Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is There a Cycling "Body Type"?

Is body image used for body shaming?

This Article talks discusses why anyone can be a good cyclist, regardless of their height and body proportions.

I remember the day clearly when I was told that I was not cut out for climbing because I "did not look like a climber". I was doing hill repeats with a then friend of mine and I kept passing him up the hill when he told me to put the bike on an easier gear and just pace myself up the climb. I told him I loved to climb, it was and still is one of my favorite things to do when I ride. That's when he told me that I basically wouldn't cut it as a climber because I wasn't short and under 110 pounds. According to a lot of cyclists, climbers are short and skinny and if a cyclist doesn't have the right body type, they basically can't climb, at least competitively. 

On local criteriums and on group rides, I have been referred to as the "big boy", especially when I'm the first to reach the top of the climb or when I can hang with the fast guys in the bunch. At 190 pounds, my size tends to catch people off guard when I ride, probably because they are not expecting what I have under the hood. I have been cycling consistently for the past 8 years without any long pauses, I'm not some couch potato with a fleeting interest in the sport that just decided to buy a bike one day and go for a ride. I have done the miles, the elevations and the speeds to cement my position as a cyclist, regardless of what I may physically look like.  I get it, the amount of exercise that I do does not reflect my physical gains. If I ride 50 to 90 miles a week, swim and do push ups, one would think that would be enough to put me at my body mass index or lower. But is that all that is important? How important are aesthetics, really? Is there a climbing body "type" or a cycling "type"? This article sheds light on labeling people by their body types instead of their athletic ability. It's a common practice in the fitness industry that needs to be exposed, because everybody making money off the industry is doing it. Let's review the origins of body shaming and how this can even be a practice among cyclists.

What are Somatotypes?

In the 1940's there was this psychologist named William H. Sheldon that basically came to the conclusion that there are three general body types; Ectomorphs, Mesomorphs and Endomorphs. Ectomorphs are tall, narrow waisted, long limbed people with high running metabolisms. Mesomorphs are more rectangular, muscular bodied individuals of average height with proportionate torso and leg lengths. Endomorphs are usually shorter individuals with strong leg muscles, wide chests and hips and slower metabolisms. Aside from this scientific observation, Sheldon's logic basically ends there. His psycho-analysis of personality traits associated with different body types was dismissed by the scientific community as quackery that bordered on Eugenics. Despite this, somatotypes are still widely accepted in the health and bodybuilding communities, one only has to do a google search in order to confirm this. Somatotypes have even inadvertently made their way into popular culture, and have been used as a way of body shaming for people who do not meet the Ectomorphic or Mesomorphic ideal.

The three somatotypes (body types) as described by Sheldon. Not
everyone (myself included) falls into these 3 categories.

Am I denying that there are three general body types? I am not denying that those body types exist, however I believe that most people will not fall into one specific category. For instance, I have always had long, strong legs, wide hips and broad shoulders. I can't really say that I would fit any specific body category. I can gain weight easily, but I can also gain muscle as well. According to Sheldon I would be  somewhere between a mesomorph and an endomorph. However, that doesn't limit what I can do well on a bike. Consider the following examples of successful cyclists who did not meet the body "ideal" for cycling.

Miguel Indurain: AKA "Big Mig"

Miguel Indurain, nicknamed Big Mig in his heyday, was a "big boy" for a cyclist, especially for a five time Tour De France winner. He was written off by many cyclists in the early 90's as being too big to climb, by their anorexic standards. At his competitive weight, Indurain was 176 pounds which is not bad for a guy that is 6' 2". He was known as a time trial specialist, but he was also a very good climber. I mean, nobody can win any grand tour unless they are a good climber. Especially five times in a row including a Giro-Tour double in one consecutive year.

Marcel Kittel Vs. Mark Cavendish: Ivan Drago vs. Rocky Balboa

Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish are both world-class sprinters in their own right. Mark Canvendish, known as the Manx-missle is probably the most decorated sprinter of all time. What's the difference between these two, one might ask? Marcel Kittel is a hefty boy coming in at 190 pounds, what I currently weigh, versus Canvendish who weighs 159 pounds. That's a 30 pound difference between the two sprinters. Kittel is 6'2" feet tall and Cavendish comes in at a stalky 5'9". This disproves any theory that there is a specific body type for sprinting.

