Meet the MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) who clock up miles on their bikes, dreaming of the Tour de France
Is it a mid-life crisis? A last-ditch bid to get fit? Or purely a love of cycling? Kerry McKittrick talks to the Northern Ireland men determined to get their lives back on track
They are an increasingly common sight on the roads of Northern Ireland, particularly on weekend mornings. It is difficult to miss them in their garish neon-bright outfits. They are MAMILs — Middle-Aged Men In Lycra who spend hours cycling around the province.
However, behind the fluorescent colours there is a serious purpose. For these men find the hours in the saddle is a great way to keep fit, de-stress and, even, get the family involved.
They may have discovered the sport a little later in life, but that does not lessen their passion for it. They have discovered that being in the saddle — chaffed posteriors aside —is addictive. With schemes such as Cycle to Work gaining in popularity, buying a top-end bike and all the safety gear can be easily affordable, certainly cheaper than running the family car.
It is also a very sociable pasttime with membership of cycling clubs rising, and being able to go out for a spin with like-minded men giving participants the will to go on.
It's hardly surprising that cycling is on the rise across the UK. The successes of Olympic gold and Tour De France winners such as Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy — both subsquently knighted for their achievements — have made them household names.
We talk to four MAMILs about their newfound love of the open road.
Martin Wilson (43) drives a bin lorry and lives in Comber with his wife Laura and children, David (13) and Laura (16). He says:
I cycled in my youth because I grew up in the countryside. Everyone there had bicycles and that's how we got around. If you didn't have a bike then you didn't go anywhere. However, when I started to drive I didn't look at a bike again.
I always followed competitive cycling though -- I was a big fan of the Tour de France and the Giro D'Italia. But, I was too lazy to do anything about it. I didn't really take part in very much sport -- just a bit of rugby and that was it.
About four years ago I had a health check-up with my doctor and was told that my blood pressure was through the roof. I had been driving a lorry too long, and had put on too much weight. I hate gyms so I started doing a bit of cycling because I preferred being outside.
The first time I went out I only cycled about a mile and it nearly killed me. However, I started building up the distance covered bit by bit.
In the winter I'll be out two to three times a week doing around 80 miles, and that goes up to four or fives times during the summer when I do 200-plus miles. I've also lost about three stone -- it's certainly got me fit and brought my blood pressure down.
When I started cycling I discovered there were people I had known for years doing it but I had never realised it. Now we meet up and cycle together. We take part in sportifs -- the equivalent of a marathon on a bike. They're more leisurely than competitive events but they're very popular. You can have hundreds of riders taking part.
Cycling can be expensive. I'm building one at the moment. To buy this bike would cost around £2,800, but it costs me just about £1,000 to build it.
My wife seems happy enough that the cycling gets me out of the house. My son has also joined a cycling club and started road racing too. I do worry about him on the roads. When he's not out with me I coax him to just use a cycle path. I know what it's like in traffic.
Touch wood, I've never been knocked off my bike, but accidents happen far too often. There are good and bad drivers and good and bad cyclists."
Conor Keown (41) is a group facilities manager for a produce company. He lives in Belfast with his wife, Ashleen and their children, Katie (4) and Conor-James (8months). He says:
I played rugby at school and university. I went on to join Belfast Harlequins and even had a spell with Ulster the year before they won the Heineken Cup. I retired in 2008 and played some social rugby but I wasn't getting the same buzz out of it. I started looking for a way to get the same excitement without putting my body through the same physical punishment.
I did a season of fell running which was very tough and then I did a triathlon in Fermanagh called 70 Wild Miles. It involved 47 miles of cycling, 10 miles of kayaking and a half marathon to finish off.
I really got into the cycling part of that event, so I bought a basic bike and started to take it quite seriously. Another member of the Belfast Harlequins encouraged me to come along and join the Pheonix cycle club.
I initially tried to do things on my own, which was quite difficult as I've spent most of my sporting life as part of a team. Eventually, after a couple of years I went along to the Pheonix Club on a Saturday morning and now ride 70-100 miles a week. They were very welcoming and gave me lots of guidance. I realised that once you start going out on the bike with a group of people it's a whole different dynamic. You're more or less back in a team pursuit.
