In the past, bike shorts were a fairly straightforward purchase–go to a store, pick out a pair that fits, and check out. Subtle variations existed between brands, but overall, most bike shorts were black, made of the same stretchy fabrics, and used similar materials in the padding (called the chamois). Women’s bike shorts were the exact same as men’s, only smaller and embossed with a flower (a phenomenon that would eventually be known as “shrink and pink”).
Today, that’s not the case. Better science, new materials, and a competitive online market have ensured that there’s a bike short for every rider. A dizzying array of options exist on the market today: shorts with a waistband versus suspenders (called bibs); a thick, cushiony chamois versus one with little more than a thin fleece layer; expanded sizing and colors; and features like cooling mesh panels, sun-blocking UPF, and pockets. But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier to find the perfect pair of bike shorts.
One of the top complaints of cyclists is discomfort where the body meets the seat–soreness, chafing, and discomfort have cut short many a long ride. Most of these issues can be remedied with a better pair of bike shorts, explained Kyle Brown of Competitive Cyclist. But many don’t know how to shop for this essential gear, which can lead to time and money wasted.
“A chamois is one of the most crucial items when the rubber meets the road. It is so important for comfort as well as performance,” said Brown. In addition to preventing rashes, chafing, and saddle sores, the right chamois can provide shock absorption from road vibrations, eliminate numbness in the legs and groin, and reduce soreness during and after rides. To find the best pair for you, here’s what you need to know:
Crowdsource with caution.
“Everyone fits a little different down there, so what might be a great short for one person, might not be ideal for the next,” said Brown. It can take a little trial and error to find the shorts that fit you.”
Start with fit.
Go to your local bike or tri shop with an open mind. Instead of being set on buying bike shorts from a specific brand or a tri kit with a specific color design, try on multiple pairs to see what fits your body best. “There are brands that fit narrower, or wider, and it’s important to get a short that fits your body,” said Brown. “You want shorts that provide support, but are not so tight that it’s uncomfortable. They should sit properly on your thighs.”
The biggest mistake Brown sees is people buying shorts that are too big: “I too often see men with bibs that are almost baggy. They need to support you and not move. Chafing happens when bibs are too loose, and that’s going to cause real discomfort.”
Know your anatomy.
Shrink-and-pink is mostly a thing of the past–now, women’s bike shorts are actually designed for a woman’s anatomy. That’s a big win, said Brown: “Physically, men and women are differently shaped, and their shorts need to be designed differently. The chamois shape needs to be different for women, as well as the cut to the bib shape. These can help women get a more comfortable ride.”
Good shorts will have different thickness densities in the chamois that are specific to the pressure points on the bike. Men have narrower sit bones than women, so their shorts will have cushioning that corresponds with that structure, as well as a center inlet cut into the shorts, so blood flow is not restricted from pressure while in the bike seat. In addition to wider cushioning for wider sit bones and a differently-shaped inlet, women’s shorts often have fabric that extends down into the inner thighs to prevent friction.
More padding is not always better.
If a little cushioning is good, a lot must be better, right? Not necessarily, warned Brown. “Padding density will really depend on what you are doing. If racing a sprint or Olympic distance tri, you might prefer a thinner chamois in your race suit. They dry quicker and are easier to run in. Longer distance events can vary by person. I personally can do a thinner option even on a half distance, but like thicker on a full. When training and general riding, I prefer a thicker chamois.” Just like you use different shoes for a speed workout versus a long run, so too should your workout dictate what kind of shorts you’ll wear on the bike.
Make sure nothing comes between you and your chamois.
A chamois is designed to be worn against the skin, so skip the skivvies. Wearing underwear adds seams that can chafe, reduces the breathability of the bike short, and restricts your movement. If you’re worried about bacteria, wash your shorts after every ride using a mild soap, and hang to dry.
Get your bike in tip-top shape, too.
Even the best pair of shorts can’t compensate for a poor saddle or bad bike fit. Just like bike shorts, saddles are no longer one-size-fits-all. “You need to have a bike that fits your body,” said Brown. “Don’t mimic a pro or someone you know. A proper fit will make you faster, and will help prevent or solve so many issues with comfort.”
Invest in your comfort.
With bike shorts, you often get what you pay for. Poor stitching can cause chafing or discomfort while riding, and flimsy materials can fade quickly, making your bike shorts see-through. That doesn’t mean you need to drop a whole paycheck on bike shorts, but consider investing in two really good pairs (one for long rides, and one for short rides and races). “Spend a little extra for the high-quality brands,” said Brown. “You’ll be glad you did. A good bike short will make your ride more enjoyable, more comfortable, and also helps performance. So treat yourself, get the good shorts.”