I reviewed Heft on Wheels in 2007. Since then the author had his life fall apart, regaining weight, cheating on his wife and losing his marriage, giving up cycling and then finding it again. He’s written dispatches from his decline and rise for Bicycling over the years, but his work suffered; I remember a soggy essay on Greg Lemond that included the author’s overwritten confessions of his infidelity, for example. Turning again to Heft on Wheels, it’s a pleasure to encounter Magnuson on top of his talent and his personal life.
Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. For Mike Magnuson, it was worth more; it changed his life.
Magnuson, a professor at Southern Illinois University and author of two novels, wrote an article for Gentleman’s Quarterly on his love of cycling. Unfortunately for him, he agreed to pose naked on his road bike in a photo for the article. Years of beer, junk food, and smoking had plumped him up to 255 pounds. When the picture appeared in GQ, alongside his article, he was horrified. Not only because of the unflattering appearance he cut, but also because it made him seem he had written the piece “as a goof to make a couple of bucks….cycling’s not a joke to me.” Magnuson immediately attempted to restore his self-image by riding with his local club during inclement weather. But he hadn’t reached bottom yet; while trying to climb a hill during the ride, a thunderstorm strikes, and the group sends a biker back to rescue Magnuson by letting him catch up and draft. After the ride, the author vows “I need to prove something out of this. Cycling’s not a joke. I’m not a joke. I don’t want to be a figure of fun. I’m not a fat man on a bike. I’m a real cyclist, and I’m hereafter going to do everything in my power to achieve my fullest potential on the bike…”
Magnuson attacked his problems with his all. He quit smoking, gave up drinking, and lost 75 pounds in about three months. Heft on Wheels, however, isn’t just about giving up your vices, nor is it just about the bike. Magnuson gets down to 175 pounds, participates in rides and a race, but the changes in him are more than just physical or a matter of experience. He questions his loss of his old unhealthy lifestyle. He questions the time he’s devoted to his two-wheeled passion. He questions his goals: “What do I do now? Pedal up a mountain, because it’s there?” These doubts and many others Magnuson struggled with are told in a simple, conversational prose style; even Magnuson’s frequent references to literature, such as his comparison between dieting and Kafka’s tale “The Hunger Artist”, come across with the easy tone of a friend who just happens to be well-read. And this book could well be the friend of anyone who has undergone “a 180” from a harmful, life-sucking lifestyle, even if they don’t ride a bike.