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On the eve of the Tour de France, a Worcester academic explores the rising popularity of cycling

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This weekend sees the grand start of the Tour de France, depart from Leeds, when cycling will once again be thrust into the headlines.

Dubbed the 'Wiggins effect', his success, and that of Team GB at the London 2012 Games, has seen cycling go from a relatively niche sport or sedate past time, to now being one of the most fashionable ways to get fit. Not least among middle aged men, which has spawned another new term - MAMILS (Middle Aged Men in Lycra).

Dr Paul Castle, a Chartered Sport & Exercise Psychologist in the Institute of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Worcester, explains the psychology behind the rise in popularity of the sport.

"Many sports saw renewed interest following the 2012 Olympic Games, but none have enjoyed the sustained explosion of interest that cycling has. Reasons for this are varied. On one hand we have the high profile of cycling on television, then we have the introduction of ‘Sky Ride’ in several UK cities (www.goskyride.com), in which city centre roads are closed to enable families to ride around the city in a safe, traffic-free environment for a day, which has meant that families have ‘taken ownership’ of the roads en masse.

"But one of the biggest reasons is the accessibility of cycling. Not everyone can suddenly purchase a boat to go rowing, or have the commitment to be part of a team sport. But most people either have, or can purchase relatively inexpensively, a bicycle and a little spare time to go out and enjoy it. Cycling is a non-load-bearing activity, requires minimal equipment and no specialist facilities or environment. In this sense, it is far easier to wheel the bicycle out of the garage and go. There are therefore, fewer reasons not to get out for a ride.

"Once the enjoyment factor of cycling takes a hold, the motivation to cycle tends to increase. People start to monitor ride times or distances; they start to ‘conquer’ challenging hills or different conditions; headwinds and tailwinds begin to play significant roles in rides and with these factors, people start to look at beating previous times or increasing distances. Psychologically, motivation and emotion become the driving factors and over a period of time, cycling becomes part of daily life.

"The success of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Boardman MBE and others, has allowed the ‘ordinary’ cyclist to challenge themselves more. We all like to identify with things that are successful, because we feel part of the success. Out of this was borne the MAMIL concept. The psychology underpinning the MAMIL is an internal monologue within the individual, which goes something like this: “If I buy a Team Sky cycling jersey, shorts and a cycle upwards of £3,000, I AM as good as Sir Brad, in fact I am better; I have a day job and I’m middle-aged!”

"As the MAMIL, or equivalent female cyclist, cycles more, they improve in physical and cardiovascular fitness, endurance and the sense of well-being further fuels the motivation to continue. Some people will go on to enter races, join a club or embark on a sponsored cycling event as a way of measuring their ‘performance’ against like minded others. This may lead on to entering more competitive events, at which point the psychology of cycling changes into something far more performance-orientated. Carbon equipment, adequate nutrition and hydration, sleep, rest and recovery interspersed with interval and endurance training, all start to play a part. The recreational cyclist has evolved into an amateur ‘athlete’, where the motivation to succeed comes to the forefront.

"Of course, other cyclists are content to remain as recreational cyclists, commuters or they see cycling as a family activity and would not wish to ever enter a competition. These examples show the diverse array of motivations for cycling; they highlight how cycling evolves within each of us in different ways and they hint at the positive effects of cycling on well-being.

"As a practitioner, having worked with many clients, wishing to change their lifestyles through cycling, I like to use the analogy that we are all on the same journey, some of us, such as Sir Brad, are much further down the road but we all enjoy being on the same stretch of road, although a cycle route would be preferred by many. By thinking about our experiences of cycling in this way the benefits to our sense of well-being can be monitored and measured. A change in lifestyle is perhaps a single pedal revolution away!"