Mamil stands for ‘middle aged man in lycra’ and the term was coined to describe er…middle aged men in lycra who ride bicycles.

For some reason it has become a term of mockery and abuse and conjures up images of usually professional, fairly well-to-do, invariably overweight, married often with youngish children, men who crowd the roads at week-ends, buy lots of kit, meet for coffee, lie to their wives about how much they spend and generally bond with other like-minded souls in cycling clubs.

But there are loads of sub-cultures, usually but not always comprising men – think of classic cars, motor-bikes, hi-fi (remember hi-fi?), sheds, model trains, gardening, golf, caravanning, rambling, woodwork, metalwork, airfix models, the list goes on – so why has the mamil garnered so much publicity and why does it attract such derision?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Women love to laugh at their menfolk’s foibles and some of those women are journalists so it’s an ideal topic for an article in the Sunday supplements.
  • Mamils are highly visible; they’re on the road, usually at week-ends.
  • Fat blokes in shorts always look funny, whether lycra clad or not.
  • Groups of fat blokes gathered together stand out.
  • Most people hate cyclists and mamils are cyclists.
  • Social media (which let’s face it is to blame for most things)
  • Most mamils are white and well-off and they rule the world and so naturally everyone hates them

And now, the ultimate clubbed seal of approval, someone’s made a film about mamils.

Mamil (directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharp, narration by Phil Liggett), is an Australian documentary but with sections filmed in the US and the UK which seeks to describe, illustrate and explain the phenomenon. It is a well-made, beautifully filmed, often very funny, sometimes moving account of the mamil experience.

It has a couple of faults. It is a bit too long and some of the interviewees’ stories are more interesting than others. There is also a bit too much on the charitable element. I’m all for giving to charity but the increasing trend for one’s charitable giving to be done in public is getting wearing. If you want to ride 50 miles, good for you. If you want to give to charity, good for you. But why do I have to give to a charity so that you can push yourself on a bike and fulfil your burning ambition? I don’t care that this is your ambition, I don’t need to see you weeping after you complete a 50 mile ride, I don’t care about your jersey and the charity that’s touched your heart; you don’t have to wear it on your sleeve.

All of the interviewees are very similar – 50ish, white, professional, married (often to women), with children, oh, and fat. My own experience as a self-confessed mamil (although 62 is probably pushing the ‘middle-aged’ definition almost to breaking point) is that there are many mamils who are not professional, not 50 (often a lot older), not fat (or not fat any more) and nor are they all white. Could they not find any black cyclists? I know some, they’re not that rare. This may be because there are very few black mamils in Australia or the US but that is certainly not the case here in the UK.

The film interviews some academics who speak about what it means to be a mamil and a man. What is it about a certain kind of academic that they feel the need to talk bollocks? My own view is that being a middle-aged cyclist says nothing about what it means to be a man, but it says an awful lot about the joys of riding a bicycle at a certain age. When you’re pushing 50 or 60 or even 70, running around on a football field with youngsters is virtually impossible. Likewise, for basketball, hockey, netball and as for cricket – standing in a field with a bunch of public school-boys while someone throws a rock at your head – seriously, why would you bother? Tennis is possible but unless you started young you’ll never be any good and that’s no fun. And swimming is boring beyond belief. And golf isn’t a sport – it’s a place where freemasons go to talk business when the bar is shut.

But you can ride a bike and compete and race (and sometimes beat) people half or a quarter of your age. It’s exercise and, unlike running, it doesn’t fuck up your knees and there’s endless kit to buy and a history to learn, books to read, films to watch (A Sunday in Hell is wonderful), races on Eurosport virtually year-round and you’re out of the house, in the fresh air, away from the nagging kids and the nagging wife and your boss who hates you and your colleagues who despise you.

Do you remember the opening lines of the greatest American novel – Joseph Heller’s Something Happened?

“I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work…the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just plain nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why.

“Something must have happened to me sometime.”

If this is your life (and it is all of our lives at some time or another) wouldn’t you long for an escape, a release, a chance for a little bit of fresh air freedom with a bunch of guys who get it, because they’ve been there too? I know I would and I did and I still do. Remember that opening song from Cheers – ‘the place where everyone knows your name?’ Cycling is like that because you’re a part of a very special world that every other cyclist recognises, even if they know you by your bike and don’t even know your name.

You don’t have to a be a man, of course, and I know some mamils who are women (mawils?) but not many and I wish there were more. Partly, it’s that still common, still traditional, divide between the sexes at the week-end – it’s the woman who does the kids and visits the elderly parents and does the washing and cooks the dinner while the man, done with his office duties, who feels that he deserves his couple of hours ‘with the lads’, his potter in the shed.

Mamil captures this all very well and the funniest bits – raising rueful smiles and guffaws in the audience – are the women and their resigned but often pointed and bitter comments.

The other aspect, well described and illustrated in the film, is the risk associated with cycling. Mamils are too old to join gangs, there aren’t many wild animals to battle in the suburbs, and apart from the odd breakdown when faced with a problem at the self-service tills in Sainsburys, there are few dangers to face. But cycling carries real risk. All cyclists know someone or of someone who’s been seriously injured or killed while cycling and there are few week-end rides that will pass without some mishap or other, or an altercation with a motorist in Biggin Hill. We know the risks, we don’t seek them out, but they are a price worth paying for the joy of being out on your bike.

If you’re a mamil, go and see this film because it’s about you and your life. And if you’re not a mamil, see this film, get a bike and get out on the road – it will change your life.


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