Style it like a Mamil
(aka a middle-aged man in Lycra).
Aweekday afternoon in a London photography studio, and four middle-aged blokes are happily discussing shaving their legs. There’s earnest debate about aerodynamics, aesthetics, and not getting gravel stuck in your pores if you fall off. But most of all, there is agreement that smooth, silky calves are a badge of honour for the serious amateur cyclist.
Middle-aged men in Lycra (aka MAMILS) have become an easy target, and not just for irate cabbies and lorry drivers. The stereotype was once a portly businessman proving he still had it, squeezed into ill-fitting sportswear, and waving it in your face when he got into the office.
But no more. The story of today’s middleaged cyclist is about camaraderie, about feeling part of something while still expressing your own individuality, about doing something because you love it and because it’s good for you. It’s about male mental health, about pushing yourself. And for the four guys pictured here, it’s about style, fashion, and getting things just right.
They and a lot of others like them have money in their pockets, and are prepared to spend it on looking sharp while they ride. With the UK cycling market worth around £1.5 billion annually, and a bike sold every 10 seconds, brands want a piece of these
men – and the bigger spenders do tend to be men. Labels like Rapha, Castelli and Café du Cycliste are as familiar to this audience as Paul Smith, Drake’s and Sunspel. In fact, they tend to experiment with, and spend money on, cycling style in a way they might be reluctant to when it comes to nonwheeled looks.
‘Cycling is about propelling a bike, but the aesthetic is of equal importance,’ says the television newsreader and presenter Matt Barbet. ‘Some people just look great on a bike: it’s about riding well, about looking like the bike was made for you, and it is also about the kit. The kit has to match. I love to hunt out limited-edition pieces by brands such as MAAP; I’ll get stuff they do for shops in Japan that people here are most likely not going to have. I don’t want to dress like everyone else. I might spend a couple of hundred on a jersey if it was something I really loved, but it would have to perform well too on a ride.’
Barbet, 43, who will present ITV coverage of the Tour of Britain, which starts today, says there is ‘a tribalism’ to road cycling in Britain, heightened because wider society is not always pro-cyclist. ‘So like any social group, cyclists like to show they know their tribe’s rules.’
And so to legs. ‘Shaving your legs shows that you take cycling seriously,’ says Barbet. ‘It is a non-permanent tattoo. And it looks better: who wants tight Lycra with hairy legs sprouting out? You show off your physique, the hard work that goes into the muscles, and why not? I am not embarrassed; it feels cleaner. And there are all sorts of debates: should you shave up to the shorts or not? The socks, they should start two fingers below the bottom of the calf muscle… Anybody who shaves their legs to ride a bike understands that it is not about physical performance or aerodynamics.’
Emeka Okaro, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, likes that cycling provides him with headspace, a way to be active, and an excuse to stockpile enough wearable textiles to make a Victorian mill owner blush.
‘I got an old bike out of the shed five years ago,’ says Okaro, 51. ‘I did 1.8 miles and I practically collapsed. But I kept with it, and four miles became five miles, and 10 became 20. Obviously there are the keep-fit benefits, less stress on the joints and all that, and I want to be active into my 60s, my 70s.
‘But also I like to look good and feel good
about my riding. I have three bikes – my wife would say I have four, but I don’t count one of them because it is a hybrid. I have 25 or so shirts: I like the brand Café du Cycliste. When I first took it up, I didn’t really bother about what I wore, but I wouldn’t go out now without looking the part. I’ll select something depending on my mood and how I want to express myself. I’ve spent a small fortune over the years.
‘It’s about individuality, and also the camaraderie. I ride with my friends, up to about 12 of us, people I have known for years. I would say that we are competitive with each other, but positively. We see improvement as a group and we celebrate that. And my style is an important factor for me in that.’
Britain being Britain, bonding activities that don’t involve several pints of temporary happiness facilitator can be hard to find for many men. For Jamie Dormon, a fashion columnist who has bipolar disorder, cycling is a hobby, a means of expression, and a vital mental-health tool.
