Once upon a time it was the unsightly bulge of the Mamil (Middle-aged Man in Lycra) clogging up the country’s highways and byways every weekend. Now, as Hollywood star Harrison Ford has proved, it’s the turn of the Omil (Old Man in Lycra). The 78-year-old actor was spotted, in his full racing get-up, cycling around North Shields in a break from filming the latest instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise, this just a few months since he embarked on a marathon cycle ride through Mexico.
It’s not just Harrison Ford who’s doing it. Actor turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, 73, has a £5,000 e-bike that he uses to protect his ageing knees, declaring that he wants “to cycle all over the world” while LA couple Kurt Russell, 70, and Goldie Hawn, 75, often take rides together around Tinseltown.
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, 77, meanwhile, is known to be phenomenally fit for a septuagenarian and is still hitting the road at an age when most men are sat at home with their feet up. In 2015, he even suffered a broken femur when he crashed his bike on a trip near the Swiss border in Scionzier, France and he is said to always request an exercise bike in his hotel room whenever he is on a political trip.
It’s easy to see the appeal of cycling, especially as you age. It’s why I finally got a decent bike last year that, unlike its rider, is sleek, lightweight and easy on the eye. That said, I refuse to be one of those midlife men that squeezes my ageing frame into Lycra, not least because people have suffered enough recently. Besides, drivers are known to treat cyclists in ‘normal’ clothes much more considerately than when they’re confronted by a Lycra-laden peloton of pensioners, riding three abreast and blocking the road.
The reason I cycle has nothing to do with tight clothing or pretending I’m a weekend Wiggins – it just makes me feel better on a number of levels. It''s easier on my prematurely arthritic knee too. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for cycling into old age and even if you can’t manage the 30-miler on a Sunday morning, the increasing popularity of electric bikes can make it easier to get out and about on two wheels. Not only can cycling improve your balance and strength and help keep your weight in check, but its positive impact on feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin can improve your mental health too.
Research suggests that distance cycling in old age can even help to boost your immune system at a time of life when it declines. In 2018, Professor Norman Lazarus of King’s College London and Professor Janet Lord of the Institution of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham co-authored research that followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some of whom were in their 80s, and discovered that their immune systems were as good as those in their 20s.
Typically, the human immune system declines by around 2-3 per cent each year from your 20s, which means by the time you reach 70 or 80, you’re significantly more susceptible to everything from rheumatoid arthritis to infection and even cancer. Intriguingly, the cyclists did not suffer from the same loss of muscle mass as others their age, nor did they experience increases in body fat typical of an ageing body.
So, whether you’re 27 or 77, the secret is to look beyond the Lycra and embrace the many benefits of taking off on two wheels. And while breathable shirts (designed for professional athletes) might help keep you cool and those clingy padded shorts prevent a painful posterior, it is, as 11-time cycling World Champion and six-time Olympic champion Chris Hoy said in 2017, not entirely fitting for men of a certain age. “Lycra isn’t the most elegant material you can wear,” he said, adding that “it makes most cyclists look as ridiculous as an overweight football fan wearing the shirt of his favourite club for a pub five-a-side game.”
He’s right, of course – but try telling that to the Mamils and Omils holding up the traffic.