Even finishing a club run or race gives you a positive rush and the feel-good effect you get can only be good for your mental health. Getting out gives you a more positive outlook and puts you in a better frame of mind.
I thought I knew about cycling until I joined the club, but I quickly realised I didn't know about it at all. Very gently they told me about cycling, safety on the road, how to cycle in the group and even the maintenance of my kit and bike. Every time I go out with them I learn something new.
People might laugh at men in Lycra but they don't know what it's like in a club. The social life including trips away make it just as good as any rugby team. It's a great sport for both men and women and gets you out of the house.
Nowadays I can see that there are bad cyclists on the road the same way that there are bad drivers. You can tell that they're not in a club -- they don't wear a helmet or they jump the traffic lights. I think that every one who cycles should spend some time in a club."
Gary McCullough (42) lives in Carrickfergus with his fiancee Lyndsay and their children Erin (14), Owen (10) and Blake (2). He works as a quality control technician in Belfast. He says:
I cycled when I was young -- I grew up in the BMX era. I think I was 11 when I got my first one. When you get your driving licence, though, you don't need a bike anymore.
I started cycling again in the summer of 2012. The Olympics were on and that sparked my interest. I decided to take the bike to work a few times.
My work does a cycle-to-work scheme so I bought my bike through that. I started off at one day a week and now I do it as many days as I can, but it depends on the weather. When the waves are coming over the highway I take the car.
I joined Madigan's riding club simply because I was in a bike shop and the owner told me about it. There are a few meetings during the week but the main one is on a Sunday morning.Everyone leaves together and you can have anything up to 40 riders. We go up and down the north coast and I do 150-200 miles a week.
My other half thinks it's great. By commuting to and from work I'm killing two birds with one stone, getting fit and saving on free transport.
Lyndsay has started running too, so when I come in from the bike ride she goes out with one of her friends. I've lost a couple of stone and taken part in the races throughout the year.
It can be dangerous. I was knocked off the bike last year -- a car was coming out of a car park in Whiteabbey and stopped so I thought they had seen me. At the last minute the driver started up again, came right out and I ended up landing on my head.
Thankfully I was wearing a helmet. It split in two so I would have suffered a severe injury if I hadn't been wearing one.
Cycling gets a grip of you though, it's like a bug. It also puts me in a positive frame of mind and I'm more alert going into meetings."
Will Chambre (44) is the managing director of Chambre Public Affairs. He lives near Dromara , Co Down with his wife Sarah and their children, Jack (10), Ned (8) and Connie (6). He says:
I lived in London for a few years and would commute on my bike. I wasn't into road racing or anything, so until recently I had never cycled more than 10 miles in one go.
This summer I was organising a charity cycle ride around all the ASDA stores in Northern Ireland and I decided to join in. I did a bit of cycling on a mountain bike before the event but not very much.
In fact, I had done very little exercise before the trip. It's quite challenging to undertake a 75-mile cycle ride -- which was just part of the course covered -- without putting the miles in before hand.
I got an incredibly sore behind even though the Lycra had padding. I also didn't have any gloves and I discovered that you can get bruised hands on a big cycle like that. Someone very kindly leant me a pair which helped. I did find it very challenging keeping up with the pack. Most of them were seasoned cycling club people, but some stayed with me to give moral support.
I did the full first day and part of the second day. Full credit to the rest of the people who cycled 350 miles. I really enjoyed the cycle, although it was a bit frightening at times with cars tearing past us on dual carriageways. That event gave me the bug and started me cycling again.
I live in the countryside so there are some wonderful routes. I've cycled round Slieve Croob a few times which is a good 20 miles. Cycling around the Mournes is the most exhilarating thing. There is nothing better to clear your head. It puts you in a good mood.
I've only been at it for five or six months but I might join a club at some point. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the charity cycle. You get a very satisfying noise in a pack when everyone clicks in their cleats at the same time. Sarah thinks my cycling is great because I spend too much time in the office and this gets me out of there. We've also started cycling as a family. We go to Castlewellan forest park which has a mountain bike track. The children love doing that."