The Tour de France is fast approaching; it’s a sporting event that has enjoyed a steady increase in British popularity, especially since Bradley Wiggins stepped up to the winner’s podium in 2012. This year the UK hype is even bigger, largely because the historic race is returning to British soil, running through Leeds, York and Cambridge. If you happen to be in any of these areas over the next few weeks you may well be treated to the sight of a swarm of world-class athletes hurling their streamlined frames down some winding country lane or city street. Thing is though, subtract the crowd, the camera trucks and the safety cars and you could be forgiven for thinking it was just an idle Sunday. We have the MAMIL revolution to thank for that.
What’s a MAMIL, you ask? You’ll have seen them, even if you don’t know it. They roam the roads on late weekend mornings hunting down steep hill gradients, they dominate sport and cycle shops interrogating the staff about the best high-energy power-potions or which helmets are made of material taken from the space shuttle and they huddle in beer gardens clad head-to-toe in lycra, admiring their carbon fibre steeds during a mid-ride breather. MAMIL: Middle-Aged Man in Lycra.
Cycling is kind of unique in the sporting world insofar that the enthusiast has access to all the same gear as the pro, provided the money’s right. Weekend footballers are happy to kick about in an old T-shirt and shorts, perhaps some shin pads at a push and you’d be hard-pressed to find a jogger who heads out at 6am on Wednesday morning coated in sponsorship decals. On the other end of the spectrum, when the gear becomes that much more pivotal it either becomes implausibly expensive or completely out of public reach, only the most bloated millionaire would consider investing in an F1 car and even then it would be an outdated model refitted for recreational use and practically embalmed in red tape. Cycling sits right in the middle of that and as a result a new breed of midlife crisis boy’s club has emerged, the modern middle-aged man looking for a youthful life-affirmation doesn’t buy a Harley, he buys a Giant Defy and pedals around the countryside pretending to be Lance Armstrong (only without all the drugs and general douche-baggery).
It seems like nobody’s allowed to ‘just ride’ anymore where cycling is concerned, it has to carry more meaning than that. Whether you’re a reserved Cambridge student astride an appropriately retro Pashley, a bearded London hipster sat in a workshop-cum-café waiting for your derailleur to be replaced over a venti machhiato or indeed a hobbyist MAMIL with professional aspirations and disturbingly hairless legs, cycling is a lifestyle choice. That’s not to devalue cycling, it’s a fantastic sport, pastime and means of travel, and I’ve been in love with it for as long as I can remember. When I was 19 I went so far as to spend a few weeks cycling through Northern Europe with a couple of friends, an experience I would highly recommend, but apparently I’m not a real cyclist. Sure I have a decent bike, I’ve modified it, I use clipless pedals and I’m no stranger to lycra (joke all you want, bike shorts are damned comfortable and when you’re on the saddle for the better part of a day you’re sincerely grateful for it) but that’s not enough for a MAMIL, they’re in a different class. A bike isn’t worth having if Chris Froome hasn’t endorsed it personally, the lycra is meaningless unless it carries the laurels of a racing team that you’ve never even met and all the gear is paltry unless you’re filling your stomach with carbs and your head with factoids about lactic acid and the best routes around Lake Como.
This kind of hobbyist exclusivity is far from new, people (and men in particular it seems) like to feel like they’re part of a private club, like they’re elevated above everyone else in some way. The appeal is certainly clear, the science of it, the one-upmanship, the intricacies of tuning and modification, but at the end the day, no matter how you dress it up, you’re still just cycling, the same thing you learnt to do when you were 6. So what am I suggesting, that they all pack it in? No way, if anything I’m really just clamouring for a bit more self-awareness, I kind of love the fact that cycling has become the prevalent midlife crisis cure, it’s certainly more environmentally friendly than buying an ailing Ferrari Daytona, nursing it back to health and then firing it down the length of Italy or cocooning yourself in leather and pretending you’re in Easy Rider. At least this way more people are out there getting healthier, just maybe tone it down a touch and please at least try and ride in a formation that at least resembles single-file, I’ll fail my MOT if I keep damaging my front bumper running you people over.
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