Putting down her emptied water bottle, the woman sticks out her wrists to demonstrate. The flesh is puffy above her gloves, folding over muffin-top style. Mine look similar, as do my ankles over the edges of my socks. For a few minutes the group of us sits there, comparing unattractively swollen body parts.
There is an expectation that cycling will make us sleek and lean, instantaneously. But, in particular when riding long distances, many are alarmed to find themselves bloated and swollen instead. The first time it happened to me in a noticeable way, I went on the internet and found a dazzling array of explanations. It happens from not drinking enough water. It happens from drinking too much water. It happens from overconsumption of calories from energy drinks and snacks. It happens from consuming too few calories. It happens if you eat too many carbs or not enough carbs. It may or may nor happen more if you are a woman. It is due to water retention and will lead to temporary weight gain, followed by weight loss. It is due to cortisol production and will lead to real weight gain, accompanied by other problems. "There is no cause for concern," said the highly qualified doctor of Cyclist A on Forum X when consulted about the symptoms. "There is cause for concern, and you must cut down on cycling," said the equally qualified doctor of Cyclist B on Forum Y. Well then, there's that explained!
Monitoring myself over the past few years on the bike, I see two types of processes at work. One is the temporary bloating I get in the course of a single ride. This tends to happen on rides longer than, say, 50 miles. And it seems absolutely unrelated to the amount of water or calories I consume. Either way, I will get a little puffy, a little bloated - noticeable mainly in the face, ankles and wrists. And, a few hours after the ride is over, it will all go away. The swelling will diminish, then disappear; my skin's tautness will return.
The other is a longer-term process that seems to happen when I do a lot of cycling all at once following a period of taking it easy. After a couple of weeks of doing the miles in earnest the first thing I notice is that my legs get big - so big that I have trouble getting my jeans on. The first year this happened I mistook it for very rapid muscle development. But now I know it is a temporary effect - more like a swelling from the shock of those muscle groups being overworked. In the first instance, my legs bulge out. But if I keep cycling at the same frequency and intensity, their size will eventually diminish. Gradually the swelling will subside and give way to actual muscle tone - hard, sleek and well defined, rather than puffy or bulging. And my jeans will fit again. Last summer this happened over a 2 months period.
Very possibly there is more than one single cause behind the cycling swell. But in any case, it is apparently not unusual. This spring I've just entered the "can't get my jeans on stage" and look forward to getting it over with!