It was 1944, in a nightclub a few blocks from the French Quarter. Or maybe it was 1948, at a bar by the Oakland shipyards. Then again, it could just as well have been in some Havana back alley in `59. No one knows for sure when or where it happened, but everyone agrees on this: one night, at some point during my father's wild "lost" years, he was cursed. Whether this hex was of the voodoo, gypsy or Santeria variety is unclear, but at some point it's really just a matter of semantics: my father pissed someone off mightily and that someone reached deep down into their bag of black magic and slapped him and all future generations of Feltons with the most diabolical of curses: beer makes us fat.
I know, I know… You're thinking, "Everyone gets fat when they drink beer. That's just calories adding up. That's math."
If only. But I understand your skepticism, so let's look at the math. Twelve ounces of beer contains 156 calories on average. The average light beer contains 103 calories, but drinking light beer is painful and pointless, like tossing your hammer in the trash and pounding nails with your forehead. So, let's just assume that we are drinking beer here that actually tastes like beer—156 calories it is.
For every pound gained, you've somehow netted an excess 3,500 calories that you failed to burn off before you went to bed—the mathematical equivalent of 22.5 beers. Obviously, weight gain is a good deal more complicated than this—there's stress, sleep patterns, genetics and a raft of other factors that determine how much you can personally consume without getting all soft and doughy in the middle. But the takeaway here is that your average bottle of thick, rich craft beer isn't really loaded with calories.
BEER GETS A BAD RAP
Most guys who have a "beer gut", have that six-months pregnant look (minus the peaceful glow) because they also eat bacon. And hamburgers…chased by a hamburger with bacon and, of course, a beer. But beer alone isn't the culprit here. Beer isn't so much the lone gunman, as it is the guy who just happened to be in the car with his loser buddies when the other guys decided, "Hey, let's go rob the liquor store." Beer always gets fingered for the crime, but when you are looking to find the ringleader for that extra 40-pounds that makes it hard for so many men to find their personal plumbing, beer is really just the scapegoat with a lousy public defender.
But it's not like that for me. I have this curse to contend with. Really.
The gummy, nonfat yoghurt I eat each morning packs almost as many calories as a bottle of Unibroue Maudite. But here's the thing: I can eat that damn yoghurt all damn day and not gain an ounce. I so much as look at a bottle of beer, on the other hand, and I gain a pound. I'm exaggerating, but just barely. Here's an example: my co-workers and I get together each year for about three weeks of riding and testing bikes. We call it the Bible of Bike Tests and it's a glorious meat grinder: we get up at dawn, grab a fistful of bikes and ride `em until the lights go out. Then we get up and do it again. And again. And again. For the better part of a month. If the days aren't all exactly death marches, they are filled, at the very least, with six or more hours of pushing the pedals. Hard. These are good, honest rides. Rides that deserve a good, honest, cold beer at their terminus. Since I don't want to make my co-workers feel awkward about their alcohol consumption, I'll usually sit down around the dinner table with a beer myself. I'm considerate like that.
I eat a light dinner—I'm on a first-name basis with this thing called Kale. I skip dessert. I return home sure—absolutely positive—that I must have lost 10 pounds. Okay, five at the very least. After all, I'm eating less. I am riding a lot more. Yet every time I get home and step on the scale, I am 10 pounds heavier. Every. Damn. Time.
Where is math—calm, reasoned math—now, dammit?!? One beer. One damn beer! 170 calories. It just doesn't add up. The beer does me in. The curse prevails.
Now, while there is no single formula for determining how many calories you actually burn while mountain biking, it's fair to say that our hourly energy requirements during our product testing equal that of a road cyclist who averages 14 to 16 miles per hour. In fact, since I road ride a fair bit, I know we are working far harder than that, but I'll play it safe. Now, a 170-pound roadie who averages between 14 and 16 miles per hour for four hours burns more than 3,000 calories. Where did I get that figure? Bicycling has a handy-dandy Cycling Calories Burned Calculator and since those guys at Rodale Inc. (the parent publishing company of Bicycling) have cornered the market on lowering your cholesterol, cooking tofu and getting your annual colorectal exam, I'm bound to believe they know what they're talking about when it comes to calories. They own that shit. According to Rodale and the Laws of Science, I should be able to drink a metric crap ton of beer and come home emaciated. Instead, I increase my body mass by 10 percent.
