This episode, the surprising (and not so surprising) world of Middle-Aged-Men-In-Lycra.
“I may look a bit chubby. I don’t care, I´m out actually doing something about my body, my mind and my health.”
-– Mark Hadlow, New Zealand actor/MAMIL addressing his weight and how he couldn’t care less about what he looks like.
What drives middle aged men to wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday or Sunday morning while the rest of the world snoozes, to squeeze every inch of themselves into brightly coloured, tight-fitting cycling gear, open up a bottle of chain lube and take themselves off on a 100km adventure. Is it a personal challenge, for health and fitness, a social thing? In this episode I examine the raison d’être of the Middle Aged Man in Lycra and the motivations as to why they do what they do.
- ‘The world is best experienced at 18 mph’. The psychological wellbeing effects of cycling in the countryside: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis’
- MAMIL – Official Trailer
- MAMIL Screenings
Mamil Clip: Are Mamils a fad?
Damian: If you think MAMIL — those Middle Aged Men in Lycra, with a decent income, and purchasing power — are ultra competitive and having some mid-life crisis, you’re right. If you think MAMILs are also guys that just ride their bikes because they love it, you’re right. Peel away the competition and fancy bikes and even the lycra and you’re left with the cloudy truth about the middle age man’s relationship with cycling: it’s complex.
Damian: This is Semi-Pro Cycling. I’m Damian Ruse. Today on the show, the murky world of MAMIL motivation, like I said in the intro – it’s complex but why should you even care? Well, I’m here to defend the MAMIL because even cyclists give them a hard time – and no I’m not defending them because I’m approaching middle age myself (which I am) but because it’s too easy for all MAMILs to be branded as simply being in mid-life crisis mode or reliving their youth or proving they can still compete against other men. Instead, their motivations are much more varied, with the desire for good mental as well as physical health at the top of the list of personal reasons — they also do more good than for cyclists as a whole than they get credit for.
A note here, the clip at the beginning of the show comes from a new Australian film, simply titled, Mamil. It shows how Mamils get into cycling, and why they would embrace the label. I will be using the occasional clip from the film and I’ll be doing a review at the end of the feature.
Middle Age Man Theme Song
Damian: The rise of the Mamil over the last 10 years has been due, in part, to the success of cycling in western countries such as Great Britain, where a huge surge of new memberships in the late 2000s came from men in their 30s and 40s. Now, don’t get me wrong here, of course, there are ex-racers or even masters racers riding in this group. But their motivation may still be linked being the A-type personality trying to squeeze the most out of themselves before they are “too old” to race with the young guys.
The rider I’m talking about is the same one you immediately think about when you imagine a Mamil – an older, overweight guy wearing body-hugging cycling kit – like an overstuffed sausage ready to burst out of its casing – it’s not the image we conjure up when thinking about the intended user of such bike wear. In other words, Mamils are thought of as pathetic creatures but do they even care what they look like?
Mamil Clip: I may look a bit chubby. I don’t care, I´m out actually doing something about my body, my mind and my health.
That’s Mark Hadlow, a New Zealand actor addressing his weight and how he couldn’t care less about what he looks like because he working on his body, mind and health. This is important to address early on because one thing is clear – all of the benefits of cycling Mamils sight have nothing to do with how they look.
There’s an importance of separating the look from the benefit – even a professional cyclist will get funny looks at the cafe in their cycling kit – or what did I hear the other day? That a men’s cycling team posing together tend to look like a row of international clocks above a hotel reception desk. Yes, I said clocks. The point here is that regardless of the look, when the benefit is so rewarding it’s easy to see past the awkward elements of a sport, like walking in ski boots or transporting a kayak – it’s when you’re in motion that matters.
Damian: Whizzing through the countryside… feeling like you’re flying…
It sounds good doesn’t it, I don’t know about you but just thinking about speeding down a country lane relaxes me, puts me in a happy place. And according to a recently published study entitled: ‘The world is best experienced at 18 mph’ this type of Green Exercise (GE) has significantly greater psychological wellbeing benefits than the non-GE equivalent.
Green Exercise refers to physical activity conducted whilst out in a natural environment. In our world this is “green cycling”, the simple act of cycling outside, in the countryside for extended periods of time.
This study tried to understand the lived experience of a group of serious recreational road cyclists by interviewing 11 men aged between mid-30s and early 50s who routinely rode in the countryside. Three aspects as to why these Mamils ride were uncovered – but they aren’t the common motivations, like the mid-life crisis motive that might first spring to mind.
