Clothing for Fat Cycle Tourers

Abi, a fat cycle tourer, turns to smile at the camera either side of a loaded touring bike. In the background is the firth of forth, and the roadside is covered in daffodils.
Me, a fat cycle tourer.

I’ve never really spoken about cycle touring as a fat person before. In fact, I’ve only just begun to reclaim the word ‘fat’ when describing myself and only amongst friends (who I’ve found start to get used to it after the initial shocked pause in conversation when I use it, as they work out if  by stating the obvious I’m looking for reassurance ‘Oh you’re not fat…’ or am actually comfortably using it as an identifying label). So it feels scary talking about my fatness on a public platform.

Cycle touring as a fat person is hard. Getting on a bike as a fat person is hard. Hell, doing any sort of exercise as a fat person is hard. Thin onlookers often fall into two categories: the ‘Oh well done you for sorting your *obviously* terrible, shitty life out finally’ crowd, or the ‘you are a fucking disgusting monster’ crowd. Neither of which make exercising any easier for fat people. When I cycle tour, I feel the weight of people’s assumptions about my body. They wonder how I could still be fat when cycling so far and so often. They wonder how much I must be eating to maintain my mass. They raise their eyebrows in surprise when they hear I’ve cycled 50, 60, 70km that day. They wonder how my body even manages the sheer level of activity I’m doing. Mostly, people wonder how happy I am going to be after five months when I’ve (inevitably) lost weight. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting. I am fat and I can cycle for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week and still be fat. But even if I couldn’t it wouldn’t matter. I am, crucially, very fucking happy with my amazing body. Get fucking over it.

Still, it is hard getting onto a bike and cycling long distance, especially when you don’t look like the ‘typical-insta-shiny-magic-cyclist’. And it is only made harder by outdoor clothing companies that don’t cater to fat people. What I’ve learnt is you don’t need to be clad in full lycra to cycle thousands (or even a couple of) kilometres and, whilst it is not ideal, there are ways over, under, around and through the barriers to accessing the outdoors you can face as a fat person. To help, here’s a breakdown of the clothing I took with my on my first tour, the clothing I’m wearing on my second tour, and the clothing I really wish I had… If you have any top tips or recommendations, i would be really interested in hearing them (and doing a follow up post with other fat folks hot tips.)

SHORTS

Saddle sore is real, people, and it hurts like hell. On the first tour I could not for the life of me find padded cycle shorts in my size (a UK 20-22). I scoured the sports shops, but even if I found an elusive size 20, like fuck did they fit. Apparently sport shop size 20 is real life size 14. So I spent the first 1000km of my tour in cheap men’s cotton shorts from sports direct. It wasn’t too bad. I realised pretty early on that I HAD to ride without underwear and I think it helped that I opted for a comfy, padded, saddle (which, unlike much cycling kit, was specifically designed for folks with vaginas with a hole down the middle to avoid rubbing on sensitive areas…) Overall they worked out fine. By the time we reached Basel, I could fit into Lili’s cycle shorts (with a little bit of tightness on the stomach) which had gotten too big for Lili. It was nice having the extra padding, and I didn’t have to smother myself in sudocream quite as often.

At the start of the second tour I could just about (probably pushing it a bit) squeeze into Lili’s old shorts still but they were uncomfortable (owing to me having put on weight again). I was determined to find a new pair. A Decathalon had just opened up in Cambridge and heading into the store I was greeted by a section of women’s cycle shorts which went up to 2XL ( size 20). Hoorah! Helpfully they were separated into categories based on the length of ride you planned. They had my size in every category except the better padded, and most expensive, 6+ hour ride category. The one I needed. I checked the label: they weren’t missing stock, they just didn’t go up to that size in the better quality shorts. Fat people don’t ride bikes for longer than 4 hours, apparently.

