Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why Cyclists Shave Their Legs

Q: What on earth is that ball of hair? A: It’s the hair I shaved off my legs.

On this blog recently, I quoted a magazine writer who lamented that a cyclist with “too much hair on his legs” had set up his bike inappropriately. A friend commented on that post: Hey, what's wrong with cyclists having hairy legs?! ” As I shall get to, there’s really nothing wrong with cyclists having hairy legs—and yet, so many of them don’t. From time to time I get asked, by a cycling newcomer or curious non-cyclist, why it is that cyclists shave their legs. In this post I will attempt to answer that question, citing evidence from 45 responses to a survey I sent to my cycling friends.

Before we begin

Before answering the question, let’s look at it more closely. It’s actually several questions, nested together like one of those Russian dolls:

  • What is a cyclist?
  • Do cyclists shave their legs?
  • Do those cyclists who shave their legs all do so for the same reasons?
  • If there are various reasons, what are they, and what are the most common ones?
  • Are these reasons good ones? In other words, should cyclists shave their legs?

What is a cyclist?

Some labels are more useful than others. “Hemophiliac,” for example, is very specific: it designates a person with a hereditary blood-coagulation problem. In comparison, the label “cyclist” is somewhat vague.

Let’s say you drive everywhere you go, even to the corner grocery, but one day your car breaks down and you borrow your kid’s bike for a quick errand, and then—while riding on the wrong side of the street—you get run over and killed. The newspaper will report this as “Cyclist killed by car.” You go down in history as a cyclist, whereas if you actually had been a cyclist, you’d have been on the right side of the road and everything would be fine. Conversely, when circumstances conspire against me and I actually have to walk somewhere, I’m always very careful because I’d hate to get run over and go down in history as a mere pedestrian.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define cyclist as “somebody who rides a bike because he wants to, even when he doesn’t need to.” In my book, there are no other requirements or qualifications. I’m not the type to look with scorn at a slower rider, or one who violates some supposed bike culture taboo. In other words, I never say (or think), “And you call yourself a cyclist!”

The survey

To address the rest of the questions, I created a simple, anonymous survey and sent it out to several dozen of my cycling pals. Most invitees are either current or former racers; all are riders who could hang with my bike club’s weekend rides; ten are either current or former Cat 1s or pros.

The response was swift and enthusiastic, with 45 questionnaires completed within 24 hours. I asked five questions about leg shaving:

  1. Did/do you race?
  2. Do you shave your legs?
  3. If you shave(d) your legs, what are/were your reasons for doing so? (I provided a multiple-choice list of commonly cited reasons and said to check all that apply.)
  4. If you shave(d) your legs, what was/is your main reason for doing so? (Same list, but with only one answer possible.)
  5. In your opinion, should cyclists shave their legs?

Here is a breakdown of the respondents to my questionnaire, in terms of racing experience. (Note: for all graphs in this post, do yourself a favor and click on the image to zoom in.)

Flaws in the survey

I should have set up the survey a bit more carefully, because it had its flaws. First, I excluded women, on the assumption that they all shave their legs anyway; I’ve since been corrected by a pal who maintains that “there are a lot of women in the sport who might not shave otherwise.” I should have had a separate survey for women, in which I could have included questions about what they think of leg shaving by men.

Second, I didn’t imagine that vanity could possibly have anything to do with a man’s decision to shave his legs. I now see, from the results, that I should have included aesthetics/vanity as one of the standard choices; that would have saved me a lot of data-massaging later. At least I included a write-in “Other” write-in response, or I’d still be ignorant of this rationale.

Finally, I didn’t think to ask the converse question, “Why don’t you shave your legs?” One of the more hirsute members of my club (who after much deliberation decided not to shave his legs for the recent Everest Challenge), offered this sample question:

Why don't you shave your legs? (Check all that apply)

  • Since razors now cost $2 a pop, shaving your legs costs more money than your bicycle
  • The line of where to stop shaving seems too arbitrary and confusing, leading to a partially shaved stomach
  • The hair grows back in three hours, so what’s the point?
  • Your leg stubble injured your wife, and domestic abuse charges are pending
  • It would be too silly if your wife’s legs were hairy and yours weren’t
  • Other (specify below)

And now, for the answers to my original questions, based on my own observations and the survey responses.

Do cyclists shave their legs?

I’ll start off by saying that all professional racers and top amateurs shave their legs, at least during the racing season. (I would be fascinated to be furnished with any information to the contrary.) Many of my survey respondents no longer race regularly, which is where things get more complicated: some continue to shave and some don’t, according to personal preference.

In my experience, leg shaving behavior has less to do with what kind of cyclist you are than with what kind of person you are. I know leg-shavers who barely ride, hairy-legged guys who can crush almost anybody, and various types in between.

Below is a pie chart of who shaves, and who doesn’t, among my cycling friends. I consider it noteworthy that, although only 13% of respondents still race regularly, 55% still shave some of the time, and 38% shave either year-round or during the cycling season.

Why do so many cyclists shave their legs?