Oliver: I’m a researcher mainly, and I am particularly interested in this idea of green exercise, whereby you are exposed to nature while also exercising, and doing that simultaneously seems to have additive benefits on top of just doing the exercise.
Damian: This is Oliver Glackin, Father, Cyclist, Londoner and trainee sports psychologist at the University of East London. Oliver, along with James Beale of the School of Health Sport and Bioscience wrote this paper as a continuation of other Green Exercise research.
Oliver: So, there’s some particularly good research that’s been done in the last decade or so in the University of Essex, and we’re sort of building on that with our research, and that basically shows quite categorically that when you’re doing green exercise that it’s simply better for you, whether it’s increasing your self-esteem, mood, or alleviation of stress and depression, it’s simply that much better for you.
Damian: Yeah, so your field is psychology?
Damian: And, when you’re talking about health aspects, you’re talking about any sort of mental aspects?
Oliver: Exactly, so, wellbeing in particular, and about boosting psychological wellbeing, yeah.
Damian: Wellbeing. The state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. Finding wellbeing in the context of Oliver’s paper can come from the simple pleasure of riding outside, though, it’s still a bit of a mystery why it helps so much.
Oliver: It’s also worth saying that, and it’s picking up a point I made earlier, that the concept of green exercise and how beneficial it can be is well established. What’s lacking, and where the gap is, is understanding better why it helps people. We know it does help people and we know it helps people in a way that just exercising indoors or in built environments, to a lesser extent does, this does it more, it adds much more to it.
Damian: One of the recorded benefits of riding outdoors include what the authors call Mastery and uncomplicated joys. Green-cycling gave the cyclists a range of challenges to complete, from climbing steep hills to covering long distances. This offered a double reward in the form of a feeling of achievement and, with this, a growing feeling of confidence that encouraged them to explore nature further.
It’s also no surprise that the men from the study said that their cycling gave them a particular opportunity to feel pleasure. This joy appeared to come especially from the thrill of riding a bike at speed on country lanes, especially down steep hills where the sense of risk was amplified. Doing so was invigorating and seemed to gratify an inherent human need for excitement.
This point is funny one because I was watching the Mamil film and on comes one of the riders they profile and he’s on a group ride that he organises – and he says
Mamil Clip: I’m here for the fellowship, not the speed.
And then in the next scene the film follows him on a solo ride and he says this…
Mamil Clip: I also like solo rides…I wish I was faster everybody does”
It’s not a contradiction, he’s just shifting motivations for different types of rides. I just thought it was funny how here I am thinking this guy is doing such a noble cause riding with slower riders and encouraging them, but then when he’s out on his own, he’s like, going all out, bombing down hills…
To understand why solo speed sessions and group rides are important to Mamils – let’s take a deeper look, starting with group rides – and they’re a biggie – they have the greatest potential to impact the rider’s overall well being and this was evident all over the place when I was doing my research for this show. Such as the group of Mamils that call themselves the Adelaide Fat Boys that were profiled in the Mamil film.
Mamil Clip: Middle Aged men trying to keep themselves in some sort of shape…look after each other.
Group rides act as support in the form of informal therapy sessions. And I get it. When I was younger and riding in groups, my conversations were different, partly because I was a 16 year old boy, but also because my social networks were large and varied, but as time goes on my access to other people, new people and even just time outside of my routine becomes harder and harder.
Then, when I started riding with a group at the start of this year, that group became my main social outlet. And by default it became my support network – and the physical nature helps accelerate your bond to other cyclists, and the chemicals from moving your body helps opening up and sharing more of yourself, and you have common ground to start conversations.
It’s the perfect setting for a physical and mental release and therefore I would definitely define it as therapy. As do a lot of other riders, like these guys from a recent episode of Cycling Maven explain…
Men’s Health Shed on Wheels Clip
Damian: Cycling the new golf, pfft, it’s the new pub! But imagine this, you’re sitting in a pub with a group of mates and not talking. Do you think you’d get any wellbeing benefit from this? I know it sounds a bit ludicrous in this context but transfer this idea to riding your bike on a group ride and not necessarily talking, just being in the presence of other riders.
This was a surprising outcome of Oliver’s paper and something they call ‘Alone but connected’.
The idea is that while the men may ride in groups, they were not under pressure to engage with the other cyclists. This was important because for them, the benefits derived from green-cycling were most potent when it was done alone. But that didn’t mean there was no space for camaraderie and bonhomie.
