A “Fat Cyclist” on How Biking Can Be More Inclusive
Kailey Kornhauser didn’t really get into biking until she moved farther from campus during graduate school and needed a way to get to classes and the grocery store. So, she saved up to swap the $75 clunker she’d purchased from a bike collective in undergrad for her first “big girl bike”: a Surly Troll.
Armed with her first legit ride, Kailey started biking for fun in addition to function and began to identify as a cyclist. But if you’d told her then that several years later, she’d be an advocate for fat cyclists, accomplished bikepacker who’d pedaled 1,000 miles to the Arctic Circle, Kona ambassador, and cover model for Bicycling magazine, she might not have believed you.
Kailey took a break from her work as a forest ecosystems and society PhD student at Oregon State University to chat with us about how cycling became such a pivotal part of her life, which bikes she’s riding these days, and what her bike plans are for the future.
*Photo Credit: Gritchelle Fallesgon
What was your first big ride on your Surly?
I immediately made plans to bike across Iowa for the RAGBRAI, a seven-day-long supported tour. Because I’d never ridden longer than like eight miles, I started riding a lot, trying to get in 100 miles a week to get ready. That was when I started riding like a road cyclist, but the bike I had chosen was basically a fully rigid mountain bike so it was really heavy. It weighed like 20 pounds more than other people’s bikes at the RAGBRAI!
What do you think led to you considering yourself a cyclist—your new bike, the RAGBRAI, something else?
Getting away from the idea that you don’t have to be a racer to be a cyclist. A cyclist can just be a person who rides 10 miles on the weekend. I thought I had to be the most intense person ever to be a cyclist. You don’t have to bike 5,000 miles on some remote road to be a bikepacker—you could go on an overnight trip by your house. We should change that culture in general because more people would do it if they thought they could do it.
“A lot of people assume I’m a beginner. When I went to the grocery store to buy the magazine I’m on the cover of, the checkout guy asked if I was just getting into mountain biking and I had to tell him, ‘That’s me!’”
*Photo Credit: Gritchelle Fallesgon
When did you start identifying as a fat cyclist? Is this a term you coined?
Not until the last year or so. Even though I was writing about this stuff before, I don’t necessarily take ownership of the term “fat cyclist.” I started calling myself that because of other movements—fat girls hiking, fat rock climbing groups—and I was like, oh, I guess I’m a fat cyclist!
How does the cycling world treat you differently, if at all, due to your body type?
The main thing that happens to me when I’m out cycling is people give me compliments. I’ll be climbing a hill with a group of friends and another cyclist will pass us and look at me and be like, “Good work! Way to get out here!” A lot of people assume I’m a beginner. When I went to the grocery store to buy the magazine I’m on the cover of, the checkout guy asked if I was just getting into mountain biking and I had to tell him, “That’s me!” People always assume you just started or you’re doing it to lose weight—that you’re out there to change yourself.
“This is a cultural change that has to happen. It is happening in all outdoor recreation. There is a lot more dialogue on creating inclusive spaces for all types of people and body size is one of those things.”
Have you experienced this on your bikepacking trips, too?
When I’m bike touring in remote places with friends in smaller bodies, people stop to give me water or food and they never stop to give my friends water! Usually we’ve got enough water, but it’s always nice to get some fresh fruit [laughs].
Do you notice any bias at bike shops or elsewhere in the industry?
Bike shops are the worst culprits of assuming I’m a beginner or underestimating me. It’s all subtle—the flip side is my personal experience with my friends is almost never like that.
What about in the racing world?
In cyclocross races I’ve done, I don’t necessarily feel excluded. They’re set up as a loop so no one can tell that you’re going slow or fast. Those races are accessible. I would love to participate in some of the long distance gravel rides, like the Dirty Kanza. But no matter what, I can’t finish the race in time. I know I could ride 200 consecutive miles, but it would take me more hours than the race has allotted.
“A cyclist can just be a person who rides 10 miles on the weekend. I thought I had to be the most intense person ever to be a cyclist. You don’t have to bike 5,000 miles on some remote road to be a bikepacker.”
What changes would you like to see in the bike industry to be more inclusive of fat cyclists, and all types of cyclists?
The first one that comes to mind is clothing sizes. I’m pretty fortunate—as a size 2x, I’m what would be called “small fat” in the fat activism world. There are bike companies that provide sizes up to XXL, but it wasn’t until this year that a company called SHREDLY made mountain bike shorts I could fit in. Who are we limiting by not having sizes that go further? And having pictures of people who are in all sizes biking is something we’re just starting to see from companies like Machines for Freedom and SHREDLY.
Are there other products besides apparel that prevent people of different sizes from riding?
A lot of bikes—especially carbon bikes—have a weight limit stopping around 240 pounds and an even lower limit for wheelsets. Shops seem uncomfortable talking about that, so people end up buying a bike that breaks all the time because their weight is too high. An easier solution is just to get someone into a bike with a higher weight limit, like a steel bike. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, but there are ways to have it and it’s important for safety reasons. This is a cultural change that has to happen. The good news is, it is starting to happen in all outdoor recreation—now there is a lot more dialogue on creating inclusive spaces for all types of people and body size is one of those things.
“Who are we limiting by not having sizes that go further?”
How have you been getting out on the bike during the pandemic?
Before Oregon announced “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” I was getting out on gravel forest roads and singletrack. Pretty quickly, land managers closed recreational access to many of the trails and roads that we ride on, so I started road biking. But my partner and I made the decision that the safest thing was to take a break from distance cycling, so we started this free 30-day wheelie course from Ryan Leech Connection. That was a total blast. Now trails are opening back up and we’re getting out on gravel and singletrack cautiously, with masks, at a distance. I’m so grateful to be back in the forest.
Do you have any bike adventures planned or are those on hold right now?
I got my first full-suspension mountain bike this year, a Kona Process 134, with the hopes of getting out on some singletrack bikepacking trips this summer. I was planning to ride portions of the Oregon Timber Trail or ride the Three Sisters Three Rivers route. As of now, both trips are on hold and I’m taking the time to practice my mountain biking skills. I had also hoped to do some route-scouting in the Oregon Coast Range this summer—I have a dream of putting together some great 2-4 day trips accessible to all levels of bikers.