Best cycling bib shorts — your buyer’s guide & eight of the best

The right shorts make a difference — here's how to find the best ones for your budget

by David Arthur @davearthur   July 2, 2015  

Caratti Sport Bib Shorts

When it comes to performance cycling, whether it’s long rides on Sunday mornings or road racing, and sportives, bib shorts are where it’s at for outright comfort. The pad provides comfort so you can sit in the saddle for hours at a time, the straps avoid a waist band digging into your stomach, and there’s no excess fabric to flap about.

While there are other styles of shorts available — baggy, urban and waist shorts — for any rides of that combine distance and speed bib shorts are hard to beat for comfort. You can wear them year-round, under tights in the winter, on their own in the summer. And no, you don’t wear underwear under them, if you’re wondering. They’re designed to sit next to the skin.

Bib shorts are the cornerstone of a cyclist's wardrobe, and it’s worth investing in a good pair. If you’re riding frequently, you’ll want to have a couple or three good pairs.

The pad is where a lot of the money goes, but don’t always assume that the more expensive the shorts the better the pad. Posher fabrics and more panels can contribute to higher costs as well.

Fortunately these days you can get really good bib shorts from about £40 which are good if you’re just starting out in cycling. You can spend over £300 if you’re feeling particularly flush, but you do begin to get diminishing returns in extra comfort.

They sure look odd though, and to non-cyclists they will definitely raise an eyebrow. Ignore them. When it comes to comfort bib shorts win hands down against all other shorts if you want to ride far and fast.

Let's take a look at the things you need to know if you’re in the market for a pair of bib shorts.

Women's shorts

The main difference with women's shorts is in fit and the insert, which is usually a different size and shape, typically narrower and shorter. While the bib straps on men's shorts go straight up the torso, some manufacturers take different approaches with bib straps on women's shorts, either pushing them out to the sides or having a single central strap.

Some have bib straps that can be easily unclipped which can make toilet stops easier. If you don't like the idea of bib shorts then there are lots of regular Lycra shorts available. The benefit of bib shorts is there is no elastic waistband digging into your tummy, but many manufacturers have solved that problem with wide, carefully shaped waistbands that spread the pressure. Most manufacturers offer women-specific shorts and there is plenty of choice available.

Padded insert

Inside the bib shorts is the most important part, the pad. The main job of bib shorts is to support the foam pad between body and saddle. It’s often called an insert or chamois, on account of early bib shorts using a real leather pad made from chamois goat skin. Yes, really: you used to have to treat them with chamois cream to keep them soft). These days they are mostly made from synthetic materials.

When buying your first pair of bib shorts, remember that most of the money goes into the pad, though this isn’t an absolute rule. In theory the more you spend on a pair of shorts, the better the pad. This isn’t always the case, so it pays to do your homework carefully. The road.cc bib shorts review archive is a good place to start.

The pad is shaped to conform to the body, and provide padding where you make contact with the saddle. The most important areas are where the sit bones make contact with the saddle. Cheaper shorts might have a single thickness pad, while the more expensive pads use variable levels of foam thickness and density to keep the pad thinner where you don’t need much cushioning, and more padding where you do need it. Such pads are generally more comfortably as a result.

Look for a pad with antibacterial finish for hygiene, to things from getting messy down there. Some pads have channels or perforations to wick away sweat; there’s nothing more uncomfortable than a soggy pad. The pad should feel reasonably soft and have some flex to it, so it shapes to your body. It needs to sit flush with your curves so in a way it’s part of you. You don’t want to sit on top of the pad. The better pads we’ve tested tend to feel like they’re not there at all.

Manufacturers are now aiming shorts at different riding types, so it’s possible to choose a pad that has more padding for endurance riding, and other, slimmer pads that are better suited for shorter rides or racing.

Pads come in men's and women’s versions, with shapes to suit the different anatomies. No two pads are the same. They can vary in thickness, shape and other factors, so the best thing is to try them on before you buy. Just like saddles, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. We’re all different shapes, and your weight and riding style can influence the type of pad that will work for you.

Fabric and fit

Moving away from the pad, the fabric and fit are really important to your comfort. The fit is influenced by the number of panels used to make the shorts. There more panels there are, the more complex the shorts are to make, and so they cost more.

The most common fabric for bib shorts is some sort of stretchy synthetic mix, usually a blend of Nylon and Lycra, ad variously described as spandex or Elastane. There’s a huge variety of thickness and weights of fabric, though.

Manufacturers are now combining different fabrics at the top-end to achieve a good fit and a level of compression. Some shorts are designed to work better in hot weather with more breathable materials, and some are better suited to the winter with a thicker fleecy-backed Roubaix fabric. It’s even possible to get shorts made from water resistant fabrics, ideal for the British climate.

