Mamil: Documentary explores a passion for cycling

Mamil. Middle-aged Man in Lycra. The cycling term carries so many interpretations and associations that, at times, Nickolas Bird found it a hindrance while making his new full-length feature - titled Mamil.

"It's a very controversial term, it's very divisive," says the Australian documentary filmmaker. 

 "People were cautious when we approached them, they could be thinking 'you know what, they could be doing an anti-cycling film'. 

"But what we've tried to do is give a really positive representation of middle-aged men on bikes."

The term was coined by an advertising executive in 2009, and the Oxford dictionary defines Mamils as "very keen" riders who "typically" ride expensive bikes in cycling gear. Some riders see it a humorous and affectionate term, while others strongly reject it.

With a tongue-in-cheek billing as "a documentary exposé" of a "secret world", Mamil was filmed in six countries, examining the cycling habits of a broad range of men and how their two-wheeled passions impact upon their lives, their mental and physical health, and relationships with friends and family.

There are fly-on-the-wall observations of competition and camaraderie between riders in groups, tales of loss and triumph, and scenes depicting tensions between family commitments and free time to ride - and fears about risk and safety.

Featured riders include a Melbourne barrister challenging himself in the Pyrenees, a British journalist returning to competition in later life, and a Perth cancer survivor who signed up for a future charity ride despite his uncertain health, after his best mate rode the event as a way to show support.

"We selected some of the most interesting Mamils we could find – it doesn't represent all cyclists, not at all," says Bird of the film.

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The 48-year-old Bird competed in cycling events as a boy but quit at age 17 and subsequently put on a lot of weight. "When I was 36 I was at the gym and a trainer said 'you need to take up cycling'. 

"I began cycling, became a total Mamil, bought really high-end bikes, started racing and training every day – I totally became addicted." 

Since then he has "done a bit of a turnaround" and eased off on the competition – "I'm still a Mamil, just a different type of Mamil." 

His experiences on the bike led to this latest movie project.

"I wanted to change the perception of how people view middle-aged men cycling in packs - how they view a cyclist on the road. I don't want people to think, 'look at that big guy riding, he looks pathetic', but rather, 'look at him, he's being active, he's lapping people who are on the couch', as they say."

And while its title and topic might speak to the converted, he says the film has been built with "a classic narrative structure – I think anyone could watch it and be entertained".

Bird credits his co-director, Eleanor Sharpe - "who hasn't really caught the bike bug" - with bringing a wider focus to the film. "She was more into the 'why do men ride' thing."

One emotional scene in the film "hit me like a brick wall; that was a turning point," says Bird. "The mental health messages in Mamil are astronomical, and something we didn't initially go out to find. We went in thinking, 'weight loss, weight loss'."

It was also the moment when the film took on its masculine focus, he says. "We didn't set out to only make a film about men," he says, "but when we got the men's health thing, that was really interesting, and we thought, 'we're not making a cycling movie any more – we're making something different'." 

Much of the film focuses on "coffee ride" clubs – groups without wider affiliations – and the camaraderie and mutual support they provide. Bird believes cycling gives men a different identity, and the groups give them an opportunity to "say stuff that they couldn't say in the workplace or at home".

In the US, the film looks at the Eastside Bike Club in Los Angeles, which one rider founded in a bid to battle obesity in the Hispanic community; a Christian bike club in Minneapolis; and Fast and Fabulous, which bills itself as "New York's GLBT cycling club".

The film's participants are predominantly white but "I think that just represents the sport," says Bird, while several attempts to broaden the scope of the documentary, including filming in countries such as Russia and China, fell through.

As for European countries like Italy, "everybody just rides – it's not as if people discover cycling when they're older. The big Mamil countries are Australia, NZ and especially the UK. It's massive there."

A fan of cycling culture he may be, but Bird says that some riders can lose perspective, becoming "a bit aggressive and self-righteous" and urged riders to respect everyone on the road and not take themselves too seriously. 

As for drivers, "I just hope that when people see someone cycling they realise it's someone's dad, someone's brother, someone's wife, someone's partner … just be careful and considerate. People are vulnerable on a bike."

Bird and Sharpe decided that there had been documentaries on road culture and conflict before and "we didn't want to focus on that negative narrative", giving just a brief nod to hostile interactions on the road.

So, if middle-aged men in Lycra became a fad worthy of a marketing focus, is it something that will run out eventually? Bird thinks that if anything, it'll be the opposite, as increasing numbers of people turn to exercise to cycling to find "me" time in an increasingly stressful world. 

Meanwhile, among his collection of bikes is a top-end Trek Madone that has been neglected as the two-year Mamil project winds up. 

"I haven't been riding much lately – so I'm really looking forward to getting back onto the bike."

MAMIL will be released in cinemas nationally from February 21. For session times and bookings visit demand.film​.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He is mentioned in the film credits for an interview that was not included in the final version.

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