Finding the right gear when things aren’t made for you
When Deirdre Moynihan was Executive Director of Front Rangers Cycling Club, she led bike rides with a group of Somali girls at Denver’s Sun Valley Youth Center. She noticed that the girls, who were Muslim, were having trouble safely riding while wearing their modest long skirts and hijabs. Helmets didn’t fit over the hijab and their hair buns, and their skirts would catch in the chain. This was a new challenge for Deirdre and she wanted to help the girls find a solution.
She sourced some athletic hijabs that were thinner and moisture-wicking, and the girls took down their buns underneath. Next, they tackled the skirts. Long skirts are worn in the Muslim community of Somalia to hide the shape of the body, and the Sun Valley riders wore pants underneath. Deirdre and the girls found a solution where they would wear shorter skirts while riding, and as soon as they took a break or stopped, they would change into the longer skirt again.
“It was very labor-intensive,” Deirdre said. “These girls love to ride. They really did. But it was a struggle for them.”
Photo courtesy Deirdre Moynihan
Bicycling has long been considered the realm of fit white men with money to spare on expensive road bikes and gear. However, the culture has been shifting in recent decades, and there is a greater push to include bicyclists of all races, ages, abilities and genders in advocacy and industry. If the bicycling world wants to welcome more riders on board—and a more diverse group of riders—we have to address a lot of the issues that we at Bicycle Colorado work to tackle, including accessible infrastructure, representation of diverse bicyclists and equitable safety legislation.
One barrier that isn’t obvious to a lot of bicyclists is finding appropriate gear and apparel. No, you don’t always need a kit and helmet to go for a bike ride, but for some folks, finding supportive and durable riding apparel can be daunting and demoralizing. No matter who you are, padded bike shorts can really help make a longer-distance ride more comfortable. For many it’s easy to pop into your local bike shop and find what you need, or do a quick search online and find options at different price points. But what if you can’t find a size that fits, a product within your budget or shop employees that know how to help you? For this story, we spoke with bicyclists and industry leaders who have explored and experienced the limitations of bicycling gear and are challenging the status quo.
Marley Blonsky, a self-described fat bicyclist, participated in her first organized ride in 2014. The ride was Bike MS: Deception Pass in Washington State; she participated through her employer who ordered the ride kit for the team, consisting of a jersey and bike shorts.
Photo courtesy Marley Blonsky
“I had no idea what size to order so I ordered an XL in the women’s because I just assumed that would fit, and then it came and it was embarrassingly small and tight and it was awful,” said Marley.
She has several stories like this: of being part of a group or organized ride where she felt isolated because her clothing didn’t fit or she was uncomfortable. In one case, she was sent men’s clothing as there weren’t larger sizes in the women’s style, and the cut wasn’t the right fit. Despite the event organizers knowing her size and having time to source appropriate clothing, she ended up in ill-fitting clothes and “feeling really ostracized.” On that ride, the bike she was sent as a sponsored rider was the wrong size as well—the smallest size of bike was still far too large.
Marley says one of the most significant challenges to getting fat people on bicycles is a perceived sense of safety, both physical safety and feeling welcome in a cycling space. People worry their bike might not hold their weight, are afraid of being made fun of, or of the fit, clothing and saddle being uncomfortable or causing pain. A major obstacle, she notes, is finding high-performance clothing that fits and looks like what other riders wear.
“Once you get into a sport, let’s say you become a golfer and you want to look like everybody else out there, it’s the same thing with cycling, but it just doesn’t exist,” she said.
Vanessa Foerster also knows the frustration of trying to fit into a world that doesn’t have much representation of people who look like her. In 2009, fed up with the difficulty of fitting her high-volume curly hair under a helmet, she cut her hair short.
“I wasn’t ever really conscious of the connection between my bike fit and the fact that my hair is ‘different,’” she said. “I think it’s like a body type because we want to fit into a dress: ‘How can I change myself to fit what’s available.’”
A long-course Triathlete currently based in Montana, Vanessa continues to wear her hair short today. She started competing as a college student in Georgia, and was acutely aware of the lack of racial diversity in her bicycling teams and clubs. For her, another large barrier of entry for Black bicyclists, apart from the financial investment, is the lack of role models or familiar faces in the sport. Vanessa’s frustration with the lack of urgency in making triathlon events more diverse or even organizations dragging their feet on commitments to being anti-racist made her realize she needed to take the lead. She discovered early on as a bicyclist in Georgia that she couldn’t wait for others to make her feel welcome.
