This time of year brings excitement for cyclists everywhere as the Tour de France rolls through Europe. This nearly monthlong race brings with it a lot of questions: Who will win? How do cyclists go to the bathroom while they ride? Why do riders wear such high socks?
While we don’t know the answer to the first (and plead the fifth on the second), we can definitely handle that last one. As equal parts cycling and sock enthusiasts, we at Feetures love diving into the science behind footwear’s impact on athletic performance!
A History of Height Advantages
Long socks may seem counterintuitive to successful cycling, and for a long time, riders shunned them in favor of low-cut styles and shaved legs for an aerodynamic edge. However, modern materials have actually become more aerodynamic than bare skin, suddenly making higher socks an attractive choice.
How? Think of the texture of a golf ball. The tiny divots create a thin boundary layer of air around the ball’s surface, which improves airflow and decreases the size of the wake. There’s similar science at work with socks. The fabric’s texture acts in the same way so there’s a smaller wake behind the leg and less drag. That reasoning explains why cyclists would desire a lengthier sock — the higher it goes, the higher the aerodynamic advantage.
Lance Armstrong was a pioneer in the use of high-top compression socks, claiming they kept his calves from cramping. He and his U.S. Postal Team often wore them during competitions, which increased their popularity. This caught the eye of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for sports cycling, which believed the socks provided an unfair advantage.
The UCI has since instituted a rule that limited sock height to halfway between the ankle and the knee. There is no minimum (socks actually aren’t required at all), but you will occasionally see judges whip out rulers for random height checks.
Regardless of the rule, high socks have remained popular and are considered by many to be the standard for a “professional” look.
High or Low? Your Call
We hope you enjoy the endurance-fueled excitement of this year’s Tour de France. And if it happens to inspire you to hit the trails, don’t forget to treat your feet to a pair of Feetures’ cycling socks. Our styles range from no-show socks to crew socks, so we’ve got your height preference covered!