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How to Buy Cycling Shorts

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How to Buy Cycling Shorts

How to Buy Cycling Shorts

Why a Special Short?
Why do you even need a specific cycling short in the first place as opposed to a general athletic short ora baggy mountain bike short? The answer is in the materials, chamois (padding), and fit.

Most athletic gear these days is made of materials picked for their breathability and their ability to wick sweat away from the skin to evaporate on the outside of the fabric. Merino Wool is a natural variety of this kind of fabric, but nylon, polyester, and spandex are all synthetic varieties that are usually found in athletic shorts. You don't need a bike-specific short to go for a bike ride – as a kid, you probably didn't gear up before hopping on your bike. However, once you get into the world of cycling in a more serious manner, you need some kind of protection between you and the saddle. Both road cyclists and mountain bikers wear shorts that have a chamois in them.

In road-specific gear, the padding is usually more ergonomically shaped, and made with a forward, aggressive riding position in mind. This prevents fabric from bunching up, creating pockets and discomfort while in the saddle. This is also why the chamois bows toward you or away from you when examining the shorts in your hands – you can't lay the chamois flat on the ground. The chamois is usually fixed in place and positioned toward the front of the bib or short, unlike mountain bike chamois, which are often on removable liners and in the middle of the short.

The fit of tight cycling shorts is another distinguishing factor. Unlike baggy mountain biking shorts, form fitting Lycra reigns supreme, and a tight, aerodynamic fit is the norm. This creates less friction on the road bike when you are in one position for longer periods of time, doing a repetitive motion with your legs while pedaling. It also decreases wind drag, allowing you to cut the air in a more streamlined fashion. Baggy mountain bike shorts focus on protection from falls and unrestrictive movement with a loser-fitting short.

It should be noted that many serious cross-country mountain bikers and racers prefer form-fitting cycling shorts or bibs with a fixed chamois since this style offers the most performance and most aerodynamic fit. Any type of cycling that involves hammering the pedals for a long period of time can benefit from the style of cycling shorts covered in our bike short review.

David Mackey approaching Transition 2 in the SavageMan Triathlon.
David Mackey, approaching Transition 2 in the SavageMan Triathlon.

Shorts or Bibs?
If you were to poll road cyclists on riding with shorts or bibs, the majority would say that bibs are the hands down best choice for medium to longer rides, and that shorts are reserved for shorter rides or leisure rides. In our testing here at OutdoorGearLab, we found this assumption to be incorrect. We took our shorts and bibs for all kinds of rides and found that distance isn't always a determining factor in the shorts vs. bibs debate. Instead, consider the following characteristics when making this decision.

The distinguishing factor of bibs is the upper part with the shoulder straps. These straps hold the chamois in place, minimizing movement while changing positions on the bike or even walking around. This reduces the chance for hot spots or 'saddle sores' from spending a long time in the saddle, as well as keeping the fabric from bunching up around the crotch. Bibs are also more comfortable around the waist. Continual pressure around the abdomen while cycling can lead to gastronomic distress – a situation that isn't always easily dealt with on the road. The lack of waistband also allows for less restrictive breathing while on your bike.

Another benefit of bibs is that they function better off of the bike. The shoulder straps keep the chamois closer to the body, avoiding the 'padded diaper' look, and you don't have to adjust yourself before hopping back on your bike after a pit or fuel stop.

With all of these benefits of bibs, there are some pluses to bike shorts as well. Shorts are cooler than bibs. The uppers of bibs provide more coverage, which traps heat. Brands mitigate this in various ways, including ultrafine mesh material and varying the cut of the garment. The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. In-R-Cool Bib trapped a lot of heat, which pushed it to a spring/fall choice for us, while the Giordana Laser Bibshorts used a variety of mesh materials and kept the shoulder straps thin, which helped keep us cool on our rides.

Shorts fit a wider range of riders than bibs. Bib straps can be too tight or too lose, depending on your torso. The bib straps can also irritate your skin, depending on how sensitive you are. Shorts are now being cut lower in the front, which doesn't cause as much pressure around the abdomen and doesn't restrict breathing.

Shorts can be more versatile off of the bike. A pit stop becomes a little more involved when you have to negotiate bib straps from under your jersey just to relieve yourself. After a ride, bike shorts with a lower profile like the Castelli Velocissimo Due Short can be worn under a pair of street shorts as well.