Photo courtesy Vanessa Foerster
“I would always create my own sense of belonging instead,” she said.
Vanessa founded the Diversify Triathlon Movement, bringing Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) athletes to Triathlon coaching. Participants received three months of free coaching and additional support from a nutritionist and running specialist, as well as mindset coaching from Vanessa herself. The athletes received sponsorships, got to speak to pro Triathletes and were supported as they became more familiar with the sport. Vanessa now supports Diversity Infusion Syndicate (D. I. S. K.), a mentoring program for Muslim women and women of color who are early-career triathletes. For Vanessa, this is enacting change at the individual level.
Vanessa encourages people to voice their concerns about equipment and apparel that doesn’t work for them. She points out that some manufacturers and designers just might not know or be aware of fit and style issues, because there might not be people in those roles who have experienced that discomfort.
Micki Krimmel, founder of Superfit Hero, sees this play out in the realm of size-inclusive clothing. She thinks there are two main reasons that larger brands have been slow to offer more inclusive sizing. Fatphobia is one reason, and the other is the mass production of garments.
A screenshot of Superfit Hero’s homepage.
“Taking the time to actually work on the fit of your garments is time consuming and expensive,” she said. “It would require slowing down the process and in turn, lowering your margins, and shareholders don’t like that.” Scroll down for a longer conversation with Micki.
In the case of the Front Rangers, Deirdre tried to connect with manufacturers and didn’t have much luck. She found that there isn’t interest in designing the kind of modest functional bicycling wear needed by the Somali children she served. So, she and the girls’ families got together to develop an outfit themselves. This apparel would be respectful of their religious tradition and allow them to ride safely. Deirdre says the skirt would be attached to light, moisture-wicking leggings and could be cinched up shorter during rides. The tunic-like top would have long sleeves but be lightweight and comfortable.
Deirdre has since left Front Rangers, and still hasn’t heard of any manufacturer moving forward with designs like hers. She points to female athletes competing in hijabs and Nike’s recent release of full-coverage swim options as examples for other manufacturers to follow. “How can you not be interested? You would be breaking a barrier.”
For Vanessa, the issue of inclusive bicycle gear and apparel boils down to a need for companies to invest time and money into learning the stories of people who do or who might use their products. She points out that when a manufacturer makes products for people who are already buying them, other populations will continue to be excluded. She says it is important to have representation of BIPOC bicyclists and athletes in the company’s marketing, reflecting the diversity of the world and not just the company’s current consumers.
Photo courtesy Vanessa Foerster.
“I think that anytime we are in a space of providing a service to people, we are actually more impactful and we give more value when we are willing to serve the people who don’t pay us,” she said of advocacy and industry.
Deirdre, too, knows well the necessity of understanding and providing for the needs of people not often represented in bicycling. As godmother to four Ethiopian boys in Denver, Deirdre says she and the kids are always aware they are often the only Black participants in rides and races, and for her, encouraging more diverse ridership is part of “instilling the love” of bicycling in BIPOC children.
“I get questions like ‘How do we get them involved?’ and I say, ‘How do you get them to places, how do you pay for things like bikes, how do you make it all accessible?” she said.
After her stint at Front Rangers Cycling Club, Deirdre took on the role of Tour Director for the Denver Post Ride The Rockies and Pedal The Plains.
For her, it’s a priority that the rides are fiscally accessible, and she makes sure to give out complimentary entries to people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds and physical abilities who might not be able to cover the cost on their own. She also ensures that the ride environment is inclusive and does not tolerate divisive language or behavior.
Photo courtesy Deirdre Moynihan
When asked how she encourages and draws a diverse ridership to her events, Deirdre says, “I try to specifically invite them.”
Bike shops, too, can train their employees to have empathetic and understanding conversations with customers. Marley has observed that when she visits bike shops away from home, she’s treated as though she’s inexperienced and unfamiliar with bicycling.
“I get treated like an idiot,” she said.
Marley rides in Whitefish, MT. Photo courtesy Marley Blonsky.
A conversation that some heavier individuals need to have when shopping for a bike is making sure that the bicycle’s structural weight limit is adequate. Marley says she usually asks candidly what a bike’s weight limit is, and often the employee doesn’t know, or doesn’t know where to find that information or assumes it isn’t relevant. Understanding that asking about a weight limit can be difficult for people, Marley suggests asking as though you are going bikepacking and you need to know how much it can hold, or say you are asking for someone else.
Marley does praise a few apparel manufacturers who are doing good work with inclusive clothing. She highlights Machines for Freedom but notes that their gear skews more pricey. She says she is “really impressed” with their work to promote BIPOC within the company and their dedication to having a more inclusive size range.
