Beneath the lycra, we’re all humans.
It’s a lot like a pantomime, really. Men, shaped by middle-age, trotting about in unflattering leotards, ogling each other’s latest bike-related purchase, and totally devoting their lives to the world of cycling.
And it really is total devotion. “The two most important things in my life are my health and my family. And then my bike in third… a very close third,” says Jayman Prestidge, the President of Warragul Cycling Club. He’s also perhaps better known as a MAMIL.
Yes, MAMIL. And no, I’m not talking about a kangaroo. See, this type of MAMIL is not specific to one region. In fact, they’re actually found everywhere; some may even call them pests. Oh, and they’re not just two arms, two legs, and a body – they also have two wheels. I am referring of course to the infamous Middle Aged Men In Lycra.
The term, first coined by Mintel analyst Michael Oliver in 2010, refers to the strange phenomenon of mostly white males in their 40s and beyond, who, early in the morning, before donning their middle-class work suits, strap themselves into suits of lycra. They can be found zooming down city and rural streets, and in cafes, where they sit with their bodies sagging proudly and their mouths sipping on lattés.
MAMILs. You know exactly the type. You may even be thinking, “Oh dear, he’s referring to me.”
Fear not, we don’t judge. And nor does MAMIL, a fantastic new documentary by Australian award-winning directors Eleanor Sharpe and Nickolas Bird, and distributed by Demand Film. The film, dedicated to exploring and understanding middle-aged cycling, just tries to find the answer to the question: How did the MAMIL revolution come to be?
The Age Old Battle
Cycling offers competitiveness, personal-improvement, and accomplishment. And for men entering the foreboding unknown that is old-age, alongside the loss of physical strength comes the loss of an intangible identity.
Let’s not get confused: This is about masculinity. That’s not to say women can’t enjoy – or don’t enjoy – cycling. The documentary illustrates their stories too. But even they become a tool used by the men to prove something. And so much of the MAMIL story is about just that: proving something.
With regards to the male/female cycling dichotomy, an academic specialising in MAMILs provides an interesting insight. In childhood, young boys are taught that it’s bad to be beaten by a girl, and boys need to then prove that such defeat was an aberration. But this imbalance isn’t something that gets left in the playground. There’s a great scene in the film when a female cyclist charges past a pack of MAMILs, who all grunt, frustrated, and desperately try to up the pace and reclaim their “rightful” place.
And the testosterone doesn’t just fuel a desire to defeat women. It fuels a desire to win full stop. MAMILs throughout the film speak of a pleasure bordering on euphoria of “beating men half [their] age.” These are victories to be truly relished.
MAMILs love competing with each other, too. The wife of Jayman Prestidge, the ambitious Warragul CC President, ruefully elaborates on the drastic changes of moods she sees in her husband after he either wins a race or loses; sometimes they last for weeks. To MAMILs, victory is a shot of coffee, a hit of a drug.
This almost fiendish internal battle of age is wonderfully encapsulated in the image of the lycra-fitted MAMIL. Ideally, these men would love to look strapping. They want to look and feel masculine again. Yet their partners and the cyclists themselves mock their appearances throughout the documentary. And fair enough – they look completely ridiculous. It’s an imbalance between mind and body, a desperate conflict. Their bodies slouch while their minds scream, “I’ve still got it!”
Perhaps this explains the desperation to ignore crippling injuries. In his quest to Col du Tourmalet, one of the most famous and notoriously difficult inclines in world cycling, Melbourne based Barrister Doug Shirrefs refuses to get the medical attention he needs to fix a seriously injured knee. Rather, he opts for steroid injections to mask the pain; doing otherwise would put him out of action, and he can’t fathom that. Even more seriously, sixty year old President of Adelaide cycling group ‘Fat Boys’, Jim Turner, breaks his back after attempting a solo, off-road cycle. Despite his wife claiming she’d “happily never see a bike again”, Turner shyly chokes out his inability to do so. Later, he claims he sees “no reason why I wont be riding into my 70s.”
The men will not and cannot give up. Cycling has seeped quietly into their identity as ageing males, and refuses to leave, for fear of reality.
As the MAMIL researcher Dr Graham Berridge says, simply, “This is their way of being a man.” And this desire presents itself with a curious mix of hope, humour, and good old fashion melancholy.
Where Would We Be Without Community?
There is strength in numbers. Of course, for a group of blokes all desperate to flex their masculinity, physical strength is hardly something that needs to be expressed in numbers. But community is very infrequently about that.
“We’re not just a bike group,” says Jim Turner about the Fat Boys cycling group. “At our age, we’re going through some interesting times in our lives and we support each other through them.”