‘Cycling shuts my mind up,’ says Dormon, 43. ‘I used to shut it up with drink and whatever, but now I ride. This bike I have today, a fixed-gear, I completely stripped it down. You pedal. To brake, pedal back. I value the simplicity of it; you don’t overthink. It’s all black, apart from the gold chain – that adds a bit of individuality. And I’ll wear a lot of bright colours, pinks or oranges, always coordinated though. Black Sheep and Attaquer I like, and [the range for] Vélobici by a photographer called Scott Mitchell, who worked with Team Sky.
‘I definitely feel faster in Lycra. I love the detail of cycling kit, I think it appeals to the mathematical part of our brains. I am setting up a charity that I’m going to call Manic Bikes, teaching people with bipolar and other mental-health issues to repair bikes. Cycling is great for mental health, because of the quietening effect but also because in a group, if someone hasn’t come for a ride for a couple of weeks, you’d check in with them.’
Jon Evans, 45, who works in marketing, also started five years ago. ‘No underpants,’ he says. ‘That was the big shock. When I first went out, I was with a mate who was an experienced rider. He asked me if I was wearing pants, and then he was like, “Oooh. You are in for some chafing.” The shorts have a pad in, so you don’t want any other fabric. Learnt that quickly.
‘I agree that when I feel my best I ride my best; there’s a mixture of reality and placebo effect. I started off with a bike that cost about £1,000, but your first bike is not your last bike. A £1,000 bike becomes a £3,000 bike and then a £7,000 bike and, well… You see other people with a better one and you think they are at an unfair advantage.’
To Evans, it’s all about the bike. ‘As for the kit, the better I get, the more understated I get. I mostly wear Castelli, low-key. My ideal look would be ninja, really. You should never buy team kit: anyone you see going around dressed in Team Sky is a no-no. You can almost guarantee they cannot ride. And everything has to be tight. Skintight. No sagging, no bagging, because that slows you down. I would have miles
‘Everything has to be tight. Skintight. No sagging, no bagging’
more respect for a guy, even if he’s carrying a lot of timber, in tight Lycra, than someone flapping around.’
Like the others, Evans has no problem with spending on the style. ‘I’ve got an account with one online retailer, and they make you a “platinum” member if you spend £500 a year. Occasionally they send a statement, and it was about £1,500 last year on kit. Oh dear!’
All four agree that they dress for themselves, or to be part of a subculture to varying degrees. Barbet admits that there is an element of ‘peacocking’, but none of them feels that they are looking to impress women. Maybe cycling blokes are missing a trick. Lauren Stevenson, 38, who runs Aisle 8 communications consultancy, says, ‘I met my boyfriend when he cycled beside me going up a hill in Ibiza. Cycling is a great way to meet people: you’re outdoors in beautiful scenery, relaxed, you’ve got a shared interest. And it tends to be an affluent sport; guys who will spend five grand on a bike often have interesting jobs or lives.
‘Cycling guys do maybe tend to be a bit older. And I’ve noticed there’s a bit of a progression through the brands they wear: they get into it and get Rapha, and then Castelli, and then the really cool French ones like Chapeau!.’
Lisa Tubbs, 39, a photographer, agrees that cycling is an attractive pastime; she met her husband on a ride with Richmond Park Rouleurs and they are expecting a baby next month. ‘There is definitely something appealing about chasing boys up hills on a bike,’ she jokes. ‘I like that it’s an opportunity for guys to wear bright colours; lots of men seem to love pink on a bike. And while certain physiques might be more aesthetically appealing, I like that guys in all shapes and sizes go for it in the Lycra.’
We live in an era when acceptable and unacceptable expressions of masculinity are debated as never before. Where once the 40or 50-year-old man might have blown off steam with golf and locker-room chat, or buying a preposterous gas-guzzling vehicle, the switched-on middle-aged man of today wants to spend his cash on an environmentally and socially conscious pursuit; one that is mentalhealth-positive, physically beneficial, and allows him to express himself. Surely it is time for a hunting ban on MAMILS.