Why? There's only one explanation: the curse.
RUNS IN THE FAMILY
As a kid I always marveled at my dad's beer belly. My dad was an imposing figure. A lot of kids think that, but my dad was the real deal: a manual laborer, thick with muscle and sporting fists that looked like catchers' mitts. He also had a mountain of a stomach… and a love of beer.
As a kid, you figure, that can never happen to me. I remember watching my older brother, Mark, join the Special Forces. He'd tried to gain weight before he signed up—he'd store spare loaves of bread under his bed and gorge at night. He ate like a man that'd never see another meal, yet he never managed to pack more than 180 pounds on his 6'3" frame. Mark came back from Basic—a ripped and menacing weapon. And then he was deployed to Germany.
It's worth mentioning here that Germany is no stranger to this thing called beer. Apparently, they've got good beer. Lots of it.
My brother returned to the states a year later—still ripped, still scary in a qualified expert with a grenade launcher kind of way. And, improbably, toting a beer gut. The rest of him looked the same as ever, but now it seemed as if he'd also swallowed a basketball. I was stunned. Hell, he was stunned. The guy ran six miles a day. He spent most of his spare time running around blowing shit up. It's a hell of a fitness regimen. When I pointed at his mid-section, he shook his head and offered just one bittersweet word: "Beer."
My other brothers developed the same condition. I took notice. I knew what was in store for me should I ever twist off that cap or pop the top.
BALANCING THE SCALES
And yet….I have not given up on beer, cursed though I may be. There are people who know of my family's curse and ask me why I still partake. There are times that I step on the scale and ask myself the same thing. But it comes down to this: life is worth enjoying. I know, that's not the most original sentiment, but for all of our modern day excesses, I don't think people actually enjoy themselves much these days.
We Americans eat frozen dinners that I wouldn't serve my dog. We've criminalized gluten, sworn off sugar, compressed bean curds into discs and called them "tofu burgers". And bacon. When did eating bacon become criminal—the dietary equivalent of killing puppies? What, in the name of all that is holy, has bacon ever done but make the world a better place for everyone—yes, you cranky vegetarians included.
I'm not suggesting that we embrace hedonism and excess. I've walked into a Wal-Mart and seen my fellow American. We could use some restraint. I mean…a lot of restraint. True. But for all that we deny ourselves, we are also a sloppier, shabbier, more stressed and less fit generation than the beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, meat-eating generations that preceded us. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention, the average weight for men aged 20 to 74 increased from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002.
Here's what I propose: balance. Let beer into your life. It is not a criminal. Eat some bacon. If you're going to have a brownie, for God's sake, make sure it isn't of the tastes-like-carpet, nonfat variety. But, by the same token, go out for a ride. Or a run. Or, hell, a walk. And keep doing it. Make it a part of of your life—not just a once every couple weeks thing. You don't have to get all Cult of CrossFit crazy and rip out your spine while performing your thousandth, one-legged, 285-pound deadlift. Just get out there. Ride hard. Play hard. Have fun. Remember to smile. Ditch the damn iPhone and do something worth doing.
And when you're done, have a beer. Just one. Reward yourself. This is the Yin to your Yang. In a bottle. Twist off the cap, listen to that beautiful TSSST sound of carbonation escaping. Have I mentioned how malty sweet beer is? How those tiny bubbles atop a naturally-fermented bottle of Belgian ale tickle the tongue? How the sweet, creamy taste of a nice stout perfectly complements any bowl of breakfast cereal? Need I extoll that brash, assertive snap of an aggressively-hopped IPA? I need not. You understand. You have achieved balance.
And I'll do the same, one ride at a time, one beer at a time…curse be damned.