Alec Marsh

I’m a middle-aged man in Lycra – and I’m proud

Let me introduce you to Type 2 fun

  • From Spectator Life

It began after pint of beer on a Friday evening and a grudging realisation that, well, getting a little bit more active would be no bad thing. Before I knew it, I’d talked myself into doing a 60-mile cycle through the Essex countryside the following Sunday morning – part of an organised cycle race, charmingly called the Tour de Tendring.

Setting off from Harwich in a borrowed Lycra two-piece cycling outfit – looking like a human love handle mated with a mobility scooter – I set off at 8.30 a.m., pedalling into the unknown. What would give up first, my knees, the gears on my rusty old, steel-framed Dawes Galaxy or my spirits? 

The fact is that long-distance cycling is what some folk call Type 2 fun

What followed was unpleasant: by mile 18 I was deep into buyer’s remorse. By the time I reached Clacton, the half way point, I felt like an immolated extra in the Boschian depiction of hell – you know, one of the chaps at the back with the skewer buried especially deep you know where. My feet were numb, my legs wet jelly, my neck and wrists ached from the cycling posture and repeated potholes – and I was almost sobbing every time I saw a faint incline. To the rescue came a pouch of sugary gel which tasted like thick undiluted orange squash and was so positively delicious that it would have made John Torode tear up with joy. 

Three Garibaldi biscuits and two litres of water later I was back in the saddle. Here’s the rather astonishing news: I went the distance – 56 miles, as it turned out. What’s more, while I was out there pedalling through Essex’s sweet uneventful countryside, I saw the light: I sampled the true joy of being a mamil, one of those despised middle-aged men in Lycra.

Yes, undoubtedly, Lycra on a man of a certain age is to fashion what brutalist buildings are to architecture: an abomination. But just like brutalism you discover it’s far better to be inside looking out. At least you aren’t obliged see it. 

And Lycra works so who cares what it looks like? Once you’ve been married for more than ten years that kind of thing ceases to matter. Plus, the thick-nappy-style pad insert in the shorts really does save your backside a lot of unnecessary agony (dare to spend four hours in the saddle without one, if you don’t believe me).

Oh, what a joy it is to be a mamil. First, to cycle through countryside is to really see it, because you’re going slowly enough to take it all in. At ten to 15mph you get it: the landscape, the hills – oh yes, even Essex has actual hills, unfortunately – the cow parsley and the first red poppies in the hedgerows, the whisper of leaves of the trees, the hot fields of crops, the silhouettes of squashed hedgehogs. 

And you actually hear the birdsong – nature’s sweet soundtrack, which you never do when you’re burning along in an Audi A4 estate with Taylor Swift thrashing out over the growl of the two-litre diesel engine. Then there’s a truly champion quantity of decent, blokeish chat – hours of it, usually gear-related. Men of a certain age start to open up as they pedal. There’s something almost spiritual about men engaged in collective hard work.

This is what it means to be one of those huddles of cyclists, typically consisting of anything from two to six riders, that you normally see holding up the traffic on a Saturday morning. They’re the irritating people who – if you’re like me when I’m not on a bike – you usually end up having to accelerate past ever so slightly dangerously on a country road in order to make an urgent appointment at Waitrose or cubs. On the bike, it’s worth it for the camaraderie.

That said, on my first outing I managed to find one lonely cyclist who was in worse shape then me: and let me tell you, what sheer, peerless mastery it was to creak past him, the rasp of my bike chain masking the heaviness of my breathing on an evil, never-ending hill to a place called Beaumont-cum-Moze. (I’m never going there again unless it’s in a car). In that moment, when nothing but sheer shame kept my numb feet pumping the pedals, I was Lance Armstrong.

Against such triumphs, of course, is the constant stream of infinitely slimmer and better-attired uber-mamils; toned cyclists who doubtlessly do peaks in the Pyrenees when they’re not cruising Essex, who sweep past you, apparently effortlessly, on whirring carbon fibre road-bikes wishing you a cheery ‘good morning’ as they go. They’re not fooling anyone with that.

For mamils like me, though, it’s not about winning – it’s about making the distance. And, anyway, the physical exertion hurts so much that people overtaking you is the least of it. This points to the most important reason why being a mamil is a joy. The fact is that long-distance cycling is what some folk call Type 2 fun. That’s the sort of activity that’s actually miserable to endure when you’re doing it but enjoyable in retrospect – as opposed to the first type, like having a pint, which is fun while you’re doing it.

You can take it from me, cycling 60 miles through the Essex countryside having done zero training on a 15-year old Dawes Galaxy with only six working gears is the definition of fun only in retrospect. But Type 2 fun is far better than Type 2 diabetes – which could well be where I’ll be heading if I don’t change my ways.