New wind-tunnel tests find surprising gains in cycling efficiency from leg-shaving

A 1987 wind-tunnel trial established that leg-shaving was basically useless, used a miniature leg-model with hair glued to it for its control; when the experiment was re-run this year with a human leg, the savings were a whopping seven percent.

Writing in Triathlete, cyclist Jesse Thomas describes his experiences re-running the leg-hair trials. A subsequent trial of five more cyclists confirmed the findings.

As the Globe and Mail's Alex Hutchinson points out, this contributes to the burgeoning case for confirming the results of classic experiments, a practice that is largely discouraged, with many of the major journals being closed to reports on confirmation experiments.

The problem in the research community is that scientists have little incentive to duplicate earlier work just to check if it’s correct. Many journals have explicit policies forbidding the publication of work that attempts to replicate previous experiments. In contrast, when the journal Social Psychology devoted a special issue earlier this year to attempts to replicate 27 “important findings” in the field, 10 findings could not be reproduced.

In this case, Cote contacted Kyle, the author of the earlier study, to ask if he had any ideas about the discrepancy between the two results. It turned out that the 1987 test involved a fake lower leg in a miniature wind tunnel with or without hair glued onto it – hardly a definitive test, and yet it was enough to persuade most people not to bother with further tests for the next three decades.

The revised results should remind us not to place too much faith in any single experiment, and to consider all findings tentative until replicated – including the new shaving findings.

The curious case of the cyclist’s unshaven legs [Alex Hutchinson/Globe and Mail]