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Why do cyclists shave their legs?

Date

On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

View more entries from On Your Bike

Smooth operator: the Australian legs that won the Tour de France in 2011.

Smooth operator: the Australian legs that won the Tour de France in 2011. Photo: Reuters

I recently found myself sitting in a half-filled bathtub, twin-blade razor in one hand, tin of shaving foam in the other, staring at my lower limbs and wondering where to start.

In almost a decade of cycling with varying degrees of keenness and laziness, I’d never seen the need to shave my legs.

Still, smooth pins are a defining feature of the hardcore cyclist – amateur or pro – and I figured that before I expressed an opinion about it, I should at least give it a go. (Dare I suggest that if more people followed this approach, social discourse would be in far better shape?)

So, back to the bath. Actually, I wasn’t so much worried about where to start (ankles, obviously) as I was confused about where I was going to stop.

Mid-thigh? Just above the Lycra line, like the girls did when I was in high school, before it became de rigueur for young ladies to leave no follicle below the eyebrow uncropped?

Or would that leave a bizarre tidemark? What’s the male version of a bikini line, anyway – a sluggo line? A budgie-line? Hell, if I got hyperfocus and kept going up the garden path, it might be “next stop, collarbones”.

The first cut may be the deepest, according to Cat Stevens, but take it from me, the first shave is the longest; despite a pre-blade pass with an electric razor, it was an hour before I considered the task done. And if you’re keen to know where things ended up, it might cost you dinner and a few drinks to find out. Oh, and flowers.

So, why do cyclists shave their legs? Here are some of the more popular responses:

  • Massages. Pros, whose legs are their careers, get lots of serious deep-tissue massages, and hair follicles pull uncomfortably or become irritated.
  • Crashes. If you scuff up your legs in a fall - an occupational hazard in a peloton - long hairs play havoc with wound management and adhesive bandages.
  • Aerodynamics. A wonderful study suggested that hairy legs can cost you five seconds over a 40-kilometre time trial at 37km/h. Remember, the Tour de France has been lost by an eight-second margin.

Now, let’s face some MAMIL facts. 1. There is no pro masseur standing by at chez Michael. 2. I work very hard at not falling off – two crashes in 10 years, and I’m happy to wait another decade for the next. 3. When it comes to reasons for my lack of speed, shaggy shanks are bottom of the list.

Nevertheless, I set out on my first smooth ride with a certain anticipation. The difference was immediately apparent. Instead of a ticklish rush of air through hair – which one quickly ignores – my whirring legs had only one atmospheric sensation, as the wind whipped past the outsides of my knee joints. I imagined I was sprouting slightly relocated Hermes wings.

Within a week, I was becoming a pro ... at shaving my legs, that is. Subsequent sessions had tracked down a few hardy survivors clustered together like soldiers on a deserted island, unaware the war had ended. I’d moved on from the horror first night, where the sheets grabbed at me in cloying fashion, and the first day, when my trousers did similar. I had bought a bottle of Sorbolene with a pump dispenser. I was contemplating three-blade razors.

Sadly, there is no Mrs or even Ms On Your Bike in my life right now, so I can’t tell any tales of relationship drama.

I did, however, introduce my new stylings to two exes who still speak to me. The first one copped a cheeky feel before scolding me for not having joined the razor gang when we were together. The second shrieked in horror at the mere lifting of a trouser leg. Since I scraped through several uni courses on 50 per cent, I reckon I’ll call that a pass mark.

Because the bare truth is, shaving your legs tends to make them look better. Note, I never said “good”, which is down to luck and/or hard work. Just better. Cleaner. Neater. Whatever musculature you might have is amplified. The tanned bits are browner, the whites are whiter, and that forgotten scar you got from stacking a skateboard when you were aged 11 swims back into warrior-like display.

Of course there are downsides. The novelty of maintenance quickly becomes routine, then trends increasingly chore-wards. And there’s the worry that your smooth legs might be silently writing cheques that your body can’t cash. There’s a certain satisfaction to be had in beating some shaved-down, matching-kit, $10,000-bike dude up a hill using your pipe-cleaner legs. Now, contemplate the obverse.

