Marginal Gains: Beards and Body Hair


Common to every aspect of competitive cycling is the search for better performance and those small but ever more important marginal gains. In conjunction with improving the aerodynamics of our equipment and apparel, to complete the full circle we must also look at our physique and how this may or may not affect our desired performance.

Identifying the climbers and sprinters amongst us is often simple given the physical differences that are needed to excel in each area. There are those however, with the capacity of defying standard perceptions by holding both the strength and nimbleness to perform equally as well, with neither the light frame nor quad bulk of a sprinter.

Entwined in the general perception of true masculinity is that the male species should have an abundance of bodily hair from the chin, limb and every other orifice known to humankind.  VC Iveagh and no doubt most other clubs often debate the great cyclist taboo; does facial hair or a set of unkempt knees really matter?

Many male cyclists led by icons such as Sir Bradley Wiggins now sport several day’s growth and it would appear that vanity, or perhaps laziness is often a boundary not to be crossed, even for the serious cyclist.  In an effort to resolve the taboo and answer the age old question ‘does body hair really matter?’, wind tunnel tests were carried out by the boffins at Specialized with fascinating results that will no doubt inspire VC Iveagh’s very own bearded one, Brian Hanna.

Exposed to the full drag effect of a chin carpet and possibly a secret or two shared with the biblical Samson, Brian would no doubt welcome the findings that suggest there is literally no effect on air resistance and therefore speed when unshaven or sporting a beard. Under test conditions and over a distance of 40km less than one second was lost to the bearded test subject, a test replicated by others with similar findings. It seems now fair to say that the same effect may be found from longer hair, particularly for the female cyclist.

Another area often questioned, or in many cases mistaken or misunderstood (particularly by new cyclists) is the true reason for shaved legs. Contrary to popular belief, legs are not shaved for aerodynamics but rather they are shaven for two main reasons; firstly in case of road rash, hairless legs are much easier to clean debris from in the event of a spill and secondly, to facilitate the all important unrestricted leg muscle massage.

So even though there is no definitive marginal gain to be had by shaving body hair, it is the sum of parts as we have alluded to in a previous post. By shaving your legs you are unrestricting leg muscle massage; of course not all of us ride for a pro peloton team and don’t have a masseuse on call so the benefit is negligible. Likewise, generally we mere mortals don’t have a team car and doctor on hand to patch us up in the event of a crash and simply struggle on until we can get a little sympathy from our other usually better half. Therefore does lack of body hair equate to a marginal gain? perhaps, but only if you have reached the very pinnacle of cycling.

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