Oliver: We didn’t have space to talk about the kind of camaraderie you get on the road, but things that came up where how, when you’re in the company of others and you’re riding for miles, you can be in their company but you don’t necessarily have to talk, it’s okay not to talk. When you do talk, there’s no pressure in eye contact, the participants spoke about, which kind of encourages chatting openly. And then, with the way, if you’re with people in a bunch, you can just sort of break a conversation quite naturally, it’s okay. You can take your turn up the front, or draft at the back, or whatever. I mean, sandbagging probably starts a conversation, I guess.
Damian: If the men weren’t talking, they were instead taking to online social networks to interact with other cyclists in a relaxed environment. And when I talk about online social networks of course I’m referencing Strava. Something Oliver had thought about in his own riding but not in the context of the less competitive Mamil. And surprisingly or not, Strava is not used by Mamils in the study to chase KOMs.
Oliver: So Strava. I knew this would come up. Now, I think … Well, I know, I got into riding seriously before the Strava phenomenon hit us, and Strava always seemed to me like a synonym for competition. At some point, I decided that, and I’ve kind of covered this before, but I could satisfy my hunger for competition by racing, and mostly slowly unfortunately, and consequently, I was never really tempted by it because I followed quite a strict schedule of training. I thought Strava and chasing segments might that. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but that was just my approach.
But, coming back to the research, what I failed to appreciate entirely, and this is what a lot of the guys spoke about, was how, rather than comparing numbers and doing that kind of stuff, you could use it to exchange experiences. I thought that was really fantastic. So, all the participants went away from segment chasing to using it to learn new routes and to share information about different approaches to a particular path, or mountain, or whatever, or routes around a particular area to take in different scenes and stuff, and then sharing photographs of their experiences. One guy in particular in the research who, he got into this thing with his mate about sending photographs of different postboxes, different ones that they’d seen. And then, with these blokes also, like kudos and connecting with people that they wouldn’t necessarily have connections with. So, there’s two ways of saying, I never really, and kind of my experiences predated Strava, and then as I saw people getting into it, I thought it would distract me from my training and, in terms of the competitive side, I liked the tangible side of going out on a Sunday early in the morning to a clubhouse and then spending three hours riding around the British countryside racing trying to win, and I hadn’t appreciated the other aspects of it, which my participants made me aware of, which is just fantastic.
Damian: Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed that other side of it as well. Once you sort of forget about the segments and you see it as what it is, a very specific paired down social network with the ability to share photos and routes and comment on people’s rides and things. Yeah, there’s a really positive side to it, and if you don’t want to participate in segments it’s quite easy to ignore it, once you have those other things substituting it.
Damian: Using Strava as a social network instead of a reason to be a Stravasshole – the cyclist who while attempting a quick Strava segment time yells “Strava!” and expects you to get out of their way – it enables riders to stay connected even if they are riding alone, which is a good thing because another benefit sighted for riding in Oliver’s paper, is riding solo which they framed as “My place to escape and rejuvenate”.
Mamil Clip: What I love about cycling…
Damian: This has been my motivation for the majority of my cycling life where the physical activity of green-cycling combined with the change of scenery to an immersive, more natural environment instantly feels like a restorative process. Green-cycling represents an opportunity to get away from the concerns and worries of our lives back at home.
The men in the study sighted being surrounded by nature and being granted the peace of an empty country lane took on therapeutic qualities for them. Combined with the physical action of riding, this encouraged the men to become more aware of their experiences and their mental state, resulting in a feeling of calm similar to the effects of mindfulness, the Buddhist tradition used to develop good mental health.
Add in a podcast or some music to this and I’m a happy man.
Damian: It’s not just solo riding or riding just for the hell of it either, there’s a camaraderie a push for a common goal to help each other and to help the wider community. Take Franko and Craig from Team Mamil.
Mamil Clip: Our story…
Feeling dejected, Craig was watching TV one day and an an for a ride called ‘Ride to Conquer Cancer’ came on the telly and Craig immediately signed up. He raised $2500 for his mate. But rode on his own. Franko, who was still not well, and not sure of his future after going through his treatment, was at the finish line but disappeared to sign himself and Craig up for the following year. He was never going to let Craig ride alone again. And that’s when Team Mamil started and continued to grow, and Team Mamil has raised $200,000 for the event over 5 years.
Really cool story.
OK, so we’ve been through a bunch of motivations and all of the above makes sense. But what about competition – it wouldn’t be a discussion about men without some talk of competition, right? Well, like I said at the start it’s complex, there’s the ex-racer, such as Oliver, and then there’s the rider that takes up racing again when they’re a Mamil.
