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« Bike lanes may disappear on Coleman Blvd. | Main | Helmets: Now you can vote »

Why do cyclists shave their legs? The only explanation you will ever need

It’s hotter’n hell, 90 degrees (32 C.) and we are going out for the evening. My wife is wearing long pants.

“Aren’t you going to be hot?” I ask. “Why don’t you wear a dress or shorts?”

“I can’t, I haven’t shaved my legs.”

End of questioning, no further explanation needed.

My lovely wife doesn’t want to be the only one in a roomful of ladies with silky smooth legs, while she is sporting stubble. Even though I would have to get down on my knees with a magnifying glass to find a tiny emerging follicle.

This is exactly the same reason why cyclists shave their legs, No one wants to go out on a group ride and be the only wooly mammoth in the pack.

Even if I am riding alone, I still shave my legs; I never know who I might meet on the road. Shaved legs simply look better on a cyclist. Some call it vanity, frankly I find that an affront to my pride.

I started racing in 1952 and that’s when I started shaving my legs. The European professional riders shaved their legs because they were riding the big stage races like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.

Stages were long back then, sometimes in excess of 180 miles. (289.6 km.) They needed some serious massage therapy at the end of each day in order to have the leg muscles supple and relaxed ready to go again the next morning. It is neither comfortable for the cyclist or the masseuse to be massaging hairy legs.

The long, smooth legs in the picture at the top belonged to “Il Campionissimo” Fausto Coppi. I was no different from any other cyclist of the 1950s; we all wanted to emulate the great professional riders of that era. So we shaved our legs.

Shaved legs are faster; it is psychological. Like polishing the engine on a hot rod car; you can’t see inside the engine but you polish the outside. The cyclist is the “engine” of his bike; you can’t see the heart or the lungs inside, but by making the legs smooth and clean so you see every vein, sinew, and muscle, it is a definite psychological boost.

Professional cyclists today shave their legs for the same reason as their predecessors, and road cyclists of all levels, from amateur racers to weekend warriors follow suit. End of story, there should be no further explanation needed.

Fellow cyclists understand, but non-cyclists question this practice. We come up with all kinds of creative reasons for shaving our legs. We pretend that it is in case we fall and get road rash.

Sure with hair free legs it is easier to clean and dress wounds, but that is not why we shave our legs. A lady known only to me as “Jan” commented on a recent post. “If you fall and get road rash on your legs, wouldn’t you also scrape up your arms?” Good point, cyclists rarely shave their arms. (That would be weird.)

If someone asks me, “Why do you shave your legs?” I answer simply, “It’s traditional.” That is the only answer I need. No one questions it or doubts my word. After all, if something is traditional, who am I to break with tradition?

Professional racing cyclists have been shaving their legs for at least 100 years, that’s probably longer than ladies have been shaving their legs. So the practice definitely qualifies as a tradition.

Think of it like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; when someone asks, “Why would you run down the street in front of a herd of stampeding bulls?”

“It’s traditional.”

“Oh well, that explains it. No further explanation needed.”

Or, “Why are you taking that dead pine tree into your house at Christmas.”

“It’s traditional.”

You see how it works; it doesn’t matter how bizarre or irrational the act, just say, “It’s traditional,” and it is immediately accepted.

It is so easy. No more excuses, no more lies about road rash or guilt feelings over vanity. The answer is, “It’s traditional.”

No further explanation is needed.

Reader Comments (65)

Haha! Gold! I'm going to use that next time...
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Oli Brooke-White
"It's traditional." Fantastic. It also provides an answer to (the otherwise unanswerable) "But if you shave your legs to help road rash heal, why don't you shave your arms?".

In his biography, Graham Obree refused to shave his legs so he wouldn't look ridiculous in his kilt, for his wedding. Although he did finally give in to "tradition".

June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
That's the best (and simplest) explanation I've heard.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Mark
Very solid logic and impossible to argue against.....although I am still a woolly mammoth :-)
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter thePig
I wear the bloody helmet, I wear the lycra shorts, I wear the cycling shoes, I ride a nice, custom-made lugged steel road frame on hard, narrow tires (not a Recherche, but looks very similar), I've used clipless pedals... but I draw the line at my leg hair :-)

Cycled on the road just fine for decades shaving only my face. Now that I'm retired, I don't even bother with that anymore on most days :-)

Not that I mind anyone else doing it.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter starling

Looks like your leg hair is your last defiant stand. I salute you brother, you’re a braver man than me :)

June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Polishing the internals of an engine has a very quanitifiable affect on aspiration.

