Recently we published an interview with Tanya Newman. She’s a plus sized rider struggling to find kit that fits and when we shared her story, many readers got in touch to say they felt the same. On the UK market, the key brand catering for larger women is ‘Fat Lass at the Back’ – and they do an excellent job – but of course it’s always nice to have a little choice.
So, we were thrilled when Tina McCarthy got in touch. With 25-years working as a graphic designer and art director before cycling took over her life, Tina started Wheel Women in 2012. An accredited coach, she organises rides and training courses, as well as designing kit. The clothing brand side of the organisation caters for dress sizes 6-24. Currently delivery to the UK is $25 - but Tina is looking for more ways to supply overseas for less.
Tina’s mission with Wheel Women is help other women build the skills they need to become confident and regular cyclists and make participation in cycling welcoming. Here’s her story…
The experience of buying (or trying to buy) plus sized cycling clothing
I made sure the door was locked tight. I could feel that cold sweat of anxiety start to envelope me as I considered the only way out of this. Then I heard them call out… 'how are you going for size in there?' I couldn’t face the answer - I gripped the door tight making sure they wouldn’t fling it open and reveal the horror inside. No, nobody would see me in this tiny scrap of fabric masquerading as a cycling jersey.
I guess many of us have been there at some stage, trapped in the change room too embarrassed to ask for that 5XL. Or frustrated that the online purchase arrived but does nothing more than act as a wrist warmer. It’s that game many of us play when we make the decision to enter the cycling world.
I’ve been there too. Yet I fit the statistical measurements that make me pretty much close to the norm. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics I come in at a fraction taller than the average Aussie woman at 5’4", 4lbs more in weight and a bust at 40 inches, making me 1.5 inches over what ‘most’ woman measure. In other words, I’m only just on the heavier side of normal according to the stats, but I’m considered a ‘big girl’.
As I peel it all on, the stitching unravels down the seams only to expose the feast of cellulite beneath.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve gone to buy a great looking jersey, only to find the measurements stop at size 38 inch in the chest. I’ve ordered online thinking an item will fit only to find on arrival it will spend its days in the ‘when I lose weight’ pile. The knicks pinch my thighs to look like ‘sausages’ on a string of frankfurts, the waist bands have skinny elastic and only serve as some kind of external lap-band procedure. As I peel it all on, the stitching unravels down the seams only to expose the feast of cellulite beneath. And that’s on a good day…
Buying or wearing cycling clothes can be a humiliating experience for a woman who is, well, ‘real sized’! It seems there are so few companies out there making gear that fits larger women. I long to be able to wear some of the really cool designs I see advertised but I don’t fit into the size range the cycling-company-designer-guy sees as enticing. I fit into the size that says I am a real (wheel) woman…lumps, bumps, curves, boobs and all.
So why is it that women on the larger size of ‘normal’ are so ignored by the manufacturers of cycling gear? I hear it asked time and time again…who makes cycling gear to fit our voluptuous curves?
When the media portrays imagery of women with model like figures, or of elite athletes, it often serves to alienate and suggest larger women have no place. I have nothing against smaller framed women or elite athletes, but we need to make room for the reality of diversity. We ALL need to be able to look at the images and say ‘that’s me!’
Daily I see women with those lumps, bumps, curves, muffin tops and cellulite that I have. Our mission at Wheel Women is to motivate all women to take that first step from the couch to the bike… regardless of size, shape age or fitness level. I wanted all women to feel they were welcome in this cycling world.
The Clothing Solution: design it myself
It took a leap of faith, serious research and many failed samples - but since 2015 we’ve been working with Sub4 Apparel located in Melbourne, Australia. Owner Justin Watts was more familiar with supplying gear for tiny triathletes and pro cyclists, but when I explained the issues larger, or ‘real’ women had finding great gear he jumped at the chance to work with us. We’ve worked with Justin since to help those women who go beyond the regular sizing of some of our favourite brands.
When I started cycling I was wearing plus sizes in regular gear – size AUS18-20. I’m still large, but because I am just larger than the statistical ‘average’ size now, I became the model for our L (size AUS16).
We’ve lengthened here, shortened there, adapted, re-modelled and totally re-worked everything to make a great fit. As a designer in a previous life, I have the fun job working on the ‘look’. I’m happy to say we now have a jersey and bibs we think really works for our Wheel (real) Women - from XS to 5XL. That’s equivalent to a UK size 6-24. And yes, we hear you – we will soon have a jersey minus any hint of pink!