Still, I’ll probably stay smooth for a while - especially as I've thought of a few more reasons.

Firstly, let's not underestimate the power of psych. Shaving your guns is a statement of intent, much like bunging all the chips into the centre of the table during a game of Texas Hold 'Em - you're all in. I've got a few challenges lined up this year, after a woeful, injury-compromised 2013, and I'm wondering if the razor's edge gives a mental edge as well.

Secondly - and the greatest argument of all - it's traditional. Why do AFL players wear singlets and skimpy shorts? Why do league players use "mate" for every third word in an interview? Why do association football players fall on the ground and roll around in agony if they think they've been tripped? Who wouldn't want to share in the traditions of one's favourite sport?

And lastly, I confess I'm a bit nervous. Like most men, I've experienced the itchy horrors of growing out a beard. So, how uncomfortable is it going to be, growing out two legs with a 91-centimetre inseam? I'm happy to wait a while before I find out.

Shaving legs and cycling ... what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.

246 comments

  • i used to ride quite a bit and i had mine waxed for reason #2 - falling off is unfortunately a bit of a necessary evil and the hairless legs were a huge benefit for pain management and recovery.
    my wife thought they were the best thing to slide alongside in bed; no question it enhanced our sex life (pathetic isn't it?)
    there's no question for me, it's a win-win all round

    Commenter
    jaimie
    Location
    switzerland
    Date and time
    February 20, 2014, 1:31AM
    • How far are you up yourself? I've got a measuring tape.

      Commenter
      Wombat
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 7:35AM
    • Wombat I don't know how your comment was published, surely it adds nothing to the discussion and is a personal attack.

      Anyway, I'm a cyclist and shave my legs - and it's 100% for aesthetics. If I turned up for a ride with hairy pins I'd be laughed off the back of the bunch. Anyone who is sub-Pro and claims otherwise isn't being honest!

      Commenter
      bugwan
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 8:40AM
    • Bugwan, I think what Wombat is trying to say is what you are saying. There is no plausible reason for the coffee shop gear junkies to go to the extreme of shaving their legs unless they just want to be looked at, and like to look at each other, they cant possibly believe that they could be mistaken for a career cyclist or that there injuries are crazier than those on a building site. It is in essence a belief that that they are more accomplished than the hairy ones, even in bed. Hence the assumption, that they are "up themselves".

      Commenter
      Harrison
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:16AM
    • None of these reasons are correct.

      The true answer is one an anthropologist would spot within seconds: it's tribal. It's how certain groupings of hardcore cyclists, especially racing cyclists - whether amateur or professional - announce themselves to one another.

      This is also the real reason why, if you show up to the serious bunch training ride with hairy pins, you might get a bit of stick about it. The words used might refer to how they look, but what's really going on here is good old-fashioned peer group pressure to belong.

      The other reasons are flow-on benefits and supporting themes, but they are not the cultural heart of it; they are not what sustains it as a habit.

      Also, don't worry Michael - the first time is always the hardest. These days I get mine done in five minutes in the shower.

      Commenter
      inopinatus
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:21AM
    • So, THAT'S why they're laughing at me!

      Silly me. I thought it was the lycra-clad, 57 y.o., Oompa-Loompa body.

      Commenter
      Louis
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:25AM
    • And cyclists wonder why the plebs disapprove....

      Commenter
      Problem?
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:27AM
    • "If I turned up for a ride with hairy pins I'd be laughed off the back of the bunch." Sounds like the right reason to change your appearance.

      Commenter
      NJP
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:28AM
    • Hey Wombat, if you want to fly like a Kangaroo, you better dig yourself out of that hole. LOL!

      Commenter
      Bogan Brouhaha
      Location
      Brighton
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:31AM
    • It is simply for the crash reason. A UK uni professor did a (non scientific) study. His morning ride to work was about 20km (I forget the actual distance) and he had 2 bikes, 1 a super duper carbon thing and an old racer. No difference between the times the 2 bikes did.
      I dont think shaving your legs will improve your aerodynamics

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 20, 2014, 9:37AM

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