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.