An Expert Guide to Bike Shorts
Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine details the different types of bike shorts, features to look for when shopping for your next pair of bike shorts, and more!
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"Ouch! My butt hurts!” If this sounds familiar after riding 20 miles or so, then you might need a new set of shorts. Cycling shorts are one of the most important upgrades riders can make. Simply because, if you are not comfortable, you won’t want to ride. The cycling gear you should never skimp on falls into three categories: hands, feet, and, for our purposes today, butt. This guide will help you find the perfect pair for optimal comfort based on your riding style.
Why Do I Need Bike Shorts?
If you ride one or two miles to the store, padded bike shorts or shorts with a chamois may not be necessary. However, when a cyclist rides over 15 miles—the point when sitting on a saddle normally begins to become painful—it is generally time to upgrade from athletic shorts.
Further, when spinning your legs at 80 rpm on long rides, the constant rubbing and sweat can cause irritation. And longer rides can result in saddle sores when the skin has been rubbed down. In these situations, moisture causes infection. Padded bike shorts are designed to wick moisture away from the skin in order to evaporate faster. Padded bike shorts also have a multi density antimicrobial foam pad to reduce the chance of saddle sores and increase comfort.
Believe me, I have had saddle sores in the past, and they felt like someone was sticking a pin in my butt.
What About an Oversized, Cushy Saddle?
I hear many new cyclists say, “why not just buy a massive, cushy gel saddle?”
The problem with a gel saddle is that it can actually cause more chafing, which can cause more saddle sores. Padded bike shorts, instead, have extra padding where the bones sit. They are also helpful in providing more support and less chafing without the bulk—so you don't feel like you are wearing a diaper.
What Are the Features of Bike Shorts?
While many brands include proprietary technology to increase comfort, speed, and durability, most also follow a simple format. The three main features to look for in a pair of bike shorts are: the materials it is made from; the quality of pad or chamois; and the bans or grippers that hold the shorts in place.
1. Chamois/Bike Short Pads
The pad that the rider sits on in the short is also called a chamois—after the goat hide it was originally made from. It provides cushioning and support during cycling. While the original chamois was made from leather and also great for wicking away moisture, modern bike shorts are made from synthetic materials—but the cycling community still calls it a chamois.
Entry-level bike shorts generally feature a large, dense pad around 14mm thick and will have a gel inside of their chamois pad. And for newer riders, more padding is more of a priority; therefore, it is often 14mm wide over the entire pad. Plus, entry-level cycling shorts have a thin chamois that will not be overly comfortable, especially after a few washes.
As you move up the food chain, the next-level shorts feature a multi-density pad, usually about the sit bones, and more shaped around the nether ranges to reduce bulk where it is not needed. Also, the chamois will breathe more to minimize chafing and sweat build-up.
Pads will also change size as shorts increase in size. For example, the Rapha Pro Team Training Bib Short has a larger chamois and will have a larger pad, since the sit bones of a more prominent person will be wider than someone smaller.
A great option for riders looking to do some long-distance riding is an endurance short like the Castelli Endurance 3 Bib Short. Lycra, the material used in the Castelli Bib Short, is designed to provide muscle compression, and these shorts include a seamless pad area to prevent seams from irritating your most sensitive areas. This short is a great choice for riders looking to complete Gran Fondos or 60-mile rides with friends while staying comfortable and dry. They also come in a strapless or no-bib style for a lower cost.
2. Fabrics and Fit
Low-cost shorts are generally made out of one type of lycra in order to save weight. But when you opt for higher-end shorts, the fabric and construction become more comfortable and faster. Shorts like the Castelli Free Aero RC Cycling Bib Short feature different panels of Lyrica and other fabrics that vent heat and provide support. Also, the back may have a more mesh material to allow heat to escape.
Many other high-end shorts feature aerodynamic features—including a tighter fit—to make them faster in a race. Some utilize golf ball dimples located on the quad to create a boundary layer of air to increase aerodynamic performance.
