Ernest Gagnon might not be what you typically think of when you picture a cyclist, but this 34 year old from Billerica, Massachusetts is used to that. For the last three years, he’s been bucking preconceived notions of what a person of size can do by putting on his cycling gear and competing in races around the world. We caught up with Ernest for a conversation about becoming a cyclist, being inspiration for others to get into the sport, and how you can help him take his cycling to the next level.
Why did you decide to take up cycling?
I’ve been big all my life, and obesity ran in family, so I was allways bigger. When I was diagnosed with diabetes at 31, I decided to reach out and get help to get into cycling seriously.
When you started, did you have any specific goals in mind?
My only goal was to try to control the diabetes, I just wanted to be healthy. When I started to reach out to people, I hit up racers and universities nearby. Steve Lachance, Zach LaBry and Cosmo Catalano were the guys I reached out to. We talked back and forth and they decided to meet with me. Cosmo thought it was a challenge and really got behind me. Steve and Cosmo have both become brothers.
What was it like that first time you got on the bike?
The idea of a big guy getting into cycling was pretty crazy. I wasn’t nervous about people, just nervous about the clothes and crashing. Hitting the ground at 570 lbs wouldn’t be fun. The minuteman bike trail was the first one I rode. We biked it for a mile down and a mile back – just getting my balance and bearings was a big deal. After I did it, I thought it was pretty cool, and that expanded to going further, and we finally made it all the way down. It was an amazing experience, all in all.
What kind of bike do you ride?
When I started looking for a bike, lots of shops laughed in my face, or weren’t willing to take the risk. Then I met Mark Gray at Landry’s Bicycles in Natick. I was their biggest customer at the time, and they were concerned about A, if frame would hold me, and B, whether the wheels would hold me. We ended up going with a Globe carmel 4. We went through 1 frame, 4 sets of wheels, loads of bike seats – it was quite a challenge.
Do you have any tips for people interested in getting into cycling?
If you’re looking to spend time on a bike – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or more – you need to be fitted to a bike, no matter what size you are. Go to the shop and get fitted. They’ll measure you and make parts to your size. You can basically get a frame and go from there. You don’t need to build from scratch, but getting fitted to a bike is a blessing.
Have you run into other bigger people doing this?
Oh yes – I’ve met people around 220, 230, 240 – and another guy who is 275. People all over the world that I meet through facebook are doing this [cycling]. I haven’t met him yet, but there’s a 400 pound guy out there, and apparently my story inspired him to get on a bike.
How do people respond to seeing you out there riding?
The majority of people are positive. I try to ride as much as I can in Boston, which can be difficult on the narrow, windy roads here. I meet up with people for group rides and a lot of racers see me and know who I am, and a good number of them support me. Some people are confused, and some cheer me on, but every now and then someone will be negative. Still, the majority of people are positive. They want autographs, or want to know how to get started.
Aside from any physical health advantages of cycling, what else do you think you’ve gotten out of this whole experience?
It’s helped me deal with my depression, and thinking I’m worth the time. I used to feel like I didn’t belong anywhere. Cycling helped me build a sense of value, by being able to call myself a cyclist. It gave me a sense of friendship and trust.
As far as a weight goal, I dont have any. The goal is to ride, and to be happy and healthy. Don’t chase numbers, let the numbers chase you. What’s the point of focusing on a number? As long as i’m healthy and racing, that’s all I care about.
What kind of advice do you have for other people of size considering taking up cycling for the first time?
First, wear the right gear. A lot of clothing companies make bike clothing in large sizes but dont promote it. You can find sizes up to 6X at places like Jakroo, and Capo Cycling.
Second, don’t be scared to ask for help. A lot of people who are bigger are afraid to ask for help. They feel like they won’t get the assistance they need, or that they’ll be taken advantage of. You just have to get out there. You’ll find the right people if you’re persistent and unafraid. Seek out people in the sport you’re interested in. Get them on your side to help you. That sense of belonging and support will make it fun, and will keep you doing it. Having that network beside you makes a big difference.
What’s next for you? Any cycling goals for the future?
There are a few races coming up, and I’m doing my own race. Plus, my team is starting up in August, and runs through December. I manage my own team now – it’s part racing, part club – with a focus on multiple disciplines.
I’m passionate about the sport, passionate about cycling. I really want to help people get into racing, and if what I’m doing inspires people, that’s great. My goal is to help all sorts of people take up cycling, young and old, and people of all sizes. I just want to help them get into the sport. I started a GoFundMe account to help make the transition into cycling full time. It helps keep me riding and racing. I had worked with a startup, and the it was purchased by Sophos, but they downsized and I was one of the people laid off, so I’m looking for a job while trying to keep doing what I love.
Follow Ernest on Facebook or visit his GoFundMe page to learn how you can help him reach his goal of 2400 miles biked in 2013 by the end of July. Are you considering getting a new bike? Check out a few bikes for big guys.