On an interesting side note, Marcel Kittel and Chris Froome are both the same height. However Chris Froome is currently one of the world's best climbers and the overall winner of the Tour De France in 2013. Chris Froome is a true Ectomorph by Sheldon's standards, coming in at a super light 157 pounds for his height. We can then compare that to the world's best climber, Nairo Quintana, who comes in at 5'6" (actually rumored to be 5' 3") tall and weighs 128 pounds, a "true" endomorph. The resulting conclusion is that there is no right or wrong body structure for any specific aspect of cycling. The broader conclusion is that there is really no one body category that we can assign ourselves or others to and that this type of labeling is divisive and wrong. 

As prevalently seen in our society, too many people try to fit themselves into a mold of what they consider to be an ideal body type. Sadly we see this way too often in the case of women. Most models are true ectomorphs, but most people are endomorphs, mesomorphs, somewhere in between or none of the above. Many fit women with shapely bodies and curved hips starve themselves to look like the stick figure women they see modeling clothing in their favorite magazines. Chances are the models themselves are either sticking their fingers down their throats or may just have a naturally occurring higher metabolism. Either way trying to fit a physical mold to gain social acceptance is a marketing ploy used by every company, fitness guru and fad diet across the spectrum to get people to buy into their products, usually by making people feel inadequate about themselves and guilty.  Women are all too often the ones who fall victims to this kind of manipulation as they struggle with their body images. However, as has occurred with me personally in the case of my cycling, women are not the only ones who struggle with this. Men just a little heavier than me are sometimes assigned to their own racing category, known as "Clydesdales". That's right, the big horses that pull the Budweiser wagon, that's what guys over 200 pounds are referred to in the cycling world. Chances are if a cyclist is 5'10" and is not at or below their BMI, they will be considered a "Clydesdale" and will be told that they need to ride on 40 spoke count wheels and a Hi-Tensile reinforced steel frame.

The take away from this article is that we shouldn't judge the athletic ability of others by their physical appearance or aesthetics. Fabio Aru may look like Borat, Jan Ullrich may look like Patrick Renna, Chris Froome may look like one of those aliens off the planet Kamino, Nairo Quintana might be the Keebler elf, that's beside the point. Some of the best athletes in the world look too weird, too tall, too short, too nerdy, too thin or too "not" thin to be doing what they're doing. A cyclist might be rail thin with chiseled features and a strong jaw line, that doesn't mean they have the mental or physical aptitude to beat another cyclist who might be on the portly side but has hardened up through many years of riding a bike. That doesn't mean that they are "full natural" athletes either. "Fat" cyclists can also climb up hills and it would be much to our detriment and shame to assume otherwise. Does the sport favor the skinny? Absolutely it does. Yet as we cited in the previous examples, there are many athletes who are at a healthy weight that are also the best at what they do. Instead of focusing on aesthetics and body type, cyclists should focus on honing their abilities and skill sets, knowing how to climb, when to attack and how to outwit fitter cyclists in a competitive scenario. More importantly we as cyclists should be out there just having fun without the need to stroke our own egos, thinking we are better than others who share our mutual passion. Not every ride has to be a race and not every rider we meet has to be a rival.  Just know that it's better to make friends on the roads than to be dropped by cyclists who appear to be older, fatter or less experienced than we are.

This blog post is directed specifically at all of the self-proclaimed fitness gurus that go around damaging other people's self-esteem on the internet to get them to submit to their quack fad diets or to get hits on their YouTube videos. They're the ones that will typically talk to others without their shirts on, flexing their pectorals on camera for five full minutes while they discredit the other YouTube competition and create social media drama. They recommend training methods and diets that are not sustainable for the long haul and foods many people can't even buy locally. I can only hope that some of these self made nutritional PHDs  read this blog post and start putting some useful information out there. I'm looking at you Durianrider, less talk with your pecs, grab your bike and let's go ride some hills together full natty brah style.

"BMI is just a guideline and the rest is common sense. There is no  magic number on the scale to tell us what we should weigh. There is only the weight that we can look good in, be healthy with, fit in our clothes well with, be confident with and feel proud of ourselves with. The best weight is the one we can sustain and maintain for the rest of our lives. I say this to both the men and the ladies"



  1. Hey Johnny,

    You need to update your blog so I have some new decent reading material!! :) Hope all is well!! Greg

    1. Lol Greg. I'll be putting some new content on here soon. I've been busy with a few things lately. I did the Collin Classic over the weekend and will have a post on that coming up.