There’s a cycle safety poster that shows a man, half in cycling kit, half not. It asks motorists to see not another ‘bloody cyclist’ but a son, a husband, a brother and a father. We meet all of these people in the documentary film MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra).
Seeing the Canberra premiere was a given; I tick two of the three boxes. No surprise, though, that the audience was mostly blokes.
I’m used to being outnumbered outdoors, and I happen to like playing in this boys-own sandpit, but cycling is undeniably a male domain. And nowhere is the gender imbalance more striking than in the cycling ‘sportive’ – professionally run and timed cycling events for anyone with a bike.
Amy’s Gran Fondo is one of Australia’s biggest cycling events. Last year, in the 120km age-group event, 86 per cent of entrants were male. Even in the non-competitive ‘recreational’ field, four out of five entrants are men, and those over 45 account for a whopping 57 per cent of the entire field.
This is what the characters in MAMIL live for: the freedom of the open road, some good hard suffering, the jovial post-ride rituals of coffee and sledging.
We meet a barrister whose preparation for an ambitious ride in the Pyrenees includes steroid shots in the knee. Has he bitten off more than he can chew? From a picturesque villa in Spain he places a video call to his partner – then puts the phone to his cheek. ‘Where are you? All I can see is red,’ she says, given a close-up of his inner ear.
We meet several spouses, who share varying levels of tolerance with their partner’s obsession. Some of these cycling widows (and one same-sex widower) are fatalistic while others – those left with the kids, or the hospital bills – would sooner cycling just went away. These scenes, and there are a lot of them, range from amusing to uncomfortable viewing.
There is a highly amusing, rats-in-the-ranks style peek into club politics in which a beleaguered president battles his members over kit design while also trying to crush the same competitors on the bike. Before a race day grudge match, one troublemaker and frenemy declares, ‘The thing about him is, he’s physically strong, but he’s mentally weak.’ Carnage ensues.
The Australian Sports Commission’s AusPlay report reveals a dramatic shift that occurs at around age 50, where ‘not enough time’ gives way to ‘poor health/injury’ as the leading barrier to participation. It’s this transition from 'Too Busy' to 'Too Broken' MAMILs are holding at bay.
Men whose sporting lives have been cruelled by crook knee or busted shoulder find in cycling a patient ally with infinite possibilities. When you can no longer run, bowl, or tackle, you can usually pedal. You still have to haul your weight around but at least there’s a seat to sit on. For these men, cycling supplies the companionship and competition that motivates them. The only limit is time, effort and – oh yeah – money.
There is no end to the spend, so it’s fortunate MAMILs tend to have plenty of disposable income.
A recurring motif is the inelegance involved in squishing a soft (or downright obese) body into Lycra. When, after nearly two hours of love handle and pot belly, we see the sleek professional peloton racing in La Vuelta, they look like aliens.
One of the strongest themes of the film is restoration – from injury, disease, or despair – and there are many powerful examples and touching scenes. I choked up at the broken-necked gentleman whose adult daughter drives him out for a comeback ride, lifts his bike off the roof rack, and tenderly asks if he wants her to follow him ‘like last time’.
The film manages to be sympathetic but never sad, and funny without being foolish. The bonds between MAMILs are not unconditional, but they accommodate the pitfalls of midlife.
The only time my eyes prepared to roll was when one of the MAMILs said that, for middle aged men, ‘Sometimes your life gets out of whack’. No s*it: try being a middle aged woman.
Ultimately, the film is a joyful but realistic exploration of middle aged men and their cycling machines. It has so much heart, and its characters are almost universally likeable. When our barrister climbs his mountain (and buys the commemorative jersey) we first cheer and then giggle as he glances at his watch and says, ‘F*ck. Just outside three hours.’
Perhaps the film’s sweetest charm is showing men unashamedly embracing the MAMIL life. When a core part of your identity has become a public caricature, you may as well have it custom printed on a jersey for you and your mates.
After all, you’re in on the secret. And what a good one it is.