In creating my survey, I provided as standard multiple-choice answers the reasons I’ve heard the most over the years:

  • To facilitate leg massages
  • To ease treatment of crash injuries
  • To facilitate sunscreen application
  • To fit in with the rest of the peloton
  • To show the world I’m a cyclist

I also provided a comment field for respondents to write in their own reasons. That’s how I was able to treat aesthetics/vanity as its own category in the charts below. Here is a breakdown of the rationale cited when respondents were able to choose all applicable responses:

“Other” comprised vanity/aesthetics (nine responses), ease of cleaning (two responses), “just like it” (one response), Icy Hot application( one response), winning (one response) and aerodynamics (one response).

Here is the breakdown of primary rationale; i.e., respondents selected the single response that best matched their main reason for leg shaving:

Explanation and discussion

Myself, I found the survey results enlightening. The most common reasons for leg shaving I’ve heard, over the last couple decades, have been ease of treating crash injuries and facilitating leg massages. I’ve never really believed these to begin with, and now I know the real reasons.

Following is my commentary about these reasons for leg shaving. Following that I’ll get to the final question: should cyclists shave their legs?

Because of our massages

The gist of the massage argument is that if your legs are hairy, getting them massaged will lead to lots of ingrown hairs, which is painful and unsightly. I haven’t had many leg massages in my life, and the ones I did get were recent—that is, during my modern adult life when I could afford such a thing. My legs were hairy for these massages, since I quit racing right about the time I started earning a legitimate income. (I’m not trying to suggest a correlation or anything.) I never had trouble with ingrown hairs.

Meanwhile, shaving itself can lead to ingrown hairs, for reasons I can’t really fathom. Do the hairs turn around and bury themselves in order to escape the blade? (Sounds far-fetched, I know, but you’ve seen those fanciful Gillette animations where the hair lifts itself up to meet the blade, so the opposite phenomenon may actually be possible.) Meanwhile, there’s classic razor burn to contend with, and the unavoidable nicks. It’s not clear to me that these discomforts are worth suffering in the name of avoiding the (arguably specious) prospect of ingrown hairs.

Second, who really gets leg massages on a regular basis? Professional racers do, but how many amateurs? Who among us can afford the time and expense? Myself, I’d rather have a neck massage than a leg massage; my legs are seldom sore from cycling, but my back and neck take a daily beating from typing, conference calls, etc. It just may be that some of the cyclists who tout this reason are simply hoping they’ll be mistaken for somebody of means who has a full-time soigneur. (One survey respondent wrote in, “I wish I had a soigneur — preferably female over the gnarly old men who like to rub guys’ legs...”)

Crash injury treatment

As this argument goes, it’s easier to clean road rash when you don’t have hair to contend with. And, you need to cover the road rash with gauze, and the gauze must be securely taped; the tape tugs painfully at the hairs. There’s some related argument about hair increasing the chance of infection, but I’ve never understood it.

I have issues with this notion as well. For one thing, it would apply just as logically to shaving the arms, which is almost unheard of among cyclists. I did have a teammate once who shaved his arms, and he did crash a lot, but he also did other weird stuff like wrapping his arms in Ace bandages before a race.

The bigger problem I have with the crash protection rationale is that it assumes crashes are inevitable. Perhaps for professional racers they are, but the rest of us—especially those with a lot of experience—really can do this sport without a lot of crashes. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be a cyclist.

Ultimately, leg shaving for crash injury treatment is, I think, incongruous: you’re shaving thirty to fifty times a year to lessen the potential impact of something you’re pretty sure will very seldom happen.

Fitting in

The desire to fit in with the peloton is understandable enough, so it’s not surprising this was, by a wide margin, the main reason cyclists shave their legs. The question, then, is this: how did leg shaving become the norm in the amateur U.S. peloton? Easy: the U.S. peloton mimics the professional European peloton. But should it? Those guys race like eighty times a year, in every kind of weather, at much higher speeds, and they have full-time soigneurs.

Upon reviewing the statistics, there’s something else I find odd about this leg shaving rationale: since 45% of my sample never shaves, and another 17% only shaves occasionally (for a specific event), the leg-shavers are actually in the minority most of the time. Since when do people take on behaviors to fit in with—a minority? The answer, I suppose, is that we’re seeking to fit in not just with the guys on our club, but the greater abstract peloton—perhaps the Platonic ideal of peloton.

Showing the world you’re a cyclist

During the last decade or so cycling has become a fairly mainstream sport in this country, but traditionally cyclists have been iconoclasts. For most, leg shaving has historically been one of the bolder ways of defying mainstream sensibilities. When I began racing in the early ‘80s, cycling was not widely accepted, much less respected, even in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. My brother Max fearlessly embraced bike culture, adopting a cycling cap and wool jersey as full-time casual wear. But even he wasn’t aware of leg shaving until we saw “Breaking Away”:

Cyril: “Hey … are you really gonna shave your legs?”

Dave: Certo! All the Italians do it.”

Mike: “Ah, some country. The women don’t shave theirs.”

Of course, we were prepubescent kids at the time, and late bloomers at that, so leg shaving was years away. In fact, in high school I had to deal with the stigma long before the razor, as kids teased me in gym class: “Hey Dana, do you shave your legs?” They couldn’t fully harass me until I admitted it, because even they couldn’t be sure if they were seeing the results of shaving vs. just being a teenager trapped in a child’s body. I couldn’t decide what was worse—being a weirdo, or being way behind on my way to manhood—so I just stayed miserably silent.

