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.

1 comment:

  1. This just in:

    Nice British angle on the question...