I'm going to skip the long back story but suffice it to say that last year I got reintroduced to cycling and quickly became an addict! It's great exercise for anyone but if you are in seriously poor health, it can really be your ticket back to good health. Today I wanted to offer up some info on why it's such a great form of exercise and some things that you should look out for in selecting a bike.
The number one issue with serious obesity and exercise is joint pain. When your carrying around all that extra weight, you can do a lot of damage doing conventional exercise. Running is absolutely the best way to burn calories and lose weight but if you start injuring your joints you won't be able to run. Imagine if you could run but have a harness that lifted up on your body and made it feel as if you weighed half as much; this is what gears on a bike can do for you. Gears allow you to push the pedals at a comfortable rate (cadence) to propel you forward. Have a big hill to get up? Shift into your lowest gear and spin the pedals easy so your not mashing your joints into oblivion.
The other great thing about bikes and their gears is it really allows you to start slow and monitor your progress. Over time you'll notice that hills that you used to need your absolute lowest gear can be tackled with a higher gear. You can also coast on a bike. If your getting tired, you can lay off the pedals a bit. Even if your not seriously obese, if you have poor cardiovascular conditioning, cycling can be a fun way to start getting in basic cardio and improve your HEALTH! I love cycling because it's easy for me to vary my workout. If I'm pressed for time I can jump on my bike for 30 minutes and really pedal hard and go for a high intensity calorie burning workout. If I've got plenty of time, I can get out and ride nice and easy for 2-3 hours checking out new neighborhoods in the city, finding fun places to go check out at later date and improve my endurance capabilites.
So what should you look for in a bike? In my opinion the number one reason why people don't stick with cycling is that they fail to buy the right kind of bike! Below are questions you should ask yourself before buying a bike.
1. Where will you be riding? If you live in the suburbs and have access to true MTB trails you should consider a MTB. If you have access to hard packed dirt trails that are relatively flat and may have a little bit of gravel or sand on them from time to time, you should be considering a Hybrid. Hybrids have sturdy frames but are equipped with flat bars for an upright riding position and bigger tires for a smoother ride and ability to go over rougher terrain. A type of hybrid called a "comfort bike" usually has a suspension fork like a mountain bike to give added comfort on bumpy trails or roughly paved streets. If you know you will only be on paved roads or paved Multi Use Path's (MUP's) or rail trails, a road bike is the way to go. If you get the right type of bike for the kind of riding you do, and find that you start losing weight and getting more fit, you won't need to get a whole new bike, you'll just need to make subtle adjustments to how the bike fits you.
2. How does the bike fit? Once you have picked out the ideal type of bike, you will still have problems if it doesn't fit you. I'm 6'3 240 but I won't necessarily ride the same setup as another person my height and weight. One of us may have long legs and a short torso and the other vice versa. I don't have back problems but the other person might. In addition to the general published frame size, bikes have different top tube lengths, stem lengths and pedal crankarm lengths not to mention saddles can be adjusted forward and backwards. If you are on a bike that makes you feel comfortable, you will be more inclined to ride it. As I mentioned above, if you have the right type of bike, you can always make adjustments to it as you lose weight or get more fit. You may start with a road bike that is very upright, but as you get fit and your core gets stronger, you may lower the stem a bit or reposition your bars to get more "aggressive" Fitting of the bike is one of the key differences between a bike bought at a bike shop and a "walmart special"
3. How much do you weigh? If you are up to 200lbs, pretty much any stock bike can be made to work for you.
200-225lbs, most stock bikes are equipped to handle you but 32 spoke wheels are a good idea.
225-250lbs, you should be riding on 32 spoke wheels but you also should have rims that are more durable. Some rims are very light weight and while they may have 32 spokes, the rims themselves don't have enough material to be strong. Velocity Deep V's are a very popular choice for durable rims for larger riders on road bikes. Mavic A319 and A719 are popular rim choices for hybrid bikes that can fit wider tires.
250-300lbs you should be looking at 36 spoke wheels and again a very durable type of rim.
In addition, anyone over 225lbs should be conscious of the following:
Tires Your rims may be plenty stout, but often times stock bikes come with very cheap tires. Cheap tires often can't handle high pressure. I was 230lbs when i bought my first bike last year. The stock 700x28c tires could only handle 85psi. At my weight, the tire would sometimes bottom out against the rim and cause "pinch flats". I upgraded to a tire that could handle 100psi and that problem was solved. Cheap tires don't have a protective layer, better tires have a layer of Kevlar that protects you from punctures. NO TIRE IS FLAT PROOF! But kevlar lined tires really make a huge difference on the glass riddled streets of the city. Tire width is also important. Some road bike frames can only fit small tires while hybrids can typically fit a very wide tire. A wider tire will give a FAR more comfortable ride and really won't slow you down that much.
Saddle If your a larger rider, you probably will need a saddle with more padding. Many road bikes come with thin "racing" saddles. Beware of too much padding though, sometimes too much padding just means you compress it and you end up being even more uncomfortable. There are also "suspension seat posts" that have a spring in them that can give a more comfortable ride.
If you are buying at a bike shop, there may be some upcharges for the items I mentioned above but it's well worth it. Most bike shops will give you a credit for the items you aren't using. For example, it may be $300 additional to build you a proper set of wheels, but they can turn around and sell your stock wheels to someone for $200 so they may only charge you $100 additional for the proper wheels. You can roll the dice on some of these things, but you'll probably end up paying more later.
My final advice to you "BEWARE THE EL CHEAPO AND THE EXPENSIVE BIKE!!!" Good bikes come in ALL price points. The best bike is the one that FITS you and makes you want to ride it. If money is not an object you can be tempted to shell out a couple of thousand dollars for a high end bike at your local shop. The truth is that typically expensive bikes are lightweight bikes. Lightweight bikes have parts that are made out of carbon fiber and titanium and while they make the bike light, they also make the bike LESS DURABLE! Expensive bikes often have lightweight wheels, with low spoke counts. Again, the lighter the wheel and lower the spoke count, the less durable. If you are a 150 lbs racing cyclist, shaving lbs or even grams off your bike can make a difference in winning or losing races. But when your a heavy rider, you need durability! You need a bike that you can ride day after day and not worry about it falling apart. The beauty of cycling for heavier riders is it takes the stress off of your joints, but it does put stress on the bike. Fortunately, it's easier to replace bike parts than body parts!
Regarding cheap bikes, the phrase "you get what you pay for" comes to mind. Department store bikes are usually not properly adjusted, just quickly put together in a store. They are usually made from the cheapest parts available which isn't always a bad thing but usually is. If you are on a budget used bikes are a GREAT option. Peoples garages are filled with bikes that have just been gathering dust and simply need a little cleaning and a tune up and they will ride good as new. With proper maintenance a bike will last forever so don't shy away from buying used, just be sure that the bike fits you or can be adjusted slightly to fit you.
Check out these two videos of my bikes and see the differences in bikes being used for 2 different purposes.