I guess cycling has come of age, for now a smooth-legged cyclist is “just as normal as pumpkin pie” (to quote “Breaking Away” again). The look has become enough a part of cycling culture that a group ride is bound to have more leg-shavers than not, and being hairy-legged falls just short of making a statement. Now, leg shaving can be just as proud an image as the high school letter jacket, without the stigma that leg shaving (and cycling itself) once had.


Over more than two decades of cycling-related dialog, I’ve very seldom heard anybody cite aesthetics, much less vanity, as a reason for shaving his legs. And yet, as you saw above, a number of respondents wrote in vanity or aesthetics as a reason for shaving, with 13% naming it as the main reason they shave. The write-in responses ranged from “aesthetics” to “looks better”; from “vanity” to the remarkably blatant “looks sexy”; and, my favorite, “Despite their initial thought that you're a freak, chicks dig it.”

Clearly, people are more candid when their input is anonymous. That said, the subject still touched at least one nerve: a respondent wrote, “Man - this caused me all kinds of self loathing and insecurity … gonna call my therapist now.”

Myself, I’ve never considered shaved legs to be aesthetically superior to hairy ones. It’s pretty much a wash, for me: a shaved leg has a cleaner, sleeker look, but a hairy one looks bigger. My pipes are pretty twiggy and can use any illusion of burliness they can get.

Should cyclists shave their legs?

I am not inclined to take on the role of arbiter in this matter. I am very strongly opinionated about whether or not women should shave their legs, but as far as male cyclists go, I really couldn’t care less. I see that I’m not alone in this position, based on the survey results. (Note: “No” was a possible answer, but not a single respondent selected it.)

That said, from a pragmatic standpoint hairy legs can be useful.

How? Well, several of my cycling friends are, like me, guys who did a lot of racing for a lot of years and have had their fill of the cultural trappings of the sport. Not only are we finally free of the endless training regimen, but we’re happy to be done with the drooling over bike catalogs, the long driving trips every weekend, and the constant battle against leg hair. But we still love to ride. The hairy legs, then, become symbolic of retirement itself, and give us an excuse to simply not take the bait when some young (or young-at-heart) racer-type throws down the gauntlet on us. And if we do decide to rise to the occasion, and manage to get the better of a chance rival, the victory is made that much sweeter by our shaggy presentation.

This cuts both ways, of course: if I decide to dust off my lungs and take on a serious race (which I’ve done three times in the last six years), I’ll add shaving to my preparations. After all, there’s a time to be taken seriously in the peloton, lest I give comfort to the enemy, and shaved legs really are an important part of the racer’s image.

What’s So Great About Sports?


The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday had an article about Cal professors decrying the expense overages of the university’s athletic programs:

One professor is quoted as saying, “"We ought to stop subsidizing this program,” and a group of faculty members has formed called the “Sports Grinch Club.” Issues like budget overruns and their associated bailouts will be debated at the next Faculty Senate meeting.

I’m personally not interested in joining this debate. But I am interested to know how many members of the Sports Grinch Club support sports and/or athletic pursuits in general. I am aware of a divide between those who “get” sports and those who don’t. The Sports Grinch Club would do well to have some athletes, or former athletes, among its ranks, to establish credibility with the sports fans. If some non-exercising, tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking ivory-tower intellectual becomes the spokesman for the anti-sports movement, it will have a tough job on its hands.

My brother Bryan has two teenage kids who are going very far in sports, and—in a departure from the almost rabid sports parents around him—he has mixed feelings about their full schedule of practices, games, tournaments, and other commitments required of his family. Though he is an expert cyclist, and was a very successful competitive swimmer in high school and college, he takes a guarded approach to the lionization of high school athletes, his kids included.

I chatted with Bryan about this awhile back, and am providing here an edited transcript (with his comments in blue, mine in black) is a nice jumping-off point for further exploration of the topic.

The chat transcript

BRYAN: We’ve got that Lego Mindstorms set but none of my kids has ever really shown much interest. They’d rather be has-beens, lounging around the T.V. watching sports, talking about their glory days playing high school ball. 20 year old John. 30 year old John. Old mean-old-man John. Man, do I sound bitter or what?

DANA: Well, a has-been is better than a would-have-wanted-to-have-been….

Why does everyone admire the athletes so much? I don't quite get it... I guess everyone just wants to be beautiful. I suppose that if we were hanging around chess competitions, they’d be admiring the “smart” guys.

I’ve never questioned the universal admiration of athletes. They’re fearless, and they take the human potential to its highest visible level. It’s harder for the average joe to admire a chess player, because for that you need a real understanding of the game. But bike racers duking it out on a climb ... it’s pretty fundamental, a perfect depiction of Man Against Man and Man Against Nature. We see them doing something we’re afraid to do, and they’re doing it brilliantly. (Beauty doesn’t hurt, of course—it’s inspiring to see a perfectly toned human physique—but it’s not the point. Ugly athletes can be impressive, too.)

But of what value is [athletics], really? In life.

Well, what better symbol can you imagine for the ability to improve yourself? Athletes inspire us to be better at whatever we do. Seeing an athlete at the top of his or her game, well, it’s discipline incarnate. And the psychological aspect of sport is universal. We watch a tennis player struggling to keep his head together, and we’re inspired to try harder next time we’re about to lose it in, say, an annoying conference call.

