Monday, April 5, 2010

The Fatty

The Fatty and the Bike

Spotting him from a distance, I felt like that wildlife scientist who rediscovers Elsa, the lioness they once saved and then returned to the wild.
For I believe I had a small role in saving somebody. But in truth, the bicycle had saved him.
Actually I heard him first, loudly calling out “If you want, honey, I can adjust that derailleur!” And then I spotted him in his familiar day-glow green T-shirt on this fantastic April Saturday. And a few feet away stood his wife. Also in day glow green. I served witness to a mating ritual of sorts. And I glowed.
We could hardly describe him as “buff”. But this would be the first time I saw him standing in a single layer of clothing from the side. A large man, he stood about six-feet, four-inches tall and held about 220 pounds on that frame. He stood large, but not fat.
I live in the affluent suburb of Lexington, three towns out from Boston, and positioned on the nation’s busiest bike path, The Minuteman. With three kids, I had done a fair portion of the school pick-ups. With all the nannies and au pairs and stay-at-home moms, we fathers tend to notice one another.
My first reaction to him more than eight years earlier, I must confess, had been smug indifference and superiority. He was, well, a fatty.
He likely tipped the scales then well above 300 pounds. We enjoy writing such people off, don’t we? Admit it. “At least I’m not THAT guy,” we can say to ourselves on our lowest day.
His boy, a few grades behind my eldest son, would become a fatty too. With my pompous jackass attitude, I could recall thoughts of how he had brought that condition on himself with bad food, video games and sedentary behavior.
He wore his hair long, parted on the side so it hung over his eyes, requiring constant swipes of his hand and swings of his neck. And his boy, a miniature replica of the father, had the same hair and gestures. The tenderness of a ritual, however, burned empathy into my impression. This father and son would walk home together, both heads down, in a silent sad procession. The father cradled his arm around the boy’s shoulder for what I imagined to be a daily restoration of his son’s soul. The classroom of isolation and taunts and teases; the schoolyard and daily reminders of all things a fatty kid cannot do.
This would be all I would know of him … or so I thought.
One winter night two years ago I joined my friend and client Anthony Gallino of California Giant Berry Farms for a night out in Boston. I took my West Coast friend to Boston’s North End for dinner at the The Daily Catch. We drank wine and slurped down pasta, with my back to the window and Hanover Street. About 10 p.m. we arose to leave and I turned to see the street covered in three inches of wet snow. The snow fell in a pounding, wet carpet with flakes the size of communion wafers. The storm had hit heavier and harder and about two hours earlier than I expected.
“Whoa,” I said. “I gotta ride home in this!” The Californian implored me to take a cab, insisting such a ride would be impossible. But per usual, my household finances prevented that. I escorted him back to his hotel, took a subway to my office, and then suited up for what I thought would certainly be a sucky ride. Getting ready for a night time ride in snow is like Mike Nelson suiting for an episode of Sea Hunt.
By the time I threw my leg over the bike, the depth of the snow had accumulated to six inches with more coming. From Boston to Lexington is a climb of 300 vertical feet over 15 miles, meaning there would be more snow up there in 30 minutes. I splattered out into the empty city with just myself and the taxis and the plows.
When I went over the Longfellow Bridge into Cambridge, the derailleurs and brakes had become snow-cones. Riding nearly blind, I had dragged my Oakley’s down to the bridge of my nose to allow some air to defog the lenses. I removed them all together once but the deluge, even with a hat and brim, blinded me.
Despite all this apparent hardship, the ride began to improve. I felt better. With the roads evacuated I felt no danger from cars. And the neon and fluorescent signs of Kendall, Inman and Porter squares lit the way sufficiently. By the time I reached North Cambridge this ride had become a spectacular outing. I rolled ghostlike through a city in bunkers, a lone blinking red light pressing through this corridor.
I reached the main intersection in Arlington set to begin the final assault to Lexington. As I waited at the light I spotted the lines. Fresh bicycle tracks drew northward. Another rider rode just ahead.
I pressed on the pedals and within minutes could see the blinking red light on the horizon. I reeled this rider in near Arlington Heights. Although I easily pressed by him, I felt I had to say something on that horrific night.
“Not so bad, eh,” I called out laughing as I pressed by.
I spotted his day glow jacket. He rode aboard a Jamis cyclo-cross bike converted for commuting with racks and lights and a fender.
Then I realized his identity. The Fatty would be the only other cyclist I saw that night. The snow and splash and the boogers glistened on his face, giving the appearance of uncontrollable weeping and rage and determination.
That I rode my bike that night is of no consequence. That HE rode the bike that night is an unimaginable act of courage. I would see him later that winter and in some of the shittiest weather and the darkest of nights. I could blow by him at will but I would always make a supportive comment. I chose to leave our relationship that way.
He made that ride one of the greatest commutes of my life in 30 years. One never knows when one will have a fantastic ride. Often it will start in the worst of conditions.
Spring eventually broke that season, much like it did this past weekend in New England. After four months of serving as monastic beltway for the hardest of commuters, the bike path bloomed again with bright jerseys and tank tops and headphones and sun glasses. I rode home one evening through the fair-weather flower of humanity. There were tri-guys on their bars; bare-chested skaters, tightly clad women, and the rest of the spectrum of humanity drawn to this wonderful facility.
And then I saw the Fatty.
He labored silently forward on his Jamis. Neither the fastest, nor the fittest, and no longer the fattest, he plodded along without any trophy for having gone through the winter. I drew up to him near an intersection where a coagulation of narcissists formed. With dozens of health club escapees paused at this intersection, I put my hand on his back, and loudly said for all to hear: “NONE OF THESE FOLKS WERE OUT HERE IN JANUARY WITH YOU AND ME, EH?!?!?!”
I winked and rolled by.
This man, who perhaps had not a single athletic trophy on his mantle, picked his chin up, drew his shoulders back, and replied loud enough for all to hear, “AINT THAT THE TRUTH, BROTHER!!!!”
And I rolled on.
I’ve seen him from time to time, always peppering the pass with a nice comment….
“Looking skinny!”
“Every day, every day!”
“The tough guys ride in January.”
But we’ve never met. Even this weekend, when he spotted me studying him, I simply tipped my hat and walked back home. Although I felt like some mystical Clint Eastwood character, I confess that HE had become my inspiration for so many things.
I could not help but recall that the weight loss industry in America takes in more than $40 billion every year. And most of their nonsense fails. But the little bike industry, bringing in about $6 billion every year, can outperform that industry for improving the health of our nation, one fatty at a time. This one bike path and some lanes had done that for him; and these facilities can do that for thousands and thousands of others.
Even the worst of the Rascal-driving fatties in the Walmart can be saved by the bicycle. For proof you need only read the amazing story of Scott Cutshall. In 2005 this young father weighed 501 pounds and decided to change his life. On his first ride he managed to pedal 1.9 miles….It took him three hours.
The short story is here:
He also ran his own blog:
The mantra of the blog became this “Ride every day, no matter what they say.”
His blog became a centerpiece of inspiration for heavy cyclists everywhere. Recently he stopped posting on the blog. But he provided a final weight: 170 pounds.
If cyclists want to truly capture the hearts and minds of Americans, I believe we should not simply discuss the Tour de France, greenhouse gases, foreign oil, or the correctness of sustainabilty. We should simply discuss weight loss. That's what so many Americans are desperate to do. And we can do it one Fatty at a time.
Thanks for reading.


