I had never cut myself so badly while shaving before. My razor snagged on a piece of skin and, none the wiser, I kept pulling until I noticed the ruby-red blood streaming past my toes toward the shower drain.
Glancing past my knee, I saw that I’d unzipped the outside of my ankle.
From my razor, I pulled a linguine-shaped ribbon of skin and winced as much in embarrassment as I did in pain.
I’m 34, and I have been shaving my face since ninth grade when my dad told me I should “clean up that dirt” on my upper lip. My acquired handiness with the shaving blade, I learned, didn’t translate to my lower extremities.
Since I joined a cycling team and began road racing this spring, I’ve shaved my legs once or twice a week. I shave pretty high up — otherwise my leg hair resembles a weird, very hiked-up skirt. I admit I like how my legs feel, allowing that I have a tissue in hand to blot the inevitable nicks I introduce to my shins. Aside from a repulsed grocery store employee who gave me a once-over, I’ve shifted seamlessly into my new identity: road racer, and unapologetically so.
You’ve probably heard most of the justifications regarding leg-shaving. But here are the three primary and completely practical reasons for doing so, which the cycling world stamps on the back of our membership cards for easy reference:
1. Road-rash. Wounds are easier to clean, dress and keep from getting infected if you’re not picking out bits of hair with tweezers.
2. Ease of massage. This is more of a pro-cyclist thing, where getting body work after every race or demanding workout is de rigueur. And perhaps paid for by a sponsor.
3. Aerodynamic advantage. Say no more.
Frankly, I always thought the third justification was flimsy. It turns out, it has recently been proven that leg shaving provides a demonstrable aerodynamic edge.
In a 2014 wind tunnel study, Specialized Bicycle Components found that cyclists saved 50 to 80 seconds during a simulated 25-mile distance by shaving their legs. That’s a substantial advantage in road races where the difference between first and 14th place can be less than a minute.
For some cyclists, however, the ultimate motivation is to keep with tradition, which is a weeny way of saying “following the crowd.”
“Let’s be honest. What good reason would weekend warriors like us have to shave our legs? Because it’s PRO, that’s why. It’s all about your dedication and commitment to the sport. Shaved legs are the trademark of a serious cyclist,” according to an article on CyclingTips.com.
And a serious cyclist I had become. Or did I have to shave to officially become serious?
Dress for the job
Previously, during any of Bend’s handful of group rides, I mostly fit in: I had the road bike, the spandex get-up and the sweet wrap-around shades. About half of the riders, even the fast ones, kept their leg hair — aerodynamics be damned. But joining a racing team changed everything. Once spring racing warmed to summer and we removed our leg-warmers, I realized something when the field rolled to the starting line: I was practically the only person with leg hair. Despite the fur, I felt naked and eyed with suspicion. Hadn’t I gotten the memo? Did I know how to ride in a straight line? What kind of liability would I be in a fast-moving pace line? Cyclists even have names for the kind of clueless racer I was suspected of being: a Fred.
Local triathlete Hans Bielat is decidedly not a Fred. He assured himself of this by lathering up his legs when he began road racing at age 15.
“The main reason for shaving your legs is fitting in,” Bielat said. “I was showing up on these group rides with these really, really fast guys, and I didn’t want to be the so-called Fred. I wanted to hang with these guys. I wanted to beat ’em. So I had to join them.”
Bielat, now 42, has shaved his legs for 27 years.
“My wife sometimes questions why I do it. When we first started dating, (that) my legs were smoother than hers made her a little self-conscious,” Bielat said with a laugh. “She would ask: ‘Is it tradition?’ Yes. ‘Is it aerodynamics?’ Yes. If I crash will it make it easier to clean the wounds? Definitely yes.”
Aerodynamics is not something Bielat takes lightly. Not only does Bielat pilot Boeing 737s for Southwest Airlines, he’s the co-owner of TorHans, a company that makes aerodynamic accessories for triathlon and time trial race bikes. Since Bielat shaved his legs — and arms — before finishing 11th at the Ironman Canada triathlon a month ago, he hasn’t touched a razor.