Sport is good practice for life. When, as happens once in a great while, a guy provokes me on a bike ride, and I crush him utterly, meting out terrible suffering from my spiteful impulsive side, coming as close to brilliance as I can, why, that steels me for battling the insurance adjuster on the phone later. And seeing the pros do their thing, it’s like a lesson in perseverance.

So of what value is all this athletics in our own kids’ lives? They’re not going to grow up to be über-atheletes. They’ll just be has-beens. What good did all that swimming do Geoff and me?

I think the beauty of sport is that ultimately the venue doesn’t matter that much. Whether you’re competing for an Olympic spot or mere Mini Zinger glory, the head-to-head contest is the same. When you conquer somebody, especially somebody who usually beats you, there’s a rush that you don’t often get, and it doesn’t matter where you beat him or what “real world” importance the race held. That rush gives you a taste of success, and once you’ve had it, you want it again. I think it’s no coincidence that so many athletes are successful beyond their sporting careers.

Yeah, that’s true, I reckon... I just hope [my kids] can keep it all in perspective when they grow up and it’s not there anymore.

Well, if a person has strong character, than “it” will always be there. Sure, you see plenty of pro athletes who get a grossly inflated sense of self, and then have a terrible letdown when they’re not playing/racing anymore and nobody cares about them anymore, but sport isn’t completely at fault. The sporting institutions and/or overly awed fans (or in your case the players’ parents) have a role there. Many of these irresponsible athletes are from lousy upbringings, or have been manipulated by the money-driven sports world, but if a person is brought up well, and builds the character necessary to keep everything in perspective, then I think the sports can really be a plus. Look at what’s-his-name, Bill Bradley. A brilliant basketball player who was criticized by his college ball coach mainly for not being selfish enough, and then he goes on to be a successful senator!

I also think sport is a good place to vent our over-competitive impulses. For most of human existence, men waged war against other tribes, etc. and developed all this kill-or-be-killed instinct, and when that’s applied to the modern professional world, it leads to all kinds of excesses, like competing to make more money than the next guy, even though you already have more than you could possibly need. I wonder how many tycoon types could have done without the Gulfstream jet or the yacht if they’d just had a sporting venue in which to get their ya-yas out.

Or for stealing other guys’ women and whatnot.

Yeah, exactly. Meanwhile, nothing relieves my type-AAA personality more than a good hard bike ride, even if I’m solo. Afterward, I’m downright mellow, companionable. Without it, I can be a real jerk, as you well know. It’s so cool being on the bike club because we destroy each other on the road and leave it there. At a bike team BBQ, we can really relax and there’s no pecking-order or one-upmanship BS because every guy has crushed—and been crushed by—every other guy countless times.

The need for balance

Oddly, some of the very things I love athletics for—the purity of competition, the safe environment in which to work out competitive impulses, the benefit to the body—can be overturned at the varsity and professional levels. Doping taints the competition, running roughshod over fairness. The big-bucks aspects create unhealthy motivations and, at the collegiate level, may put unfair financial strain on the schools. The athletes are endangered by injuries (either catastrophic or from cumulative overuse of their bodies). An argument could be made that diminishing returns accrue beyond the club sports level at a university.

On the other hand, if the school doesn’t make a sizeable investment in young athletes, many—especially the ones from poorer backgrounds—may never reach their potential, and after all, isn’t it the top players/racers who offer society the greatest inspiration? If you asked me if I thought bike racing deserved to be a varsity sport, I’d certainly say yes—after all, cycling is an expensive sport, and I struggled to afford the race weekends when I was a student. Thus, for me to criticize the expenditures on more mainstream sports—ones that pack stadiums and capture the imagination of wealthy alumni—would seem a bit short-sighted. What is to be done? I’ll leave that to the experts. I just hope they have a basic understanding of what’s so great about sports.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

We Have a Winner!

Don't let the soccer ball motif on the medal fool you: you're looking at the winner of the first-ever albertnet Amateur Product Review contest! As you may recall from a blog post from last May, I ran a contest to see who could spot the the fake reviews hidden among actual amateur product reviews. The winner is John Lynch of Chapel Hill, NC, pictured here at his victory party in Berkeley last night. His prize: a First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot. That and untold glory.

When asked to comment on his contest victory, John replied, "I won this contest for a very simple reason: nobody beats me. I always win at everything. Actually, that's not true, but I will often come in within the top three of any contest that involves recognizing the verbal stylings of Dana Albert's writing (assuming there are no more than four -- or fewer! -- people), and I am inordinately proud of this ability."

Contest background and correct answers

To review: after a discussion of the strange phenomenon of the amateur product review (see for details), I provided a list of five products, each with three reviews. In each case two of the reviews were real (however improbable they may have seemed), and the other was a fake one that I wrote. I did my best to stymie everybody, and in fact nobody got a perfect score. Two contestants scored 3 out of 5, and since John was the first, he wins. (The runner up was my brother Bryan, who should have had an unfair advantage.)

Below are the questions again, for your convenience, followed by John's responses and, for those he got wrong, the actual correct answers. If you like, you can pretend you're yelling at the TV during a game show by guessing the right answer before checking the response. (Of course it is far too late for you to enter.)

