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Cycling shorts — find out what they're all about with our insider guide

The secret to on-bike comfort

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.

Altura Ascent

Loose-fitting shorts, usually with padded liners, are popular with mountain bikers  

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.

Read more: The best cheap cycling shorts that will keep you comfortable on the bike without giving you pain in the bank balance

Bibs v regular cycling shorts

2020 Rapha Pro Team Powerweave bib shorts - back.jpg
With built-in support, bib shorts are very comfortable, but make toilet breaks inconvenient

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.

Waist shorts, as the name suggests, are held in place by an elasticated waistband

If you can put up with the toilet break inconvenience, we recommend bib shorts every time. The extra comfort really is worth the hassle.


Cycling shorts liner

The shorts liner or 'chamois' provides cushioning and a low-abrasion layer against your skin

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 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

Huez Starman Shorts - gripper 2
Silicone grippers hold the legs of lycra shorts in place

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.

Flat stitching

Skins Pro men's bib longs - stitching
Shorts are made from multiple pieces of Lycra, joined by flat-lock (above) or overlock stitching

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.

Read more: Best cycling bib shorts — your buyer’s guide & 11 great choices

Add new comment


IanEdward | 3 years ago

I'm currently 'refreshing' (i.e. binning...) my collection of mostly ancient shorts and spending some money on decent new replacements.

I've been tripped up by Castelli sizing already as although the pad is luxuriant, the bibs are too short and hoik the pad far to far into the crease at the top of my thigh, cue lots of rubbing!

My new Endura FS260s and Rapha Classics are both surprisingly chafe-y also, to the point that I'd almost rather wear the older shorts they were meant to replace!

Do bums need to get used to new pads? Are the new pads maybe just thicker and causing more rubbing that way? I'm currently £160 down on two pairs of shorts and probably no better off : (

kil0ran | 4 years ago

Civvies plus a Brooks Flyer for me currently. No issues on regular 10-mile, mostly offroad rides. Tempted to try one on my "fast" bike.

xerxes | 4 years ago

I find that if I get the right saddle the pad in the shorts isn't particularly important. I currently have an Ergon SCM4 Sport Gel, medium width, which I find very comfortalble:

Amongst my collection, I have a couple of pairs of fairly cheap DHB shorts and the pads in them are pretty minimal, I think it was thicker when they were new, but I can happily ride 70 miles in them; maybe more if we set off earlier or got a move on. cheeky

I also find a set of cheap, clip-on, elastic braces keeps your shorts in place if the elastic waistband isn't doing it's job:

ktache | 4 years ago
1 like

"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."

I believe this to be the most truthful thing ever said on this website.

I can do a good hour with my Endura Zymes and M+S clasic cotton boxers, 2 at a push.  Anything much longer and I would like a liner.

I wouldn't want to wear a pad for my commute.

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