It's vanity. Same as putting stickers all over your car of various goods you have over paid for.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I have heard and experienced that having the hair on your legs when you fall tends to "grab" more skin instaed of "sliding" on the pavment
to lessen the road rash. Also, a friend of mine who is a former track sprint champion told me it's a hygeine/massage thing.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
You make many valid points, not the least of which is the hygiene argument, but shaved legs on men (in my book) are still ridiculous unless you're a swimmer.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter inkyfingers
One thing that you left out.
It states that you are a "Serious" cyclist.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Grump
I couldn't agree more. People always ask if it's for crashes, or for massages, or whatever. I always answer that I shave my legs because I am a cyclist and cyclists shave their legs.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Arlyn
Definitely the best explanation I've heard....and still not enough to make me shave my legs. As it is, I can barely bring myself to shave my face on a regular basis, much less my legs.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Jeremy
I don't think shaving your legs states that you are a serious cyclist, but it definitely separates out the serious roadies. My being a nonshaver marks me as a commuter/ cycle bum/ non-roadie.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter mander
The next question is...how high do you save your legs? Is it just above your "line" or even further?
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Jack
Okay, but how do you explain Fat Cyclist Elden Nelson's shaved head?
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter leroy

Harry from NYC
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Did it for a long time... but now I'm too slow and old and don't want to look like a poser. But I miss it.
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Foresta Bikes
cause furry legs would look weird with a shaved package.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
i love the shaved legs on men discussions/debate.

Shave your legs or not. Just like you said I do it because it's a group identity thing. If I were a baseballer, I might habitually pull on my crotch and chew tobacco (ok that's a stretch.)

But more so, it is a covenant, where you commit to go against the cultural grain to brand yourself proudly. While the commitment is plain as day for all to see, it's a powerful motivator too. Can't be slow and shave your legs. Then you'd be "that" guy.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Hi Dave,

Good run of interesting posts.

I've heard that Italian men wear gold chains around their necks so that they know where to stop shaving. What's the guideline for legs?
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
With regards to Jan's comment that "wouldn't you also scrape your arms?" ... whenever I've had a bad crash, what's always gotten scraped up is my legs/knee/hip and either my palm or my shoulder, depending on whether or not my hand got stuck out "to prevent my fall".

I have never scraped up my arms.

Although, I do shave them.

And as for Jack's question as to how high? For me, it's essentially all the way to the "bikini" line (not that I've ever worn a bikini), because even worse than hairy legs is hair "shorts".

Unfortunately, I've had to change clothes around enough cyclists post-ride/post-race to see WAY too many pairs of hair-shorts.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter flahute
"cause furry legs would look weird with a shaved package." ... Hahahahaha, now THAT is the best reason I've ever heard. That, along with "hair shorts" made me laugh all day. Thanks for another great post.

Still can't be bothered to shave even my face, let alone the legs. I definitely ain't no "lady" (but I'll forgive you for that this one time, Dave... I've been called much worse). ;)

June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter jan
Oops, sorry Jan. Just goes to show one should never ASSUME, otherwise we make an ASS out of U and ME. Especially ME.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
I've been slacking on the leg shaving. I dont find it slowing me down however.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Ron
Good article Dave.

I remember my old friend when he started racing. He must have been 17 then. He lasted for about 2 races before starting to shave his legs. I thought it was a brave move for a high school student to do so. I thought he had some perfectly legitimate reason as he was racing and there are accrued risks of falling down and getting road rash than if you just plod along.

I don't have any such reason and yet I have started shaving about 3 months ago. I don't do it for fitting in, to look like a pro, go faster, for the massages (I wish). I tried and I like it. It feels just right. It also less of a nuisance than shaving a beard. I was surprised to find my wife likes it too :-)
June 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter nic
Yes, gold indeed.
June 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter James Slemboski
Many thanks Dave, it does save me a lot of time trying to make something up as I try to answer those questions.
"It's traditional", I love it!
June 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter AMRcyclist
Surely it is only cyclists who want to emulate, or think they are, race cyclists that think shaving is normal.

The vast majority of cycling is utility cycling, where no special equipment (other than the bicycle) or preparation is expected or required.
June 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter neil
Great post!
June 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Grizzly Adam
As a younger cyclist from Australia who shaves their legs, its good to hear some explanations why other than the old, to manage road rash.

And about the arm shaving stuff, i ride in bunches with pro continental team members who shave their elbows only (and legs of course). bit over the top really.
July 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous

..in Southern California, they used to call beginning bike racers "Freds" (allegedly from the old image of Fred Flintstone on one of his prehistoric bicycles) and it is not a term of endearment, believe me.

When I started racing in the late 80s, I resisted this practice for the longest time. Then one day, one-third of the way into a crit, I almost brought down the pack with a near-overlap and some guy yells out something like, "watch it, Fred!" Soon thereafter, I got dropped.