Like Andy, a 42 year old Father of 2 embracing the fundamental nature of racing.
Mamil Clip: Cycling’s a bit like a caveman must have felt like when he was hunting deer. The finish line is like the quarry at the end of it and you haven’t eaten for three weeks and you’re starving and if you don’t get across that line first it isn’t just you who’s gonna starve, it´s your whole family, so there’s a lot on this. You’re racing to catch up with this deer that’s running away from you. How do you replace that? How do you replace that feeling of the chase. I´m trying to prove that a guy in his early forties can realistically compete at the highest level again.
Damian: This to me has a limited shelf life – just like the ability to compete in the open category itself I suppose – sure it has it’s place but longevity lies beyond competition. Oliver walked away (or rode away) from competitive cycling because of his family but sore unique benefits from personal experience.
Oliver: I had a family myself, and I found that the amount of training I could do was inverse proportional to the size of my family, so the racing kind of went, but there was quite a challenging period in my own life related specifically to work, and I found that riding my bike and doing the training on my bike, incredible scenery was really cathartic and quite restorative and that it was just a massive dose of wellness, quite frankly. That kind of got me curious and effectively, that curiosity means I’m talking to you about what was going on during that experience and why was it so good and why did it make me feel better and why did it help me in my day to day life.
Damian: This recipe of outdoors riding in nature without doing any competitive things and just going out and riding, there’s longevity in that. There’s no burn out, there’s no threat of just going too hard and wanting to rack it, it’s just keeping it going at the same pace for a long time. There’s definitely benefits to this style of riding, and benefits to all cyclists as a whole.
I want to wrap here by saying that of course it’s easy to notice that Mamils look different to other cyclists. And yeah, it’s good for a quick laugh. It’s also easy to criticise them for having all the gear and no idea. But what Mamils do is help us all look beyond competition and shiny objects and look for deeper and more personal reasons for why we ride. A study can gives us clues that we might all ride for mastery, uncomplicated joys, rejuvenation and to be alone but connected. My experience might suggest that it’s the camaraderie and giving support to other riders when they most need it.
Whatever though, the exact reasons you ride may be murky and hard to articulate – but that’s not point. My point is this.
Regardless of their own personal motivations, and regardless of their look, Mamils are lifting the image of cyclists as human beings, as something more than Mr. Speedy on the Hell Ride. They’re using their age and experience to impact riders on an individual level, and on a broader level by giving to the community and in the process changing the way cyclists are perceived by the community at large.
And that’s why I will defend the Mamil – even though they’re a strange creature.
Middle Age Man Theme Song
Damian: It’s time for the Radar. The segment of the show where I talk about something that has popped up on my radar – whether it’s a product, study or performance tip…I mentioned this already on this show’s radar I’m going to review the new Australian film titled Mamil.
You’ve got a bit of a taste from this episode. But the film goes deeper, much deeper, and wider. And, I wouldn’t say this is a film just for cyclists as it’s kind of digging into a social phenomenon that is probably more interesting to someone that lives outside of our quirky world.
Saying that though, we’ve all come across Mamils and I guess if you’re interested in trying to understand why other people ride – this film is for you.
It’s certainly a new perspective because normally it’s the professionals are getting all of the limelight. But here, we are introduced to men that are cycling diehards, and gives us a glimpse at the variety of reasons they ride. It examines many male issues in the context of the sport, and shows why people may come together to proudly embrace the label.
There are different men from all over, the U.K., the U.S., and Australia, and all of the men ended up cycling through a unique—or difficult—set of circumstances. The documentary is loaded with stories that show how the Mamil is so much more than a stereotype in tight cycling kit. It also offers a peek into the world that we only see briefly as it rolls by at a moderately safe speed.
If you’re a Mamil most of the film will speak to you, but also if your Mamil-curious you’ll learn a lot about these cuddly creatures. Head over to https://au.demand.film/mamil/ to find a screening near you.
Damian: If you are new to Semi-Pro Cycling, check out the back catalogue of shows on all aspects of performance at semiprocycling.com or sign up for the Weekly Workout Stack – The guide that shows you how to structure your training week and use your training time more effectively, and I’ll also send you a best of our episodes straight to your inbox.
Alright, well, I’ll be back in 2 weeks. Thank for listening
Presenter/Producer: Damian Ruse
Assistant Producer: Ciarán Mac Parland
Sound Engineer: Satyr Productions