Sizing is crucial and varies from brand to brand, so we’d really recommend trying them on before you drop your cash if at all possible. As a rule of thumb, all cycling clothing from Italian companies will come up small for its nominal size. American and UK brands tend to be more generous.

Bib straps

The shorts are held in place with twin straps that stretch over your shoulders. They need to be stretchy and wide so they don’t dig in, and also so you can manage toilet stops without having to bend over backwards.

Men’s shorts typically have widely spaced straps, but for women's shorts there are a few different solutions. Some manufacturers join the straps in the middle of the chest, with a buckle to allow easy removal for toilet breaks.

Often the rear of the bib section will be a large panel of mesh material to aid cooling.

Grippers

You really don’t want shorts riding up and exposing your tan line so they usually have some sort of gripper to keep them in place on your legs. Silicone tape or dots are the most frequent solutions, along with elasticated hems.

Some manufacturers are moving away from this approach to broad highly elasticated hems that rely on compression to keep the legs in place. They’re typically more comfortable with less skin irritation, and they don’t dig in either.

Other features

Another detail to look out for is the use of reflective material on the back or legs. It’s possible to get shorts designed for night time riding with large areas of reflective material. A race radio pocket at the back of the shorts is designed for use by professionals, but it can double up as phone/MP3 player pocket.

The one-piece alternative

For years pro and elite cyclists have worn one-piece Lycra skinsuits for time trials and some important races. They're aerodynamically efficient and very comfortable, but look even sillier than regular bib shorts and lack conveniences such as pockets. A few years ago, Castelli introduced its Speedsuit concept, combining shorts and jersey into one garment that still looked like yo were wearing separates. The idea was better aerodynamics, but Speedsuits have turned out to be very comfortable.

What are your options? Here are eight great shorts from £20 to £180

Now that you know what you’re looking for when you purchase a pair of bib shorts, here are six bib shorts priced from £20 to £180 to give you an idea of what your money gets you. Each of these products has been reviewed by the road.cc team, so follow the link and go through to the full review if you’d like to learn more.

We've deliberately spread our selections across the price range here. If you want more options in cheaper shorts take a look at our guide to the best cheap cycling shorts.

 

Tenn Outdoors Pro bib shorts — £19.99

Proving bib shorts don't have to cost a fortune, these shorts are surprisingly comfortable and fit well. They're supposed to retail for £30, but you'll find them on Amazon for just £20, which makes them a massive bargain.

Providing the all-important comfort on the saddle is an anatomically designed single layer pad, with an anti-bacterial treatment. It's a simple insert, but is well shaped and sits smoothly against the body. Best of all, it's surprisingly effective, providing decent cushioning for rides last a couple of hours.

The bib straps are generously wide and spread the pressure across the top of the shoulders well. The leg openings are lined with silicone gripper tape which keeps the shorts in place, preventing them from sliding up your legs when you're cycling. A large mesh panel fills the back of the bibs, which helps to avoid overheating.

Read our review of the Tenn Outdoors Pro bibshorts
Find a Tenn Outdoors dealer

 

Caratti Sport Bib Shorts — £40.00

Seriously impressive performance for the price — shorts that'll serve you well on all but the longest rides.

The Caratti Sport Bib Shorts are the budget offering from the UK company, but perform far better than their price tag might suggest. They manage to combine an effective pad, really good fit throughout and an excellent cut.

When you first step into the bib shorts, the first thing you notice is that the cut and quality of the Cooldry fabric material used is unexpected on such a relatively inexpensive pair of shorts. The fit is good, with no excess material or tightness anywhere around the legs or straps. Caratti have used a material that allows for four way stretch, which genuinely provides a really forgiving fit. They have minimal branding with the name written in white up the leg. Combined with the cut,  this makes them look like they are far more expensive than they are.

Read our review of the Caratti Sport Bib Shorts

 

Howies Bib Shorts — £59.00

The Howies bibs shorts are part of Howies' technical cycling range; gear for riding, rather than just looking cool. And they're really pretty good — comfortable, impressively hard-wearing and sensibly priced. A women's version is available too.

Howies eschew big logos and bright colours for a sober black look. All-black is a fairly standard colour for bibs, however, so it's not that radical here.

These bib shorts are made with a 'seamless circular knit technology' though there are still seams here. Not nearly as many as most bibs, it is true, but seams nevertheless. Those seams are flatlocked, so at least they're pretty unobtrusive. The fabric is matt rather than shiny, which I think looks good here. The pad is a Professional CNB 90 from TMF in Italy, the same supplier used by Adidas and Chapeau in their bibs. It's a good'un.

Read our review of the Howies bib shorts
Find a Howies shop

 

Vermarc Squadra — £73.99

The Squadras are Vermarc's top of the range cycling shorts and for good reason. Providing a decent fit, they are well made and involve a lot of black.

