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Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. David Boerner’s profile of Ernest Gagnon originally appeared on June 28. Since then, Gagnon’s story has featured on NPR and he has taken up cyclocross racing.
Two years ago, Ernest Gagnon weighed 570 pounds. The 30-year-old lived in self-imposed exile in his Massachusetts apartment, leaving only to go to work and to the grocery store. He was depressed, lonely and suffering from crippling anxiety.
Then the doctors gave him the news and two choices: Gagnon had type 2 diabetes; he could undergo gastric bypass surgery or die.
Gagnon chose a third option — cycling.
Today, the big man from the small town of Billerica is on a mission from the bike gods. He’s lost more than 200 pounds. His blood-sugar levels have been reeled in from off the charts to the high end of acceptable. He’s rapidly becoming an Internet celebrity in the cycling world .
Even better, Gagnon finally fits in somewhere. After a decade of isolation, Gagnon has friends. Unlikely friends. Bike racers.
“I’ve kind of always been into cycling,” Gagnon said. “But because I was big, everyone said, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be a football player. You can’t do that cycling stuff.’”
So he quit, while still a kid.
It was a harrowing childhood for Gagnon, full of insults in the schoolyard and uncertainty at home with an alcoholic father. Eating became his escape. He went off to college, and then got a job doing tech support for Internet security.
“I had a pretty rough life after college,” Gagnon said. “I didn’t really do anything. I didn’t go out of the house except to go to work and to go to the store. I didn’t really have a social life. I just kept eating and eating. My only friend was food.”
He went on like this for the better part of a decade.
“One of the reasons I didn’t go to the gym or go work out was because I felt I was looked down upon,” Gagnon said. “I was depressed.”
Embarrassed by his weight, Gagnon kept turning to his only friend. Only when Gagnon was diagnosed with diabetes and reduced blood circulation was he shocked into action.
“I was scared,” Gagnon said. “I had to do something. My doctor was trying to push me into a bypass, but I really had an issue with changing my anatomy to fix an over-eating or weight disorder. I was tired of being scared of everything and scared of people.”
So he made a new friend — the bicycle.
“It was not really a decision. It was a gradual process,” Gagnon said.
He began a timid Internet campaign. He started a Facebook profile with a picture of a bike.
“I was too embarrassed to publish my photo,” he said. “I didn’t think cyclists would accept me.”
But Gagnon pursued his dream with a sincerity that only the most carbon-hearted roadie could mock. He sent out hundreds of friend requests and messages to scores of cyclists, asking if they’d like to ride.
Two of Gagnon’s first riding buddies were Zach LaBry, a Category 3 road and cyclocross racer from nearby Cambridge, and Cosmo Catalano from Hartford, Connecticut (author of the excellent blog Cyclocosm).
“I was on Facebook one day and Ernest sent me a message and was like, ‘Hey, when are we riding?’” Catalano recounted. “I understand it seems a little weird maybe to just go riding with someone random from the Internet, but a lot of cyclists I know are from the Internet.
“All he had for a Facebook profile picture was a picture of a road bike. His story all sort of came out in bits and pieces from that conversation.
“He was like, ‘By the way, I ride really slowly.’”
“I was like, ‘That’s fine.’”
“Then he was like, ‘By the way, I weigh like 500-some-odd pounds.’”
“I was like, ‘… that’s good too.’”
The guys suggested Gagnon meet them at the Cycle-Smart International Cyclocross race in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Cycle-Smart is a UCI C2 cyclocross race — one of the biggest in New England with hundreds and hundreds of racers and fans.
To say that Gagnon was nervous is a radical understatement. He was prone to panic attacks when going out in public. Inserting himself into a crowd of super-fit ’cross racers and sticking out like a sore thumb was terrifying, but Catalano and LaBry helped talk him through it.
They also helped Gagnon onto his bike after the race — not easy for a 500-pounder — and they rode a mile or so around the parking lot.
Then the racers started riding with Gagnon on the Minuteman trail, a flat bike path outside Boston.
“The first time was only a mile down and a mile back,” Gagnon said. “Then we started doing half of it. Then we did the whole thing — the whole 22 miles.”
Last year, Gagnon got a custom Seven Mudhoney S to replace his clunky coaster-brake Globe, which kept snapping seatposts.
He started riding several times a week. Then he met another Cat. 3 racer, Steve Lachance. The duo rode the trainers together all winter. Eventually Gagnon built up to riding five or six times a week.
“He’s got this crazy drive,” LaChance said. “We’ll go on a crazy ride and he’ll go as fast as he’s ever gone, and it’s not good enough. He wants to go faster. He wants to go farther. The mental fortitude that it takes to push through all the barriers that he’s got is amazing. It’s really awe-inspiring.”
Lachance and Catalano both initially rode with Gagnon just to be helpful. Today, they ride with Gagnon because they’re friends.
His story has inspired the New England racing community. Gagnon’s Facebook profile is maxed out at 5,000 Facebook friends. Strangers say hi and congratulate him on the street.
He volunteers at races most weekends to give back to the community that gave him so much. This year he purchased a USA Cycling license and plans to race cyclocross in the fall.
Catalano said Gagnon has undergone a change that’s bigger than the number of pounds shed — big as that number may be.
“What hasn’t changed?” Catalano said. “We recently went on a trip to DC and it was as if he had forgotten that he had anxiety problems. He’s becoming comfortable with himself. He’s such a good dude. And it’s been cool helping him realize that.”
“I feel free,” Gagnon said. “I feel like I can finally be myself. Beforehand, I felt like I was trapped. I’ve never been able to be who I wanted to be. I always felt like the world was telling me I can’t be that way because I was too big. So to ride with all these guys — I mean, these are elite racers and Cat. 3s — to have these friends is awesome.”
Gagnon has one rule for those who ride with him: Kit up. This stems from his “Spandex Theory,” which postulates that in order to lose weight, he had to stop hiding.
So no matter who you are, what you look like, or how far you think you are from your goal — kit up and get started. Your friends are out there, waiting for you.