One of the easiest things you can do to improve your cycling comfort is getting a good pair of bicycling shorts. These simple-looking pants are actually high-tech apparel with impressive features such as an anatomic fit, moisture-wicking fabrics and prevention against chafing and bacteria. Best, good shorts eliminate discomfort and are a virtually indispensible part of a cyclist's wardrobe.
Today, over a hundred companies manufacture bicycle shorts. Multiply this by the number of models each offers and you can see that there are thousands of bike shorts to choose from. Although all may look the same at first, there can be significant differences between models. The following tips will help you find the short that's best for you.
Men's or Women's?
Most men and women fit in the same bike shorts from the hips down. The big difference comes from the hips to the waist. The small of a woman's back tapers up to a narrower waist. As such, women's shorts have smaller waistbands and a more tapered fit just above the hips. In general, women are also longer waisted than men. So, most companies cut the front inseam longer in women's shorts. The final difference is leg length. In general, women prefer a shorter leg length than the traditional men's short which is long enough to cover the quadriceps muscles.
Understanding these basic differences will help you select shorts. And, don't be afraid to cross gender lines. For example, if you're a larger women built straight up and down, you'll probably find a men's short to be more comfortable.
Construction & Materials
4-Panels... 6-Panels... 8-Panels...
Bike shorts are constructed of panels to contour the garment to fit the body in the cycling position. The more panels the shorts have, the more curvature they have, too. This was essential back in the days of wool shorts when fabric had very little stretch. Today's stretch fabrics have made this distinction less important.
As a general rule, however, higher-end shorts are usually 8-panel designs and less expensive shorts are usually 6-panel designs. Use of 4-panel designs is usually limited to workout clothing in which cyclists ride in a more upright position.
If you're one of the few who are bothered by the seams in the crotch area of traditional 6- and 8-panel shorts, there's an alternative. A new panel design referred to as a 4/6 panel or 6/8 panel is cut anatomically, like a 6- or 8-panel short. But the leg inseam has been eliminated to prevent chafing.
Price points for cycling shorts are usually based on the fabric and pad that's used. Better materials usually cost more raising the price of the short. Nylon spandex, the base for most cycling-short fabrics has great stretch and durability. However, nylon spandex does not have the ability to wick moisture (a major benefit when you're sweating) and breathe until a finish is applied, or until the fabric is knitted a special way.
For example, spandex is now mixed with other yarns such as polyester to promote moisture transfer and breathability. These special applications increase fabric pricing and are the main reason bike shorts come in such a wide price range.
Believe it or not, in the early days of professional cycling, some racers, desperate for relief from saddle sores, actually put steaks in their shorts for padding! These days, a trip to the local market isn't necessary because bike shorts feature built-in protection.
This is sometimes called a "chamois" (say: "shammy"), because when it first appeared in shorts it was nothing more than a single layer of real leather (similar to what you may use to wash and dry your car) that had to be meticulously maintained.
Luckily for cyclists everywhere, fabric technology and pad construction have improved incredibly over the years. And today, the pads inside shorts are more comfortable and functional than ever.
There are basically seven different pad styles on the market (shown above) and the fabric and construction of these styles vary greatly. It's important to understand that the main purpose of these pads is to wick moisture and to prevent chafing. And, although the pads are generally thin, it's amazing the comfort improvement you get from the carefully placed padding.
Most pads have several layers. The padding layer is usually made from foam or fleece and can differ greatly in thickness from thin (like the original natural leather chamois) to thick. The top layer is usually made of a technical fabric that wicks moisture, breathes, and prevents bacteria growth. Sometimes other fabrics are used, too.
As with all clothing, bike-short sizing varies from one company to the next. So, we recommend trying on several different shorts before buying. Fabrics and construction will cause each short to fit differently.
Also, when trying on cycling apparel, put yourself in a cycling position. You don't ride the bike standing straight up and down, after all. Cycling shorts should fit like a second skin, snug but comfortable with no bagging or wrinkles.
Leg lengths vary anywhere from 3 to 10 1/2 inches. Traditional wool racing shorts were usually cut long so that the fabric covered the quadriceps muscle, keeping the short from riding up into the crotch and chafing. The advent of stretch fabrics and elastic leg grippers, however, has allowed manufacturers to make shorter shorts without compromising function.
Shorts length can be divided into three categories:
Short: 3 - 5 inches: "hot pants" length (usually designed for cross-training, spinning & triathlons)
Medium: 6 - 8 inches: average cycling short length
Long: 9 - 11 inches: past the quadriceps (usually a European-cut racing length)
Waistbands range from 1/2-inch covered elastic to 1 1/2-inch athletic waistband with a drawstring. The major consideration in waistbands is comfort. Be sure to bend over into the cycling position when you try on cycling shorts to see how the waistband will feel on the bike. If you have a belly and don't like the feel of elastic around your waist, try a bib short (these have built-in suspenders) if you're male, or a one-piece riding suit if you're female. You can always wear a jersey over the top, and it'll look like you're wearing a bike short. But, you'll be much more comfortable!
Never wear underwear under your bike shorts! The materials used in pads today are designed to wick moisture, breathe and prevent bacteria growth. As such, bike shorts are much more sanitary than your underwear.
Additionally, the whole purpose of the short's pad is to prevent chafing. In order to work, the short must fit your body like a second skin. Having a layer of clothing between your body and your bike short will prevent the short from working the way that it should, and will increase your chances of experiencing chafing and sores where the underwear sits against your body.
What's more, if you ride regularly, you'll probably find that it's best to have at least two pairs of riding shorts because it'll ensure that you always have a clean pair to ride in.