The appropriately-named pad in the Squadra shorts is designated LD, which stands for Long Distance. The special ingredient is a nylon microfiber in the outermost layer of the pad that incorporates Aloe Vera. According to Vermarc, the Aloe Vera is not added through a treatment but is part of the manufacturing process so it will last wash after wash without fading. To complement this outer layer you have a thick, expanded memory foam with divots to create texture to aid ventilation and assist with perspiration management.

The Vermarc Squadra bibs are great fitting, good performance shorts that look pretty sharp. and all for £74. Sometimes simple attention to detail makes for a great overall package.

Read our review of the Vermarc Squadra bib shorts.
Find a Vermarc stockist.

 

Sportful BodyFit Classic bib shorts — £85.00

These £85 Classic bib shorts are made from the same fabrics and cut to the same shape as the kit the Saxo Bank team wear, which means you're getting proper race fit clothing, but without the garish logos, and at a decent price.

Without doubt the most important part of the shorts is the bit you can't see, the padded insert. Sportful produce a range of their own inserts, picking the third-tier BodyFitPro pad for these shorts. Sportful describe it as their most comfortable long distance pad, and we would agree with that. It is perfectly shaped and has variable thickness padding so there is more cushioning where you need it more, and less where you don't need it.

They're made from the same Aeroflow Compress and Lycra Power material that Sportful use in their more expensive Bodyfit Pro shorts. That makes these shorts very good value. It's an excellent fabric with just the right degree of stretch, they claim compression benefits but in reality that means they're just a snug well-fitted pair of shorts.

Read our review of the Sportful Bodyfit Classic bibshorts

 

Alé Cycling PRR Ponente Winter Bib Shorts — £95

Alé Cycling PRR Ponente Winter Bib Shorts

Pair them with leg warmers when it's cold or wear them on their own when it's just slightly chilly: Alé Cycling's PRR Ponente winter bib shorts help keep your bum and bits cosy.

These shorts make a lot of sense for autumn and spring, when you might encounter single-digit temperatures at the start of a ride but still welcome the option to strip off the leg warmers as things hot up.

The quality of materials and construction evident here is really top drawer; it is genuinely quite easy to see the differences if you compare these to £50 bibs. They work well on their own when it's just warm enough not to need full leg covering, and are also as a good a companion to Roubaix leg-warmers as we've yet used.

Read our review of the Alé Cycling PRR Ponente Winter Bib Shorts
Find an Alé Cycling stockist

 

Castelli Free Aero Race bib shorts — £135.00

With the comfortable Progetto X2 insert, very few seams and widely spaced bib straps, Castelli's Free Race Aero bib shorts are exceptionally good.

Castelli combine three fabrics in the construction of these shorts. The side panels are made from Energia Micro which has a high stretch factor, the front panel is Breathe Micro to prevent overheating, and the area in contact with the saddle is made from tougher Action Micro fabric.

The three fabrics are combined in a very well shaped and cut short, with very few seams, and in particular none in the inner thigh area. This contributes to a great on-the-bike comfort that is up there with the best bib shorts in this price range.

Read our review of the Castelli Free Aero Race bib shorts here
Find a Castelli stockist

 

Castelli Velocissimo Sanremo Speedsuit — £160

Castelli Velocissimo Sanremo Speedsuit

Castelli's Velocissimo Sanremo Speedsuit is the less expensive successor to the Sanremo Speedsuit. Originally developed as an aerodynamic combo of shorts and jersey the Sanremo turned out to be superbly comfortable, and the Velocissimo follows suit.

The Velocissimo Sanremo Speedsuit is a new entry level version, if you like, consisting of Velocissimo shorts and a Volata jersey. If you were to buy those items separately they would cost you around £190, so with the Speedsuit at £160 it's a bargain, well, relatively speaking.

Read our review of the Castelli Velocissimo Sanremo Speedsuit.
Find a Castelli stockist.

 

Gore Bike Wear Xenon Race bib shorts — £179.99

Gore Bike Wear reportedly spent two years developing these new Xenon Race shorts specifically for the demands of longer rides that involve in the region of five or more hours in the saddle. It really shows: these are incredibly comfortable shorts that could easily become your go-to shorts for any ride that might involve many hours on the bike.

Inside the shorts is the Xenon Man Seat Insert. It's a splendid insert with a two-layer structure and central channel that provides amazing comfort. 

The shorts are constructed from a polyester material with the seams carefully placed to avoid pulling or chafing. The fit is snug; they aren't called race shorts for nothing. They just feel like a second skin, comfortably taut around the legs, hips and buttocks. The fabric also does an excellent job of keeping you dry, and staying dry, when you're getting a bit of a sweat on.

Read our review of the Gore Bike Wear Xenon Race bib shorts.
Find a Gore Bike Wear stockist.

 

Read more reviews of bib shorts from the road.cc archive.