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Expert Blog: Why do cyclists shave their legs?

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Article posted: 26/06/2013

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Aerodynamics, hygeine, crash damage treatment, easy massage. All cited as reasons for cyclists shaving their legs. Our expert Nikalas Cook takes a sideways glance at the pros and cons of this age old cyclist's dilemma.

“So, does it really make you go any faster?” My mate sneers derisively as we’re stood at the bar in my local, pointing at my silky smooth shaven cyclist’s legs. It’s the same every year come springtime when the shorts come out of the wardrobe and every year I have to go through the same explanations to justify what the majority of my non-cycling male friends see as an effeminate perversion.

Why?

It’s nothing at all to do with aerodynamics. I know many cyclists subscribe to the British Cycling philosophy of marginal gains but I’m pretty certain the wattage savings of smooth legs is almost immeasurable. It wouldn’t even surprise me, when you consider all the dimples and strange ridges added to disc wheels, helmets, frames and even water bottles in the quest for aero slipperiness, if someone has proven in a wind tunnel that hairy legs are faster.

As my GCSE French unsurprisingly was no use in a German speaking part of Switzerland, I had to perform a mime of the hair removal process.

One of the most common reasons that cyclists’ give for shaving is that it makes massages easier, more effective, less painful and you’re less likely to suffer a follicular infection. This is true but before you trot out this excuse, think about how often you actually have a massage. If you’re a pro and it’s a daily or even weekly occurrence then, okay but, if you’re a time and cash strapped amateur who maybe sees the massage couch a couple of times a year, it doesn’t really cut it. Incidentally, if you are shaving down for massage, make sure you are clean shaven as I’ve been assured be massage therapists that rubbing down stubbly legs is like trying to massage a cactus.

Next is that it makes treating road rash easier. If you’re a high level rider and involved in cut and thrust racing day in day out, you’re going to take a few spills but, if you’re not racing regularly and your riding is limited to training, sportives, time trials or club runs, if you’re falling off that often, you’re doing something wrong and maybe need to consider a new hobby. That said, I do take more than my fair share of tumbles on my mountain bike and picking out Peak District gritstone mud is far easier with hair free legs. My own off-road ineptitude isn’t really an excuse that everyone can use though and isn’t the real reason why I, or any other cyclist, shaves.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we shave our legs because it’s a badge of honour that marks us out as cyclists. After a hard training block and with a bit of a suntan, the sculpted muscles and surface veins that are the visible signs of your labours are so much more visible to all without hairs to obscure them. It’s complete vanity, a way to show off your form and fitness and it just announces that you take your cycling seriously. It’s no different to golfers wearing those bizarre 3/4 length trousers or the trend for footballers to pull their socks way over their knees. There’s no real practical or performance reasons, is just what you do if you participate in that sport. Admit that to yourself and the next time you’re quizzed by your disapproving hirsute friends, just proudly and enigmatically leave it at “I shave my legs because I’m a cyclist.”

How?

If you’re going for the shaven look for the first time, first step, unless you want Sisyphean task akin to trying to hack through a jungle with a butter knife, is to clipper the hair down with a beard trimmer. Then, run yourself a hot bath, add a couple of drops of baby oil and arm yourself with a razor. Soak for a while in the bath as this will soften the hairs and make the job far easier. Go for the best razor you can afford, ideally a multi bladed one with a lubricating strip. Don’t even consider using a cheap disposable or, the horror of all horrors, the free razor you get in hotel rooms. I’ve made this mistake when on a training camp and the scenes of bloody carnage in the bathroom post shave were reminiscent of the Bate’s Motel. Lather up with plenty of soap or shaving cream and make smooth and positive strokes. Rinse the blade of regularly and, if you’re a real Chewbacca and it’s your first time, you might need a new blade for each leg.

How high you go is a controversial topic. From a purely aesthetic point of view on the bike, you only have to go as high as your short line. However you will be left with a pair of hairy under-shorts. This can look more than a little bizarre if you wear a pair of shorter shorts, swimming trunks or when naked. If you’re sticking to your guns about massage and crash damage, you’ll need to go all the way up. Your hips are one of the prime road rash zones after a spill and a massage therapist will work all the way up your legs.

Once you’re done, pat them dry and apply plenty of moisturiser. Do make sure you rinse the bath out and, if you’ve borrowed your wife, girlfriend’s or indeed husband or boyfriend's razor without permission, give it a really thorough clean. Failure to do either of these two things can result in some serious time in the doghouse.

Your legs will feel weird in your trousers and against your sheets in bed, almost as if they don’t quite belong to you and are supercooled. Once you’ve shaved, you’re committed to it and it’ll need doing once or twice a week. Neglect it and prepare yourself for itchy legs purgatory.

Options?

Not sure about wielding a razor, keep on slicing your legs up or just can’t be bothered with the weekly ritual? What other options are there? You might think that waxing is a good idea and all female acquaintances will assure you it’s completely painless. Believe me, they’re lying! I was persuaded to give it a go, let my hairs grow to the necessary length and booked a slot at my local beauty parlour. The pain was horrendous. I left a sweaty trembling mess and very loudly called the beautician a very bad word. Women reading this will say I’m just a typical wimpy man with a low pain threshold but we’ve got much thicker hairs and an awful lot more of them. I booked in for a second waxing and it was just as bad and, along with the pre-wax anxiety I suffered for about a week before, sent me scuttling back to the bathroom and my razor.

A second option are hair removal creams. I went through a phase of using these in the lead up to the Long Course Duathlon World Championships last year after a couple of particularly cack handed and bloody shaves. They do leave your legs smooth but aren’t the easy hassle free method the adverts portray. They smell really unpleasant, you have to stand around in the bathroom with your legs coated in the stuff while it works, I would always get some on my arm and end up with a bald patch and, when you rinse it off, it turns the shower tray into an ice rink. At the World Championships I realised I’d forgotten to pack any and wouldn’t be able to do my ritual 48 hours before a big race de-hair. I’d learned my lesson about hotel razors, so went to a pharmacy in search of some. Swiss pharmacies are bewilderingly well stocked and I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Obviously the girl I had to ask was stunningly attractive and, as my GCSE French unsurprisingly was no use in a German speaking part of Switzerland, I had to perform a mime of the hair removal process. My acting skills were better than my linguistic and I got my cream but the sounds of hysterical laughter as I left the shop were the final nail in the coffin for hair removal creams for me.

There are other gadgets that pluck, scour or laser your legs hair free but I don’t think I’ll be trying them anytime soon. I might occasionally take a chunk out of my shin with a razor but I’ve become more skilled in the art and there’s definitely a therapeutic feel to the process. If you’re thinking of going for the sleek hair free look this summer, I’d recommend sticking to the blade.

 

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