycling due to boredom during the lockdown, the desire to explore and take pictures, but most of all, for mental health reasons. Getting fresh air does wonders for the mind, and living where I live, isolation has been a massive thing. Going out for a bike ride gets me out of the house, allows me to appreciate the beauty around my home, and gives me time to clear my head.

Dorsetshire photography

What are your cycling goals and ambitions going forward?

​​When I first got my bike last year, I didn’t have any goals. I had just planned the odd 5 to 7 miles here and there. As time has gone by and my body has got used to the saddle and the motion of cycling though, I started to feel I could do more and go further. So, I steadily increased my mileage each week and found that I enjoyed it more and more. Increasing a target by a small amount makes it easier to achieve and doesn’t hurt so much! The sense of pride and achievement is wonderful, as I never thought I would be cycling as far as I have been. Now, I am looking to achieve a 30-mile ride.

Do you have any suggestions regarding your favourite plus-size cycling clothing brands or other tips for plus-size riders?

​​This was one of my biggest hang-ups about exercising; what do I wear when most activewear is so figure-hugging? When you’re curvier, most tend to shy away from wearing tight clothing. But exercise is not what you wear, it’s what you do. Personally, I use a lot of Nike activewear. All my tops are from Nike, and I have a handful of their shorts and tights. I often find that I overheat when I am exercising, and Nike offer lots of open-back tank tops and t-shirts, and most of their clothing is available up to size 26.

I wear running shorts during the summer and tights/leggings or capris from Tikiboo in the cooler months. If you love loud, obscure, fun, outrageous colours and designs, they are great! Tikiboo is a UK-based brand and has sizes up to XXXL. They are incredibly supportive, comfortable, and definitely pass a squat test! If you suffer from a sore behind when cycling, Nike does some fabulous plus-size padded cycling shorts. They are expensive but worth every penny.

My best advice is to cycle in what you feel comfortable in, though. If that’s a t-shirt and jogging bottoms, then it doesn’t matter. I don’t buy velo-tops because they are too fitted for me to feel comfortable. If you aren’t comfortable in what you’re wearing, you’ll be less likely to leave the house in the first place.

A bicycle outdoors

What advice would you give to any would-be cyclist who feels insecure, for whatever reason, about venturing out on a bike?

1. Get well equipped. Don’t scrimp on your equipment. Think of it as an investment.

2. Join a local cycling club if you have one and join some Facebook pages for cyclists. The best support I have had since getting my bike has been from people on social media. They are a fabulous source of advice and can provide a community with which to celebrate your achievements.

3. Get a fitness tracker. This was the best thing I did. Recording your activity and seeing your calorie burn is a huge incentive to keep going. You can also check out your improvements as you go, which shows you that you are making progress, even if you can’t see it yourself.

4. Enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about what others think. It’s about you, your bike and the ground beneath you. Whatever your reason to take up cycling, you don’t need to be elite, fast or put in ridiculous mileage. Do as little or as much as you like, and take as long as you need!

A big thank you to Heather-Grace for sharing her tips and inspiration! You can follow her cycling journey and campaign for body positivity here.