Hi, I'm a seriously overweight rider that just got back on the bike in November, 2014. I'm 6'0" (1.83m) and started at 295 lbs (134kg). I dug an old 1993 Specialized Hardrock out of the storage shed, and thought I'd try biking.
Some notes on the bike when I pulled it out of the shed.
1993 Specialized Hardrock, 20" seat tube.
4130 CrMo Steel Frame
3x7 Shimano Altus (entry level group set) gearing: 28,38,48 front 14,16,18,20,22,24,28 rear
MP-22 26" Araya Rims, 36spokes, low end front hub, 7 speed freewheel in rear
A weird center-pull brake setup front and rear
I live at the top of a moderately steep hill, it climbs about 170m in 2km (550ft in 1.25 mile), this was the first real challenge that I had to overcome.
At the top of the list was STOPPING when descending. An old bike like that needs some good brakes. The brakes were so old, I couldn't find parts that would fit, so I bought a new set of Shimano Acera V-Brakes. These also required new cables, so I got those too.
The next issue was solving the problem of getting back up the hill. Even the 28x28 gearing was too stiff for me to pedal uphill. I didn't want to walk it up hill, so I invested in a Shimano 14-34t Megarange seven speed freewheel sprocket set. This was the single best investment that I made in setting up the bicycle. I would highly recommend anyone who wants to ride in hilly country but is seriously large and out of shape to get one of these rear sprocket sets with the 34t big sprocket.
Unfortunately, with a bike this old, I also had to change the rear derailleur to accommodate the large sprocket and threw in a new chain in for good measure.
These simple changes worked for a couple of weeks while I got into a little better shape. I rode the 4km (2.5mile) round trip up and down my hill for almost six weeks. I wasn't doing enough exercise to lose many pounds, but I was slowly getting my heart and lungs into a condition that I could tolerate going a bit farther.
Slowly I stretched out my rides to 10km round trips, with a stop at the local Starbucks as my destination to get a morning coffee and drink some water. Once I started getting out to longer than 10km / day, I started to see a bit of a budge on the scales.
The longer rides, though also started to emphasize the problems with the fit of the bicycle. I slowly worked out the modifications that I needed to get the right posture and seating position. In the process I learned that a wide, soft, cushioned seat is great for about 20 minutes or so of easy riding. Once you get out to an hour long ride, you start to regret the wide part, as the chaffing really starts to kick in. I dumped the comfy seat for a harder, narrower seat, but I doubt I could have started off on the sleeker saddle, and probably would have given up. Be prepared to change some things as you progress, what works for short easy rides, doesn't work for 20km+ rides.
I also invested in some wider grips for the handlebars, some good bar ends to allow me to change posture and hand position, some battery powered lights for safety and riding before dawn, and put on some nifty lightweight plastic fenders to ride on wet days. Speaking of wet days, I bought a ShowersPass lightweight rain jacket from REI so I could ride on misty days. I like the fenders and jacket so much, I ride in even heavy rain, I get a little damp, but it's a nice cool ride.
The next big investment was to listen to the experts, and dump the plastic pedals. Next to the Megarange cassette, buying clipless pedals and Shimano mountain bike shoes for the SPD pedals probably was the best thing I did to make riding more enjoyable and improve the overall efficiency. I would highly recommend the kind that have a flat platform for regular shoes on one side, and the clipless system on the reverse side.
The stories are true about clipless pedals: I dumped my bike over the first day I was riding with the clipless pedals because I hadn't practiced enough on getting out at slow speed. I skinned my knee, and bruised my pride sprawled out at the stoplight in front of a bunch of drivers, but the knee healed and I learned my lesson. I still have to concentrate on flicking my heel out correctly at slow speeds while balancing and braking, but so far, so good.
I worked my way up in distance and got up to doing 50km rides a couple times between Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I am slow, it takes me about four hours, with lots of resting, to ride 50km in a day. The narrower seat is sure welcome, and I love my low "granny gear" when riding up hill. I get passed on Sundays by the speedy guys in their tight shorts and carbon bikes, but I ride for me, not for them. Once in awhile I get hollered at by teenagers, "Hey fat guy!" but that's OK, I ride for me, not for them.
As I got riding out longer distances, I wanted to hurry up downhill, I was spinning out even on small hills with the 48x14 gearing. This created a major challenge for me, as there are limited choices for 7 speed thread on freewheels with the 34t big sprocket.
I toyed around with several options, and decided that I could pull off a major upgrade to the gearing. I bought a Shimano Deore freehub, studied everything I could about spokes and lacing wheels, figured out that I wanted to try a 4-cross lacing pattern due to my large size and the fact that I already had the 36 hole Araya rims, bought the spokes and nipples and some tools (the tools were not cheap by the way, but I'm doing this for fun not for frugality), and tackled the drive train and wheels.
