When Rich Wilson was in his late 20s, he was a newbie cyclist working at his local bike shop, trying to learn all he could about the sport. A local coach walked in one day, and Wilson jumped at the opportunity to ask for training advice. “He looked me up and down, and he said, so dismissively, ‘Yeah, easy—lose some weight,’” Wilson says.
Those words were a slap in the face. Wilson has never been a small guy. He’s 6’1″ with a build that calls to mind the high school football offensive tackle he once was. His weight has fluctuated throughout his life, from 205 to 320 pounds. But the coach’s words stung—and served as a startling introduction to the cycling world’s toxic views on weight. “I was taken aback. I didn’t expect him to be so dismissive and rude,” Wilson, an alliance manager who lives in Dale City, Virginia, says now.
For many cyclists, this attitude—and the belief that achieving a certain weight is the key to performance—is not only unhealthy but can also cause lifelong mental and physical damage. As more evidence shows that weight is not a reliable indicator of health and that a focus on body weight is harmful, it’s clear that we in the bike community need to change the conversation on weight, performance, and well-being.
Underfueling Has Serious Consequences
Andy Turner, 26, started riding as a teenager in west-central England. His local road racing group nicknamed him Fat Boy. He hardly lived up to the description at 6’3″ and about 200 pounds, but immediately he internalized the idea that in order to be a proper cyclist, he had to lose weight.
Turner’s weight steadily dropped as he became more serious about the sport over the next couple of years. “It becomes a sort of obsession with wanting to get lighter and lighter and lighter,” he says.
When a knee injury sidelined him in 2015 at age 20, he decided that since he couldn’t focus on training, he would get as lean as possible. He restricted his calories to less than 1,200 a day; at one point his weight dipped below 155 pounds, which for his height would be low for a Tour de France climber. None of his coaches were alarmed by this change when he started riding again that winter. One even suggested that he didn’t really need to eat during long, low-intensity training rides, because his fat stores would provide the energy he needed. There was no talk about the basics of sports nutrition or the potential dangers of undereating—only about staying as thin as possible.
He started doing seven-hour fasted rides in an effort to get his weight lower. But underfueling started to catch up with him in 2017, when he no longer had the energy to keep his power up. It took an emotional toll as well; he was constantly obsessing about food, counting up every calorie in his head and trying to stay below a certain number. Lab tests revealed low testosterone with high cortisol levels—a sign of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), a disorder that occurs when someone doesn’t have enough energy available to support their activity level.
Turner’s college studies eventually helped him recognize that he had a problem. He was pursuing an exercise science degree, and when he read about a questionnaire used to assess whether or not an athlete has an eating disorder, he was alarmed at how much his habits lined up with the criteria. With the help of a sports dietitian, he slowly increased his calorie intake, but recovery has been a long process. “It’s only recently that I’ve actually stopped counting calories and tried to have a better relationship with food,” he says, adding that he still finds himself subconsciously tracking everything he eats in a day, out of habit.
Being around other cyclists who are so focused on food and weight makes it even more difficult to leave disordered behaviors behind. When Turner joined a professional UCI Continental team in 2019, teammates told him he was too big to be a pro rider, even though he hadn’t gained back more than 15 pounds. His team coaches never pushed him to lose weight, although there was still no talk of proper nutrition for training rides and races.
Weight Loss Is Not the Answer
The obsession with body size among cyclists is closely related to the concept of power-to-weight ratio. A higher ratio—more power, fewer pounds—helps a rider go faster, especially on climbs. One way to increase this ratio is to decrease body weight, which is why a smaller body is seen as optimal. But this is an oversimplification, because the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, which can decrease overall power.
If an athlete maintains a significant calorie deficit for an extended period of time, the consequences can be serious and permanent. Cyclists who are very active but don’t consume adequate calories are at extremely high risk for RED-S. Dennis Cardone, MD, a sports medicine doctor at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains that the syndrome has three primary characteristics: disordered eating, hormonal changes, and decreased bone density. Women suffering from RED-S typically have decreased levels of estrogen and other sex hormones, which causes them to lose their periods and can lead to irreversible bone density loss after just a few months. And men experience a decrease in testosterone that can also lead to bone loss. Other symptoms, like fatigue and irritability, can occur in athletes of both sexes.
While significant weight loss or weight fluctuation is one criterion in screening for RED-S, it can happen regardless of a person’s body size. Anyone who consumes too few calories to support their training is at risk for RED-S, which is why Cardone doesn’t recommend weight loss as a way to increase speed or endurance. “The key [to performance] is proper nutrition and proper training,” he says.
