There are many ways to dress for cycling when it's cold, but keeping your knees warm and protected from the elements is a sensible idea as we transition from summer to winter.
You have a few options here, but one that seems to be falling out of favour is the 3/4 length bib shorts, or bib knickers as they are often called in reference to knickerbockers which were worn by cyclists during the early part of the 20th Century, often paired with long socks. Why the decline and what are the pros and cons?
The 3/4 length bib shorts have a short history. They were first seen in pro cycling when Edwig Van Hooyadonck apparently had the idea after winning Tour of Flanders in 1989 in horrendous conditions. Keen to protect his bad knee from the cold weather, he cut down a pair of tights wore them when he won the race again in 1991, bringing the concept to everyone’s attention and in doing so creating the knee warmer. Here’s a photo of him winning that race.
During autumn and spring, it’s often too cold for shorts but too warm for full-length tights. This is where 3/4 length bib shorts come in handy. They cover this transition period well, providing protection for the knees without the weight and restriction of tights. In fact given the nature of the British weather which has a tendency to default to cool and wet whatever the season you can potentially get a lot of wear out of a pair of 3/4s over the course of a year. Whatever the season if you're riding in cool conditions your knees will thank you.
Only they don’t seem to be as popular as they once were, and it didn't really occur to us until very recently. We had a discussion in the office and it seems opinion is split when it comes to clothing preference. We decided to do a very unscientific Twitter poll and the result is clear: most of you don’t go for 3/4s at this time of year.
Do you wear 3/4 length bib shorts at this time of year?— road.cc (@roadcc) October 7, 2019
I've recently reviewed the excellent Assos Mille GT Spring/Fall Knickers and looking through the road.cc reviews archive for similar products, it's clear we simply haven't reviewed many 3/4 shorts in recent years. A look around some popular clothing brand websites also reveals that this type of product isn't all that common. Does all this point to the 3/4 length bib short facing extinction?
For certain weather, 3/4 length shorts can provide a good halfway house between shorts and tights. This time of year is ideal, as we transition from summer to winter.
When it’s cool but not cold enough for tights, and you want to keep the knees covered up whether training, racing or commuting, the 3/4 shorts are a useful bit of clothing. They keep your knees wrapped up and protected from the cold, wind and rain. But they provide more freedom of movement than tights.
They are almost ideal for three-season riding when the weather is unpredictable and constantly changing. Their window of use can extend into early and late summer as well, even cooler/wetter summer days can see the 3/4 being ideal. Equally, for mild winter days when tights are overkill, the 3/4 delivers.
They’re often more comfortable than knee warmers, the alternative method for keeping knees wrapped up. The downside to knee warmers is often the introduction of two tight bands of elastic material which, unless the size is spot on, can feel uncomfortable above and below the knees.
Knee warmers can also move about when pedalling, which can be irritating.
Compared to full-length tights, 3/4 tights feel a lot lighter and less restrictive and will keep your knees insulated and protected from the elements. Your shins might be exposed, but that’s just cooling!
Is there ever a good time for 3/4 length bib shorts? That is perhaps the biggest challenge for 3/4 shorts and part of the reason they appear to have fallen out of favour in recent years. The UK weather is so changeable that it can be shorts weather one day, tights weather the next.
So while it could be argued that 3/4s are super-versatile, it could also be argued that they lack lack versatility. You make your choice before the ride and have to stick with it. Although the counter argument to that is how often in the UK does a change in the weather mean it's getting warmer? Hmm…
It has to be said, knee warmers can be added or removed as you need during the ride. They’re small enough to be stashed in a jersey pocket when not needed, ready to be called back into action. When it’s cold, you can even switch to leg warmers for more insulation. However, if at the end of your ride you've frequently still got your knee warmers on then maybe you'd have been better in a pair of 3/4s.
The perception that knee warmers are more versatile than 3/4 shorts is perhaps the biggest reason 3/4 shorts have fallen out of fashion. You can pair knee warmers them with different types of bib shorts, lightweight summer shorts when it’s mild or thermal bibs when it’s colder.
That’s certainly the case when we asked Sportful’s Paul Whitfield.
“Knee warmers and a thermal bib-short (Fiandre No Rain Bib-short) are the more versatile option, whilst providing the same coverage / protection as the 3/4. You can pair the knee warmer with a lighter, summer weight bib-short, wear the thermal bib-short on it’s own etc etc. These two pieces of kit ultimately offer more options, versatility and a value for money solution when selecting your cycling wardrobe,” he explains.
Even so, Sportful do have the 3/4 Neo Bib Knicker in their range and looking at its availability it's a pretty populare option.
Perhaps the biggest case against 3/4s is simply a case of knee warmers, combined with your favourite bib shorts, is a cheaper option. If you've already got a couple of pairs of bib shorts, you can add knee warmers for very little cost and instantly turn any bib short into a 3/4 length bib short.
You can also get a couple of days wear out of knee warmers before they need washing, making them well suited to commuting or everyday cyclists.
One final reason that 3/4s might not be in fashion at the moment is oddly that they’re not used by the pros. Professional cyclists lean towards knee and leg warmers for racing and occasionally racing. You never seem them wearing 3/4 length bib shorts. With so many cyclists infatuated with the pro look, this is hard to ignore. Maybe it's time to be honest with yourself – you're not a pro, and you're never going to be (probably) so why be a slave to their clothing choices? Give those 3/4s a try your knees will think you in the long run.
We have to put our hands up and say that we haven’t reviewed as many 3/4s as we perhaps should in the last few years - which is surprising because when we have they’ve always done well. So here’s a selection of our favourite review - featuring Assos and Primal, who seem to have been the best at getting them to us.
Of course pretty much all of the big cycle clothing brands offer at least one pair of 3/4s in their ranges - often a lot more with a 3/4 version of either their big selling thermal bibs or performance shorts, or both. Here’s a selection from some of the main players based on either the shorts or longs we’ve tested and covering a broad range of prices. If you’re in the market for 3/4s now is a good time to buy with a number of the options listed below on sale - the Rapha and the B’Twin’s both stand out on that score - though you might need to be quick to bag a pair of the latter at £39.99.
Castelli have a number of bib 3/4s and tights in their range – the Tutto Nano; the Sorpasso 2, the Velocissimo and the Evolution 2 covering a wide range of weather and riding conditions. The latter two are available either in bib or tights versions.
dhb also offer a number of 3/4 options with in their Aeron performance range with both men’s and women’s versions; they also offer a couple of variations of the dhb Classic Thermal 3/4 Bib in both men’s and women’s versions too.
Some might think that all Rapha fans will be slaves to the pro look… well, that doesn’t stop Rapha having some well thought of Rapha 3/4 Bib Shorts in their range – currently on sale down from £180 to £126 too.
At the other end of the price scale Decathlon have the B’Twin Aerofit 3/4 Cycling Bib Shorts, but you’ll have to be quick the smart money has already moved in on these – they’re already an in-store only item, perhaps not surprising given their £39.99 price tag
What's your clothing preference at this time of year? We'd love to hear your opinions so get sharing in the comments section below.
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.