Review #1: PC printer

a) The thing I didnt know about this printer or I would have not bought it was that it takes special photo paper that has this tear-off tab on it that you have to tear off and it doesnt always evenv work. HP is not the company it used to be, how can they make you do that. Bogus. I had a Canon Bubblejet before and it had no tab and the ink didn’t smear either. I took this one back and its a good thing I had my reciept.

b) I have purchased 3 of these for family members and all 3 came without the usb cable to plug them into the computer. which makes the printer useless. I contacted your company and they sent me another printer,and that one didnt have one either. I had to buy the cables myself. I dont understand how you can sell this printer without the means to use it.

c) Realmente no puedo dar ninguna opinion de sastifaccion por que el producto no llego a su destino. [Babelfish translation: "I really cannot give any opinion of satisfaction so that the product I do not arrive at its destiny."]

John's response: "(a) is the bogus review. "Cannon Bubblejet" gives it away." (Dana's comment: though John got this right, he lucked out. Canon Bubble Jet is a legitimate printer brand.)

Review #2: The Alchemist (a novel)

a) The most mysterious part of this book is its popularity. I understand that it’s a simple fable and I'll even grant the “follow your heart” message may be a virtuous pursuit. But the manner in which this message is delivered is tortuous…. Instead of having to resolve significant conflicts himself, Santiago floats through the story guided by a sequence of serendipitously fortuitous events. Coelho attributes this to the “universe conspiring” to help him attain his Personal Legend. I attribute this to weak writing.

b) This incredibly over-rated book is a mixture of pure fantasy and mushy sentimentalism. It is more suited to children or to an American audience.

c) I read this book alongside What Is the What by Dave Eggers, about the “Lost Boys” in Sudan. The characters in Eggers’ book were realistic, and had real problems, and it was hard, in reading The Alchemist, to get excited about some schmuck searching for buried treasure. The Alchemist is a shallow, contrived, fourth-grade-reading level novel. Its millions of devoted fans should feel embarrassed.

John's response: "This one is hard. All of the reviews have that same sheen of anonymous internet-hatred of an exalted and accepted big-name writer. I'm going to have to go with (a) again -- only because it sorta sounds like something you'd write. But I'm impressed by all of the reviews, and doubly impressed by your ability to fade into the tapestry of vituperation..." (Dana's comment: John got this one wrong. The correct answer is c. Frankly, I wish I'd written (a). Meanwhile, John should get extra credit for "vituperation." I had to look that one up, and now I see how useful a word it is, especially when reviewing a literary travesty like The Alchemist, which isn't fit to line a bird cage, even if its writer is "exalted and accepted.")

Review #3: Anna Karenina (a novel)

a) The book is a great book even though it has fallen apart piece by piece during my read.

b) I can’t see how a book that was made into such a tight, well-paced movie that only lastedless than two hours. I thought I’d never get through it and was so boring, get to the point already.

c) Nabokov, you are a jerk

John's response: "Clearly, you wrote review (c). (a) is poetic and cute. (b) is so horribly written, even you couldn't emulate that level of punctuational ignorance. And I know you are a Nabokov expert, hence your insinuating it into this review. But the review (c) is brilliant in its brevity." (Dana's comment: his confidence notwithstanding, John got this one wrong too. Though I'm not clever enough to have written (a), which is my favorite, I am quite capable of emulating punctuational ignorance. What was trickier was creating a believable sentence that didn't track right--that, in fact, went right off the rails. It appears I was successful, because not a single contestant got this one right!)

Review #4: Food Processor

a) OK, I really like this little mini-prep processor at the very beginning. The motor is strong, very easy to clean. However, this little guy only last for 10 time of use within 5 months. I handwash the bowl and found out there were cracks between the blade and the joint plastic. I emailed their customer service thru their website. It's been 10 days, no one even reply with a sorry!

b) I have had this thing for eight months and I never use it. I don’t see much use except greating cheese and then it’s a hassle to clean anyway. But the thing I can’t get is it was supposed to come with an instructive video and it but it’s VHS! Wake up people it’s 2009. I don’t even have a VHS anymore.

c) great chopper until you try to clean it. to screw the blade on tight, you are safe, to take the blade out of it's compartment to clean it, you must twist in the same direction as the sharp blades. this is the reason i am typing with one hand without the time to use caps b/c i am bleeding!

John's response: "These are the best reviews. Are any of them actually real? Awesome. I so badly want (c) to be a real review. This leaves (a) and (b). I'm going with (b). The inclusion of "greating" is a nice touch." (Dana's comment: dang it, I should have predicted that with "greating" I would be going just a bit too far. Incidentally, though this is a bogus review, it's mostly true though. We did get an instructional video with our food processor, though nine years on we still haven't gotten around to watching it. For that matter, we haven't gotten around to reading this (much older) cookbook either:

Review #5: Men’s Jacket

a) Shabby packing, was delivered rolled as a ball! The quality is poor, almost light as a fleece, and is a dirt magnet. I ordered thinking this brand is typically good, but not in this case.

b) Won't buy again! The lining got mold all over, the buttons were together, very hard to get apart and when I pulled them, the lining almost came off and so did the rusty buttons, is made in china that's why, if I knew it was made there will never buy it.