Other Considerations

Chamois
The chamois is the padded protection that guards you from the saddle. This is the primary feature that defines a pair of bike shorts and will be the one thing that differs from short to short and usually takes a ride (or someone riding for you and writing about it!) to get a feel for how the chamois functions. You can't always take the marketing claims at face value, and thickness is just one consideration when looking at a short's chamois. The density of a chamois plays a major role in how comfortable it will ride, as well as the shape and whether or not it has stitching seams. The Craft Performance Short has a chamois with a precise fit, which means some experience might be necessary to get the most comfortable position, whereas the Pearl Izumi Quest Short has a large, thick, dense chamois that is great for the recreational rider.

There are varying styles colors and ways of affixing chamois in the shorts we tested.
There are varying styles, colors, and ways of affixing chamois in the shorts we tested.

Style of Riding
The style of cycling you will be doing plays a major role in what kind of short or bib to purchase. If you are looking for protection on family cruises or jaunts on the rail trail, the Pearl Izumi Quest Short or other less expensive models will work well for you. The thick chamois and comfortable fit make it a great choice for protecting your underside on general road rides. If you are an avid cyclist looking for a go-to garment, look no further than our Editors' Choice Award winning Giordana Laser Bibshorts. This bib features a fit that stays comfortable for any amount of time in the saddle and can be worn day-in and day-out without the worry of sores or hot spots. If you're looking for shorts that have a precise fit and chamois for shorter training rides, consider the Castelli Due Short.

Fit/Size/Comfort
Besides the considerations between bibs and shorts we covered above, you want to make sure that the short or bib you purchase fits you in a way that you're comfortable with. The length of the inseam should be considered when making your purchasing decision. All of the shorts/bibs we tested claimed a 9" inseam except for the Giordana Laser bib, which was 10". When we broke out our handy measuring tape, we found that this feature was hard to confirm. Although all of the leg cuffs came to about the same place while wearing them, it wasn't clear where the brands were taking the inseam measurement.

All of the shorts and bibs we tested were size medium, and felt true to this size. The Craft Performance Short and the Louis Garneau Equipe Bib fit much tighter around the legs than the others due to their compression materials. All of the straps on the bibs were comfortable and we never had issues with irritation, but you should consider the straps if you have sensitive skin or a longer torso than average to avoid issues with these.

Lastly, the method used to hold the leg cuffs in place differs. The legs can be held down with silicone grippers on the inside of the short or with compression cuffs. Usually the compression style cuffs are more comfortable, don't pull on the skin or leg hair, and are found on higher end models.

The various styles and treatments of leg cuffs on our shorts and bibs. Two use compression cuffs while the rest have some type of silicone grippers included.
The various styles and treatments of leg cuffs on our shorts and bibs. Two use compression cuffs while the rest have some type of silicone grippers included.

Comfort is always something to consider, but keep in mind that just because it feels good when you try it on doesn't mean that a short or bib will hold up in the saddle. However, you can still make sure you don't feel any irritating stitching or straining of the material. Your local bike shop will have no problem if you want to hop on a bike to make sure the shorts or bibs you're trying on are comfortable in the riding position.

Materials
Lycra and nylon are the predominate materials in road cycling bibs and shorts. Several of the brands we tested have their own trademarked materials that are some combination of these and often include elastane and polyester. Road cycling garments have benefited from trickle-down technology when it comes to materials, which means that regardless of the level of short or bib you purchase, you can be confident that it will perform to a relatively high standard.

That being said, some of our shorts did a better job utilizing materials than others. The Giordana Laser Bib was made from five different materials that were placed for maximum comfort and breathability. The Castelli Due Short was made of one material, but used a different treatment on the side panels to help with breathability.

Features
The Louis Garneau Equipe Bib and the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. In-R-Cool Bib were the only two in our testing line that included small pockets. Since it is common practice to ride with a bike jersey, pockets in your shorts aren't a necessity. However, it was still nice to have somewhere to stash a key or an extra energy gel when our jersey pockets were getting full.

Another feature that should take more of your consideration is UV protection. The sun is no joke, and when you're out riding for several hours it is important to protect yourself. Sunscreen is always recommended, but having a garment that also blocks UV rays goes a long way in protecting yourself against issues down the road. The Giordana Laser Bib, Louis Garneau Equipe Bib, Pearl Izumi P.R.O. In-R-Cool Bib, and the Pearl Izumi Quest short all offered UV 50+ protection.

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  • Christine Jiang
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