In the end, I found the equivalent shorts in the men’s section and found my size equated to a 3XL for men (I would recommend looking on the shorts for the thickness of padding, and seeing if you can find an equivalent in another short). I appreciated these didn’t have the bits of plastic inside around the leg, designed I assume to stop them riding up, which rub incessantly and are very uncomfortable. I’m not sure if the different shape of the padding makes any difference because IVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO TRY ‘WOMEN’S’ SHORTS!

The decathlon shorts cost around £25 and lasted 800km before chub rub, plus the width of my aforementioned comfy saddle, wore holes down the leg seams. I’ve sewn these up and so far they’ve held for another 125km, so don’t forget strong thread and a needle. I hoped to replace them like for like in a decathalon in France, but larger sizes are a bit of a lottery and I haven’t found any in stock so far.

(((My dream shorts: less related to fatness, more to menstruation, but my dream shorts would be padded for long distances and shaped to avoid vaginal chafing and would have washable, seamless, padded inserts to allow you to free bleed during your period.)))

Abi stands in front of a small wooden caravan between two bikes. She is wearing the grey technical jumper and Decathlon cycle shorts.
My grey technical top and cycle shorts.

TOPS

For both tours, I have avoided the allure of colourful cycling jerseys (I don’t even know if any would fit) and opted for simple cotton t-shirts and vest tops (usually from Primark (please dont get my started on ethical clothes shopping for fat bodies)). Cycle jerseys tend to be tight in all the wrong places, I enjoy the comfort of a slightly baggy cotton tee, and they are much more affordable. Again, Decathlon seems to be the only place (other than from bespoke online retailers) that had a selection of cycling wear in bigger sizes (although it only seems to go up to a 20-22, which is still shit and restrictive). In the end, I’d argue that comfort should be the most important factor in cycle tour clothing. You will be on a bike for a long time and the last thing you want is to be constantly adjusting tight, itchy or ill-fitting clothing for the sake of ‘looking the part’.

One thing I added this tour was a long sleeved, wicking top which protects from UV rays. We are cycling in mid summer through Europe and sun burn is not nice (ALWAYS WEAR SUN CREAM (if a tan is your aim, then you still tan with sun cream on and anyway, the tan you get from cycle touring is utterly ridiculous and in weird places, so enjoy)). This top was from Decathlon and I wore it for the first time a few days ago. It was a tiny bit hotter than my usual vest top, but it was necessary in 27 degree heat and I didn’t burn or have to smother myself regularly in sun cream, so I’d recommend it. If you’re being super adventurous and touring in places with relentless sun, then a regular t-shirt won’t protect you from sunburn.

For cooler weather I bought a ‘mans’ (there’s a theme here, ‘male’ clothing apparently comes in larger sizes) thin, warm, jumper from the sports section at TK Maxx. It’s not hugely technical, but it makes sense to have multiple layers which you can put on and remove when needed and this is usually my first layer after a T-shirt. I also have a merino wool technical layer (I think it’s from Rab) which I also got from TK Maxx. To top off my layers I have a thick fleece from Sports Direct which is incredibly bulky but very warm. It doubles up as a pillow, so I don’t mind the bulk too much.

One of the things I find frustrating is the coded judgements around how much stuff you pack on a cycle tour. When we were in France, we met a female cycle tourer who proceeded to tell us that we had *so* much stuff. My clothes take up a fair amount of space, 1) because they are just bigger and 2) because the more lightweight technical stuff just isn’t available in my size and is prohibitively expensive when it is. I don’t know why it bothered her so much, since I was the one who was lugging all my stuff across Europe.

One of the not-often-articulated difficulties in buying clothing when you’re fat is that I will often change size. Cycle touring means I will inevitably lose weight (not the goal), gain muscle (in the weirdest places) and probably put weight back on when i get home. I don’t like to invest large amounts of money in gear when I don’t know if it will fit in 3 months. At the same time, I have clothes in my panniers that currently don’t fit great, because I know that in a few months they’ll be an option. Its really hard to balance a desire not to consume more stuff, and buy new clothes, with the need to pack light and only bring what you’ll wear.

