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Why do cyclists shave their legs?

Cyclist leg shaving
Trevor Ward
13 Oct 2017

Should road cyclists shave their legs? Of course! But determining why and how is a little trickier

Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave off their beards and keep their hair cropped so that the enemy wouldn’t have anything easy to grab hold of during close-quarter combat. Ancient Egyptians favoured sleek, hairless skin to prevent the spread of lice and other follicular infestations. And the Romans kept their skin smooth to denote they were from the higher, educated classes.

So cyclists can hardly claim to have invented the art of shaving their extremities for strategic purposes.

What is surprising, however, is that cyclists were shaving their legs long before most women had adopted the practice as a social norm.

Photographs from as far back as the 1920s show riders sporting hair-free legs, while it didn’t catch on with women in the general population until Betty Grable exposing her satin-smooth pins in 1943 coincided with a worldwide shortage of nylons.

What’s so strange?

So my regular practice of reclining in a bath with a Philishave razor and a can of Satin Care shave gel is actually not as vain or indulgent as it might first appear.

What may strike some as strange, however, are my reasons for doing it.

It’s not to make me go faster – there are simpler, far more effective ways of decreasing my drag coefficient on the bike. Like forgoing that extra Weetabix at breakfast, for example.

It’s not to make my post-ride massage easier to apply – as an impecunious non-professional, I can rarely afford the luxury of a massage, and when I do it’s usually self-administered with a rolling pin.

It’s not to speed up the healing process after crashing. I don’t actually crash that often. If I did – to the extent that the hairiness of my legs was a critical factor in how efficiently and quickly I healed – I’d probably consider taking up a different sport. Like chess.

Why do cyclist shave their legs?

According to a couple of experts I spoke to, there are actually good reasons to keep my legs hairy.

Consultant dermatologist and regular cyclist Professor Philip Harrison says leg hair ‘provides sensory input, for proprioceptive purposes.

'In other words, it aids our sense of feeling and positioning when active, thereby enhancing balance.

'Furthermore, leg hair has a sweat-wicking function, which will help to a slight degree in temperature regulation.’

Dr Susan Mayou, a consultant dermatologist at London’s Cadogan Clinic, says leg hairs can also provide insulation: ‘In the cold, the arrector pili muscles [bundles of smooth muscle fibres attached to the deep part of the hair follicles] make the hairs stand on end to trap the air between them, which is a form of insulation.’

And yet clean-shaven legs have been a fixture of the professional peloton even longer than derailleur gears.

Too sexy for my legs

Gerald Ciolek, winner of the 2013 Milan-San Remo, says that as well as reducing the risk of infection and helping wounds heal quicker, ‘it’s simply a “done thing” in cycling.

'It just looks better. Plus the ladies find it sexy.’

His former teammate, Johann van Zyl, is even more forthright: ‘It looks cool, it feels cool and it makes me feel faster.

'If I stopped racing tomorrow, I would still shave my legs. Any recreational rider should cut off that leg hair or avoid Lycra – the two don’t mix well.’

This confirms my suspicion that a lot of leg-shaving is less to do with science, and more to do with image.

Leg muscles that have been finely toned through hours on the road look so much more impressive when not sheathed in hairs. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

So, having pondered the subject for a while, here are my reasons for why I shave my legs…

It’s a badge of honour – it marks me out as a cyclist, which I believe is something to be proud of.

Other cyclists will recognise a kindred spirit, while non-cyclists will be left in no doubt about my commitment to the sport.

It’s a tribute to the legends of my sport. When I’m in the bath taking a razor to my limbs, Coppi, Anquetil and the rest are in there with me. So to speak.

It makes applying sunscreen easier, although admittedly this isn’t really an issue in Scotland where I live. As Billy Connolly observed, there are only two seasons up here: winter and July.

It just looks good. And as van Zyl says, looking good makes you ‘feel faster’.

The hairy hot pants look

While pros regularly shave as high as their hips – which commonly bear the impact in crashes – the question of how high to go is often debated among us lesser mortals.

Do you stop at the hemline of your shorts, creating a hairy hotpants look (or, as Cyclist columnist Frank Strack puts it, ‘wookie shorts’)? Or do you go ‘all the way’?

Dr Mayou advises caution: ‘We all have bacteria on our skin, but around the upper thigh or groin you have a particular, natural flora – bugs – that can be a problem if you break the skin or shave upwards and open the follicle a bit more, turning it into a portal of entry for infection.’

As I’m digesting this grim scenario, she asks if I’ve considered waxing.

She hears me wince and says, ‘If us girls can live with the pain, it will be nothing for you macho cyclists.

'Plus it would make so much more sense. Waxing pulls the hair out by the root, so you have longer intervals between shaves.

'Surely in something like the Tour de France that’s a good thing?’

I could see Jacques Anquetil waxing – probably while sipping champagne and flirting with the staff at his local beauty parlour – while Bernard Hinault probably took a rusty scythe to his legs.

The net result was the same, something that us amateur riders can rejoice in today – smooth, sculptured legs that announce unequivocally to the curious: I am a cyclist.

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