Why I'm no longer a Mamil

Mamil. Middle-aged man in Lycra. It's a term I've often applied to myself over the years. 

After all, buying my first pair of padded, stretchy shorts was a threshold experience. A sign of things to come. 

As an adult, I had returned to bike riding as a sport - a replacement for other activities that my knees would no longer tolerate. Cycling was all about exercise and energy, about pushing my limits, and finding new challenges. 

A few years into my new-found passion, the term Mamil was coined, and I embraced it with glee.

Hold on tights

Reportedly devised by marketers, the acronym was a useful shorthand to describe a surging trend – middle-aged men swapping golf clubs for racing bikes, and reaping the benefits of an active lifestyle. (There are also plenty of Mawils, but they never got the same attention.)

The label was quirky and catchy, and it claimed defiant ownership of a phenomenon that many people inexplicably appear to find confronting – that a man of a certain age can dare to wear form-fitting garments in the cause of comfort while pursuing a sporting activity (I've never understood why swimmers and surfers don't generate the same controversy).

I took up cycling – but I sometimes think it has taken me up. To complement the racer, I bought a touring-style bike with lazier angles, and soon found myself rambling across different states and nations. 

This bike was soon doubling as a commuter – done more as an enjoyment than as a workout – and is the go-to vehicle for a spot of quaxing or an evening pleasure cruise.


Losing my religion?

Some of these trips are done in saucy Spandex, yes. But what about the days when I am in jeans, or regular shorts and a T-shirt, or work clothes? Am I shedding my Mamilian status?

That can depend on who you're talking to. In Australia, Lycra has become a catch-all phrase for cycling (and all too often, a pejorative). 

News reports and social media commentary abounds with fabric references, often without any justification. If it involves bike riders, the Lycra commentary will be along soon enough. 

Sports cyclists may be the most visible bike riders – and the easiest group to stigmatise. They have kept the wheels of cycling turning over through some difficult times, as our roads became increasingly clogged by cars.

The ride stuff

But they aren't the only cyclists – far from it. And in many ways, cycling's best future on our roadways lies not just with the enthusiasts, but also with people who don't even see themselves as cyclists - they're just making use of a convenient, cost-efficient form of transport.

A study released this month analysed some 1000 cities to quantify the existing levels of cycling around the world – and to examine the benefits that increased transport cycling could bring. 

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that with strong policy measures, cycling could reach 11 per cent of global travel demand by 2030, and 14 per cent by 2050, saving trillions of dollars and billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in the process. 

Closer to home, Melbourne's Draft Cycling Plan, which aims to increase cycling's share of trips to 7 per cent by 2020, notes the wider benefits of cycling – such as being able to fit 12 bicycles into a single car parking space, or how bike lanes could increase local retail. 

Peddling the benefits for all

One big upside of increased cycling participation is that it helps to improve safety for all riders. Motorists get used to looking out for riders, and the act of riding a bike becomes increasingly normalised. 

Which is great for enthusiasts like me, because I'm still a sports cycling nut, out every weekend chasing some elusive personal best on a Strava segment

Still, the Mamil term has become unnecessarily restrictive – unlike the fabric itself. At best, I'm a middle aged man who is occasionally in Lycra – a Mamoil™, if you like.

But ultimately, I'm a cyclist. Or a bike rider. Or just another human on a bike. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

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