c) Loved the jacket at first, has that "lived-in" look I wanted, which my old jacket had but I think it was broken in by a real person wearing it around, it smelled like boiled cabbage and I couldn’t get rid of the smell. So this jacket I’m like "yes, it’s all worn in and doesn’t stink!" But then I read this little disclaimer tag that comes with and here’s what it says, I’m not making this up: "THIS GARMENT IS PREWASHED. We've put this J. Crew product through a washing process to create a softer, "lived-in" feel and look. This prewashing replicates natural aging without repeated wearings and washings. So this garment is a bit faded, a bit shrunk, and its seams are looser and less uniform (as shrinking is never completely even in all dimensions). There will also be some variations of shading and texture. In fact, some garments will have large bleached patches. Invariably, one sleeve will be longer than the other, and the collar may choke you, or else gape wide open and let cold air in. You may find that there are more buttonholes than buttons, and that the fabric may have large runs or tears in it. Some garments will give you years of service, but you shouldn't be surprised if your garment completely falls apart after just a few short weeks. These factors combine to give this garment its individual look and comfort. Please keep this in mind as you examine your new J. Crew garment: because we don't want to hear any complaints. Such variations are assets that contribute to the uniqueness and personality of all our prewashed apparel." I was like, WHOAH! So I’ll probably return it, my god, but right now I’m actually enjoying it.

John's response: "(a) is dull and hating -- typical internet tripe. (b) is written by someone who speaks english as a second language and is also dull and hating. (c) is not very well disguised Dana Albert. 'Invariably, one sleeve will be longer than the other, and the collar my choke you...' Yes, this is Dana Albert. Also, you spelled 'WHOAH' in a way that no one on the internet ever would (they would 'invariably' go with 'wo' or 'woaw'). (Dana's comment: this was the "gimme" of the batch, though it did fool one contestant.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cycling, Suffering, and the Cold-Pressor Test


A couple days ago, preparing for a big bike team party, I filled a cooler with beer and ice. I like to use a lot of ice, so no two bottles are touching. The beers are all surrounded and ensconced in the ice, like fruit in Jell-O. My wife said, “If you use so much ice people will have to dig through it, which is painful.” I replied, “Yeah, but these are all cyclists.” At that moment I remembered that, when I threw a similar party a few years ago, I actually administered the “cold-pressor test,” a standard test for measuring pain thresholds.

I also remembered that I’d written about that experience then, in the context of suffering in general and bike suffering in particular. I had tried to work this all in to a story I wrote about a Coors Classic bike race reunion I’d attended in December of 2006. It didn’t fit, though, and I had to scrap it. (The actual reunion story is here.)

Since I’m way behind on blogging, I found this old scrap and worked it into something I think is worthwhile. (By the way, I have a bunch of other posts in the works which will reach albertnet shortly.)

The value of suffering

At a party I attended in Boulder, a reunion of bike racing people, I chatted briefly with Dale Stetina, one of my childhood cycling heroes. Stetina had won the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic stage race in Colorado in 1979 before retiring a year or two later. In 1982, he began coaching a number of young racers in the Boulder area, including me. Then, to our delight, he returned to racing in 1983, and in a stunning breakaway on the last day of the Coors Classic managed to win the whole thing.

I recalled that breakaway victory to him at the party, and he described it modestly. “I wasn’t doing anything that ambitious, I was just being careful because of the strong crosswind. Wind like that can really break up the pack so I made sure to stay near the front. When the group fragmented, Bauer wasn’t paying attention and got caught out. All I did was capitalize on his mistake.” I commented on the importance of that lesson—pay attention!—and Stetina replied, “Actually, that’s not one of the more important lessons from cycling. The most important thing about cycling is that it teaches you how to suffer. And once you know how to suffer, you can do anything.”

I imagine that anybody who has raced bikes for any length of time, or pursued any difficult athletic endeavor, has contemplated suffering at length, but nobody had ever spoken to me about it as simply, and yet profoundly, as Stetina had with that comment. The point is not so much that success requires suffering, but that suffering is something you must learn how to do. It’s instinctive to avoid suffering whenever we can. Avoiding suffering is perhaps the most primal reflex we have, and in a privileged society this avoidance can become a bad habit.

Fear of suffering causes all kinds of laziness; it’s why people stand on escalators, and it’s why they coast when they could pedal. But beyond mere physical discomfort, fear of emotional or psychological suffering is why people delude themselves into complacency instead of looking inward and challenging themselves to be better. Of course bike racing isn’t the only way to learn how to suffer, but it’s got to be one of the best ways.

How I learned about suffering

When I got interested in racing bikes I was totally ignorant of what it would require of me. I imagined speed, and fun, and glory, and above all a way to distinguish myself from the masses. That’s all we saw when we’d watched the original Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, which is what turned my brothers and me on to bicycle racing to begin with.

Our first race was a nine-day stage race for kids called the Red Zinger Mini Classic (modeled, of course, after the pro-am Red Zinger). In 1981, very few kids knew anything about bike racing, so the organizers of this race required that all riders participate in a bicycling clinic they put on a few weeks before the race. We all met at The Spoke, a Boulder bike shop. People I knew from school were there, which felt like an insult—weren’t these the same guys who teased me for wearing a cycling cap to school? On our way out of the parking lot, I tipped over because I’d just gotten toe clips and straps, so I felt like a complete dork and the ride hadn’t even really started yet.

