Cycling shorts help make rides of more than a few miles more comfortable by reducing chafing and providing some shock-absorbing padding. Here's what you need to know if you're going shopping.
Cycling shorts are made from stretchy material — usually a mix of Lycra and nylon — so they move with your as you pedal, preventing you from getting rubbed. Inside a pair of cycling shorts you'll find a pad or liner that provides a bit of cushioning but more importantly is a soft surface that sits against your skin.
That's right: you don't wear underwear with cycling shorts. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's far comfier than having cotton undies bunching and chafing. As with underwear, wash your cycling shorts after every use. Turning them inside-out to get another day's use is not acceptable.
As well as the classic skin-tight nylon/Lycra shorts, you can also get looser-fitting cycling shorts. These are usually a baggy outer shell with a lining that looks like trimmed-down stretchy shorts, so they're comfortable but don't display every bulge and curve. Australians call them 'shy shorts' which sums up the idea nicely.
And if you've got regular shorts or jeans you want to ride in, then you can add undershorts so you look completely normal but are still comfy.
It has to be pointed out that no combination of shorts and saddle will be comfy if you don't ride reasonably often. Your bum needs to get used to being on a saddle, and that takes a bit of riding time. If you're planning to take part in, say, a long charity ride, get in a few rides beforehand to give your bum a chance to get used to it.
Bibs v regular cycling shorts
Stretchy cycling shorts come in two varieties: with and without inbuilt supporting braces that hold them up. Bib shorts, as they're called, are more comfortable than regular shorts because they don't need an elasticated waist to hold them up and are therefore the choice of keen cyclists. However, they make going to the loo more awkward, especially for women, and they tend to be a shade more expensive, though you can still get bib shorts for under £20.
If you can put up with the toilet break inconvenience, we recommend bib shorts every time. The extra comfort really is worth the hassle.
All cycling shorts have some sort of liner that goes against your skin. These can be a simple single layer of soft material, or they can be thickly padded or anything in between. You'll sometimes see this liner called a 'chamois' because shorts liners used to be made from chamois goat leather, which needed careful hand-washing and treating with chamois cream afterwards to keep it supple. Modern chamois cream is still used by many cyclists to reduce friction and chafing on longer rides.
Materials & fit
Cycling shorts should be cut so that they conform to your shape while on the bike, which means they will be longer and higher at the back than at the front. This will feel — and look — a bit daft off the bike, but you'll find they're comfier when riding. This is often called an 'anatomical' cut.
You'll often see references to the number of panels in the construction of a pair of shorts. Eight panels is generally better than four or six because more pieces of fabric makes it easier to achieve a precise fit. It's not a cast-iron guarantee though.
There's no consistency between manufacturers when it comes to sizing, which means it's pretty much essential to try bib shorts on before you buy them, and assess the fit carefully. There may not even be consistency in sizing between different models from the same brand.
This is a particular pet peeve of road.cc product reviewer Mike Stead who says: "Case in point: I am a Medium in Giordana, but an XL in Castelli Nanoflex. Both fit charts say I should be a Small-Medium. And for the new Castelli Volo, I'm an XXL.
"You may well try some on and think 'they fit fine'. Then 20-miles into a ride, they feel like you're being given a wedgie with a rugby sock rolled up in the crotch. Try returning used bib shorts — it's a proper fight even if you can provide photographic proof of fitting the manufacturer's fit chart."
Get a grip
Most shorts have grippers around the leg opening to stop them from riding up. These are usually made from silicone rubber. They feel a bit odd at first but you soon forget they're there.
Lycra weight & stretch
The weight and stretchiness of the Nylon/Lycra blend used in shorts varies. You can get shorts made from thin, very elastic fabric while others are made from thicker stuff that needs more effort and therefor feels snugger. It's largely a matter of taste, though there are claims compressive fabric is good for your thigh muscles.
The conventional wisdom is that seams of cycling shorts should be flat so they don't dig in and chafe. This is what the 'flatlock stitching' you'll see in the description of many shorts means. However in an earlier version of this article, Sydney clothing maker Eleven Velo commented: "We used both and recently stopped using flatlocking - the flatlocker is now sitting there idle.
"What's important is the material, the panel cut and the quality of threads used. Flatlocking 'looks' flat but creates a heavily threaded seam internally that can be every bit as aggravating to some riders as a 'normal' overlocked seam. On a well cut pair of bibs/shorts, you will never feel the seams."
Traditionally cycling shorts are black so they don't show dirt from the road or from wiping greasy fingers on them after a repair stop. Coloured highlights and panels are common, but tend to push up the price a bit. Shorts that are uniformly a light colour, especially white, are a very bad idea: they become see-through when wet.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.