I sought him out at the end of the race (he was the winner) and asked him why he called me "Fred"; His explanation was kindly and he patiently explained that he regarded all riders as Freds who hadn't "paid their dues" by observing the tradition of shaving one's legs.

Next day, the hair came off and got a lot more respect from the guys I raced with. Strangely, I didn't get dropped so much after that..

..I wonder?

To you younger guys, when you make it into your 60s (or older), you won't have to worry so much about shaving. The stuff just disappears much like the fuzz on the top of your head as well.

August 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAging Cat IV

Hey, I'm just a commuter who landed on this site by accident, searching for information on adjusting my bicycle, but I must say to me that this is extremely odd. Who on Earth pays attention to whether someone shaves his or her legs or not? Of course, this whole post brings us to asking why people started shaving their legs in the first place. IMHO, the guy in the first picture would look better with some hair covering his obviously sore legs.

August 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

Shaved legs and a red bike.. can't get faster than that !

August 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

I love how men are pursuaded to shave their legs for no practical benefit--not for aerodynamics, not for massage comfort--not for any good reason except that it's what everyone else does. I'm sorry, but that's absurd. I'm a serious cyclist who refuses to shave my legs because I think it's pointless, time-consuming, and emasculating. Anyone who questions whether I'm a "serious cyclist" because my legs are hairy, soon learns the hard way that they are sorely mistaken. Eat my dust sissy leg shaving biker queens!

September 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterturd comet

That's great...though I do have an explanation with purpose: I found a tick on my leg one day BEFORE IT BIT ME while on the trail because I could feel it walking. Had I had hair, I probably would not have felt it since the wind would have been moving all my hair.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterskyzar

Great post. I agree with the tradition part - the first time I shaved my legs was the season I was getting more serious about my racing. For me, it was a right of passage into the world of bike racing.

I remember my girlfriend telling me that I would regret it, that it would itch and a pain to keep shaving. Neither where the case for me, It's just not that big of a deal to shave your legs.

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCycling Forum

I agree with the traditional aspect of this discussion. I shaved my legs for the first time a couple months ago. I love it! I'm a musician who lost his hobby to profession. Years later I found cycling. Cycling saved my life and being tide to the sport and community by shaving my legs feels good. I guess it gives me, privately, a new identity and connection to the community outside of what I do and am know for.

I also hate out of control hair, so it suits my grooming habits nicely.

Great blog, Dave. I love reading it and I'm glad you're back. You've been missed.

April 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNathan B.

excuse me my spanish. Soy ex corredor ciclista, y sigo practicando el ciclismo, ya que todos los domingos sigo haciendo 75 kilometros en la bicicleta. Los primeros franceces que vinieron a correr una Vuelta a México en el 1949, nos ensenaron a rasurarnos las piernas, primero por tradición, por higiene, .y porque era más fácil curar a alguién cuando se raspara las piernas por alguna caida. Sigo rasurandome las piernas y tengo 76 years.

excuse me for my spanish. Tengo 75 years, y quiero comentar que los primeros franceces que vinieron a competir en la Vuelta a ´México en el 1949, nos hicieron que nos rasuraramos las piernas. 1- Pues era una tradición entre los ciclistas europeos. 2- Por higiene. 3- Porque era más fácil curarnos las heridas en caso de curarlas. Esto no es nuevo para nosotros los corredores maxicanos, pues ese 1949 se estaba corriendo la segunda Vuelta a México, patrocinada por el diario ESTO. Los corredores europeos empezaron a venir a México a romper el record de la hora ,entre ellos EDDY MERCKX .Así que esto no es nuevo para nosotros.

Shows how much I know. I have been around for over half a century and I didn't know that bicycle road riders even shaved their legs. I have always used the bicycle as transportation mostly off road.

You have enlightened me as to why when I ride now I have groups of riders fly by me like I am sitting still. They have their legs shaved. Now I understand and to think all this time I thought it was because they were more experienced and in better shape

I just recently started riding longer distances on pavement using a lighter bike. Until now I was in comfortable in my bliss but because of you I now have to ponder the question do I shave or do I not shave. This just after I went through the crisis of wearing bicycling shorts or not. Now I am faced with another choice. Will it never end?

It is amazing how quickly monumental decisions such as this can sneak up on you. Okay I am off to ponder.

Bo Tipton

June 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBo Tipton

Hahaha, I'm gonna use "it's traditional" It's brilliant... -thx

June 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjarvik1394

I'm a bit amazed. I've been riding since I got a Peugeot road bike in '71. Up to this moment thought non-racer leg shaving was just a joke. Seriously, I thought it was a put-down joke against those of us who choose to ride a bicycle. "Do you shave your legs too? hahahahaha!" I have never noticed male shaved legs in the forty years I've been among people who ride for enjoyment and commuting. Not that I look a guys' legs ...

