Illustration: Pat Campbell
On this national Ride2Work Day and with our ultra-fit Prime Minister often pedalling up and down Red Hill and Mount Ainslie, there is no better time than now for me to admit to being a middle-aged man in Lycra (mamil).
My coming out is made easier by the fact that much of the Western world is experiencing a bicycling boom, with bike shops and online stores thriving. In Australia the ridership has risen markedly in and around city centres. Census data shows that between 2001 and 2011 the number of people riding into central Sydney of a morning rose from 5351 to 11,442.
Australian cyclists straddle the saddle for many reasons: to pinch pennies, to cut carbon and to conquer mountains. Recently we have witnessed a proliferation of fashion-conscious hipsters astride their vintage steel frames and fixies (fixed-gear bicycles).
What unites many cyclists and non-cyclists alike, however, is a distaste for road bike riders, especially mamils. Penny-pinching commuters see no point in spending thousands of dollars on a two-wheel steed and then thousands more for accessories. Similarly, greenies condemn roadies for their conspicuous consumption and for driving their cars to get to weekend bike rides. Mountain bikers scorn roadies for insisting on smooth roads and shaven legs along with their sensitivity to wind and tendency to travel in packs.
In short, the road bike rider is commonly regarded as pretentious and phoney. Especially try-hard mamils who have discovered the sport in their autumn years and pretend that Lance Armstrong neither inspired them to start riding nor gave them any reason to stop. Whereas most riders seek to connect with their community and environment, the roadie wants only to overtake others and register as many kilometres as possible on their GPS computers.
There have been some worrying tensions around bike riding and roadies in particular. This year Derryn Hinch referred to cyclists as ''cockroaches on wheels''. The ABC's science show, Catalyst, asserted that in any fortnight 70 per cent of Australian cyclists are harassed. Roadies, especially lone riders, are regularly yelled at, often in the sinister hope that they will startle and fall. Attacks on the Old Federal Highway by a weapon-wielding motorist has led many cyclists to avoid this once serene route.
Road bike riders are no doubt both the victims and perpetrators of rage and recklessness. In 2007 a rider in Melbourne's weekly high-speed ''Hell Ride'' ran a red light and struck 77-year-old James Gould, who died of his injuries the next day.
As a self-confessed mamil and with a view to promoting social harmony, I ask: ''Why do they hate us?'' The answer lies in our appearance, attitude and actions.
First is the visceral aversion to Lycra, an aversion that centres on the perception that it is inappropriate and even obscene. For many there is simply no place in public (excluding perhaps beaches) for such body-fitting attire. Who do these people think they are? Does it really make them go any faster? Can't they see how ridiculous they look waddling around in those gusseted pants and cleated shoes?
For some, outlandishly coloured Lycra outfits conflict with the true-blue Aussie man in his baggy shorts and faded wife beater. Bicycle attire is oh so European and should stay there. Other critics see Lycra as body-shaping underpants for the gut-sucking middle-aged man. In this case, however, the negligible effects are on display for all to see because the underpants are worn externally.
In a way the reality is worse than mamil critics fear. The truth is that bicycle shorts are made to be worn without underpants and so there really is little more than a sweaty chamois separating the mamil's pride and his surrounds. There is also a certain buzz about wearing a second skin, a sense of being trim, streamlined and speedy. Lycra helps a mamil draw nearer not only to professional athletes but also to his childhood heroes: the Flash, Batman and even Superman.
Much of the road-bike kit connects roadies to their bicycles in an arguably far more intimate way than other riders might feel towards their motorbikes or horses. Snug Lycra, heat-moulded shoes, frames that weigh less than a cereal box, feather-thin pedals and seats that have been sculpted with hundreds of thousands of turns of the crank help a mamil feel at one with his machine and ultimately with himself. It is as if, without assistance, he is capable of crossing plains, ascending above the clouds and then hurtling downwards at 80km/h.
Mamils also often attract scorn for being excessively competitive. After spending last summer in beachside Adelaide along one of the busiest bike routes in the country, I can attest to the aggression and nastiness of many of my fellow mamils. There were times when I clung on to the back of packs only to be ruthlessly dropped, I suspect because my bike was insufficiently souped-up and my kit unbecoming. Regularly, I would turn around to find that someone had gone to some effort to catch me before stealthily sitting in my draft. Then they would speed off into the distance. Often I would chase after them, responding to their aggression with more aggression than grace. Usually this resulted in me peeling off and catching my breath in a side street before rolling home.
The quintessential mamil in terms of attitude is the snarling square jaw Lance Armstrong with his win at all costs and in any way approach to sport-as-life. But if Armstrong was driven to be the best ever and to make millions, what drives the mamil?
In part the answer lies in technological advancements. There are gadgets that not only measure speed and distance but also record each ride in minute detail (elevation, power, kilometre splits) and then instantly presents this information in graphical form. This means that riders are in constant competition with themselves.
Many apps have features that allow friends and associates to monitor one's exercise regime and offer encouragement and critique in real time. Other apps designate segments of road all over Canberra, Australia and the world and record how fast users have ridden them. In effect, this transforms even the leisurely ride into a vicious pursuit in which there are thousands of riders perched behind one's rear wheel, eager to overtake.
Mamils in particular are reproached because riding is seen as their final grasp at youth and virility. The desperation that comes with such a pursuit in part explains the associated crimes of passion and excess. The futility and hazard of such endeavours is reflected in the large number of mamils who end up in hospital.
But it is easy to overstate the insecurity and competitiveness of the mamil. There is a strong sense of community and goodwill among riders. I have never got a flat tyre and not received an offer of assistance from passers-by. At any community organised ride there are mamils with their families and friends. The mamils I know are devoted husbands, caring fathers and social exemplars.
What exactly is wrong with trying to relive one's youth? Surely it is how one does this that counts, in which case spending hours on a road bike has many advantages over driving a sports car or having an affair. Yet the competitiveness of many mamils manifests itself in actions that make life difficult and dangerous for all commuters. Much contempt is reserved for those riders who run red lights and cut off cars so that they can slice a few seconds off their time.
But overall riders, many of whom are mamils, help to reduce congestion on our roads. With this in mind, it might be better to have a national ''Do Not Ride2Work'' day on which everyone drove or took public transport to illustrate how bad things would be were it not for bike riders.
The ABC Catalyst report on bicycle rage attributed this to ''out-group homogeneity bias''. This means that when it comes to outsiders or people with whom we have little empathy, we tend to generalise negative actions and apply them to the entire group. So, if we see one or two roadies run a red light, we assume that all roadies are Lycra louts.
On the other hand, the negative actions of insiders are attributed to the individual. The aggressive or illegal behaviour of one or two drivers does not blacken the reputation of Australian driving culture generally.
If this is true than bike riders and mamils in particular should recognise that we are ambassadors in a foreign car-loving land. So we must always be on our best behaviour because our wrongdoings reflect badly upon all others.
At the same time it is beholden upon riders and non-riders alike to judge others by their character and deeds rather than their appearance or mode of transport.
Kim Huynh is a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University and a committed Canberra cyclist.