Hair Today - Gone Tomorrow?

On the face of it, the headline “MAN IN SHORTS HAS HAIRY LEGS” makes for unlikely clickbait.  Yet, this week, the downy appearance of Peter Sagan’s lower limbs at the Tour de San Luis generated more column inches & social media activity than anything else - even more than the pictures of nervous pros at the Santos Tour Down Under, prodding bad-tempered marsupials and hoping they don’t get bitten or catch anything disgusting.

On reading the coverage of Sagan’s supposed stylistic solecism, Conquista’s first concern was for the personal sponsorship opportunities that have so obviously gone begging all these years.  For all their marketing firepower, Gillette, Wilkinson Sword, Veet and the rest have completely missed the cycling dollar.  Our second thought was how curious it is, given his high profile, that Sagan’s unusual visual presence so rarely excites any comment.  For example, by the standards of the pro peloton he is uniquely muscular, possessing visible triceps and thighs each resembling half-a-dozen shrink-wrapped baguettes.  More obviously, he has the sort of preposterous barnet that would not look out of place in the Barclays Premiership. 

Despite all this, it is his failure to depilate that has attracted all the attention. Which got us to thinking about that old chestnut: why do cyclists shave their legs?

Note that, for the purposes of this discussion we exclude pros, who live in a different world than the rest of us, and those people who shave their legs for reasons other than cycling.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, ladies.)

Note also that we do not mean to ask what reasons cyclists actually give for shaving their legs. These are all utterly spurious, and can be dispensed with in short order:

SPURIOUS REASON 1: It makes massages more comfortable.

Ha! Ha! Ha!  Come off it, Sir Bradley.  When was the last time you got a relaxing rubdown from your personal masseuse?  (NOTE: your last session with the foam roller doesn’t count.)

What is more, the present author has had plenty of physio on almost every part of his aged body, including both legs, and cannot remember any hairs being pulled.  And even if you are getting regular massages, and even if the occasional hair gets tweaked, how “uncomfortable” can it be?  What happened to your precious Rule #5, tough guy?

SPURIOUS REASON 2: It improves your aerodynamics.

In a recent piece of unreferenced pro-shaving propaganda, British Cycling claims that “wind tunnel testing by a major bike manufacturer has finally shown that there is a quantifiable aerodynamic benefit to shaving your legs . . . with six riders of varying pre-shave hairiness, the average saving over 40 kilometres was an impressive 70 seconds”. They go on to describe a leg-skin care routine, involving hot baths, baby oil and moisturiser, that would consume most of my morning twice a week.  There is absolutely no sense in which this return is worth the investment, even for the bare-legged time triallists amongst us.

It is noteworthy that the same piece of research suggested that an additional 11 seconds could be saved from the same theoretical TT by shaving a rider’s arms. So why doesn’t everyone do that?  What became of marginal gains?

SPURIOUS REASON 3: It makes it easier to treat crash wounds.

Here’s a better suggestion: don’t crash.  You probably never do anyway.  If you do, and you are worried about dressings pulling your hairs out on removal, do as the NHS does and shave yourself before application and after crashing, not twice a week for the rest of your life on the off-chance.  

SPURIOUS REASON 4: It makes your legs look better.

If the aesthetic improvement is so great, why don’t we see shaved legs in football, rugby, weightlifting, triathlon, track & field, basketball – or indeed any other sport?  The only exception I can think of is bodybuilding, where they shave everything. Just think about that for a moment, everybody. Bodybuilders.

When you have finished shuddering, be honest with yourself. Have a long look at those skinny, pale, blotchy pins of yours, resembling nothing so much as the last two chickens in the shop.  Hairy or not, do you really think they will impress anyone?  Or, to put it the other way around: if Peter Sagan doesn’t think the appearance of his tanned, muscular four-million-dollar-a-year legs needs to be “improved” by shaving them, what’s so special about yours?

Of course, as noted above, Sagan and the rest of the pros are different.  They really do get massaged all the time; they really do crash regularly; and seventy seconds in a 40km TT really can make a massive difference in a Grand Tour GC.  No doubt Sagan will be glisteningly smooth again by the time of the Spring Classics.  But, pros aside, the reality is that there is only one reason for any cyclist to shave his legs: to show other cyclists that he, too, is a cyclist.  Even British Cycling admits it: "If we are honest with ourselves . . . we shave our legs because it is a badge of honour that marks us out as cyclists".

I can remember having a “badge of honour”: everyone else in our gang had one too. I made mine out of a packet of Shreddies. I was eight. I grew out of my badge of honour when I was . . . er . . . eight.  Isn’t it time cyclists grew out of theirs? 

There is a serious point here.  The fetishising of leg-shaving is symptomatic of cycling’s appalling inward-looking, self-referential conservativism.  What do we look like when newcomers to cycling, or fans of other sports, find us all talking to one another, in the press and on social media, about whether a cyclist has shaved his legs – when the only cogent reason for most cyclists to shave their legs is to show other cyclists that they, too, are cyclists?

There is a huge potential audience for our sport, including millions who are keen to participate directly.  But the world of cycling gives every appearance of not wanting them.  By perpetuating silly myths about things like needing to shave your legs to be taken seriously (another personal favourite is the story about real cyclists not eating ice cream because it is bad for your liver), aren’t we deliberately excluding perfectly sensible people who just want to have a go at our sport?     

This is a big topic.  We will return to it next time – when Conquista takes on what is probably the single most divisive, controversial subject in all of cycling. Until then . . .


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1 comment

  • To start, I don’t shave my legs and probably never will – I’d rather wait until I get to the very top of my abilities as a rider before getting the razor out. But as someone who has started racing, I disagree entirely with 3 and 4 above.

    Firstly, if you could give me 70 seconds over my 25’ time trial, for shaving my legs a few times a year for key events, I’d be overjoyed at the free speed. And whilst I don’t quite believe the BC claims that it is anywhere near that amount of gain, if it is true then that’s the equivalent to a difficult and painful % increase in FTP, or thousands of pounds of equipment upgrades for the same result. Aerodynamics, or frontal drag, is everything for a time triallist, regardless of the level they are competing at.

    Secondly, the comment about arm hair is fair enough but as you know, the vast majority of skinsuits are long sleeved, so this point is completely moot.

    And lastly with regard to the crashing point, I don’t quite understand the solution posed re the NHS, but just saying “don’t crash” is ridiculous. Perhaps the author doesn’t regularly race otherwise he would be aware that this is an unfortunate aspect of road racing, especially at lower levels where skills are still being learnt. I’ve had horrible burns from road rash and picking hairs out of it was pretty unpleasant. I expect to crash more now I race regularly, and will likely mean I do end up shaving.

    All the points could make sense if this article is directed purely at the recreational rider, and I agree that leg shaving year round sounds like a time-consuming task with little benefit. But for those putting in all the hours of training and sacrifice, I would counter that leg shaving is an occasional and necessary evil for those who either time trial and want that marginal gain, or those who race regularly and are much more likely to crash.

    • theakstons