“I have the hairiest legs I’ve had in years,” he said, adding that despite not having any immediate races, a fresh shave is on the horizon. “It’s coming soon. After I have a new, fresh set of legs, they feel better for some reason. I don’t know why.”
Wes Kapsa, a mid-pack triathlete, met me for a road ride on Skyliners Road. His tri bike, fit with aero handlebars, was incongruent with his wind-grabbing, hairy legs. Kapsa doesn’t shave his legs because he thinks even the advantage demonstrated by the Specialized study is negligible.
“There are other ways I can shave time off my races,” Kapsa, 41, said. “For example, during (recent) Ironman Canada, I stopped to run into the woods to pee three times. That’s probably six minutes right there,” he said. “This year, I’m planning on doing what most other triathletes do, which is pee while riding the bike. It means I’ll have an interesting conversation with my 4-year-old, who just recently stopped peeing himself.”
Having raced since 2002, Kapsa teems with leg-shaving opinions, many of which he articulates in rule form:
Rule No. 178: At 5 feet, 8 inches, 148 pounds (his specs), unless you are an elite Category 2 racer or higher, you cannot shave your legs.
Rule No. 245: If you do shave your legs, you cannot do it in the men’s locker room. “I equate locker-room leg-shaving to be worse than nail-clipping and maybe second to masturbation.”
Rule No. 118: You must have more than three bikes to shave your legs.
Kapsa enumerates these tongue-in-cheek rules for comic effect — they’re really just boundaries he sets for himself to make sure he doesn’t get too carried away with his training.
Brandon Gallagher, a teammate of mine on Murder of Crows, might be the least enthusiastic leg-shaver I’ve ridden with. He was glad his legs were freshly shorn, however, when he went down hard during a Category 3 race at the Worthy Brewing Criterium Series earlier this summer. After striking a pedal on an uneven turn, Gallagher, 41, slid on his side along the rough pavement, ripping his spandex kit and earning mean, blackened burns on his hip, calf and arm. After receiving a free lap and ultimately rejoining the race to earn fifth place, Gallagher said scrubbing his wounds and reapplying bandages was made easier by his hairlessness. Caring for the injury on his arm was a little more complicated by hair, he said.
Still, the driving force behind Gallagher’s ritual, by which he only abides during the summer months when legs aren’t covered by leg warmers, is looking the part of a serious bike racer — for safety’s sake.
“If you’re racing with people, and you’re inches away from their wheels and their shoulders, you kind of have a certain level of trust in their capabilities. If I see someone in there who doesn’t have shaved legs, I personally stay away from them. They have something weird going on.”
There are mixed opinions about his shaving at home: “My leg shaving might bother my wife, but my two kids don’t care.” But Gallagher delighted in discovering that hairlessness makes applying sunscreen a much smoother proposition.
“It’s so much nicer, actually,” he said. “It makes me think I should shave my chest, too.”
To shave year-round?
A week after my shaving mishap, I’d let my legs sprout fields of little black weeds. The cut on my ankle now resembled a pencil-width strip of bacon that sometimes cracks and congeals with the fibers of my socks. This morning with hot water flowing in my shower, I propped my foot on a ledge. I nervously began running a pink “lady’s razor” up my shins in columns. As usual, specks of blood punctuated the streaks of shaving cream, yet when I was finished, the stinging was minimal.
As cooler weather arrives, along with seasons of cyclocross and eventually nordic skiing, I wonder whether I’ll maintain this new shaving habit. After rubbing lotion into my legs to sooth some minor irritation, I realize I like how my legs look: toned, strong, if severely farmer’s tanned by cycling shorts and socks.
When I impatiently awaited puberty in early high school, I yearned for hairy legs. Now that my fixation on hair has shifted to the receding hairline on my head, having hairless legs, if slightly boyish, is almost a point of pride. I’m a member of a clique that races bikes. We’re nearing middle-age, and our mortality is no longer an abstraction. Yet we still go fast. Sometimes we win, other times we crash. Even wearing civilian clothes about town, road racers spot each other, sometimes first by glimpsing the other’s smooth, defined legs. A nod of acknowledgment might follow. Most non-racers think we’re silly and perhaps a bit vain — perhaps they’re right. And so long as I don’t sever an artery, I think I’m fine with that.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org