Around 33% of Americans have facial hair, as well as many cycling legends like Bradley Wiggins and Dan Craven. However, there is a widespread belief that any body hair at all negatively impacts aerodynamics, which could actually slow you down as you ride. It may only make the tiniest difference, but over long distances, it could add up and cost a cyclist first place in a competition. If you are a passionate cycler but love your facial hair, then you are probably wondering if there is an effect at all and, if so, how big that effect is. A beard is a great way to stay warm during winter cycling, but is it having an effect on your time?
Beards have caused such a concern in the cycling world, that tests have actually been done to test whether there is any effect of body hair on aerodynamics. The same cyclist rode the same distance twice in controlled laboratory conditions. One ride was carried out with a full beard and one after a close cut shave. This began when triathlete, Jesse Thompson, accidentally tested the aerodynamics of a beard within a wind tunnel. When he first went in to test his bike, he had forgotten to shave, so he did so halfway through the session. The second half, it turned out, led to 15 watts of less drag power from the wind, revealing that the beard was having a measurable effect.
However, what does this mean in terms of your cycling time? Wind tunnel experts examined the data and found that cycling with a beard would slow an athlete down by just over one second over the course of 40km. Not a huge change, especially for shorter races, but this reveals that beards have more of an effect on time than helmet or riding position.
Possible Psychological Factors
The science is clear, then, that shaving isn’t essential, but will affect your time slightly. However, there might be a greater impact from the psychological effects of not shaving. Many top athletes shave their bodies, so going out on the track covered in hair could make you feel like you are not a serious athlete. Without self-belief, your time is likely to be slower.
Taking the time before a race to shave your entire body, including your face, can help you to prepare mentally for the event. It might just be superstition, but it is an active habit you can take to get in the mindset of a winner. Getting in the zone, for many, could include shaving. Even if there are no meaningful physical benefits, it could boost your performance psychologically. If, however, you feel confident going out with a beard, as Wiggins clearly does, then there is no need to shave.
Overall, scientific studies do reveal that a beard increases drag and slows you down. However, the change is so small that it isn’t necessary to shave. With some of the best athletes sporting long facial hair, you might find that the boost in confidence that a beard gives you outweighs the extra drag.