Comment: get on your bike - but leave out the Lycra

Picture from stock

Picture from stock

First published in News Watford Observer: Photograph of the Author by

It was a gorgeous weekend for camping, which helps when there are four dads and nine sons. Up the A41, through Hemel Hempstead and then into a field opposite Ivinghoe Beacon, an imposing hill that looks over the rest of the Chilterns. 

We had packed well. My friend Ian had, once again, brought a fold-up kitchen sink and there was food aplenty, a few refreshing drinks in the cool box and enough cricket bats, footballs and car magazines to keep the boys entertained. And, of course, there was that great big hill to walk. 

Boys are like dogs. You have to exercise them, otherwise they get fractious and annoying and so we started off our trek up towards the top of the beacon. 

From the campsite it had looked like a gentle incline but the nearer you got, the steeper it became. The sunshine got warmer on our necks and our throats ever more thirsty. 

So a huge thanks to the world’s most amiable ice-cream man, who appeared at the very tipping point of our march through the hills.

Just as our team of children were about to hit some kind of peak of moaning, his cheery van came into sight and we cheerfully poured money into his hand in exchange for something cold and icy. 

Frankly, I would have paid a fiver for a stick of frozen pond water by this point, so a couple of quid for a Cornetto seemed a bargain. 

And then back to the tent, for a beer and, of course, some chilli. It is, by the way, absolutely mandatory to eat chilli and sausages if you’re on a campsite. 

I’m not sure if it’s technically the law, but it’s certainly a custom you can’t ignore. 

We also did a cycle ride through the Ashridge estate, down to a stunning village called Aldbury. 

On a day when the sun is bright and the wind simply rustling through the branches, most things look great, but I suspect these places are so pleasant they’d even do the job in a hailstorm in February. 

Village green, lovely old cottages, old pub, quiet roads, winding paths through the woods and also an endless supply of middle-aged cyclists. I’ve never seen so many MAMILs in my life. In case this is a new word on you, panic not. A MAMIL is a middle-aged man in Lycra, and it’s one of those lovely acronyms that sums up a whole social phenomenon in one word. Because this isn’t just a hobby - it’s some kind of cycling mania. 

For me, cycling is a lovely way to get some exercise. It’s a brilliant thing to do with the children and a satisfying way of getting from one place to another. I’ve been cycling since I was a kid and used to be a pretty enthusiastic mountain biker, back in the days, a quarter of a century ago, when mountain bikes were still something of a novelty. 

But I’ve never been driven to putting on the Lycra and, judging by the state of some of the people I saw last weekend, I can be pretty sure I never will. 

Let’s be quite clear  - you have to be in very decent shape to look good in Lycra, and most middle-aged men, even those who cycle quite a lot, just don’t hit the target. What’s even more baffling is the number of these 40-somethings who’ve decided it isn’t enough just to wear very tight fitting cycling gear. 

No, no. It has to be the same sort of kit they wear on the Tour de France, so a succession of blokes (they were, without exception, all men) came past wearing replica tops from professional racing teams, emblazoned with bright colours and the names of European banks, holiday destinations, mobile phone giants and cheese companies. Have we really become so obsessed with cycling we’re buying replica kits?

I know cycling has rarely been so popular and that Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Chris Froome and a dozen others have won major titles in recent years, and yes, despite my BBC bias, I’ll accept the people wearing Team Sky clobber as a sort of nod in the direction of British success. 

But plenty of these weren’t wearing Team Sky, or Team GB, or anything else you might recognise. They were wearing the colours of Orica-GreenEDGE, Team Katsusha, or  other racing teams too obscure to pop up on Google Images. 

Why? I totally understand why people wear replica football tops. Football is part of our cultural identity and, particularly in places such as Newcastle, the football shirt is emblematic of something deeper than just a sporting team. It’s about pride in the area, its history and its character. 

The football season goes on for months and it absorbs people. I just don’t believe anyone cycling round Ashridge that day really lives their life to the heartbeat of the Movistar cycling team. 

If you did, surely you’d have been over in France, or at least sitting at home, watching the Tour? 
These are not cheap tops, but then again cycling is not a cheap sport. You can easily pay more than £100 for a replica cycling jersey, and then there are the shorts, the shoes, the socks and everything else you need to look the part. 

Being a MAMIL comes with a fair whack on the pocket - and that’s before you’ve even bought a bicycle. I’m no expert, but I know enough to recognise a grand’s worth of Pinarello bike when it flies past me. 

It’s rather like skiing. At the one end, the guys who’ve got the expensive stuff and know how to use it. At the other, the people who’ve thrown a fortune at the sport in the forlorn hope a costly bike will turn them into a great rider. All the gear, and no idea, as they tend to say at the top of a nasty red run. 

But there is a serious, important side to this - and it is that the rise of cycling is wholly to be applauded. 

It’s a brilliant sport for people of all ages and all abilities. It exercises all sorts of bits of you and, while I wouldn’t fancy cycling through central London any more, it’s a healthy and fare-free way of getting from A to B. 

Lots of people are now debating whether the Olympic Games really did inspire people to take up sport and the evidence is that participation levels have barely gone up. 

But the rise of the MAMILs suggests some sporting success can make us change our behaviours.

et your bike out, put on a helmet and go for a ride. But maybe take a peek in the mirror before you reach for the Lycra.

 

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