We made our way to the base of a climb, and once it started, I immediately got dropped. It didn’t occur to me to put up a struggle. The leader of the clinic was an honest-to-God racer (if memory serves it was Dag Selander). He dropped back and rode next to me, trying to encourage me. He suggested I get out of the saddle and go a little harder. He told me it was okay if it hurt. This concept seemed completely foreign to me. What this guy was asking me to do was to suffer—to knowingly and willingly inflict suffering upon myself. This just didn’t make any sense.

He left me alone and cruised back up to the group, and I pondered his words as I continued picking my lone way up the road. I eventually began to understand what he was saying. Don’t get me wrong, I had been well aware that there was suffering in the athletic world, but on some level I viewed the willingness to suffer as an idiosyncrasy of certain competitors, not the whole point of sport. Of course you can laugh at my naïveté, but take a moment to think back on what a typical eleven-year-old has seen of sports first-hand: mainly it’s ball sports in gym class, where the physically talented rise to the top automatically, without any special effort. (And I mean talented in motor skills and fast-twitch muscles; there is exactly zero opportunity for an uncoordinated and/or slow-twitch kid to distinguish himself.)

For the first time, I entertained the idea that all athletes suffered. Why else would this guy encourage a nothing kid like me to make it painful? Maybe winners weren’t just intrinsically better; maybe they simply suffered more. I decided this must be the case. So did I follow this advice? Did I get out of the saddle and push myself, and close the gap to the rest of the kids? Of course not. This wasn’t an ABC After-School Special, it was real life and I was a loser. I understood the coach’s point intellectually, but lacked the drive to take any action. It would be many months before I developed the psychological mettle to actually make use of his lesson. But this was the starting point.

How I learned to suffer

I got crushed in my first Mini Zinger (I finished second-to-last, thus failing even to earn the dubious honor of Lanterne Rouge). For some reason, though, I didn’t give up the sport. That fall and the next spring, I learned a lot about cycling. For one thing, I learned how to draft. My brother Geoff taught me how, first explaining the principle and then heckling me during rides if I didn’t do it. Eventually he didn’t even need to use words: if he thought I wasn’t drafting closely enough he’d hold back his hand, thumb and forefinger an inch apart, to remind me how close our tires should be. And of course he’d ride really fast, being three years older than I, so really I was getting two lessons: how to draft, and how to suffer. If I failed to keep up, he wouldn’t ride with me anymore.

The next year, I was much stronger in the Zinger, but couldn’t figure out why I still didn’t crack the top ten. Later that summer was when Dale Stetina started his coaching. This was less structured than what he went on to do with his 7-Eleven junior team a few years later; in ’82, he simply charged a monthly fee (something like $30 I think) to informally coach any kid who was interested. I don’t frankly remember anything in particular that Stetina taught us; rather, the training rides we kids did with him gradually impressed upon me how complicated a sport this was. There were different types of training rides; different types of racing; even descending could be viewed as a discipline unto itself. I began to see the sport as a giant assembly of small details; getting enough of them right could add up to a margin of victory. But the foundation, I still believed, was the willingness to suffer, hard and often. And little by little, I embraced the ethos of suffering and started dipping into the red, ever more deeply and more frequently.

Of course, it’s well and good to claim that cycling taught me how to suffer, but suffering is a highly subjective matter. Could I have learned suffering even better through another sport? I’m sure any cyclist would tell you it’s among the very hardest sports out there, but what’s to keep a golfer or baseball player from making the same claim about his sport? Well, I had no reason to doubt that Stetina was authoritative about suffering, and that cycling was among the most painful sports, because a few months before I’d conducted a pain threshold experiment that gave me objective proof.

The cold-pressor test

During an orientation for my wife’s first childbirth, I learned that the medical community is beginning to consider pain as a vital sign, just like heart rate, blood pressure, or temperature. Of course pain is a more elusive sign than something objectively measurable, but it’s getting plenty of attention. Back in 1998, I read a fascinating article about pain by Atul Gawande, a surgeon, assistant professor at Harvard, and popular writer. He described a simple pain threshold experiment called the cold-pressor test in which subjects immerse a hand in ice water and keep it in as long as possible, before the pain becomes too great and they can’t help but pull out. The duration of submersion is the subject’s pain threshold. The test is limited to two minutes “to prevent injury.”

Countless researchers have used this study; the one Gawande cites compared ballet dancers to university students. The female students pulled out, on average, at thirty-seven seconds. Female dancers lasted almost three times as long (though they didn’t last the full two minutes). This result doesn’t surprise me; ballet dancers are known for high pain thresholds, given the rigors of their activity. Gawande tried the test himself and lasted the full two minutes, which he attributes to the toughness that he developed in medical school. I found another incidence of this study in which thirty-six men and thirty-six women averaged 56 seconds in the ice water. The obvious question: how would a cyclist do?

Cyclists take the cold-pressor challenge

When I hosted a party for the Berkeley area cycling community, I saw a perfect opportunity: I had a giant tub of ice water (for the beer) and a house full of bike racers, stuffed full of green enchiladas and ready for any challenge. When the party had thinned out to maybe half a dozen guys, I suggested the test. Of course not a single guy declined. My wife manned the stopwatch and we all plunged our hands in at once. Thirty seconds in, someone asked, “So, is anybody feeling some pain?” There were a few nods. “Yeah, I guess it hurts,” someone admitted. We passed the minute mark.

