“This is the body I was given and it does a lot of wonderful things.”
Calling herself the “Unlikely Athlete” on Instagram, Airin Harris lists road cycling, mountain biking, triathlon, hiking, swimming, and yoga as a few of her favourite activities. As a plus-size woman who loves to exercise, Airin decided to share her athletic pursuits on social media as a means of building community and inspiring other women.
In a fitness culture still unfortunately dominated by the rhetoric of weight loss and false assumptions about why people work out, it is awesome to see pure, unapologetic love of the sport. We Love Cycling talked to Airin about how cycling has helped her accept a hormonal disorder, how she learned to step out of her comfort zone, and her top tips for other plus-size riders.
First of all, tell us about you and cycling! What’s your bicycling story and when did it start?
I have always loved riding, since childhood, really. I started as a mountain biker in Montana where I rode a mix of dirt and gravel then moved to Tennessee where I started adding road riding and even some triathlon. I’ve been riding “seriously” since 2000 but there have been a few breaks along the way. That’s the great thing about cycling — your bike will still talk to you, no matter how long it’s been. I was an active runner for a while and even did several half marathons but after having knee surgery, cycling has been my go-to. I can ride for hours and my body still feels good afterwards.
You’ve had some physical setbacks, including a hormonal diagnosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and double knee surgery. What role has this played in shaping your relationship with cycling and fitness more broadly?
Unfortunately, not a lot is known about PCOS, including the exact cause. They’re really just starting to scratch the surface. It is frustrating and I have had to resist letting it define me. A lot of the time it feels like my own body is working against me. It’s definitely been a struggle and I had to come to terms with the fact that this is the body I was given and it does lots of wonderful things, even if it has its issues.
Despite the condition, I am one of those people that like to try ALL the things. I’ve done, and still do, a pretty good variety of fitness and workout activities. I can’t blame any specific thing but somewhere in the fray, I tore my meniscus. During my recovery, I tore the other one. I had to have surgery on both knees within 6 months of each other. I can honestly say that the recovery was one of the hardest times of my life. It was depressing not to be able to do the things I love but, eventually, things got better and I learned to adapt. Cycling doesn’t hurt my knees at all so I really focused on it a lot after the surgery.
Society as a whole 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?
The #1 assumption I run into is that people think if you’re plus size and exercising, that you must be doing it to lose weight. This obviously isn’t always the case. I usually just try to explain to people that I exercise because I love it and I want to be healthy.
What is your cycling community like? Who do you usually ride with and where do you go for cycling inspiration?
I have an awesome cycling community! Although it started off slow when I moved to a small town in Tennessee, I ended up making some cycling friends and we now host a Taco Tuesday Bicycle Club. It started off as a casual ride and dinner with a friend and our spouses but we just kept inviting people and we’ve had as many as 50 people come out for rides.
We also have a RAD women’s mountain bike community in Tennessee. I love participating in the Bell Joy Rides and Trek Women’s rides in Knoxville. I remember stepping WAY out of my comfort zone and showing up for a Bell Joy Ride one Saturday. I didn’t know anyone and had a 17-year-old mountain bike (I actually won a door prize for having the oldest bike). In the end, I ended up having a blast and making friends that I ride with still today.
What has been your biggest challenge as a cyclist?
Hills… and gravity. But seriously, a lot of the people I ride with are smaller or lighter than I am and sometimes I just can’t keep up, even though I consider myself a strong rider. Thankfully, there are plenty of groups that are no-drop, so you know you won’t be left behind. I seek those out, just so I don’t have to worry about it.
What has been your proudest moment on a bike?
In 2017, I trained all year and completed a 50-mile, 100-km, and 100-mile ride. Finishing the century was my proudest moment… knowing I made it and that all my training paid off. I also did it in under 7 hours, which was my goal!
Do you have any tips for plus size cyclists?
1. DON’T SKIMP ON SHORTS. Seriously, get some good padded shorts. I have gear from Terry and Shebeest that is great quality and has lasted a few thousand miles. Cycling sizing is so weird that I pretty much stick to brands that have plus specific sizing.
2. Just because you have a big/wide/cushy butt doesn’t mean you need a big/wide/cushy saddle.
3. If you have bigger legs/thighs you might want to look into pedal extenders. It made a HUGE difference for me in terms of comfort on the bike. They are basically a metal piece that your bike shop can put between your crank and your pedal, making the pedal stick out a little further from the frame. I learned about them through research, trial, and error but now I won’t go without them.
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you started cycling?
Plenty of bigger people ride road bikes. I wanted a road bike so bad and I knew I wanted to ride distance but I was intimidated by them. I ended up buying a fitness/hybrid bike because I thought it was more appropriate. Although it is also great, I ended up buying the road bike I actually wanted 3 months later.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your journey and why you love cycling?
I have gotten a lot of questions from women over the years about the activities I do, so I started an Instagram in the hopes that I could encourage other women. I thought they might see the page and think that “if she can do it, so can I!” And that is absolutely true. You can do it. A lot of women I know are waiting to be a certain weight or size but you don’t have to. The hardest part is always getting started but you can do it right now!
A big thanks to Airin for sharing her insight and experience, you can get inspired by her athletic endeavours by following the Unlikely Athlete on Instagram.
Stay tuned for more stories and interviews from the hugely diverse group of riders that make up the wonderful community of cycling!