Friday, November 20, 2009

apparently I now post in response to comments

An anonymous "Chuck" commented last night on my competition post. It's difficult to tell if his question is serious or if I'm being goaded. Here's the comment:

Hey Goat--

As a amateur cyclist I heard from my competitors that it may help to shave your legs. I know this may sound stupid, but my hair gets tangled at times when I am riding.

Looking at your legs they seem shaven in the pictures, just wondering if this increases your speed or what the purpose is?



It's a little suspicious... I'm thinking "Chuck" isn't really a cyclist at all (probably one of my students, actually, in which case he--or more likely they--will probably be disappointed with what follows), but I'll peck out a quick response anyway. It's good to have these sorts of things on the record.


There are about a bazillion discussions on leg-shaving available through the pipes (here's one, two), but from my perspective there are four main reasons, one of which is the most critical (I'll let you guess which one).

(1) You shave because you wreck...and you don't want to deal with hair on your legs when you're dealing with wound care.

(2) The stuff you put on your legs--like sunscreen, anti-itch cream (a big deal for me during pollen season), and, especially critical during the cx season, embrocation--all goes on and comes off much easier with shaved legs. And a massage, even if it's a simple self-massage, is easier and more pleasant (no hair-pulling) without the shrubbery.

(3) You feel like a cyclist with smooth legs. They just look better...and there's something to say for that tiny bit of vanity-induced motivation to push just a little harder in that ITT or climbing that hill that you get when you look down at your ripped pedal mashers.

(4) Finally, the social consequences (in the pelaton) of not shaving your legs. Leg-shaving signals commitment and competence. Well, I suppose it's the opposite that is more true: hairy legs signal incompetence and a lack of commitment. Let me explain.

Riding with a big group of cyclists on the road is a potentially dangerous activity. It certainly doesn't have to be, if folks are properly instructed and have some experience, but it also can be. And you learn, when riding with others, the nuances of your compatriots' riding styles. You learn who knows to soft-pedal through braking, who can hold a line through a turn, who is conscious of others' proximity...and those who ride seemingly oblivious to the fact that others' safety is dependent on their behavior. After riding with folks for a while you can predict their movements, almost subconsciously, in a way that makes riding with them safe and safe and natural as a stroll through the park, even if bumping handlebars during a spirited conversation.

However, when riding with people you don't know, you have to make judgments regarding skill and competence, judgments your personal safety depends on, and you have to do this with very little information. You rely on tells--subtle signals like the angle of a stem, the quality of socks, and a host of other hard-to-articulate signs that telegraph skill and experience.

If we model pack-riding as a multi-round, multi-party prisoner's dilemma, the Nash equilibrium is either everybody stays up (a feat that often seems nothing short of miraculous, yet, empirically is undeniable) or everybody goes down (the perception of mountain bikers and tri-geeks who are afraid to do group road rides). And as any of my students should know, in order to maximize utility in a prisoner's dilemma it is critical to signal (early and often) not only your cooperative intentions, but your capacity to engage in relevant cooperative behavior (in this case, pack-riding skill).

Leg-shaving is one way to do so. Or, more properly stated, not shaving one's legs is a powerful signal of an inability to cooperate.

I couldn't always articulate it as I have above, but I remember learning very early on (I started riding competitively at 14) that if a newcomer shows up to a group ride with hairy legs (or tri-bars) to give them w i d e birth, and whenever possible to stay in front of them (which, generally, wasn't difficult, because these same folks usually didn't know what they were getting into on a fast group ride, and were often quickly left on their own).

And so there you have it. The social functionality of leg-shaving: The real reason amateur cyclists shave their legs.


KanyonKris said...

Reasons #4 (to join the club), and #3 (legs look better shaved) make sense.

Reasons #1 and #2 are weak, with only a trace of functionality. Frankly, I feel #1 and #2 are often used avoid having to admit to #3 and #4.

I tried shaving my legs. My legs looked better shaved. I felt more confident around other cyclists. But shaving is a hassle and it, well, felt emasculating. I know, that's my hang-up. If I were more into racing I'd be more inclined to shave. But with my focus on recreational cycling I lack the motivation and interest.

(This reminds me: I need to do a wrap-up post on this topic.)

Is leg shaving a choice between the red badge of courage and the scarlet letter? (I hope this is a fun analogy given your profession, but not being very literate I've probably just made a fool of myself.)

goat said...

Given my profession? I'm a management prof. The only badges of courage my students care about are green.

Anonymous said...


did anyone ever tell you that you look exactly like hugh jackman?

you should shave your facial hair like how he has it in wolverine, that would be tight!

Devo said...

I like reading the comments because most of them make my belly jiggle like a bowl full of jelly.
But I also wanted to respond that in my professional opinion, leg shaving can be a safety measure to a greater level than which you illustrated. With an interest in wound care and the position of a peon in the Emergency Room, I have an inordinant amount of exposure to roadrash. It seems to me that hairer legs = deeper and widened trauma. I believe that the hair acts as increased surface area to create more friction as well as being firmly attached in a follicle so they can help seperated epidermis from dermis, dermis from subcutaneous tissue, and all that from your deep facia. The hair itself can also act as natural sandpaper, harbor infection, and become a foreign body in a healing wound (or non-healing wound in this case). Anyone who has experiences a pilonidal cyst can attest to the potential harm of hair. So often less hairy people have less severe skin injuries in similar levels of trauma. That, or just one more way in which women are superior to men.
Plus if you take the time to shave your own legs, I won't be so inclined to give you the popular tape-wax (that I'm so famous for) so I can get your bandages to stick tight.
However, if you are not very coordinated, don't start shaving your legs, because I will be relentless in teasing you at 2:00 AM when you show up to the ER with a deep razor laceration that needs stiched up because, in your drunken stupor, you thought you would look sexy with shaved legs.

KanyonKris said...

goat - My bad. I was under the impression you teach English or literature, perhaps because of your skillful writing and mentions of books like A Confederacy Of Dunces (which I have on my reading list).