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‘Large Fella on a Bike’

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The rebirth of Scott Cutshall began Thanksgiving day 2005, a bowl of vegetable soup for breakfast kicking off a new life where nothing would be the same. Cutshall, living in Jersey City at the time, weighed 501 pounds. He was having breakfast. And then he was getting ready to go on a bike ride.

He rode 1.9 miles that day, rolling through neighborhoods, biking on the street, stopping to rest four or five times to sit on a curb. Head down. Panting. Hot even in November.

Cutshall began riding at more than 500 pounds.

The ride of less than 2 miles took Cutshall three hours to complete. But the wheels were turning. His body was in motion. The journey had begun.

“Everything changed from that day forward,” Cutshall said.

Back up to 2004. Cutshall, a freelance jazz drummer, husband and father, 38 years old, was not sure if he’d live to see 40. He wore size XXXXXXXXXXL pants and could not tie his own shoes. He could walk only nine steps at a time. Breathing was sometimes difficult. A doctor said he would be dead in six months without stomach-reduction surgery and heavy medication.

Further, Cutshall had just a 50 percent chance of surviving an operation, the doctor guessed, his heart likely to quit under the anesthesia and stress.

Flip a coin. Tails you live. Heads you’re dead.

“I hated those odds,” he said.

So he ignored the doctor. He didn’t flip the coin. He flipped his life instead.

He changed everything. He started eating vegetable soup for breakfast. Hummus on pita was lunch. Dinner was salad and pasta. Every day.

No exception.

And he got a bike, a reinforced custom model built in Minneapolis. It was the only viable type of exercise for someone his size, he said. He started riding every night, at first just around the neighborhood, where he rode after dark. “I was embarrassed to go out,” he said.

He started a blog, “Large Fella on a Bike,” to document the journey. Cutshall’s goal was singular and stubborn: to lose hundreds of pounds of weight by changing his lifestyle and pedaling a bike.

Do or die, he thought.

Cutshall with his daughter near peak weight.

Plot spoiler: Cutshall did it. In the first four months, riding lots and eating little, 50 pounds fell off. Two months later, another 20 pounds. He could use the scale in the bathroom again.

In May 2006 the dial spun to 413 pounds. More than 75 pounds of girth had gone away. “I was just shrinking,” he said.

In 2004 Cutshall went outdoors only four times, sequestered in a brownstone apartment, out of touch with the world. Now he was riding more than 100 miles a week, wind on his face, world whizzing by.

Every day was 20 or 30 miles of pedaling. Plus one more mile after he got home. “I get home, I turn around and I ride one more mile,” he said. “This is to prove I can do it.”

He made plans to get off the East Coast, to leave the old life behind. The chrysalis was cracking. By fall 2006 — thousands of miles now put on the pedals — Cutshall weighed in at 350 pounds. A new person was emerging from a shell.

A bike was saving his life, he said. And the person who built that bike, Bob Brown of Bob Brown Cycles LLC, lived in Minneapolis. “Other frame builders turned me down, even laughed at me,” Cutshall said. “But Bob embraced the project.”

Knowing no one other than Brown, the Cutshalls — Scott, his wife, Amy, and 8-year-old Chloe — moved halfway across the country last June.

“We wanted to go somewhere to embrace the cycling lifestyle,” said Cutshall, who first considered Portland, Ore., before Brown and other local cyclists persuaded the family in Internet discussions that Minneapolis — the nation’s No. 2 cycling city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — was the best choice.

They sent a deposit for an apartment and made the move, sight unseen. Amy, a nurse, got a job in St. Paul. Scott home-schooled Chloe from their new apartment. They now live in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, bike lanes and parkway trails streaming to all compass points right out the front door.

The family owns a car, but Cutshall said 99 percent of errands are done on two wheels, pannier packs and a trailer hauling groceries home from the store. Chloe rides on a tag-along bike attachment, her own handlebar, saddle, pedals and a wheel connected to dad’s frame.

Riding in Minneapolis, winter 2008.

As the family settled into life in Minnesota, the pounds continued to fall away. A weight check in August — Cutshall gets on a scale every six weeks — revealed digits blinking at 278.2. It’d been 20 months, and Cutshall had dropped almost half of his body mass.

By the end of the year, riding through the Minnesota fall and into the cold, Cutshall passed the 4,000-mile mark around Christmas. For all of 2007, Cutshall later calculated, he’d gone 4,083 miles.

He ate essentially the same thing every day, three base meals developed off research from the book “Eat to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a New Jersey physician. The food equaled a daily dose of about 1,200 calories and provided all the nutrients, protein and vitamins essential for good health, though nothing more, Cutshall said.

He has an espresso with breakfast and a glass of wine with dinner. Cutshall said he never tires of the menu, as it was designed to include “everything a human craves,” he said. “There are things that are hot, cold, salty, creamy, chewy, spicy, savory, and crisp.”

Cutshall emphasizes that this meal plan is not a diet. In fact, don’t even say that word around him. After years of trying fad diets to lose weight, the D-word no longer exists in the Cutshall nomenclature. “It takes a total lifestyle change, with food being one part of a larger picture,” he said.

Today, Cutshall weighs 232 pounds. He’s biked through the Minnesota winter, pedaling 10 to 30 miles daily regardless of the temperature or snowfall.

Last week, he said his weight would likely plateau around 180 pounds. That’s 52 pounds to go, although Cutshall has no set number. “It’s not about a goal weight,” he said. “I’m just doing what’s healthy for my body, and the results will follow.”

I’d seen a picture of Cutshall near his peak weight. Sitting next to his daughter, a mug of black coffee steaming on the table between us, Cutshall was unrecognizable from the photograph. He looked like a new man. There was a light in his eyes.

Scott Cutshall, January 2008.

“You used to be as big as two of me and two of Mommy,” Chloe said, bouncing around her father. Cutshall smiled.

It’s been more than two years since his Thanksgiving Day commitment, and everything in Cutshall’s life has changed. He is humble and thankful for it. But Cutshall exudes a calm confidence.

After years of self-doubt, years fighting a battle against weight, he has conquered something big, and he knows it. He has a new belief in himself. It’s that belief — not to mention a bike built in Minneapolis — that may have saved his life.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

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