What motivates someone to get up at 5 am to put their body through a grueling 100 km bike ride of physical pain and mental endurance?
A large proportion of men, and women in increasing numbers, willingly do. They’re known as MAMILs or Middle-Aged Men In Lyrca. My husband, Phil is one of them. He and his friend, Jamie are like Batman and Robin. They compare bike bling, equipment, chat about Strava records (like Facebook for bikers; to track race times), butt butter and sending out messages to other cyclists as they put down the pedal to smash personal best times. Like any subculture they have their own language. There’s the Weekend Warriors who go for the burn only on weekends. Or the Diehards who discipline themselves during the week as well, and Super-Diehards who take it to competition level. Not sure which category Batman and Robin fit into yet but I think they’re past the Weekend Warrior stage.
A non-MAMIL friend, Andy, calls Phil the bike pusher because he recruits unsuspecting newbie riders into the MAMILs cult. Andy, unconverted, often asks Phil, ‘What’s it all about? What are you trying to prove?’ My thoughts precisely. So I asked a few road biking enthusiasts what motivates them to pound the concrete on those skinny tyres, risking life and limb among Sydney’s discourteous drivers.
The first thing you notice is the bulge, sorry I mean the bike bling. It is a very specific dress code. No surprise that Sydney siders take it seriously, given their competitive nature at everything else. If you don’t have the right gear you’re considered a novice and, therefore, a safety threat. Nobody wants to ride close to the back wheel ‘out of the wind’ as the lingo goes, of someone they don’t trust. According to Jamie, ‘the uber fanatical will worry about; the height of one’s socks (long socks are generally regarded as a pro look!); getting their obscure European branded cycling cap at just the right angle for mid ride cafe wear (if done correctly it’s a homage to riders of the 60s and 70s) and the correct matching of knicks and jersey. If you see any of the above you will most likely have a safe and competent riding companion on the roads.’ Dead give aways of the novice, he said are: having a pump attached to the frame; too baggy a jersey; too big a helmet; too low a saddle or high bars; pedalling too fast or too slow; sweating too much or just generally looking like you’re trying too hard, including vomiting at the roadside, which he did a lot when he first started. He avoids anyone with the above — they are likely a menace on the roads. So beginners take note.
Another friend, Jim, who just joined the MAMILs — well he bought the bib and brace, that resembles Borat’s mankini, as a starting point, said, ‘My girlfriend doesn’t know what to do with herself when I put that outfit on, she doesn’t know if to call the police or what.’ I’m thinking it could be the polka-dotted crotch.
There’s no doubt there’s been an explosion in cycling and triathlons in recent years, especially among men and women of a certain age. A lot of runners get into cycling because of their knees. An average 3.6 million ride their bike more than once a week in Australia, with 1.1 million of those in Victoria. Not surprising this state are the biggest pedal nuts given the cycling-friendly flat landscape and infrastructure of Melbourne’s bike lanes and tracks.
A lot of inspiration for cycling comes from the greatest race on earth; the Tour de France. Cadel Evans’ victory of the Tour in 2011 provided a role model and huge incentive for Australians, and Bradley Wiggins’ win in 2012 inspired Brits (Sydney is full of them) to get on their bikes. Maybe they’re trying to emulate ‘The glory, suffering and soul of the Tour de France’. But it has to be more than that. Is it also pride, ego, and proving they’re still got it?
What a surprise, Phil turns 40 this year. He has set himself the goal of climbing the iconic Alpe d’Huez, in the Alps in July where we’ll watch the Tour de France centurion. Yep that’s the mountain with 21 hairpin bends, traversing uphill for over 13 km. That’s a red flag way of proving you’re not over the hill yet – if you’ll pardon the pun. So he’s been training like a mad man for that. Though he doesn’t shave the legs yet and neither has he become teetotal so he’s not quite at the Diehard stage.
What about the WAGs of these MAMILs? We bike widows have to endure the early weekend wake ups and play second fiddle to the carbon beast. You know it’s a serious obsession when cycling comes before social events; when an early night to be fit for a ride is more important than a late boozy one. He’s lucky. I understand about having dreams. He’s approaching 40 – not that that’s old I hasten to add, as I cling onto the last year of my 30s, but in competitive cycling it’s not young either. I believe anything is possible, and it’s crossed my mind I’m projecting some of my ambition onto him, but in a society where 40 is the new 30, and 30 the new 20, there are, thankfully, no age limits to success, achievement, and fun for that matter.
You’re no longer too old for extreme sports by 30 or 40, and expected to take up golf to ease into respectable retirement. Cycling has overtaken golf as the new sport for business executives. Sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day presents no physical challenge, risk or excitement. They get the adrenalin rush from work stress and that needs to be quelled somehow. Cycling, like any exercise, is a great stress reliever but is there an imbalance with this adrenalin-fuelled life; toiling all week at work then subjecting their bodies to a brutal bike ride at the weekend? Perhaps high achievers at work are equally as ambitious in other aspects of their lives. No surprise that cyclists tend to be of the AB demographic — in other words, cashed up.
Jamie, aka Batman, mentioned all cyclists are angry; they’re battling inner demons and that’s what fuels the impetus. Having read Lance Armstrong’s autobiography It’s Not About the Bike (now moved to the fiction section in bookstores), I appreciated what an unbelievable athlete he was — to have beaten cancer, made a comeback and won all those Tours — and now we understand why it was so unbelievable. What struck me most though was my lack of empathy for him as a person. He presented as a very selfish, aggressive man, highly driven by self-motivation, ego and anger; the essential force that kept his fire burning and wheels turning.
Does cycling require a certain uncompromising personality? It’s both a team sport but, more so for amateurs, a solitary sport, though a lot of the MAMIL brigade enjoy the social side of it. Even my mother in law commented that ‘only a pretty unusual person with a screw loose would to want to ride those races.’ Was she talking about her son? But he’s not an angry man with inner demons, and neither is he a stressed out office worker. He’s just unusual. Or not, as the story goes — with more MAMILs joining the Weekend Warrior craze; gathering at cafés in multi-coloured gaggles, clinking shoes and embarrassing bulges — that we ladies try and fail to avert our gaze from. I wonder if some of them don’t ride at all but just put on the bling and head down for a cappuccino with the MAMIL crew. He’s a guy who wants to challenge himself, physically and mentally. And who can object to that? There are worse obsessions and midlife crises to have.
The 2013 Tour de France has just kicked off and we’re gearing up for Alpe d’Huez. Put down the pedal Robin and send out a message, we’re not over the hill yet!
Sarah Edworthy, Dave Brailsford, The Official Team Sky book of the 2012 Tour de France 21 Days to Glory, HarperCollins 2012
 Sarah Edworthy, Dave Brailsford, The Official Team Sky book of the 2012 Tour de France 21 Days to Glory, HarperCollins 2012