Cycling has its share of rituals. Some are as obvious as cheese on a pizza. But there are a few practices in cycling that seem to be filled with equal parts mystique and misinformation. They go back for generations and persist in usage for one reason alone: They work. If you are serious about your riding, you should try these; they each have a payoff. Here are the tips and a look under the hood at how they work.
The Ride Meeting Point
Group rides, by their very definition, must meet someplace. City parks, bike shops and coffee shops are popular locations.
Sunscreen should be a part of every cyclist’s pre-ride ritual. The only mystery about sunscreen is why more cyclists don’t use it with the fervor of a teenage girl who’s just discovered lipstick. Your nose, face, forehead, and arms are particularly susceptible to sunburn. Worse yet, if you forget the sunscreen and do get a burn, the helmet tattooed into your forehead will look sillier than a priest in a burlesque outfit. Don’t forget your lips, either. Wind-burned lips can crack and peel, making romantic moments less so.
A hairless leg is a cool leg. A common misperception about cycling is that roadies shave their legs to improve their aerodynamics. While there is a slight aerodynamic benefit to be gained by shaving your legs, it isn’t the primary reason to do so. The biggest reason to shave your legs is for convective cooling. Hair holds water; think about how much faster your hair dries following a haircut, especially if you haven’t had your hair cut in a while. By shaving all the hair off your legs, sweat evaporates directly off your skin, helping to reduce your core temperature on hot days. In the event you crash, it is easier to clean a wound that already has the hair shaved off; the lack of hair means bandages won’t rip it out when they are changed, either.
So those are objective reasons to shave your legs, but many cyclists do it simply because hairless legs are part of the look of cycling. To many cyclists, bare legs are a sign of commitment to the sport and if you shave your legs, the thinking goes, then it’s probably safe to follow your wheel.
How high up you shave is a personal choice. Some cyclists only shave beyond where the gripper elastic on their shorts extends but shorts will wick moisture away from your legs better if you shave to your hip. Should you crash, it’s the rare event that doesn’t result in some road rash to the hip.
The other benefit to shaving your legs is that it makes massage easier and more comfortable. Without hair on the legs, the hands move more easily with less oil applied. While most women don’t have to be sold on the merits of shaving, guys, you should note that many women who have dated a cyclist report that they quickly develop a preference for hairless legs.
Leg massage helps promote recovery. By forcing blood through the muscle while at rest, massage can help the body flush lactic acid from tired muscles. Deep-tissue massage breaks up knots in muscles that contribute to tightness following a hard ride.
While the best massage is performed by a trained massage therapist, it is possible to perform self-massage to aid your recovery. There are a variety of foam rollers and balls you can use to help work out the assorted knots, kinks, and sore bits.
Chamois cream is a personal lubricant of a non-romantic nature. It helps prevent chafing caused by the saddle rubbing the chamois against sensitive tissues. Back when shorts used a real leather chamois, chamois cream was necessary just to make the chamois soft enough that you could sit on it. Riders noticed that if you used a little extra, the way some folks have coffee with their cream, it reduced chafing as well.
The chamois used in shorts today is plenty soft, but chafing can persist. Some riders apply the cream directly to their skin while others continue to apply it to the chamois itself; it’s a matter of preference, really. Most include a little menthol as a natural antibacterial agent.
An embrocation is a cream or oil applied to the legs to warm them. Much like Bengay, these creams use active ingredients such as capsicum, methyl salicylate, and menthol to generate heat. After being massaged into the skin, they help keep the legs warm while riding without adding the bulk of knee or leg warmers. This can be particularly helpful in wet conditions when the Roubaix Lycra of knee or leg warmers would simply absorb several ounces of water.
Embrocations are just like Indian food: They come in varying grades of heat. Some use a petroleum base; to wash them off, you need a skin-safe soap that can break up grease. Dawn dishwashing liquid works well. Some don’t use petroleum and can be washed off with regular soap.
Also known as liniments or Belgian knee warmers, an embrocation should be applied after you put on your shorts to avoid getting the embrocation on the chamois. Perhaps you recall the Bengay in the jockstrap practical joke from high school? Slide the shorts’ legs up to apply the embrocation. Massage it into the skin gently, then wash your hands with soap. Don’t let your legs touch anything in your home before departure and be prepared to shower the moment you return home; embrocations pick up road grime and can leave your legs looking like you’ve been rolling in the world’s largest pepper mill. It’s a gnarly look to be sure, which, of course, makes it something of a badge of honor.