Should Macho Men Shave Their Legs?
Every man comfortable enough with his masculinity to squeeze into performance-enhancing lycra athletic body wear has sooner or later confronted the next frontier: The question of whether to shave his legs!
Aside from perhaps staunch feminists, female athletes don't face this social conundrum. Among male athletes, the otherwise socially uncool body-smoothing "manscaping" has long been a tradition. Cyclists will tell you that it might improve recovery from road rash or make leg massages better. They'll also admit that it's fashion. Tough, big-deal bike riders do it. Nobody races Le Tour de France with hairy legs. Male shaving is a form of machismo.
It also has negligible performance benefits, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Now, new data from men on bikes in wind tunnels contradicts this view. Bicyclists were measured to move more quickly with shaved legs! In theory this makes sense. Generally, smooth surfaces are more aerodynamic than rough or uneven ones.
Aerodynamics is so important to cyclists because the practical limit of their speed is not their muscle power, but the aerodynamic drag of their ride: bike and body. Terminal velocity on level ground (on a properly geared ride) is determined by how cleanly the forward-facing shapes cut into the wind. The more carefully a surface cleaves oncoming air into parts without disturbing it into a chaotic turbulent mess, the faster it goes.
An everyday pleasure rider may hit 15 mph on a brisk ride, a commuter may cruise at 16-18, and a professional racer can hold speeds in the mid 20s. A rider on a bike with an extremely aerodynamic fairing like the nose of a rocket can reach speeds of more than 80 mph!
"Aero" has become a huge buzzword and selling point in the cycling industry. Most competitive races have actually banned certain bike designs for being too fast. Within a limited bicycle geometry range, the next gains to be made are those from the other half of the aerodynamics of the system: the rider himself. Riders often employ a hunched position, with the arms out and the head tucked down, to reduce aerodynamic profile. They may smooth even their natural body profiles with seamless skinsuits.
Here's where the hairy legs come in. Smooth legs should be slightly more aerodynamic than hairy or, heaven forbid, "stubbly" legs, right?
Previous tests said no, there was no measurable effect. Leg-shaving is just machismo. This new test says otherwise. A cyclist going into the wind tunnel for aero testing at the bike industry "Specialized" forgot to shave his legs first. His test showed significantly higher drag. Surprised, he came back days later with legs as smooth as a baby's cheek, in addition to a 7% gain in aerodynamic slipperiness!
It was a repeatable result too. Several more cyclists tested in the same wind tunnel gained similar aerodynamic advantage. 7% doesn't sound massive, but it can mean more than a minute faster in a one-hour race against the clock. That is a huge competitive advantage. A similar gain in aerodynamic profile might require hundreds of dollars of specialized bike parts.
These results fly in the face of the last serious study of the subject in the 1980s. The big lesson: verifying previous results is really important. Also, men need to get to work with those razors. I'll no longer be making fun of you for your "macho fashion."