Thursday May 17 2007
As the paramedic dabbed away at my knee with a saline swab, I reflected for a moment that here was an instance when it helped that my legs were smooth-shaven. It made his job easier, as he could get clear, clean access to my gouges and grazes. And afterwards, the dressing went on nicely. The only problem? The scrapes on my forearm and elbow were worse, and I don't shave there. Because cyclists shave only their legs.
Before you think this is a plea for sympathy, let me admit that I had fallen off during a race around the closed roads of a Suffolk village on May Day - so we're talking about a practically self-inflicted wound here. It didn't hurt much - at least, not at first: fantastic stuff, adrenalin.
For an hour, I was so pumped up that the medic could have put in stitches without a local and I would hardly have noticed. That odd immunity from pain - a mad euphoria and a feeling of omnipotence, which army doctors must recognise well - passes soon enough. Then the worst thing about "road rash" is trying to sleep at night: your body keeps forgetting it can't lie on one side.
Keeping those abrasions free from infection is one reason sometimes cited for the leg-shaving business. But it's a red herring. That's not really why we do it. And I know of no medical research suggesting a correlation between hirsutism and slower recovery times from abrasions.
Other authorities will maintain that it is in order to facilitate the application of embrocation before races, and the soigneur's massage after, that male cyclists resort to the razor. Believe that if you like.
Aerodynamics experts may try to tell you instead that smooth legs are worth a couple of seconds a kilometre, so this male depilation can mean the margin between victory and defeat. But if this were true, we would all be shaving our forearms. And perhaps our eyebrows, too.
It sounds plausible; after all, swimmers shave from tip to toe. But water is a much more viscous medium than air. The drag coefficient of hairy, as opposed to smooth, legs is minimal compared with other aspects of a cyclist's profile - handlebars, frame and wheels, position on the bike, helmet, clothing and so on.
No, we shave our legs because we think it looks good. Not even good, actually; just right. For a serious cyclist to ride with hairy legs is a grotesque solecism. It shows a shocking lack of savoir-faire and form. Shaving one's legs, then, is part etiquette, part ontological statement: it is a signifier, written on the body, that we are cyclists. It marks us apart, yet makes us belong. As anthropologist Claude Leacutevi-Strauss put it, we are bound by a system of "attitudes which are stylised, prescribed, and sanctioned by taboos or privileges and expressed through a fixed ritual". The purpose of shaving, then? Kinship. Welcome to the bike tribe.