RAIN GEAR

The first tour I took an ill-fitting florescent yellow mac with me. It was for ‘men’, (yet again!) but I couldn’t find any cheap, light, rain coats which fitted. The ‘male’ fit meant it was too tight around my hips and so it kept riding up my back. Not great.

I found a pac-a-mac this time round, in a size 20. I think I got it from Trespass. It fits better and has kept out the rain really, really well. But I still have the riding up my back issue, mostly because fat bodies are all different and nobody seems to understand that my hips are very wide but my shoulders are not. It is baggy on top and tight on bottom. If you find good rain wear, please get in touch.

I didn’t take waterproof trousers on the first tour (and it didn’t really rain), but we were cycling through Scotland in April this time, so… Again the ‘male’ section at Sport’s Direct provided a pair of 3XL waterproof trousers which are incredibly baggy around my legs but crucially fit my hips and butt and stomach. Plus they have proven they are waterproof, standing up against some epic downpours, which is all that really matters.

Writing this up, I’ve realised how often I’ve shopped in the ‘men’s’ section to find something in my size. I’m lucky that I’m pretty butch anyway, and I feel very comfortable shopping there. As much as I originally intended this guide to help folks find clothes, I realise that this won’t be much help to femme folks, or folks who don’t want to shop in the men’s section. So, maybe we should just get our shit together and make fat exercise and outdoors clothing for everyone, huh? HUH?

A photo of Abi cycling away from the camera on a gravel path towards some hills. The wind is buffering the black raincoat she is wearing.
Battling the southern uplands, in my pac-a-mac and jogging bottoms.

UNDERWEAR

I learnt from my first ride that you shouldn’t wear pants when wearing cycling shorts and on rest days I just have my normal everyday pants, so that’s easy (thanks, M&S).

I cannot find a sports bra that fits comfortably, so I just wear a generic, everyday, underwired bra. I have never had any problems with this being uncomfortable. Finding cheap sport bras in larger sizes which don’t cost the earth should be made a sport itself.

SHOES

I have never ridden clipless (using cleats) and with the amount I have to get on and off my bike to push up stupidly steep hills or around ridiculous obstacles I would never want them on a cycle tour. I chose to wear sports sandals (from Sports Direct). They’re cheap, they’re airy, they wash easily, they cause the most ridiculous tan lines and they can be adjusted to my hot and bloated feet when needed. 10/10 would recommend.

When it’s freezing, I opt for hiking shoes (still sturdy but less cumbersome than boots) and although these are much less comfortable, they do double up as emergency brakes when I’ve forgotten (or am too lazy) to maintain mine.

EXTRAS

After 1000km of cycling on my first tour I developed a ganglion cyst on my right wrist and I couldn’t move my hands from a strange claw-like position. I had bought cheap cycle gloves from Sports Direct but these did not work. If I was to recommend spending money on any item of cycling clothing it would be good, gel padded gloves. So in Basel, I did.

Sunglasses are a must have for me in summer. I wear glasses (which are also slightly tinted because I’m so photosensitive), so mine are the cheapest prescription ones I could get from Specsavers. I’ve never worn cycling specific sunglasses, so can’t comment on how much better (if at all) these are. Remember, UV rays are damaging for both skin and eyes!

I got overexcited on the current tour in Oxford and bought a super cool cinelli cycling cap. It was an impulse purchase and I wasn’t sure I needed it, but I cycled with it under my helmet a few days ago and it really helped shield my eyes from the 28 degree sunlight. You could definitely just use a generic baseball cap for under the helmet and quite a lot of people wear hats which have that extra flap of fabric which shields your neck from the sun which I’m contemplating. I’ve also seen people use those snood type things (we’ve used them when its cold before.) I’d suggest experimenting; on the last tour I didn’t have any experience of long distance riding, so it was just a case of trial and error. I brought an old baseball cap with me, but never wore it; my helmet had a decent visor.