You may see many manufacturers labeling their models aerodynamic "race" cut and "club" cut. Race-fit bike clothing focuses on racing aerodynamics; it is lightweight, which means a tighter fit and not as comfortable off the bike. The club fit is engineered for Gran Fondo riders and training rides. They prioritize comfort over out-and-out speed. The Rapha Women's Classic Bib Shorts are one example and feature a more relaxed, comfort-focused fit.
For those who are new to cycling or want something that is higher-end but has more comfort built in for long miles, then a club fit, or classic fit, is best. For those who want to race, instead, a race model is recommended.
3. Grippers and Straps
Grippers prevent the shorts from riding up the leg and bunching at the crotch, which can create friction and chaffing in that area. Therefore, grippers are essential for comfort.
Entry-level shorts generally have silicone leg grippers on the legs to keep the shorts from rolling up. However, they can also create irritation, as they are tight and, in my experience, make the legs feel like a sausage.
As quality increases, higher-quality shorts feature grippers that hold the shorts in place without squeezing the legs.
Suspenders can also help keep your shorts up. The photo above shows an example of bib shorts, which feature shoulder straps to hold the chamois in place and cover your back. If the pad moves out of position as you ride, this can create irritation and chafing. But bib straps keep the pad from shifting around when riding out of the saddle. One time I mooned the traffic as my shorts got hung up on the saddle. Bib straps prevent this.
Moreover, the elastic pad around the waist can become uncomfortable and restrict breathing if you are riding for long hours. So, for a beginner, bike shorts are best. But as you start to set your eyes on a race or Gran Fondo, spending the extra money on bib shorts is well worth the investment.
“I'm Not too Fond of the Lycra Look”
Lycra improves aerodynamics and prevents the shorts from getting hung out on the saddle. However, some people—especially entry-level cyclists and mountain bikers—don't like the look.
Fear not! You have two options:
1. Padded Liner
Liner shorts like the 100% Crux Men's Liner Short are designed to be worn under clothing. They are great for commuters, casual riding, or people that feel uncomfortable wearing lycra. Many liner shorts come with gel padding for extra cushioning and an elastic waistband to hold the shorts in place.
2. Padded Mountain Bike Shorts
Mountain bikers traditionally wear bike shorts that resemble regular cargo shorts. Many mountain biking shorts have pads or chamois, and some do not. So you will have to ensure the shorts have pads before purchasing them. These shorts also come with zippered pockets to hold snacks and other tools.
How Do I Wear My Bike Shorts?
Bike shorts are designed to be worn without underwear. This is because cotton underwear increases friction between the skin and the shorts. It can be hard to get used to, but it is vital for comfort.
And, bike shorts are just one part of the comfort equation. Saddle height, tilt, and type also significantly affect comfort.
If you are still feeling the effects of friction, you can spread chamois cream or an anti-chafing cream on the pad and yourself. I use Paceline Eurostyle Chamois Anti-Chafe Butt'r 8oz. Made of shea butter, witch hazel, and other ingredients to prevent bacteria from growing, chamois cream acts as a lubricant to decrease friction. In my experience, euro-style cream has a tickling feeling like minty toothpaste on your behind. And, there are also women's-specific chamois creams that feature a low pH.
Women’s shorts like the Rapha Women's Detachable Bib Shorts generally feature shorter chamois and less padding up front. Many have drop-tail or detachable bib straps which allow riders to take quick nature breaks without taking off their top layers. Further, women's-specific saddles that are generally shorter and wider. However, it’s mainly a personal preference, as a man can use a women's-specific saddle, and women can use a men’s-specific saddle.
Employing the right pair of bike shorts can be the difference between an enjoyable experience and utter misery. My last piece of advice: if you are on a tight budget, you can skimp on a jersey and spend more on the bike shorts, as the touch points—especially your butt—is the most sensitive part of your body—and you want to protect it!
For free, customized advice on bike shorts and all things cycling, reach out to a Curated Cycling Expert. We’d love to help get you out on the road.