Kingfisher’s Kitchen, just opposite the town clock in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, on a Sunday morning any time after 8am, is a perfect spot for Mamil (middle aged men in Lycra) watching.

Here he is so self-assured, you don’t even have to sneak up on him. Secure among his own species, the normally socially anxious Mamil congregates with carefree abandon. Today, he luxuriates in the bright sunshine, resplendent in multi-hued plumes of bright pinks, greens and blues.

Among some primates, the more radiantly red the bums, the higher up the social hierarchy; the more incandescent the Mamil’s clobber, the more splendid the specimen. The swaggering buck Mamil making a name for himself might go for more risqué, lurid tangerine, lime or even lilac, although it takes a proper Bull Mamil to carry off this display.

The Bull Mamil, rarely threatened, is assured of his place in the pecking order. Hierarchy is signalled by the marque of the bike, where expense is a significant indicator of status, but not the only one by a long way.

The arriviste Mamil might make that schoolboy error, but the true afficionado knows retro beats contemporary, and it requires only a touch. In football, locating yourself in the Benelux glory years of the 1970s never fails to impress.

So too for cyclists, it could be just a little hint like an Italian Molteni cap, but it says enough. You are in the inner sanctum. Up here, the rarely seen female of the species, the Willow (Women In Luminous Lycra on Wheels) struts her stuff flamboyantly.

Solitary ‘Mamils’

Having been thought almost extinct up to a few years ago, the Willow is an increasingly common, but not yet everyday, sight. Unlike some of the more solitary Mamils, she rarely travels alone and it’s not uncommon now to witness a group of trim Willows picking at avocado toast, poached egg and rocket salad on the terrace of Kingfisher’s.

Once refreshed, the congress of Mamils and Willows get back on their carbon-framed Ridleys, Specializeds or Canyons, bikes that can set you back more than a few grand, and head up the steep Wicklow hills. Cycling is not for the faint-hearted; it is difficult and demands commitment and this is why it’s popular.

Cycling is the fastest-growing sport in Ireland and this Sunday’s weekend warriors are just one aspect of the activity of choice for a rapidly growing cohort.

According to the Irish Sports Monitor 2017, cycling is now the fourth-most popular sport in the country, with 5.1 per cent of the adult population participating regularly. This puts it behind personal exercise (12.4 per cent), swimming (8.5 per cent) and running (6.2 per cent), but ahead of soccer, GAA and the rest.

The growth in the past five years has been extraordinary. Cycling Ireland had 29,333 members in 2017. This is almost a doubling from 15,331 members in 2012 and up from a measly 2,000 in 1980. There are new cycling clubs opening all the time, all around the country. Today, there are 483 clubs operating and in 2017 alone, 538 newly trained coaches arrived on this burgeoning scene.

All over the south and west coast, cycling “sportives” are extremely popular and, over the summer, you will see thousands of Mamils and Willows grimacing up some of the most beautiful passes and mountains, hurtling down some of the most scenic routes in the country, and much of this is done for charity.

Rarely can a government initiative such as the “cycle to work” scheme have had such spectacular results. The health aspect of the surge in cycling should not be overlooked.

A working man’s sport

Cycling is hard, it gets people fit and even if the caricature of the Mamil is as much defined by his paunch as his mettle, imagine his paunch without the wheels?

One of the most fascinating economic aspects in the spread of cycling is how the sport has jumped a social class or three. By this I mean that cycling used to be a blue collar sport and now it is clearly the sport of choice for the professional class. Cycling is the new golf.

When I was a kid, cycling was a working man’s sport. The cycling royalty of Ireland, the aristocracy on two wheels, were families from corporation estates. The Kimmages were from Crumlin, the McQuaids from Finglas, Stephen Roche from Rosemount in Dundrum. Tom Daly’s wonderful book The Rás – a definitive history of Irish cycling – reinforces this idea that cycling was the sport of working men and the sons of small farmers.

Sean Kelly left school early to work on his father’s farm, becoming an apprentice bricklayer before taking to the road professionally. Even by the time Stephen Roche became only the second rider ever to win the Triple Crown of Tour de France, Giro and World Championship in one year, cycling was very much a minority sport largely involving blue-collar men.

Knees, cost and camaraderie

However, by the time Sam Bennett won two stages at the Giro d’Italia in the past weeks, cycling in Ireland had become the professional class at play, at least in its weekend incarnation. It could be because cycling is difficult and only a person with a certain inner drive gets up on a saddle. Or maybe pushing yourself to the limit, competing all the way, is part of the make-up of the successful professional in this hyper-globalised world.

Or maybe because cycling doesn’t destroy the knees the way five-a-side football does, sporty ambitious people graduate to cycling rather than going to seed. It may also be because it is expensive to get kitted out that only the reasonably comfortable middle aged, with children almost reared, have the time and money to commit to a top-of-the-range rothair.

Or maybe the camaraderie of a congress of Mamils and Willows, head to toe in excessively tight, almost auto-erotic, exotically coloured, flamboyant clobber is simply too irresistible.

Whatever it is, it’s growing rapidly. If you doubt that, head out on the road this weekend and prepare to be dazzled by the professional class at play.

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