I shave my legs.
I think people have gotten used to it, but I used to get a lot of questions about why in the world I’d do such a thing. The answer is quite simply, ‘Because I’m a cyclist.’ At a certain level of experience and seriousness, it’s expected of a male cyclist that they’ll shave their legs. So I do.
Shaving my legs is something of a signal of where I fit in the cycling pecking order. Other cyclists who don’t know me will take a quick look at my legs to get an initial read on how steady I’ll be in a pace line, how fast I might be able to go, how much I know what I’m talking about. Of course, I then need to back that up with how I ride. But shaving gives me a leg up, if you will.
That’s all fine and good, but it only provokes the further question: why, of all things, would cyclists choose leg shaving as their badge of commitment?
The old chestnut is that it makes you more aerodynamic. There’s just one problem with that explanation: no proof. The one study ever done on the aerodynamic effects of leg shaving showed an advantage so miniscule that it was irrelevant over the course of a standard bike race. By the time I started shaving my legs, nobody even tried to give the aerodynamics reason anymore.
The popular replacement for the aerodynamics explanation was that it makes treating road rash after a crash easier and less painful. I think this one is just another shaky explanation. First of all, people get road rash on their arms too, but no one shaves them. And secondly, crashes just don’t happen enough to make it worth it. In the many hundreds of rides I’ve taken since I started shaving my legs, I’ve crashed only a handful of times, and gotten road rash just once; but I shave several times a week. How does that make sense?
Here’s where I eventually landed. Male cyclists shave their legs for roughly the same reason women do, and for pretty much the same reason women wear heels too, for that matter: to show off our legs to their best effect. We work hard on our legs. Why hide them behind a bunch of hair? I didn’t know who that first bold male cyclist was who shaved his legs; but regardless of whatever excuses he spouted about aerodynamics and road rash, I was pretty sure it was a guy who was especially proud of his calves.
But wait! This fall some evidence came out that shaving your legs does, in fact, have a significant aerodynamic effect. A triathlete named Jesse Thomas showed up for a wind tunnel test having neglected to shave his legs. More as a joke than anything else, they decided to run their own little comparison. Both the rider and the people running the test were stunned; it was so incredible that they tried it out on several more cyclists. The results were similar each time. Shaved legs made the riders about 7 percent more efficient. It had a far bigger effect than the special riding position Thomas was trying out, a new and improved helmet, or the skin suits everyone has been raging about this year (You can read the whole article in the September 7th Globe and Mail).
So, there you have it. It turns out I’ve been shaving my legs for performance reasons all along.