LONDON (AFP) - Once a niche sport, cycling has become so popular in Britain that it has spawned a new breed of fans who would rather buy a bike than a Ferrari and who confront their expanding waistlines by taking to the open road.
These "middle-aged men in lycra" or MAMILs, as the tribe has unflatteringly been dubbed, will be out in force this weekend as the Tour de France begins in the northern English country of Yorkshire, many of them wearing day-glo outfits and tight shorts.
The typical MAMIL is over the age of 35 and paid enough to afford the expensive brands favoured by their tribe, such as stylish cycle clothing maker Rapha, as well as pilgrimages to sites such as the mythical Mont Ventoux in the Provence region of southern France.
"Twenty-five years ago they might have gone out to buy a Porsche, or a supersport motorbike, now its a £3,000 (S$6,416) carbon fibre bike," said Michael Oliver, a marketing specialist who claims to have come up with the term "MAMIL", which has now entered the dictionary.
The hobby often starts as a way of saving money and getting fit by cycling to work, moving leisurely to weekend jaunts in the country. Then during the summer months, it means taking the family on stages of the Tour or even training in the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca, where they follow the path of British champions Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
'The new golf'
MAMILs shave their legs to reduce wind resistance and are always working on their bikes, sharing an obsessive interest in their equipment, whether it is new handlebars, GPS device or brakes.
"Cyclists tend to be like geeks when it comes to equipment, they are very aware of the latest developments," Oliver told AFP.
It is an expensive hobby but as such is self-selecting and for many is a good opportunity for networking.
"They talk of cycling as the new golf, where business people do business," said Richard Moore, who has written numerous books on the Tour de France. "The demographic of the sport here in Britain is different to France, Belgium, Italy, Spain or other traditional cycling countries where cycling is more a working-class sport."
Stephen Wheatley, a 59-year-old business development specialist, admits that the hobby is "expensive, yes, but cheaper than keeping a mistress and certainly less risky".
A self-confessed "cycling addict", he set off on Thursday from London with five friends to cycle to Yorkshire for the start of the Tour on Saturday. But he rejects the term MAMIL and the mockery that follows, most recently from Prime Minister David BCameron, who said this week he was willing to do everything he could to promote the Tour "apart from wearing lycra".
"We would never call ourselves that - it is a bit of an insult," Wheatley said, adding that if he wasn't wearing the shirt of his cycling club Grappa this weekend - named after a memorable trip in Italy - he would wear black.
"I'm nearly 60 years old and I think it looks faintly ludicrous wearing the same kit as Andy Schleck or Bradley Wiggins," he explained.
'Old and too heavy'
For all that, Wheatley rejects the stereotype, he admits he has a lot of gear and proudly shows off his Gios bike, which he put together himself. He won't say how much it cost, but quips: "When I die and my wife sells my bikes, please ask her to add a zero to the price I told her it cost."
Noel Edwards, a 60-year-old design manager, paid £6,500 for a new bike and extra kit last year and has a second folding bike which he uses on his commute into work in London.
Edwards is general secretary of his local cycling club, Gateway Cycling, and remembers with joy how, after winning a magazine competition in 2007, he had the chance to shake the hand of five-times Tour winner Bernard Hinault.
Heading towards 61, he admits he is "old and too heavy" but has no intention of quitting anytime soon.
"I am better than I was, but I will never be good," he said.