Just checked some photos of one of the bike groups I ride with, which has about fifty male riders. Nope, they don't shave their legs, not the ones where I can tell.

Who are these "casual" cyclists who shave their legs? Poseurs, you mean?

July 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTed in SoCal

Ah, some investigation including Wikipedia's entry on the "Fred" mentioned in a previous comment clears things up for me. Typical of insular subcultures, which consider themselves the One True whatever, serious roadies reserve "cyclist" for themselves. Thus a "casual cyclist" would be a serious roadie who's not quite as serious, in some way that an outsider "Fred" like me would not understand.

Makes sense. I've always had an interest in cultural anthropology so I find this kind of thing fascinating. Thank you, I learned something new today.

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTed in SoCal

To be totally honest, it seems like "tradition" is the case with swimmers too. Granted, you're going to get more drag in water than in air, but there's no way all the shaving is a necessity. Anyone remember Mark Spitz? Swimmer that held the record for most medals at an Olympics right up until Michael Phelps took it. Did all of his swims with a big ol' bushy mustache.

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJT

I sun-burn easily and require regular sunscreen applications during a long ride. It is a lot easir to smooth sunscreen on to bare legs while riding than hairy ones. Unless of course, you want to stop on the side of the road and let your group drop you.

August 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStan

An interesting post. As a woman, I must admit I dislike legs of many cyclists I see in the streets - I mean those with slim legs that are even exagerated with an elastic dress... "spidery legs". Maybe, some hair could give the legs more volume :-) ...
Some women do not have hairy legs (like my mother) and they do not have to shave at all. That may be an explanation why the rest of women began to shave. Shaving in cycling might come with a first shaved pro cycler :-)

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGaby

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new shaving practices.

I'm not a racer, nor professional, but I delight in keeping pace with those with shaved legs and racer kit. My presumption that they are especially fast is often proven wrong and their presumption that I am especially slow is as well.

I never felt a need to shave (despite encouragement) as long as I can keep up without blowing up.

I don't race, so why be a poseur? I never found any compelling reason to shave (conformity and/or group identity based on appearances is not enough) and I'd rather spend the money on other things of greater utility.

I do usually thank those who inspire me to pick up my pace, because otherwise I'd just mosey along at 15mph. Please note, I do not wheelsuck and if invited will do pacing duty. One person's tradition is another person's silly fixation of which I have my share.

Anybody who does race passes me readily. For others I serve as a reminder to ride more.

January 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Having shaved my legs for the past three years, the first two more to "fit in," the last to fit in the racing scene, which I joined at last. I raced five times last year and there were no riders at any of the races who did not have shaved legs. None. I raced CAT 5 (for those of you unfamiliar, this is the lowest or beginning level) and averaged 25.5 mph for one 20 minute crit. I learned to stick with the group and on long weekend training rides, same thing. Only I noticed a few of the old schoolers who can ride longer and faster than me do not shave their legs. So I sit on this precipice each spring as to whether to commit to shaving another season. I'm in my early 50s, can keep up with cyclists much younger and don't mind shaving my legs. I kind of like the ritual (which goes with tradition). In fact it's relaxing after a shower to shave your legs and put on some comfy, loose shorts. But my wife does not really like my shaved legs. She calls them "lady legs." And rare occasions I hit the golf course there are comments: "Errr...You a cyclist or something?" So tradition or not, society is not completely reconciled to the practice. Nor are some pretty good cyclists, as noted above. I prefer the look with bike shorts for sure. It just looks...odd to be all hairy around the knees. So tonight (It's April) I'll probably hit the electric razor and then shave. And bring on summer. But it's an equivocal thing for someone who enjoys the occasional race and isn't die-hard...by choice.

But here's the funny thing. Late in the season last year I quit shaving...then decided to jump in one last crit in September. There's a strong pyschological component going on. It was a Master's Race and I made it 20 minutes with the group in a 40 minute race and got dropped. Rode the last 20 hairy minutes alone.

April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Cudworth

I've been riding and sometimes racing for 15 years now and never had the nerve to take the plunge and get the razor out. Would it look wierd ? would I cast from society ? My girlfriends thought the idea a little strange also. I kept the desire repressed. Until this year; I met my current girlfriend through cycling with my new club, in which rides/ races also. She was slightly appalled at the sight of my hairsuite legs and advised me that I "really needed to do somethting about them.." She loves the sight of tanned, toned, shaved legs (yet I still have to turn away at the point when the podium girls emerge at the end of a race). So, devotees of the most gloriously hard and camp sport in the world; Ignore the huffing commuters in the yellow road worker gilets who just don't get it ! Away with the hair !

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTimmeke

Wax 'em, don't shave 'em (the legs). A nice professional job every 12 weeks or so April to September.

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobM
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