In 2016, Slovakian cyclist Peter Sagan was at the centre of a major scandal in the sport. The (at the time) world race champion started the season with unshaved legs. His hairy legs set the fur flying, and although this drama wasn’t as attention-grabbing as Lance Armstrong’s misdemeanours, it certainly rattled a few cages in the world of professional cycling. After all, shaved legs are synonymous with the sport and it is widely accepted that it is almost compulsory. It isn’t, of course. But according to those in the know, shaved legs are beneficial for several key reasons. Kiwi cyclists know this, and that is why razors are almost considered to be essential bike parts in NZ.
Cyclists started shaving their legs around the turn of the 20th century. The big reason for doing so was, at the time, they fell off more than the riders of today. Road surfaces weren’t as good, the bikes didn’t handle anywhere near as well as modern racing machines, tyre technology wasn’t as advanced and, to be honest, riders weren’t as skilled. Some of them even completed stages of the Tour de France with cigarettes in their mouths. Crashes meant road rash, and it was so much easier to clean road grit out of a wound without pesky leg hairs in the way. A shaved leg also made it easier to apply dressings and much less painful to remove.
As sports medicine developed, so did the understanding of how beneficial massages were to athletes, including cyclists. This is another common reason for cyclists to shave their legs; massages become easier, the final results are more effective, the therapy is less painful and the cyclist is less likely to suffer a follicular infection. It’s certainly advantageous to the riders, and to the people actually providing the massage. Massage therapists are often quoted as saying that rubbing down stubbly, unshaven legs is like trying to massage a cactus. You probably don’t have to massage a cactus to appreciate that it wouldn’t be the nicest experience.
There’s also a performance-related reason why cyclists and shaved legs go together like a pump and a tyre. Wind tunnel testing by a major bike manufacturer suggested that there was a significant aerodynamic benefit to shaving your legs. The tests showed that a rider could gain as much as 70 seconds over a 40-kilometre time trial with shaved legs compared to hairy ones. While some dispute the magnitude of this improvement, almost everyone agrees that aerodynamics is important in a sport where every second counts and hairless legs are certainly helpful in that regard.
Peter Sagan is considered to be one of the more flamboyant characters in cycling and his hairy legs might have been something of a publicity stunt. Those legs certainly stood out! For the rest of the world’s professional cyclists though, shaved legs will remain an almost compulsory aspect of their sport which again begs the question – should leading retailers be selling razors as essential bike parts?