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For those of us who grew up idolizing the pro racers, their lean, chiseled legs became etched indelibly into memory. Those legs were symbolic of fitness, suffering, sacrifice, freedom, panache, and victory. And it was only because they presented themselves in the cyclist’s unique and evocative aesthetic: They were shaven.
Even now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a professional road cyclist with hairy legs in the peloton (besides Peter Sagan on occasion), and this trend trickles down to the Thursday night hammerfest crowds and the non-competitive weekend warriors among us. If you’ve found yourself here, you also might be wondering how to shave your legs to get that pro look.
But first, why is this clean-shaven tradition even a thing? Spandex seems like enough of a faux pas, why throw men with shaved legs into the mix?
No one knows which cyclist first shaved his legs or why. In his blog, the frame builder and amateur cycling historian Dave Moulton writes that racers have done so for at least 100 years and surmises that the practice likely predates the adoption of the custom by Western women (which is commonly believed to have begun in the early 1900s, with the popularization of short hemlines and more-revealing swimsuits). The authenticity of the often-cited motivations—cleanliness, style, massage facilitation, aerodynamics, and ease of treating road rash—is similarly murky.
Nevertheless, the act of shaving has become routine for many. For guys like Alex Howes, a professional cyclist for EF Education First-Nippo Pro Cycling, the act was like a rite of passage at a young age.
“I started shaving my legs maybe around 14,” says Howes. “I did it for a couple of races because I thought it would make me go faster. I won my fair share of state championships as a junior, so it must have worked,” he jokes.
Surprisingly, the claim that smooth skin equals more speed actually has some validity. Specialized tested the aerodynamics of a cyclist with shaved legs versus ungroomed gams. In a test with professional triathlete Jesse Thomas, wind tunnel data showed smooth legs “reduced drag by about 7 percent, allowing Thomas to exert 15 watts less power and still go at the same speed.” What does that mean out on the road? That’s a savings of 79 seconds over a one-hour, 49-kilometer time trial, which is definitely not nothing. Other tests showed a savings of 40 to 90 seconds over 40-kilometers.
As for the other reasons, Howes confirms stigma and aesthetics are at the top of the list (everyone’s doing it!), followed by massage—especially for Grand Tour riders who receive around 25 massages a month.
In terms of road rash, “the abrasion seems to be a tiny bit less bad with shaved legs, and the smooth skin is easier to care for afterward,” says Howes. “It might sound silly hearing that we shave our legs for safety reasons, but we’re also a group that considers thin unpadded gloves, mesh undershirts, and arm warmers valuable pieces of body armor.
Yet, shaving is clumsy and often a chore. In tiny showers and bathrooms, we struggle to bend over to reach our ankles, slipping and sliding, cutting and bleeding. Even for a pro, who by necessity repeats the process so often it becomes automatic, shaving requires patience and attention. And, as though a rat has been sheared, a shave often leaves a ring of hair in a tub or sink.
For these reasons, it’s important to note that just because you consider yourself a road cyclist and ride with other serious cyclists, that doesn’t mean you have to shave your legs. It’s certainly not a requirement, and even pros like Howes slack off at times.
“You can always tell when my last race was based on how long the leg hair is,” he says. “If I’m not racing, I’m not shaving.”
Still, many of us view our legs as sculptures, monuments to our love of cycling, and it is only right that they should not be covered. So, here’s how to shave your legs like a total pro.
Hair Removal Essentials
Stock your shower or bathroom with these go-to tools for getting smooth, silky, hair-free legs.
Pros: If you’re shaving your legs, using a women’s razor is the way to go—it’s better engineered to navigate the curves of the body (i.e., legs), whereas a men’s razor is designed for the sharper angles of the face. Razors are relatively inexpensive (especially the disposable versions) and can be purchased just about anywhere. Look for three to five blades and a moisturizing strip to get the closest shave with minimal razor burn.
Cons: Razors, especially when shaving large body parts like your legs, have a short shelf life, so you might burn through several disposable blades throughout the season (particularly if you have thick hair). There’s also the risk of razor burn and the occasional nicks.
Pros: Wax is one of the least-practiced ways to remove leg hair, but because it removes the hair from the root (versus chopping it off midway like a razor), it’s very effective and keeps your legs feeling smooth for the longest amount of time. Each individual hair grows in cycles, so the longer you wax, the easier (and less painful) it gets as there is seemingly less hair that grows back over time. Individual strips are less messy than free wax. Pro tip: Hit them quickly with a hairdryer to warm the wax faster.
Cons: Waxing can’t be done very regularly—in order for the wax to be effective, your hair needs to be long enough to stick to it. This means you may have to go a few weeks feeling stubbly before you can wax again. It can also be messy, labor-intensive, cause irritation, and painful at first.
Hair Removal Cream
Pros: Hair removal creams are a fairly effective way to remove hair with minimal time and effort. They also won’t leave you with razor burn or nicks, are much simpler to deal with than waxing, and come in a variety of formulas that can be purchased at most drugstores.
Cons: It’s important to make sure your skin doesn’t have any scrapes or scratches when you use hair removal creams as the active ingredient is a chemical solution. It also requires the hair and skin to be moistened prior to use, and if left on too long, can irritate or burn your skin.
Pros: Electric razors are convenient, stand the test of time, and the cordless varieties allow you to shave wherever you are, without much cleanup. “An electric buzzer gets the job done for me, saves water, and lowers the risk of crashing in the shower,” says Howes.
Cons: Electric razors obviously require charging, so you’ll need to make sure it’s juiced up if you’re traveling or don’t have access to an outlet. They can also be loud depending on the model. The shave isn’t quite as close as a straight razor, and they can be pretty pricey (even replacement heads can get expensive).
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