It was the summer of 1990, and Stephen Bullard had become a dedicated triathlete, fit and fast for swimming, running, and cycling after five years of regular competition. He was a burgeoning young buck, climbing up in the local ranks and looking the part—all hot pink and Spandex and mirrored sunglasses—save for one fuzzy detail: He had hairy legs.
So it was one bright spring evening when Bullard, now a management trainer in Minneapolis, took blade to skin and began the deforestation of his lower leg. “It was the thing to do if you were serious about triathlon,” he says.
Bullard, still a committed triathlete, cyclist, and Nordic skier, turned 50 this year. It’s been 18 years since his virgin shave, and Bullard’s legs have been shiny and smooth ever since.
Beyond aerobic sports, in no other part of mainstream Western society does the male species commonly take wax or blade to leg hair. But among the Lycra set—particularly cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes—smooth legs are touted as a rite of passage and a performance-enhancing procedure.
Bullard, who shaves twice a week, up to 45 minutes at a time, said hair-free legs identify a man as someone who takes his sport seriously. “It’s a badge,” he says.
Showing off rippling thighs doesn’t hurt, either. Nor does the feeling of fresh bed sheets on clean calves, admitted one male shaver. And after a day of cycling, a self-massage on smooth thighs is irresistible, according to Steve Madden, editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine.
“Massage is the number-one reason to shave for serious cyclists,” says Madden. “Lotion and leg hair don’t go well together, and after riding all day, cyclists need a rubdown.”
Madden, 44, has shaved on and off since 1980. Narcissism and vanity, he admits, are part of the allure. Ditto to fitting in with the crowd.
“Cycling is a very tribal sport,” Madden adds. “You take cues from the leaders—the pros—who all shave.”
More practically, cyclists shave because cuts and road rash can heal faster after a crash. “Hairless legs are easier to clean and bandage,” Madden said.
What about aerodynamic advantages on a bike? In a wind tunnel, under perfect lab conditions, leg fuzz swirling in the breeze may create a tiny amount of turbulence and drag. But it has almost no effect on riders’ performance. “It’s pure B.S.,” Madden admits. Instead, your clothing, riding position, your helmet, and even the placement of a water bottle cage can cause more drag than leg hair.
In water, where resistance is greater, hair can make a measurable difference. As such, swimmers have long shaved their legs—and their arms and chests, too—for hydrodynamic gain. A bald body, like a seal, slips more quickly through the pool.
In other sports, smooth man legs are a grade-A diversionary tactic. That’s according to Dan Williams, a 42-year-old adventure racer from Champlin, Minn., who compares leg shaving to poker: “It’s like Texas Hold ‘Em,” he explains. “Anything that gives you a psychological or perceived psychological edge, will in fact give you that edge.”
In any competition, there’s a field of athletes attempting to read where each person ranks. Having clean-shaven legs thighs flexing, contoured muscles sparkling in the sun—immediately identifies one as core. “Like mirrored sunglasses or carbon-fiber spokes, clean legs promote a slight mystery about you,” Williams says.
For serious road cyclists—the most vocal and particular participants in this investigation—legs are an instant identifier, said Jamie Smith, author of Roadie: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer. Smith, a shaver for 22 years, said male legs are the first thing he looks at when showing up for a group bike ride.
“A quick glance determines where you are in the sport,” he says. “I know who the serious and safer riders are from their defined tan lines and clean legs.”
In a section of his book titled “Do You Really Shave Your Legs?” Smith writes: “In any group of cyclists, a serious Roadie can instantly spot the not-so-serious Roadies. The telltale sign: hairy legs. A cyclist makes a strong statement about his dedication to the sport when he goes against the societal norm and shaves all the hair off his legs.”
Not that aerobic athletes shy from bucking societal convention. The same demographic that shaves is known to do other crazy things, too—like run 100 miles in a day, or bike the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But the buff guys in Spandex—chests puffed out under jerseys, legs glimmering above athletic shoes—are also an easy target for jokes. Just ask Stephen Bullard, a man who for a time wore a one-piece, hot-pink, zebra-striped suit to race in triathlons. “The truth hurts, but I admit it,” he says.
Today, Bullard’s preferred brand of shaver is one his daughter gave him for Father’s Day. The Gillette Venus has five blades and a “ribbon of moisture.” It comes in pink and teal, and the company slogan on the packaging reads: “Reveal the goddess in you.”
“I keep telling my wife that shaved legs are sexy,” Bullard says. “But she remains unconvinced.”
Pulling Back the (Shower) Curtain
Seven men reveal reasons and rationalizations for shaving their legs in the name of aerobic sport:</em>
41, Technology Entrepreneur
Why he does it:<em> “Mostly in the event of a bike crash to help heal road rash. And because I’m vain.”</em>
On his first time: <em>“It was quite feminine to glide a razor over the length of my leg. It felt like a sneak peak into a woman’s world.”</em>
On the psychology behind shaving: <em>“Before a big bike ride or event shaving puts me in the warrior mode. It makes me feel like I’m ready to rock!”
56, Software Developer
Why he shaved (just once) at age 53: <em>“My cycling workout buddies were doing it. I thought I should try to understand why other guys did it.”
His girlfriend’s reaction: <em>“She thought it was hot! I shaved just to try it, but after a day or two I started liking it.”</em>
51, Financial Analyst
On peer pressure to shave: <em>“If you line up for a bike race with hairy legs, you are quickly identified as an inexperienced cyclist who cannot hold his line and may cause an accident.”</em>
23, Bike Parts Factory Worker
On why he shaves twice a week: <em>“Narcissism probably most primarily. I like the aesthetic of clean tattoos better than hairy ones.”