Another complicating factor in the cycling community’s fixation on thinness is that intentional weight loss isn’t sustainable for the vast majority of people. One oft-cited statistic, from a 2005 review study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, states that roughly 80 percent of people who lose weight will gain it back within a year. A more recent 2020 meta-analysis published in The BMJ found that while most diets lead to modest weight loss in the first six months, most people will begin to regain that weight within the year. Exercise research tells much the same story: A 2014 review study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease found that increased exercise is rarely associated with significant long-term weight loss.
This isn’t for lack of willpower. One explanation, known as the set point theory, suggests that we’re preprogrammed to stay within a certain weight range that’s unique to each person. That could explain why weight loss triggers physiological adaptations to stabilize body weight, like a slower metabolic rate and a decreased ability to burn fat for energy. It can also lower production of leptin, a hormone that signals fullness, and increase production of ghrelin, a hormone that makes us feel hungry. That said, there are so many complexities and unanswered questions when it comes to what exactly determines a person’s weight that even set point isn’t a perfect answer.
Wilson knows too well how a body struggles to right itself after the pounds start to come off. In his 30s he tried various fad diets in an attempt to lose more weight, but he always ended up gaining it back. For a few years in his 40s he fought on a competitive Muay Thai team, and through a combination of calorie restriction and intense daily exercise he was able to stay around 205 for required weigh-ins. “But getting down to that weight really sucks. You have to say no to so many things in life, and in general just not be a fun person,” he says.
Now 51, Wilson is very active and his weight has settled around 235 pounds. He and his 10-year-old son rode about 1,200 miles on their mountain bikes in 2020, and his road bike is stationed on a trainer in front of his desk so that he can pedal short bouts during the day. He also prioritizes good nutrition, in part because of his strong family history of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions. But he’s not going to extremes with diet and exercise anymore.
Now when another rider suggests he lose weight, Wilson laughs. “If they’ve always been skinny, it’s like, dude, you don’t understand,” he says. “It’s like telling someone who’s 5’6″ to just jump higher and dunk that basketball!”
The Power of Exercise
Many people take up cycling in an effort to improve their health by losing weight. It’s a backward approach: Research shows that increasing exercise doesn’t usually lead to lasting weight loss, and losing weight isn’t inherently linked to better health. But fitness itself, without any change in weight, can have massive benefits for overall health and longevity.
In September 2021, a review study in iScience championed the benefits of physical activity, regardless of weight. Researchers found that increased fitness is consistently associated with a lower risk of death regardless of a person’s size, while weight loss had an inconsistent and comparatively lower effect on mortality. Though the idea of encouraging physical activity and fitness without weight loss is still considered fairly progressive, study coauthor Siddhartha Angadi, PhD, a cardiovascular exercise physiologist and professor at the University of Virginia, believes that more experts in the exercise science community are starting to change their opinion.
Angadi recommends all cyclists take a weight-neutral approach to fitness: Accept that body size and fitness are two different things, and prioritize health instead of weight. That means measuring health directly using such evidence-based markers as blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and vascular function—all of which can be tested by primary care providers—instead of making assumptions based on weight. Just one exercise session can reduce blood pressure and improve blood sugar control, Angadi says.
Lula Carter, an accounting manager from Hawthorne, California, knows firsthand the benefits of fitness from cycling. After she had a heart attack at age 45, her doctor recommended that she start exercising. She began walking regularly and went from about 270 to 230 pounds in a year—without changing her diet or anything else. Toward the end of that year, she was at the Long Beach Marathon getting ready to power-walk the 5K when she noticed cyclists lining up. “I thought, I can’t run 26 miles, but I can ride 26 miles. I know I can.” So she finished her 5K and immediately bought a bike.
It’s been eight years since Carter started cycling. In that time, her health has improved dramatically. She was able to go off the heart medication she was prescribed after her heart attack. Once, she couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to take a breath. Now, stairs are no problem.
To similarly reap the benefits of riding—improved mental health and a lower risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes—requires just 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate-intensity exercise like easy pedaling, brisk walking, or yard work. Higher-intensity exercise, like riding hard enough to have difficulty talking, will yield the same benefits in half the time—a total of 75 minutes each week. In other words, you don’t need to clock a ton of mileage each week to improve your health.
