I think it was Sean Kelly that started it. He’s certainly the first person I can remember. If he isn’t responsible then that’s fine, because it’s not exactly a crime to most people.
What did he do? Or rather, what didn’t he do? Shave.
Hardly a revolutionary move in the grand scheme of things, but professional cycling can be a bit stunted and facial hair was one of those taboos which was kept under wraps. Any digression was soon sorted out with a quiet word saying that a clean look was expected. Until King Kelly threw his Bic in the works, that is.
As I heard it, his theory was that not removing facial stubble saved a bit of strength your body had stored up overnight for the bike race. That theory may or may not have been invented to answer a question which required a suitable reply. In other words, it may have been complete nonsense, but who was I to question the then world number one? Where he led, I and many others could only hope to follow. If this was one of the percentage gains then so be it.
The hairiness wasn’t a long-term process, though, because once the day’s pedalling was done you could remove the prickly stubble and let the renewal process start all over again.
Of course there were pockets of fierce resistance from those who preferred their cyclists smooth and shiny. At Panasonic, General Peter Post ran things military style, so when Eddy Planckaert turned up with a bit more than a five o’clock shadow, orders were bellowed and the rogue belittled into submission.
Similarly, the Spanish management at Fagor, who you would think might have liked a bit of a macho image, threw a complete fit when Milan-Sanremo winner Marc Gomez appeared at the early season races with proper coverage going on. Trendy stubble was obviously not enough for the Frenchman, so he had decided to go native with the full beard and chose to ignore the first warnings that the hairs had to go. As it made no difference to his ability to pedal, he thought they were joking and thus continued his crusade against shaving – only to be told in no uncertain terms at the next race that he had to choose between the beard or his wages. He was then sent home to think about his options which, with a family to support and a mortgage to pay, must have been a fairy rapid process. One week later he re-appeared with a pristine chin.
The facial hair debate then settled down to being the domain of the Classics rider looking for some gladiatorial inspiration: a tougher look for the toughest days and an easy way to spot those who were going for it. Outside of one-day events, though, the hard-man look died a death – too sweaty for the mountains, too hot in summer and continuing quiet resistance from the management who expected nice, presentable workers. You can understand their point of view. A goatee full of spit and dead flies is not photogenic and hardly what sponsors want to be associated with.
So with that said, it’s very surprising to see hairy faces return again. This is the era of aerodynamics and the corporate collective: everyone the same, everything sleek and buff, ordered and controlled. Racing now absolutely requires ribbed skinsuits with pockets for minimal food, helmets with no holes, brakes behind the forks, internal runs for cables, integrated headsets and once-round tubing now replaced by wind-cheating shapes. When you think of all the time, money and development of each part of the package in order to save a few watts of power, it’s scary.
Now at the pointy end of all that technology, a good old-fashioned beard is in the mix. I wonder how long the fuzz will be tolerated before those involved spot the contradiction.
The current fashion was brought directly to my attention one sunny afternoon when I was out for a ride and punctured. I hadn’t been stopped two minutes before three guys I knew came along and pulled up to watch me struggle and offer some witty advice. Not content with commentating on my tube-changing abilities, they started picking on my steed which, unfortunately for my street cred, featured no aero properties. None. No flattened, sculpted or moulded carbon; no deep section rims and sharp spokes. They soon spotted I had no internal cables and the headset and brakes weren’t hidden from prying eyes. I tried pleading that I was packing some Campagnolo and titanium but my so-called friends showed no mercy. I was a dinosaur.
Of course, they had all the mod cons, notably Di2 Shimano competing with the power meter for the airwaves, even though a second cat licence was just a distant dream. Two of my persecutors had the new bearded look going on, but the other one was a bit reluctant to explain his lack of hairy prowess when questioned. Finally, he admitted that he had a mini crisis with his girlfriend each weekend, as she refused to have anything to do with him when he wanted to let a bit of stubble grow for his race face. I almost sympathised with his shame, but I had finished with the puncture and it was time to escape. Feeling low at my ancient status, I called in on old Joey. Now in his eighties, he had been a West Country resident all his life. He was wise and knowledgeable but more importantly he always had something relevant to say, no matter the predicament.
Over a cup of tea and some angel cake, I told him the story of the facial hair terrorists and he listened carefully. It wasn’t as good a tale as his stories of the Luftwaffe and Spitfire pilots billeted in the manor house, but he seemed amused. When I’d finished he got up and opened a drawer in his sideboard. Out came a slightly yellow copy of the Sun from August, 2012, an Olympics special, complete with stick on sideburns.
“Here’s what you need,” he said. “Bugger grips!”