What I think makes great fitting plus sized cycling clothing
At Wheel Women we’re doing our best to cater for the women who want a large array of sizes. But we don’t have to stop there! We want women to have CHOICE too. So – here’s our advice for any other brands thinking of expanding their range…
Across the board - the wish list:
- Stop the body-shaming-confidence-blowing-sizing used on most jerseys…a 37 inch (95cm) bust line does not maketh a 3XL!
Jerseys – the wish list:
- a looser cut
- fabric choices that don’t cling
- doing away with elasticized hems
- good tummy and hip coverage
- full length zips
- stretch panels
- wider bands for smoothing fit
Bibs – the wish list
- three quarter leg length options
- longer leg on the shorts
- a higher cut on the tummy area
- a brilliant chamois that works across long distances
- no elastic hems or silicone grippers
- wider leg bands on the hems
What other women think makes great plus sized cycling clothing
It's not just about what I want! I spoke to other women who shop and ride with Wheel Women to find out what they wanted...
Rides: road bike
Type of ride: long distance, hills, fast!
I am a bigger woman and finding acceptable clothing has been really difficult.
I’m never going to be petite, but I have decided that making myself feel good both on and off my bike is important. My pet hate is that I can’t walk into a bike store and try on clothes even though I am prepared to spend money!
I have finally found the perfect fit and look in 3/4 bib knicks in the colour I want (navy) from Wheel Women, and have a coordinated kit at long last. I also love the Wheel Woman gilet, which has a bit of stretch in it as well as a two way zip and fits well.
Rides: Specialized flat bar carbon road bike
Type of ride: determined, gutsy, 100km veteran
I’d given up visiting cycling shops to find clothes that fit.
If I built up the courage to try on, I always felt uncomfortable and out of place. My pet hate about cycling gear is that it tends to cater to women who are slim. I am often quite self conscious as I don’t fit the ‘right image’ and can go through a range of negative emotions when getting ready to go riding. I want to be accepted for who I am and that I am just like anyone else that is out there riding. Normal is everyone, regardless of size, age, and ability.
Rides: Specialized flat bar road bike
Type of ride: 40-50kms, road and path, sportives
I want to get fit and exercise but if I can't get gear to wear it makes it very difficult from the start
I haven't had much luck finding gear that fits, apart from the Wheel Women range and a couple of nice tops from Primal. I love the designs of Specialized and Rapha but they go nowhere near my size. I know I'm overweight, but being reminded of it trying to squeeze into tiny sizes isn't helping! If the average size is 14 to 16, I'm only one to two sizes over but you wouldn't know it when you try to shop for cycling gear! All that fits me are socks, I have tons of socks!!
Rides: Trek Silque road bike
Type of ride: building the distance, loves a sportive event, loves a road ride
[It feels] like most bike shops don't want to know you.
The fact that it is so difficult to get larger sized kit for women in particular makes me feel like most bike shops don't want to know you. I remember going into a bike shop that had been recommended as 'women friendly'…there were no bibs or jersey that would even go close to fitting me. Really made me think that in general the bike industry didn't want women in my size.
Wheel Women is my go to place for kit. The new gilet is fantastic, especially the stretch in the fabric, which makes a really good fit. Double ended zips are very useful. Colours of the different pieces co-ordinate, so you don't need to buy one of everything, although this is a real temptation! The kit allows for more appropriate proportions, so it is the right length in the body.
Brands we’ve liked and tested…
Finally: I'm not just wanting to promote her own brand. I just want larger women to find kit they enjoy riding in. So here are my - so recommendations for the best clothing suppliers for plus sized women's cycling clothing...
- Primal – goes up to 47" bust in 3XL
- Specialized – goes up to 43" bust in XL (2XL is available in some countries)
- Pearl Izumi – goes up to 45" bust in 2XL
- Wheel Women (of course!) – goes up to 52" bust in 5XLs
- TWC would also like to add Fat Lad/Lass at the Back - they do some fantastic kit and have a great social media community as well!
A huge Thank You to Tina for her advice, tips and for sharing her story. And yes, Tanya Newman will soon be bringing a review of the Wheel Women cycling clothing to Total Women's Cycling too!