How Food Fits In
A nutritious diet supports overall health, and it doesn’t need to be complicated or overly restrictive. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which haven’t shifted much in recent decades despite the ebb and flow of fads like low-carb and caveman diets and “clean eating,” highlight a few straightforward ways that many people can improve their eating habits. Eat more fruits and vegetables—only one in 10 American adults currently gets five servings a day. Choose whole grains instead of refined grains at least half the time—swap out white bread for whole wheat, or snack on an oat-based granola bar instead of pretzels. And cut consumption of saturated fat, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. That means getting protein largely from lean meat, fish, or plant-based sources, and choosing low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives.
Following these guidelines can lower your risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers, but it won’t necessarily lead to weight loss. People metabolize food differently for a variety of reasons: genetics, gender, age, weight, muscle mass, activity level, hormone levels, and more. Some people might be able to eat far more calories than their size would suggest without gaining weight, while others might restrict for years without seeing any substantial change in their body size. But just as with exercise, eating a nutritious diet can improve health without affecting weight, while an overly restrictive diet can threaten health and stunt performance.
In high school, Olivia Ray would often follow a morning training ride with a bowl of cornflakes and yogurt, and then eat little else for the rest of the day. She has always been heavier and more muscular than her road-racing peers, and she bought into the idea that she needed to lose weight to fit in as a cyclist. Her weight never really decreased, but her performance stopped improving, she was tired all the time, and she was unhappy. “I felt very alone,” she says.
Ray, now 23 and a student and professional athlete in Atlanta, continued restricting food through high school and into college. She noticed that when she didn’t eat anything during a road race, her performance would suffer. She started to wonder: What did she have to gain from not eating?
“There’s that mentality of smaller is faster,” Ray says. “But if your body composition is not cut out for that, that’s not going to work.” When she started eating adequately throughout the day and fueling with plenty of carbs during rides, her race performances improved dramatically. Now, she focuses on eating with a purpose. “My coach says to ‘eat for tomorrow.’ I eat to ensure I get the most out of training, specific to the training blocks and racing I have going on at the time.”
In 2021, Ray joined Rally Cycling, her first professional cycling team. She still notices that she’s bigger than most of the women she’s racing against, but she doesn’t feel the same pressure to lose weight that she did years ago. She’s also learned to embrace her advantages. “My body type is great for sprinting. Being able to produce that power after hours on the bike is something I love about what I can do.”
As Ray discovered, focusing on smart training and proper fueling is a far better way to boost performance than attempting to lose weight. Likewise, Andy Turner is careful to meet his body’s energy needs before, during, and after training rides.
Since earning his degree in exercise science, Turner started a coaching business and steers his athletes toward a healthy relationship with weight and nutrition. When one expresses a desire to lose weight, he encourages them to focus on getting more powerful instead. “You’ll be healthier, you’ll be happier, and you won’t have to be restricting every single thing you eat,” he says.
There’s much work to be done in shifting the culture of cycling to be more weight-inclusive. The emphasis on being as light as possible runs deep, from elite teams to amateur group rides. Rich Wilson believes that it’s important to create a welcoming space for people in larger bodies who want to ride. “I try to be a kind of resource for bigger riders,” he says. “In my area, if there’s a big guy rider, everyone tells them to go talk to me.” Many people feel nervous when they first start riding, he says, because they worry that they’ll slow others down or that they won’t look the way other cyclists do.
When cyclists stop obsessing over body size, they’re at far less risk of the serious consequences—such as bone loss and hormone disruption—that are often associated with RED-S. And when the cycling community as a whole is able to embrace a weight-neutral approach, all cyclists will be able to reap mental and physical health benefits, and experience the joy of bikes, without constant anxiety about what the scale says.
How to Fuel Your Ride
Cyclists, like everyone else, should aim to get a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from mostly whole, unprocessed foods. A good rule of thumb is to fill a third of your plate with a starchy carb, a third with veggies or fruit, and a third with protein, plus some fat from nuts, cheese, avocado, or oil, says Roxana Ehsani, a sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For dinner, that may look like a big scoop of rice with a stir-fry of veggies and chicken cooked in oil and topped with crushed peanuts. To make sure you’re eating enough overall, estimate your energy needs by adding your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total energy expenditure (TEE) using an online calculator.
To fuel for performance, Ehsani recommends having a snack that’s rich in simple carbohydrates (which are easy to digest) 30 to 40 minutes before every ride. Try a banana or half a bagel. For rides under an hour long, you likely won’t need snacks; hydrate with water or a low-carb electrolyte drink. For longer rides, replenish your glycogen stores with something high in sugar, like a full-calorie sports drink or gel; this prevents your body from breaking down muscle for energy. Aim to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour.
To refuel after a ride, Ehsani recommends a snack or meal with roughly a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates and protein, like chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie made with yogurt.