It hurt—in fact, it hurt plenty—but nobody was fazed (at least outwardly). It wasn’t enough to keep the hand in; each guy felt the need to show how conversational he could still be. We chatted merrily away about how the pain was unmistakable but totally manageable. Ninety seconds in, I swear somebody affected a yawn. Another thirty seconds passed. “Two minutes, you’re done!” my wife called out. She and somebody’s girlfriend looked a bit relieved for a moment, until they realized we weren’t pulling out. We all just sat there. “Theoretically you’re supposed to take your hand out at two minutes to prevent injury,” I mentioned casually. But nobody wanted to be first. We went at least another half a minute until, citing boredom, somebody withdrew, and the rest of us unhurriedly followed.

I thought I had my answer—cyclists really are particularly good at suffering—but the next morning, hung over and tackling the horrendous mess from the party, I spied the beer cooler and second-guessed the pain experiment. Sure, it had hurt, but not intolerably by any means. Could our success have simply been the result of alcohol? I had to know. I made sure the tub was still frigid (there were tons of ice cubes still) and repeated the experiment. Three minutes, no problem.

Pain vs. suffering

So how painful was it? If zero is no pain, and ten is a perforated eardrum (the most pain I’ve ever suffered), cold-pressor (with hangover) is about a six. Whacking my funny bone is about a three (brevity being a mitigating factor). Having a cavity filled without Novocain is about a five. A hard punch to the biceps by a big brother, a four. A hard climb during a bike race, at least a seven. But here is a crucial distinction among painful stimuli: control.

The reason that the perforated eardrum was so painful is that the pain came from outside of me, represented unknown damage to a sensitive organ, and couldn’t be made to go away. It was a physical sensation compounded by strong emotional responses: fear and alarm. The ability to back down the pain makes all the difference in the world. Before getting a cavity filled, I tell the dentist I’ll raise my right hand if the pain gets too great; then he’ll stop and give me Novocain. (I’ve never needed to raise my hand but I always give myself the option.) With cycling, it’s even easier: relief is just a downshift away.

Before I became a bike racer, all pain was alarming. I didn’t differentiate between external and internal sources until I became competitive. Learning to suffer meant learning how to ratchet up self-inflicted pain through sheer will, tolerating it because I knew I could back it off. I experimented, over the years, with just how hard I could push myself, just how miserable I could become, before I faced the consequences of having ignored my body’s signals. I developed, as does every bike racer, the ability to recognize that terrible suffering is not just an unavoidable by-product of riding hard, but also a vital sign, like a gauge on your dashboard. Pain is something you mete out strategically instead of something you flee from. In this way, mastering the suffering actually becomes a strange source of liberation.

Why suffering is so important

Let’s return to the other point Dale Stetina made: once you know how to suffer, you can do anything. This is a natural extension of what I’ve described regarding pain: what difference does it make if suffering is emotional or psychological versus physical? Once you’ve learned to differentiate between external and internal sources of suffering, you can take an abstract view of suffering, taking it beyond just the physical realm.

Consider the case of a junior sales rep assigned to make cold calls. I think it’s extremely rare to find somebody who enjoys cold calling, but it’s absolutely necessary for a sales rep. Those who make it in sales have learned to appreciate the difference between making a cold call and fielding a call from a telemarketer. They suffer through cold calls, but it’s a suffering they choose, a part of a greater goal, and most of all, they control when and how they make the calls—so it’s tolerable. They can decide beforehand to stop after twenty calls or five appointments, whichever comes first.

Robert Pirsig, in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes about “gumption traps,” his term for anything that disrupts a person’s gumption. When you set out to ride a bike fast, pain is the first and most basic gumption trap there is. Overcoming this pain, and mastering the ability to endure suffering on the bike, is a solid lesson in building gumption. My dictionary defines “gumption” as “boldness of enterprise; initiative or aggressiveness; guts; spunk.” Suddenly this humble word—gumption—comes to represent the foundation of what makes anybody successful at anything.

Looking back at my own difficult childhood, I see how my growth in cycling—that is, in suffering—tracked right along with my growth in everything else. Once I learned to make myself suffer on the bike, I did better with boldness, initiative, and confidence in general. I stopped trying to serve a volleyball underhand, like a girl, and found I could nail my serves overhand. I stopped being the last picked for basketball. I pushed past my shyness, making forays into social situations that eventually paid off, so that many of my current friends who didn’t know me as a kid refuse to believe I’m essentially an introvert. It’s all because I learned, through suffering, how to overcome my own weakness. So I completely agree with Dale Stetina: cycling teaches you how to suffer, and once you know how to suffer, you can do anything.


Rereading this post years later, I note that at the time I wrote it, the most painful injury I had suffered was a perforated eardrum, so that was my 10. Well, years later, I suffered a third-degree separation of my shoulder, which became the new 10 and knocked the eardrum down to about an 8. Years after that, I broke my femur which took over as 10, making the shoulder about a 5 and the eardrum a 4. That lowers the cold pressor to about a 2.5. Cavity filled without Novocain becomes a 2.