Tonik Cycling and Superfit Hero are two other companies that Marley feels are moving in the right direction. She wants to see a more inclusive size range of clothing, from XS to 3XL at stores like REI, or Dick’s Sporting Goods, where a bicyclist new to riding distances or competitive rides can find gear like shorts, bibs or jerseys at an entry-level price point.
“You can get the super high-end stuff, but if you just want regular stuff to wear out on a Saturday ride, it’s next to impossible to find,” she said.
She notes that in particular, rain gear and outerwear are still not available in plus sizes, which can make bicycling feel more daunting and difficult in rain or cold weather. She hopes more manufacturers will produce wider ranges of clothing, and that attitudes in the U.S. will change to welcome and support bicyclists who ride for transportation.
“I’m looking forward to biking being in my life for the rest of my life,” she added. “Whether that’s on a recumbent or a tricycle or whatever that looks like, I’m looking forward to keeping that in my life.”
At Bicycle Colorado, we envision a Colorado where the benefits of bicycling are experienced and valued by all people in our state.
In order to get more people to ride their bicycles, for transportation, recreation or anything else, we need to make sure there is gear and attire accessible for all riders. One size doesn’t fit all, nor does the limited range of sizing offered by most stores and companies.
We also want our bicycle events and races to be inclusive and safe environments for BIPOC, adaptive and WFTNB (women, femme, trans, nonbinary) athletes and others who are not traditionally represented in the sport. If you work for or with a manufacturer or bicycle shop and want to explore how you can make your products and services more accessible and inclusive, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
A conversation with an athletic clothing manufacturer—Micki Krimmel, Founder of Superfit Hero
Your company’s slogan is “Fitness is for Every Body”. What made you decide that it was important to offer affordable fitness clothing in such a broad range of sizes?
The fitness industry has long perpetuated the myth that only thin people participate in sport or any kind of movement practice. All you need to do is look around at a marathon, bike race, weightlifting competition—or in my case, roller derby practice—to know that’s not true. I was inspired to create Superfit Hero after years of playing roller derby transformed my perspective on fitness and my relationship to my own body. I wanted to be a part of building a more inclusive and empowering movement culture. Participating in a regular movement practice is one of the best ways to feel grounded in your body and to improve your mental health. This is something everyone deserves access to.
Do you think other companies should follow suit? Why?
Excluding the majority of the population is a moral failure as well a huge business mistake. We’ll continue to make our brand more inclusive and wait for them to catch up.
What do you think is preventing other companies from doing this?
Small businesses and startups are doing this work. There are more and more inclusive brands popping up every day. I think there are two main reasons larger, more established fashion brands are slow to offer more inclusive sizing. The first is fatphobia plain and simple. The fashion industry might be the only one more biased than the fitness industry.
The second reason is that your favorite giant brand makes its money by mass producing garments as quickly and cheaply as possible at scale. Taking the time to actually work on the fit of your garments is time consuming and expensive. It would require slowing down the process and in turn, lowering your margins, and shareholders don’t like that.
Smaller businesses like mine have the luxury of focusing on quality and fit, and truly caring for our customers. I believe this is not only the right thing to do, but will also mean more customer loyalty and more long term success for my brand.
What do you find are areas of greatest need for your customers in larger bodies?
It’s funny you should ask that. We just completed a customer research project where we asked members of our community this exact question so we can find ways to better serve them. It’s 100% about fit.
Even brands that claim to offer inclusive sizing often don’t do the work to ensure their larger sizes fit well. Size charts are untrustworthy, a 5XL at one brand will fit like a 2XL from another. Many of our customers described the process of shopping as a traumatic experience. We’re in a moment now when many brands are making a show of being size inclusive but when customers actually try to buy, they find the experience to be less than inclusive or empowering.
What can a company do to make sure they are being size-inclusive, apart from offering a larger range of sizes for customers to buy? What does your company do?
You need to do more than simply make larger versions of the clothes that fit smaller bodies. We fit and test all of our new products on models across our entire size range. We use multiple patterns when necessary – not just one pattern per style. It’s also really important to test your size chart so customers can trust your sizing and feel safe ordering from you. And finally, it’s important to recognize the unique needs of your customers.
We know that plus size athletes have been excluded from both the fitness and fashion industries for the majority of their lives. We know that shopping for clothing has often been painful. Our number one mission as a brand is to make our customers feel respected and cared for. We will always go the extra mile to help our customers find the right size and they know we’ve got their backs.