Cycling shorts buyer's guide

Know your chamois from your silicone

by David Arthur   August 11, 2012  

Louis Garneau Mondo Evo bib shorts

road.cc reviews

Without doubt the most important item of cycle clothing you can buy is cycling-specific Lycra shorts with a padded insert. Spend any time in the saddle in anything but and you'll soon discover the discomfort that occurs without proper padded shorts.

Unless you're cycling a couple of miles, you'll want to invest in some high quality shorts that are fit for purpose, and provide comfort for many hours of happy cycling. Here are some useful pointers on what to look for if you're buying your first pair of cycling shorts

Bib shorts

Shorts largely come in two varieties; regular or bib shorts. Which you choose is personal preference, both have their place. For occasional cycling regular Lycra shorts with an elasticated waist band are practical and are ideal for wearing under a pair of baggy shorts.

If you're planning to spend many hours in the saddle, bib shorts are best. The bib straps hold the shorts up and in place and remove the waist band that can cause discomfort by digging in. They might look a bit odd and your significant other may give you some strange looks, but you soon get over it.

Chamois (or padded insert, or seat pad)

The main reason to wear cycling shorts is for the padded bit inside. This is where a chunk of your money goes. Good ones provide comfort for mile after mile, wick away moisturise and keep saddle sores at bay. Mostly made from synthetic materials these days, the chamois comes in thousands of shapes and designs that tend to get more complex the more you spend.

Fortunately, you don't need to spend a vast amount. Many entry- and mid-level priced shorts use a basic chamois that is sufficiently comfortable and should meet your needs. If you're really seriously into your cycling and rack up the miles, it's not an area you really want to skimp on. You can have all the latest carbon fibre tinsel on your bike but if you buy cheap shorts you're not going to be sitting on the saddle for very long.

And in case you're wondering, no, you don't wear underwear with cycling shorts. The pad is design to sit next to the skin to avoid chafing.

Fit

If the shorts don't fit, any comfort benefits will largely be negated. Sizing is critical with shorts and you have to ensure the shorts fit you correctly to get the benefits. Sizing varies hugely from brand to brand so check the manufacturer's sizing chart carefully and, if you get the chance, try them on in your local bike shop before buying to make sure you get the correct size.

Shorts can vary in leg length, waist dimensions and bib strap length. Bear in mind that some bib shorts can feel restrictive when standing up in the shop, as they're designed to work when you're in a bent-over position.

Another thing to look for is the number of panels a short has. Manufacturers look to offer a better fitted short by using more panels to ensure the short conforms to your body without too much pressure. Going for six to eight panels will usually ensure a good fit..

Fabrics

At their most basic, shorts are made from simple Lycra. It's soft and stretchy and will wick sweat away from you skin. The more you spend the more advanced the materials used. Advanced fabrics that do different things like offer better ventilation or compress the muscles add to the choice.

Many high-end shorts will use a combination of different fabrics strategically placed to deliver improved performance.

Construction

Flat-lock stitching will give the best comfort next to your skin. Avoid stitching on the inside of the legs and especially around the chamois area and ensure all the seams are smooth inside the shorts.

Other details

Other things to look for include such details as leg grippers. Generally, silicone tape inside the hem ensures the shorts stay put. Some modern shorts forego this approach in favour of a large elasticated hem that relies on pressure to keep the legs from shifting about.

Some bib shorts have small pockets at the back which can be a useful place to stash valuables or an mp3 player. Reflective logos and piping can give an increase in visibility.

Women

Women's shorts are designed with a tapered shape, a wide choice of sizes, narrower waists and anatomically shaped pads - wider at the rear and narrower in the centre -  to give women a comfortable fit. Straps can be shaped differently, either being positioned wider than for men's shorts or ending the straps in a T shape at the neck.