I changed out the old loose bearing bottom bracket with a Shimano UN-55 sealed cartridge bottom bracket (it took forever to figure out the size), and tore apart the wheel and put it back together again with the new freehub. I bought a nine speed 11-34t Shimano cassette and a new 9 speed chain. The 48x11 gearing allows me to get up to 45km/h+ when going down hills, and I have yet to find a hill that I truly spinout while descending.
I investigated the 3 cross vs. 4 cross lacing extensively, and it is pretty clear that for large people, the 4 cross on 36 spokes makes a stronger wheel for straight forward riding, and rolling over bumps in the road, but is about the same as a 3 cross for other loads (lateral, tangential, etc.).
Lacing wheels correctly is as tricky the first time as all of the online resources say it will be. I ended up with a very good, true and round wheel with proper tension, but mis-laced the left side, ending up with a cross over the valve stem. This was primarily because the Araya MP-22 wheel starts off with a left side spoke when counting clockwise from the valve stem. This threw everything off for my counting, despite my seemingly meticulous planning. Now I know better and paid the price by unlacing 75% of the spokes and then relacing and re truing the wheel.
Without a doubt, one of the better investments that I have made is buying a 15,000mAh Limefuel battery to power my iPhone while I ride. I can ride all day with my Polar bluetooth heart rate monitor, GPS and iTunes running, and still have lots of power left over. I can recharge it overnight, but I can usually get a good weeks worth of riding out of it between charges. I bought a frame triangle bag to keep the battery in, but it is a ruggedized battery and water proof (I keep it in the rain proof bag anyway). I have a Topeak iPhone 5 all weather sealed case for my phone so it can ride along in the rain with me.
It's now been four months since I started riding in earnest. It took about six weeks to even start to budge the scales, but since about January 1, 2015, I've lost right around 20 pounds (9kg+). I feel a lot better, and I should be able to keep losing about a pound or two every week for a while.
You can probably tell that I'm having fun spending my money on trying different things with the bike. It's a bit of a hobby as well as exercise for me. I intend to upgrade the whole frame in the near future, so I wanted to familiarize myself with the technology and the options. My long term goal is to do a multi-day 300km ride with some friends in Taiwan next year.
Nevertheless, I have some takeaways for anyone else who wants to get started:
1. Really old bikes suck. The new bicycles have so much better technology today than existed 20 years ago. In any event, you should go to a local bike shop and get a properly sized bike that is not too expensive. I cannot insist enough that a properly sized bike is the most critical starting point. I see people on bikes that are way to big for them, and it really looks uncomfortable, and in some cases dangerous.
2. Believe it or not, a good steel frame or aluminum frame MTB will hold you, even the 400lb+ folks. Make sure that the wheels are good MTB 36 spoke wheels, three cross or four cross doesn't matter that much when you are only riding 5 or 10 miles at a time.
3. Top end gearing (48x11) is nice when you get in shape and can turn it, but in any case push your local bike shop to get you set up with a great low end gearing: a 24, 26, or 28 front ring coupled with a 34 tooth rear sprocket is HIGHLY recommended to make getting up ANY hill possible when you are heavy and/or out of shape.
4. Local bike shops are great, even for big overweight people, to go and talk about what you need and to help you get it. It's more comfortable to grab a bike at Walmart or Target, but it's probably not going to be what you need, and may have non-standard components that make upgrading, or maintaining difficult.
5. Once you get comfortable, invest in some clipless pedals and shoes for the Shimano SPD mountain bike system, and learn how to use them. I cannot stress how important this is to make it possible to get a good efficient workout and make the time in the saddle enjoyable and effective.
6. Ride as often as possible. There is a great resource at bikemaps.net to plan rides, trying out different routes that avoid situations that make you uncomfortable, and in my area (South San Diego County in California) even has the good biking trails on the map, so I can get from here-to-there often using only bike lanes and bike trails.
7. I try to start early, to avoid jostling around with the morning traffic. Everyone is in a hurry to get to work, and a lot of the young upwardly mobile type people driving BMW 1's and 3's are not patient with fatties slowly pedaling along and will try to impatiently cut me off to teach me a lesson. I have a good mirror that I check once in awhile to make sure they aren't sneaking up behind me and always expect that someone is going to cut me off when the traffic is heavy.
8. Carry rain gear if there is any chance of rain. It sucks to ride in the rain without it: it gets colder than you think, and makes for a truly miserable ride. I like my XXL ShowersPass jacket, it fits me pretty well despite my considerable girth.