Although male cyclists generally don’t talk about it, wearing form-fitting lycra clothing, and leg shaving, are transgressive acts. These practices are both racy (as in, “for racing”), and racy (as in, “risque”). To the other guys you ride with, skin-tight clothes and smooth legs become normal–the unremarkable tools of the trade; however, a group of male cyclists walking into a cafe in full kit is quite a bit more unintentionally sexually provocative than say, an intramural softball team. Even though the popularity of cycling has boomed in the America, showing up at a Panera in lycra will mark you as different, foreign, and a bit european. As as cyclist in uniform in public places, one is viewed suspiciously, like the guy in a Speedo at the municipal pool.
Which makes this a good time to acknowledge the linguiça (Portuguese sausage) in the room. In my experience, wearing tight shorts has not attracted the sort of unwanted (or wanted) attention that women were discouraged from attracting by wearing tight sweaters in the 1950s. I’m definitely not saying that donning tight cycling clothes will attract a potential partner. Male cyclists are just as testosterone driven as male athletes in any other sport, but cycling costumes allow a guy to do a bit of incognito cross-dressing. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that for some, cycling couture and grooming habits might get you in touch with your feminine side.
You might feel a tinge of forbidden pleasure when pulling on a silky jersey, shaving your legs, and otherwise preparing to ride your bike. I’m a fairly hirsute dude, and I remember the first time I shaved my legs, how weird and naked I felt in a pair of jeans, but also how luxurious cotton bed sheets felt on my bare legs. Beyond that, I casually admired the lines of my legs, and my newly forming cycling muscles. I’m not going full Danish Girl here, but shaving my legs for bicycling riding allowed me to glimpse how a woman might feel slipping her smooth legs into a pair of heels. The first time I shaved my legs was the first time I had thought in these terms whatsoever.
How you groom yourself, and what you wear while riding a bike, is steeped in tradition in racing circles. This is partly why you still see middle-aged men stuffing themselves into lycra jerseys, and why Peter Sagan showing up to the first races of 2016 with hairy legs makes national news. There are real reasons for tight clothes and leg shaving that almost any cyclist can recite: aerodynamics (clothes and legs), ease of massage (legs), and ease of cleaning and bandaging wounds (legs). One interview about the Peter Sagan sasquatch incident mentioned above quoted Stephen Roche, who lamented not only the lack of leg shaving, but the appearance of beards (?!) in the peloton. Curiously, Roche’s argument against body hair is partly based on aesthetics:
“In one sense, without creating a polemic about it, I don’t think it is a good example. He’s wearing the world champion’s jersey, and he owes it to be respectful and to be clean and presentable. Okay, you might say, ‘well, there is no law that says you have to shave your legs.’ But why then have we been doing it for the past 100 years? It is because it doesn’t look good.”
“When we saw guys coming out with beards on them, we already started crying out about it. It was also mentioned for aerodynamics – the first thing that hits the wind is your face. And yet here we are having riders with beards, which also don’t look very good.
“Okay, it is fashion for the riders, maybe it is a feel-good thing that they want to show off or have something for beards. I just hope that it doesn’t last. It is the same thing with the unshaven legs, I hope that doesn’t last.”
Of course, not all cyclists wear tight-fitting bright colored clothing; in fact, urban cyclists, and fans of Grant Petersen’s Rivendell espouse riding in (mostly) regular street clothing. Levi’s has a “commuter” line of clothing that is tweaked for cycling, but looks otherwise normal. I own some of it and like it, but for rides of almost any distance (>15 miles) I don’t want loose fitting shirts blowing in the wind or the seam of street pants rubbing on my scrotum and nether regions. So although I’m no racer, I still pull on the lycra, and occasionally (usually before a big cycling event) pull out the razor, to feel sleek, fast, and connected to the traditions that stretch back to the beginnings of the sport, even when doing so makes me feel a little ladylike.