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.