In any corner of life, it’s easy to feel isolated. With the MAMILs, interestingly, isolation often arrives surrounded by their families. Watching MAMIL, it’s hard not to feel sorry for those who sit and helplessly watch their MAMIL partners escape to a world of spinning wheels and tight-fitting dress-ups. But somewhere in their relationships, this became the case. Of course I’m not suggesting the cyclists don’t want to spend time with their families. They wake up early to take the kids to soccer, or to school, or to simply spend time with them. Yet they almost more-so crave cycling. And it’s difficult to look past the sense of loneliness they all appear to be shrouded in when wearing normal clothing and sitting without the presence other blokes at home; some just look plain lost.
This isn’t the result of a loss of love. It’s a fear. The MAMILs, bound by a collective inability to express their pain of a softening masculinity and a desire to surround themselves with others experiencing the same, come together to share, heal, or maybe just ignore. “I wonder how many divorces are out there because of the bike rider,” laments one partner softly.
Yet it isn’t just the most stereotypical MAMILs who crave and benefit from community. The documentary goes to great lengths to exhibit just how varied cycling communities are, and what they offer. We are introduced to Bob Nelson, a gay New Yorker who establishes the city’s first gay cycling group. Despite having a partner himself, Nelson acknowledges the difficulties of meeting a partner as a middle-aged homosexual, and created the group as an outlet for those who don’t suit the world of Grindr, or those simply seeking solace in similarity.
There is also the Latin American cycling group of LA, religious Christian cycling groups, and many more. They find strength in these groups. They find togetherness. These are communities who use cycling as a means of unifying, not the other way around.
Something to Live For
When you run out of direction in your life, it’s tragically easy to fall victim to the feeling that your existence is pointless, that you have no genuine reason to live on. This is all too poignantly exemplified by Justin Lang, a member of Adelaide cycling group Fat Boys. Tears welling up at the memory, Justin explains how after his relationship ended, he found himself crying in the shower, coming to the realisation that he had “nothing left to live for”. He planned on committing suicide. Yet Justin also remembered something he was looking forwards to: an upcoming bike race. With that in mind, he found a renewed purpose for life. Cycling, along with the community intrinsically woven into its lifestyle, remains Justin’s motivation.
And a thirst for purpose is not something reserved for those in despair. Most men captured in MAMIL all appear middle-class and traditionally successful. Most have families. Some, like Doug, the barrister, have achieved nearly all there is to achieve in a career. Yet maybe that’s exactly their downfall. These men have reached a plateau; the purpose that sustained them for so long has been achieved, lost, or forgotten. Cycling, more than simply a means of getting fit, is a new, near-infinite challenge.
Now, yes, there are issues with the MAMIL addiction to cycling culture. And it is, in every sense of the word, an addiction. We watch the sheer ridiculing of any suggestion to stop cycling, even after life-threatening injuries. We watch the obsessive spending on bike accessories – “If there’s a week where I don’t buy something, it’s a strange week.” We watch the almost childlike infatuation with everything bicycle-related, such as one man who gleefully shows off his bike-decorated bed sheets his wife bought him – “Now I can sleep amongst the bikes.” It’s hard not to consider cycling a plaster over the gaping wound of a withering identity.
But while it is not the most wholesome means of encountering life’s challenges, one would be foolish to write it off. I return to that underlying question of purpose. Perth’s cycling group ‘The MAMILs’ began when founder Craig Wells felt an urge to do something of note for Franko Roberts, his best friend who had recently been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Ride For Cancer is a 200km round trip that raises funds for Cancer research, and Craig took it upon himself to ride it alone. Upon reaching the finishing line, the best friends embraced in a hug layered with dense emotions. And then Franko disappeared. Craig searched and searched, and when he finally found him, he asked where he had run off to. Despite not knowing if would be alive or healthy enough to do so, Franko had signed himself up to race in next year’s fundraiser.
We all need something to look forward to, a reason to continue living. Men and women, old or young, we survive on it. We’re humans; we feed on progress and accomplishments. For MAMILs, the lifestyle isn’t just about carbon-fiber bikes and harrowing lycra. It’s about something to look forward to, something to keep the wheels turning.
In cinemas now, Canada, US, UK, Australia and coming soon to Ireland, New Zealand and Germany.
To watch MAMIL, you can apply for an on demand screening at your local cinema, courtesy of Demand Film. Simply fill out a request form on their site and they will get back to you. And if you don’t see a cinema near you with a screening you can request one.
This article was written in content partnership with Demand Film.