Book Review: Heft On Wheels

Mike Magnuson used to be a heavy guy, then he lost 75 pounds one summer cycling his bike.  I’m a heavy guy and I like to ride my bike, so I thought I would enjoy reading his book.  Since the book’s subtitle encouragingly claimed to be “a field guide to doing a 180,” I thought I might learn a few tricks about losing weight while cycling.

I was wrong.

The author leads us through a critical period in his life where, at the age of 39, he realizes he is slowly killing himself as a chain-smoking, chronically obese, borderline alcoholic.  On his 39th birthday, he gives up alcohol and smoking and begins a frenetic diet and cycling workout regimen which transforms him from a guy constantly being dropped on local group rides to a budding Category V rider who regularly stomps anyone in Southern Illinois who attempts to challenge his preeminence.

If that last sentence sounded a tad out of balance, perhaps even a bit egotistical, then you can begin to understand one of the flaws of this book.  Magnuson’s laser-like focus on suffering for the sheer purpose of being an uber-cyclist becomes tiresome.  The self-centered nature of the prose compounds the issue.  There is very little joy in the tale.  Although he occasionally touches on themes such as the pleasure of riding a bike, the great vistas one sees, and the friends that can be made, these are ancillary.  The focus is on his self-admitted obsession with improving his cycling abilities.

And this is where the story becomes worrisome.  Mike does almost nothing correctly in his diet, in which he switches overnight to a stream of protein shakes.  He doesn’t see a doctor, consult a nutritionist, or do anything else sensible.  He simply denies himself food while burning 5,000 calories per day and ignores the hunger pangs.  This culminates in Mike collapsing during a ride with severe stomach pains.  His friend was convinced Mike’s appendix burst, but really all Mike needed was a meal.

Then there is the matter of Mike’s life away from cycling.  He distances himself from work and his old circle of friends, who only seem interested in getting drunk (Note to self: do not send your kid to Southern Illinois University to study literature.  The faculty is bent on getting wasted every night.).  Although Mike has a wife and two little girls, he has little time for them as he spends over 20 hours a week with his cycling friends.

It’s all very disconcerting – a man realizes he is killing himself and therefore makes radical changes to his life which have the effect of ruining just about everything he cared about  – friends, family, and his work.  He also almost kills himself in the process.  It’s not exactly a template for others to follow.  Rather than calling the book “A Field Guide For Doing A 180,” a more appropriate subtitle would be “A Cautionary Tale.”

At the end of the book – a mere 20 pages from the finish – Mike reaches the same conclusion as I came to about 150 pages earlier; his life still lacks balance and he has gone from one extreme to another.  He acknowledges he has made many mistakes in his exercise and diet, some of them extremely dangerous.  He realizes he needs to be a better husband and father and becomes more comfortable with the notion he doesn’t need to be the very best cyclist to still enjoy cycling.  This is encouraging and it keeps the book from being completely irresponsible.

As one would expect from a professor of literature, Mike is a good writer and can spin a humorous yarn with the best of them.  He has his own blog and writes for Bicycling Magazine.  He is brutally honest about his foray into obesity, nicotine addiction, and “olympic calibre” drinking.  He also is very frank about his motivation for getting on the bike and staying there.  It is interesting to see how he copes with his personal demons, but it will not be a source of inspiration for me nor will it be much use as a guide for others.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Heft On Wheels

    • I have great respect for the hard work and dedication required by the very best cyclists, but I become concerned when the dedication turns into something more destructive and less positive.

  1. I’ve read the book and actually talked to the author once, its kind of special for me since he was a local character so I’m a bit biased. I completely agree with Steve’s assesment of the book but I would still recomend the book.

    It is certainly a field guide to doing a 180 because Magnuson makes a 180 degree turn in his life trading unhealthy obesessions with smoking, drinking and eating for unhealthy obesessions with riding, dieting, and self improvement.

    It’s not supposed to be a book about how to fix your life and be perfect because Magnuson is to honest to sell a boat load of inspirational crap that his story easily could have been. His story is about how there are no easy fixes.

    If you continue to follow Mike’s life he loses his job at SIU, gets divorced, travels around alot, plays drums in some bands, and lives alot like a hobo, a cycling hobo who races cyclecross and writes for Bicycling magazine.

    If you want a cycling book about how to loose weight and make your life perfect look elsewhere. IF you want to read a personal story about a guy who changes his life (though not for the better) through cycling, check it out.

    • Truth be told, Matt, if someone wanted to learn a thing or two about cycling or weight loss from someone in Southern Illinois, I can think of no better resource than your blog. It’s far and away more compelling than anything Magnuson has written.

    • After learning a bit more about Mike’s life after writing the book from Matt, I can see the unfortunate trend continued to its logical end. As you said, but there by the Grace of God go I.

  2. Steve, Thanks for the review. I know you’ve probably reviewed this, but just in case you haven’t or have not seen “Ride the Divide” about the Canada to Mexico Continental divide bicycle race, check it out. I saw it on Net Flicks. If one’s a cyclist no matter if you’re a mtn. biker, roadie, etc., you’ll feel this movie. PS: Just got through riding in N. Illonois at another base. One day went trail riding with a group from Activator Bicycle Shop in Lake Bluff Ill. – at night. It was crazy fast, fun, and they and the bike shop are great. Anyone in the area ought to go ride with them just make sure you’ve got the legs (and lights). Ride is at 6 PM on Thursdays. Jacksonville the week after Thanksgiving.

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