It sneaks up on you, this road-riding thing. One day you’re content zipping around on your commuter or thrashing your mountain bike, and the next you’re invited on your first bunch ride, shoe-horning yourself into bib-knicks, inventing justifications for the next bike
purchase and downloading Strava.
It’s a journey defined by physical and psychological milestones. Like the moment you look at your legs rippling with freshly defined muscles straining against the bands of your bike shorts, and instead of pride, you feel your lip curl and a quiver of revulsion…all you can see is hair, hair, everywhere.
Cyclists began stripping their legs of hair over a century ago, in some of the very first bike races. It’s now such a common thing that the bald, wizened legs of a ‘serious cyclist’ have lost their ability to shock polite society; we’re just that accustomed to seeing people dressed like Cirque du Soleil refugees spinning through our streets.
There are, of course, sound reasons behind the practice. For professionals, long hours in the saddle are punctuated by regular crashes and followed by nightly massages. In both cases, a hairless leg presents fewer difficulties; the tear of dressings on leg hair compounds injury, just as a deep massage tugs the follicles. And at the highest levels of the sport, a millisecond or two of added wind resistance can be the difference between victory and defeat.
These matters do not concern the majority of recreational road cyclists, serving instead as the justification rather than the rationale. The removal of leg hair is the final step in the metamorphosis of the road rider, an initiation and acknowledgement of the transition between an activity and a lifestyle. The hairy cocoon is cast away, and the lairy lycra butterfly unfurls.
“The removal of leg hair is the final step in the metamorphosis of the road rider … the hairy cocoon is cast away, and the lairy Lycra butterfly unfurls.”
To backtrack a little, I’d ask you to consider that I’m writing from the perspective of someone who takes his hair seriously. A late puberty and perplexing lack of eyebrows until midteens has left me jealously protective of whatever hair I can coax my body into growing; for the past five or so years I’ve been working on sideburns that aim for Hugh Jackman in Wolverine but end up more like Hugh Grant in a mugshot.
Nonetheless, in my tenure as Ride On guinea pig, it was cruelly logical that as spring approached and my kilometres increased, I would submit my legs to a comparative wax (right leg) and shave (left leg). Serious questions immediately arose. Would there be blood? How much would the waxing hurt? Would I look like the poser I secretly suspected myself to be? Would I maintain any dignity among my colleagues and readers?
I first headed to a professional salon for my waxing, a process that has the benefit of being the longer-lasting option – albeit one that pushes the pain barrier. Being my first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but imagined it to be a somewhat studied and artisanal process.
Cowering in my underwear as the beautician went to work, and enduring a brutal frenzy of ripping accompanied by my shameful whimpers, I realised how wrong I was. It was over before I’d had a chance to fully comprehend what was happening, and as I looked down at one thickly hirsute leg next to its pink naked twin, I realised just how stupid I looked. If I was going to be emasculated and self-pitying, best to be symmetrical about it – time for a shave.
Many riders see leg shaving as part of some sacred pre-ride ritual, a vital mental fortification for the physical ordeal to come. As much as I like the romance of this, my own shaving experience turned out to be an unlikely trifecta of risky, messy and tedious. After a good 20 minutes of awkward pirouettes to see if I’d missed any patches on the back of my knee, the deed was done. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life felt such a confusing mixture of pretty and ashamed.
A night of tossing and turning followed. I’d jolt awake every couple of hours because the sheets would seductively glide over my legs and I’d forget who they belonged to. In the morning, though, when my 4:30 alarm went off for the pre-work bunch ride, I rolled out of bed steely-eyed and purposeful, convinced in my calling as a warrior of the road.
Girded in lycra and rolling along, I admired my newly streamlined appearance, muttering an epic commentary about ‘ivory pillars of doom’ under my breath. Was I any faster? Almost certainly not, but that was never really the point. I felt faster, and with the sun rising over a glassy Port Phillip Bay I also felt the spirit of generations of smooth-legged cyclists urging me onward.
Waxing costs approximately $55-$60 for both legs, lasting around a month. Shaving is relatively inexpensive, can be done in the sanctity of your own home and would be necessary every two-three days, or just before a big ride. For me, dignity and economy wins out.
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