Martin Johnson: now rugby’s over, it’s all about cycling

The World Cup-winning England rugby captain loves life on two wheels, but racing's not easy for a man who weighs 18 stone

Yes, it’s true. Martin Johnson – England rugby legend, World Cup-winning captain, peerless second row forward – has become a MAMIL.


That’s “middle-aged man in lycra” for those not familiar with the cycling lingo, and while few would dare call Johnson that to his face, there’s no doubt that England rugby’s most successful captain has been well and truly bitten by the cycling bug.

“I loved what I did, but there comes a time when you simply can’t do rugby anymore. Cycling is something I can do until I’m old,” he says. “Health-wise I’m lighter now than I’ve been for probably getting on 20 years. When I was playing rugby, I was always trying to put weight and muscle mass on. With cyclists it’s the other way, it’s all about lightness. I am certainly still built to be a second row and not a cyclist. But I see plenty of big guys riding; we’re not going to be the quickest up the hills, but we can still have fun.”

Johnson first bought a bike 12 years ago, but since retiring from professional rugby in 2004 he’s been to see the Tour de France live five times, has filled the garage with bikes, and this weekend will cycle 100 miles through the streets of London as one of 24,000 competitors in Prudential RideLondon. All this from someone who claims not to take the sport “too seriously”.

“A lot of the lads I ride with are very similar: they’ve played football or rugby and are a little bit past it now,” he explains. “They don’t want to be running too far, and the bikes are a good option. You can be competitive when you want to be, or just take the mick out of each other.”

He admits he’s a cycling “enthusiast”, but it hasn’t quite got to the stage where he’s had to sell his World Cup winners’ medal to finance a £5000 road bike.

“How much of the household income goes on bikes? I’m not telling! I do have a couple of bikes in the garage, and they are nice things to look at. If you’re going to spend a couple quid, it’s got to look good.

“But ultimately it doesn’t make that much difference after a certain point. For me, I need something that’s robust because I’m too heavy, I’m 18 stone. There’s no point spending five grand on something that’s super light. I could lose a stone myself and save three or four grand.”

Much has been made of the success of British Cycling over the past decade, led by the meticulous approach of Dave Brailsford. Sir Clive Woodward brought a similar level of mental and logistical discipline when he was head coach of England during their successful 2003 World Cup campaign.

The next Rugby World Cup is now just over a year away. Does Johnson feel there is anything that British Cycling could teach England Rugby?

“Dave Brailsford and British Cycling have made a philosophy out of ‘marginal gains’, just as Sir Clive Woodward had his ‘one percenters’. Ultimately though, I prefer the human side of it. You get out and you dig in with your mates. Sport is about crunch times; it’s about character, who has it and who doesn’t.

“Cycling and rugby are very different,” Johnson continues. “Ultimately with cycling you can either bang the power out or you can’t. Rugby’s a game: it’s brilliant if you’re the greatest athlete, but the thing about rugby is that if you have the determination, the knowledge, the instinct to play you can be a great player. It’s tough to be the fastest cyclist or runner unless you have the special physical capability to do it. Rugby’s a game: you can outplay someone, even if they’re fitter, faster or stronger than you.”

Johnson will need all the power he can find when he pedals off this Sunday. The Prudential RideLondon route closely follows the London 2012 Road Race, heading from central London out into Surrey before returning for a sprint finish down The Mall. Johnson is itching to get out on to the traffic-free roads, but is a tad concerned about how he’ll match up against his fellow riders.

“I was out one day and turned onto a road. There was someone ahead of me, and I thought I would use them as a bit of motivation. ‘I’ll get him,’ I thought. But I had to work really hard to catch them, and as I was getting closer I thought, ‘He’s quite old. He’s doing well.’

“When I got to them, she was probably in her late 60s, and had the greatest pair of legs that anyone could wish for! She was moving really fast, and all I could think was, ‘Please, for God’s sake for my ego, don’t pass me up this hill!’ She was riding a bike, she had a pair of legs people would pay thousands of pounds for.”


That anecdote should be plastered over every Boris Bike in London and bike shop in the country. Cycling: the sport where even your nan can beat a Rugby World Cup winner. Who needs a better motivation to get on their bike than that?