In the end, cycle clothing is all about what’s comfortable for you. You don’t need any of the bespoke, expensive cycling gear if you don’t want it and sometimes the cheapest, simplest options have been the best. What I learnt on the last tour was you don’t need to buy into the consumer madness of magical cycling gear to get on a bike. In fact, spending less on gear gives you more money for the tour, and after weeks eating tomato pasta, you might be grateful for that extra tenner and the burger and chips it buys you.

At, the same time, not having options available in my size only contributes to the narrative that cyclists look a particular way (are a particular size). Cycle shorts and cycle gloves have been lifesavers for me and retailers need to cater to fat cyclists; we exist and we need padded shorts just as much as anyone else (yes, even though we have extra padding already, haw haw…)

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A flat lay of my cycle touring clothing.

This is a list of everything I brought on my current tour – Scotland to Greece, over 6 months. The temperature so far has ranged from -6 degrees to 39 degrees, and we’ve been in rain vortex’s and heatwaves. A star marks everything that has survived both the last tour and the 3 years in between.

  • Pants x5 – generic M&S cotton undies
  • 2 Bras (Matalan)
  • Socks x5 – two pairs of everyday cotton socks and 3 pairs of thick hiking socks (from Sports Direct) *
  • 3 cotton T shirts (1 only used for sleeping) from Primark
  • 1 XL white cotton sleeveless top, bought at the Roller Derby World Cup in Manchester
  • 1 black Adidas sleeveless top (stolen from my partner) *
  • 1 black vest top (basics from Next) *
  • 1 swimming costume (M&S) *
  • 1 thermal long-sleeved top (from M&S)
  • 1 pair of elasticated waist light cotton trousers (from M&S.)
  • 1 pair of Nike sports shorts (stolen from a family member years ago) *
  • 1 pair of PJ bottoms (not necessary if you don’t mind sleeping in other clothes, but I like a bit of comfort)
  • 1 pair of cycling shorts (Decathlon)
  • 1 pair of cycling gloves (Posh sports shop in Basel, purchased during last tour) *
  • 1 technical thermal/wicking top (again from the posh sports shop, slightly too small for me but good for later in the tour) *
  • 1 thin grey technical jumper (TK Maxx) *
  • 1 huge Karrimor fleece jacket thing (Sports Direct)
  • 1 pair of smart shorts (for going out in cities, atm one size too small because I bought them after the end of the last tour…)
  • 1 black pair of 3/4 length sports trousers (I brought them for bouldering when we had the chance but wear them around campsites a lot, they almost got sent home when I bought my cotton trousers)
  • 1 brightly coloured Cinelli cycling cap (an impulse buy in Oxford)
  • 1 thin, long sleeved running top, with SPF protection (Decathlon)
  • 1 cheap pac-a-mac (Tresspass)
  • 1 pair waterproof trousers (Sports Direct)
  • 1 pair of sports sandals (Sports Direct)
  • 1 pair of hiking trainers (Decathlon)
  • 1 helmet (Decathlon)

Things I packed at first, but left behind:

  • 1 pair of jogging bottoms (from Sports Direct – I sent these home in Portsmouth as the temperature rose, they were mostly just for camping in april in scotland)
  • 1 pair of blue jeans (M&S – these also got sent home. I worry about not wearing ‘proper’ clothes when we are in cities (my partner will happily saunter about in jogging bottoms but I feel self-conscious in them). It was hot enough by then that I thought I could replace them with some light more multi-functional trousers)
  • 1 warm Rab merino wool technical jumper (TK Maxx- this was left in Cambridge because the weather was getting warmer)
  • 1 pair of thermal leggings (M&S – again, left at my brother’s house in Winchester as the weather warmed up)
  • 1 Buff (Lili has stolen this) *