  1. Working at the lbs in high school we had a regular customer who sounds very similar to your fatty. The guy must have been pushing 350 when he first surfaced. Bright yellow jersey, bib shorts, and the happiest disposition of any customer, ever! Every time he'd come in I would ask him how he's doing. The response was always "SUPER DOOPER!" At first he was the butt of jokes and mocked when he left, but after 5 years of working there, he remains one of the most memorable customers ever.

    Oh, and he's down to about 200 pounds now and will be the first to tell you it is all thanks to his passion for cycling. Like your fatty, he will never win a trophy, would never enter a race or even join a training ride. He simply rides his bike for the joy, health, and simplicity of it.

    It's important to remember how many other reasons there are to throw your leg over the saddle. Sometimes it really is about the bike.

  2. Great post! I used to be one of those shirtless rollerbladers cruising along the Minuteman, now I'm the one that people see arrive at work on the snowy day in January and say "I can't believe you rode in this!"

  3. Richard,

    Great piece. This is really good stuff! I must say, I still miss The Ride...I love reading your work.

    Your friend to the South,

    Ralph C.

    PS - In case you want to get away from the snow, there's a spot for your and your crew at my place.

  4. Richard, I'm willing to go 50/50 with you on my "Worlds Greatest Weight Loss Device" postcard million $ scheme, if you'll include this essay. The best part of this scam is that you and I know that its not really a scam. The bicycle, use one hour a day and you're almost certain to loose 20 pounds in a few months.

  5. A long chain of clicks from one of my favorite cycling blogs just led me to yours, and I'm glad it did!

    Great entry. It reads like an altar call for cycling, and I mean that in the best possible way. All I can say is, "Amen!" (okay, that and, "Bravo!")

  6. Great story. Followed a link from a friend on FB to see it. You sound like a person with a good heart. And I'm all with you on the health benefits of cycling. That's not the main reason I do it (I just love it), but it's nice that it pays other dividends.