It’s that time of year again when grown men find themselves glued to ITV4 or Eurosport for hours every day watching the world’s biggest bike race unfold over three weeks in July. As the camera pans down the bunch of over 100 brightly coloured riders there is one strange characteristic adopted by these elite athletes (which is even adopted by most amateur cycling enthusiasts) that many non-road cyclists find deeply troubling. They all have shaved legs…
As a long term male road cyclist I have been asked the obvious related question many times over the years and I admit that I have struggled to come up with an answer that satisfies myself or my interrogators. Here are three of the most popular ‘mainstream’ reasons, theories and justifications used for this slightly bizarre or even weird practice:
1. Its more aerodynamic
When I started cycling 30 years ago this supposed advantage was considered invalid as it was thought leg hair would help aerodynamics in the same way dimples do on a golf ball. Recently Specialized engineers finally put this to bed by running wind tunnel tests on a hairy and shaved legged cyclist and proved once and for all, shaved legs are indeed more aerodynamic. Before you cheer and offer this as the one clear and obvious reason, the same engineers went on to prove that shaved arms are also more aerodynamic… Does this means we will now see all cyclists start to expand their shaving zones in order to maximise the benefits? Or perhaps this isn’t the real reason behind the leg shaving…
2. It’s better for massage
While a pro cyclist may benefit from daily leg massages from their personal soigneurs, after over 30 years of cycling I have not yet received a single sports massage of any kind. So while this may be a reason for those at the top of the sport, it’s not exactly sufficient to explain why us recreational guys regularly break out the razor.
3. It makes cleaning road rash easier
Falling off your bike is a consistent part of the cycling experience from starting out on your first scoot bike as a child right through to the full speed lycra clad racing version you may choose to participate in as an adult. Falling off is definitely something to be avoided and with only the thinnest layer of clingy lycra to protect you from the tarmac, the consequences are often very messy and can take weeks to heal. It makes sense that being hairy would make the wounds more difficult to keep clean and make dressing removal even more painful that it is anyway. Only I have an issue with this as an excuse to shave. Road rash is never limited to the legs and you are also likely to be dealing with wounds on non-shaved parts of the body (shoulders, hips, elbows etc). Surely we should be shaving all over if this is the reason!
So those are the theories. The reality however could be a little bit different. There are some other explanations for shaving your pins that I feel are as equally valid as those listed above however, they are unlikely to ever be mentioned by a cyclist when trying to justify their appearance! Here we go:
1. It looks pro
It might be strange for a non-cyclist to imagine, but even though a cyclist is clad head to toe in figure hugging lyrca that publicly reveals every defect in their anatomical layout, cyclists care deeply about looking cool. However the only people they are seeking to impress are other cyclists so they have a slightly skewed perspective on what “cool” is. Looking pro is the pinnacle of road cycling cool and attempts to define the ingredients of this elusive look have been sought for many years. For instance correct sock length continues to be a subject of heated debate. These attempts have culminated in The Rules which define once and for all the commandments of looking and acting pro on the bike. Rule 33 codifies the shaving requirement as “Legs are to be carefully shaved at all times” but this rule also offers scope for being unshaven so long as you are dishing out the hurt to shaven riders. However, obeying a set of rules known only to disciples of “looking pro” is not a good reason for justifying your use of a lady shave to non-cyclists!
2. Everyone else does it…
Well not quite everyone, but turn up at the start of the Etape du Tour, probably the biggest cycling event for recreational cyclists and you will be surrounded by a lot of shaved legs! The peer pressure is intense, you can almost feel the glares and hear the dismissive comments… “Hairy legs? Stay away from that incompetent. He will probably crash in the first 5 km…” And then have grit and gravel stuck in his hideous furry pins!
3. It makes my muscles look bigger!
With a gleaming coat of glossy embrocation applied, a pair of tanned, lean and shaven pins take on a bulging and sinewy appearance that is very effective in convincing other cyclists that the owner is extremely fit and serious. On top of owning the most expensive bike money can buy, this is an important component in the psychological warfare that occurs while standing on the start line of an event, or even hanging out in the pre-ride café. Obviously once the pedals start turning it will soon become apparent if the owner can follow through on that initial impression. However does this dubious and temporary advantage justify the hours spent unblocking the shower plug hole after leg shaving?
4. It demonstrates commitment to the sport…
As recreational cyclists, most of us are not able to live and breathe cycling 24-7, with inconveniences like family, work, social lives etc getting in the way of the required training, competing, eating and sleeping. To make up for this we have only our willingness to spend crazy sums of money on shiny gadgets, wear ridiculous revealing outfits in public and leg shaving to demonstrate to the world at large that we are truly dedicated to the cycling cause…
5. Once you’ve started it’s hard to stop
Once you have succumbed to peer pressure and perhaps curiosity and applied razor to leg, it is very difficult to then go back hairy legged cycling once again. First you will have to explain to all your cycling buddies why having made the commitment you are now backtracking (i.e. wimping out) which requires at least as good an excuse as having shaved in the first place. As if that is not enough, you will have to go through months of cycling with leg stubble which is seriously not pro! For long term devotees of leg shaving, the associated deep mental scarring will mean they cannot even countenance cycling without shaving their legs and so now they’re in for life without any good reason.
So how to answer the question?
There are many reasons to explain why but some of these are probably best kept to ourselves – the shaven legged cycling community. After much reflection and investigation I think that the best possible response when asked “why do cyclists shave their legs?” is to categorically state aerodynamics and vaguely refer to extensive wind tunnel testing carried out by professional engineers and scientists.
You might just want to keep your fingers crossed that your questioner doesn’t spot your hairy arms and point out the obvious…