“It’s the new golf.”
“What’s the new golf?”
“Cycling, you eejit!”
We stood nursing our bruised middle-aged legs after yet another game of five-a-side soccer which, at our vintage, is becoming quite dangerous. The knees and ankles are dodgy and the ‘hammers’ seize up at the slightest change of what could only be described, charitably, as pace.
This week, I am in real danger of becoming a MAMIL: a ‘middle-aged man in lycra’. My football team is threatening to atrophy as we hit our mid-40s. As an alternative to football, one of the lads suggested we should start following in the pedalstrokes of those men in fluorescent colours who can be seen on the peloton that is the N11 on a weekend morning. The last bike most of the lads were ever on was a chopper.
The two-wheel weekly pilgrimage from all over south Dublin to Enniskerry hasn’t gone unnoticed, even by us confirmed soccer heads. Have you spotted this new sect, in its distinctive colours of luminous orange, green and, of course, yellow? And it’s not just in that part of the world. All over the country, cycling is proliferating. Howth Hill, the Naul, Blessington Lakes and beyond, the great outdoors is swarming by 10am on a Sunday.
The hard shoulder has become a rich savannah for brightly-coloured MAMILs, who tend to travel in large packs, annoying impatient weekend motorists.
Sometimes the pack is stretched as some riders – usually a pair – head out, injecting speed and extending the peloton. But each MAMIL looks out for the next in a display of tribal loyalty normally reserved for east Belfast.
Cycling is the new golf. Years ago, when Ireland almost merged into one large golf course, cyclists were few and far between. These days, as golf clubs shut up shop or desperately drop their membership fees, cycling is booming.
The person driving this cycling revolution is a middle-aged man in lycra who has a family and decent enough income. He is no longer buying the flash car to signal his mid-life crisis, instead he’s getting fit on his bike. Today he might be a little squeezed into his spandex man-kini, but give him a few weeks on the road and the pounds will fall off.
And it’s not just any old class of ride; once you join the Mamil tribe, the gear – not just the bike – is crucial because the innocent starter MAMIL will get hooked and find himself getting out the credit card in the local bike shop.
But it’s not just men’s fitness at stake: the MAMIL is the latest holy grail of marketers and advertisers all over the world.
Strange as it may seem, in a world that appears to be dominated by Sky Sports, transfer windows and soccer, cycling is the biggest sporting goods market in the world in terms of revenue, according to a survey by multinational market research company NPD Group.
Global sales totalled nearly €33 billion last year (enough to pay for Anglo, with a few quid to spare), an increase of 4 per cent each year since 2009. Some 137 million bicycles (including electric bikes) were sold, with the average price estimated at €179, though your average Irish Mamil will pay a multiple of this for his steed. Cycling accounted for 15 per cent of all sporting goods revenue.
As more people start cycling than any other sport, the market for bike sales in Ireland and Britain is predicted to grow by more than 20 per cent to €1 billion by 2016. The cycling market, including accessories, footwear and clothing, is valued at €2.2 billion in Ireland and Britain.
That means that the cycling market is worth twice as much as the €1 billion soccer market.
But what is really important to marketers and advertisers is that the MAMIL is a largely middle-class creature. To marketing men, the bright, taut 45-year-old in a yellow replica leader’s jersey is the upmarket (and much more lucrative) version of the bloke in an XXL Man Utd jersey glued to his wide-screen.
Research carried out by Mintel reveals that cyclists in Britain who use their bike at least once a week are more likely to shop at posh supermarkets and have a household income in excess of €65,000 a year.
Halfords Group, the biggest Irish and British bike retailer, posted sales growth at its cycling division of 15 per cent in the second quarter of 2012, faster than any other unit, though the lucrative road bike market is the smallest part of its overall bike sales. Halfords has 24 shops in Ireland from Cork to Letterkenny. However, it is the Aldi of bike sellers. The real place to spot a MAMIL is in the many specialist bike shops that have opened to meet demand.
The ‘cycle-to-work’ scheme rekindled cycling interest in the chopper generation, but the commuting cyclist has morphed into the serious, weekend sports enthusiast, and he has provided a bigger opportunity for retailers.
While commuters might spend up to €1,000 on a bike, helmet and high-visibility jacket and consider themselves suitably clothed to avoid rush-hour injury, a weekend road-biking Mamil will often lay out significantly more.
The new Mamil quickly discovers the rigours of bike etiquette. Rule number one: any bike displayed on top of a car should be worth more than the car itself.
Kit confusion is not entertained when youhave decided to worship at the chapel of MAMILdom. Shorts must be black. Nothing baggy or voluminous may darken the saddle: it might affect the aerodynamic look of the rest of the pack. Shorts and socks have to meet the Goldilocks rule: neither too short, like 1980s tennis players, nor too long, like those beloved of footballers. That all saddles, bars and tyres must match is a given.
As with all clubs and sects, things that make no difference at all to the outsider are of enormous significance to the insider.
For the MAMIL, there isn’t much change from €1,500 on the bike (though, for many who commute, the bike-to-work scheme cuts the cost). You can expect to fork out €300-odd on clothing, more than €100 on shoes and another €100 on the helmet, as well as an endless array of accessories.
The hardened, fully kitted-out Mamil can come across as vaguely homoerotic, trussed up in a tight rubber cap under his helmet, goggles, clasps, rubber tubes rammed into pockets, skins and arm warmers. Sure wasn’t your man in 50 shades of you-know-what a MAMIL? Real men ride; and real men spend.
In the years ahead, watch admen focus their attention on the huge consumer market that is middle-aged men. From Top Gear to Fifty Shades of Grey, this may be the age of the Mamil.
Maybe I’ll stick to football for a while yet.
David McWilliams’ new book The Good Room is out now.