Cycling shorts are key to your comfort when you’re riding. The combination of sitting down and the pedalling action means cyclists are very prone to chafing in sensitive areas. Cycling shorts are designed to reduce chaffing and absorb shocks and bumps whilst you ride. Picking the right cycling shorts shouldn’t be a problem. This guide will give you everything you need to know for buying your next pair.
Types of Cycling Shorts – Baggy or Lycra
When it comes to cycling shorts there are two main types, lycra or baggy. Before we delve into the two types, an important note to remember. Don’t wear underwear with cycling shorts. All types of shorts are designed to be next to your skin.
Lycra cycling shorts make up the majority of the market. These shorts are made from a combination of synthetic materials, usually some ratio of nylon, lycra and polyester. This stretchy fabric is designed to fit tight to your skin. This is so the shorts move snuggly with your body during the pedal stroke. The fabric then acts like a surface barrier for your skin and prevents unwanted rubbing and chaffing taking place. In the crotch of a pair of cycling shorts, you’ll find a chamois pad (or simply chamois).
The first chamois pads were actually made of leather and were used by distance cyclists nearly 100 years ago. The original leather chamois pads were smooth enough to eliminate chaffing but offered little to no shock absorption. Thankfully, technology has improved since then and modern chamois are a combination of dedicated synthetic materials.
At the mention cycling shorts, some people’s mental image is of multi-coloured spandex. Leaving the house in skin tight apparel with everything ‘on show’ is some people’s worst nightmare. If you fall into this category, don’t worry, not all cycling shorts are like that. This is where Baggy cycling shorts come in. Baggy shorts are normally favoured by off-road cyclists, particularly mountain bikers. They are a much looser fit, similar to combat shorts so you can ride comfortably without feeling ‘exposed’. But unlike combat shorts, most have a pair of lycra shorts hidden inside to give you the anti-chaffing and cushioning protection.
If you’re riding on the road, some purists might mock a rider wearing baggy shorts. But remember, it’s not what you look like that matters. The most important thing is that you’re out on your bike, enjoying yourself in what you feel comfortable in. Hater’s always gonna hate.
Lycra Shorts – To Bib or Not to Bib?
From here on we’ll be thinking about Lycra cycling shorts. The majority of this guide will be equally relevant to baggy shorts. As they have a cut down pair of lycra shorts inside. Lycra shorts come in two main options. Either with bibs (built in supporting braces) or without. Like normal trouser braces, bibs on cycling shorts are there to hold the shorts in place and prevent them slipping down.
The Benefits of Cycling Bib Shorts
Cycling shorts without bibs are held up by an elasticated waistband. When you’re cycling you are in more of a sitting position than when you’re standing or walking around. When you’re in this sitting position the body fat on the front of your torso gets compressed into belly rolls (small or large). This bit of body fat can get in the way and push the waistband down and affect the fit of the shorts. Bib shorts don’t have an elasticated waistband, as the shorts are held snuggly in place by the bibs.
Women’s bib shorts can sometimes be a different design than men’s for anatomical reasons. Sometimes instead of twin shoulder straps, they have a central Y-Shaped strap up the front which goes between the boobs.
At Bike Your Drive, we’d recommend going with cycling bib shorts every time. However, because of the extra material bib shorts can be a little bit more expensive than shorts without bibs. Bib shorts can also make a quick nip to the toilet a bit more inconvenient.
Your sit bones are two small bony protrusions at the bottom of your pelvis. When you sit down your sit bones come into contact with your bike saddle and take your weight when cycling. Cycling shorts chamois pads are designed to cushion your sit bones whilst you ride. The layers of padding provide an increase in surface area between your sit bones and your saddle. This increased surface area reduces the pressure you feel on sit bones, making your ride more comfortable.
If you’re looking at cycling shorts the thickness of the chamois pad isn’t as important as the padding density. Over time even the thickest of chamois can become compressed by your body weight on the saddle. A higher density chamois will be more comfortable for longer.
Built in antibacterial properties are another must have you should look for in a chamois. Spending long periods of time in your crotch exposes the chamois to plenty of sweat and bacteria. Anti-bacterial properties will help to keep the chamois feeling and smelling fresh. It will also help to reduce the potential of any sweat rashes and saddle sores.
On average recreational cyclists have a cadence of around 60 rpm. This means they make 3,600 pedal strokes every hour. Repetitive skin to skin friction is the primary cause of chafing. This puts cyclists at risk from chafing of the inner thighs, inner glutes and contact points with your saddle. Lycra cycling shorts are designed to eliminate chafing. They act as a barrier to the skin to prevent bits of skin rubbing on each other. Being skin tight they also don’t bunch up or slide between you or your seat, which can cause additional hotspots of friction and chafing.
As mentioned above cycling shorts are predominantly made from synthetic materials. This is usually a blend of:
- Nylon – for durability
- Lycra – for skin hugging elasticity
- Polyester – for quick drying and moisture wicking
The blend of these materials varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, the basic premise is the same, the material is skin tight, durable and has strong moisture wicking properties.
Cycling shorts are made from a number of pieces of material or panels. The design of the shorts and the shape of the panels gives the shorts the overall fit.
Like we mentioned before, your riding position whilst on the bike is sitting and leant forward. So to make cycling short fit in this position, they are longer in the back and shorter in the front. Manufacturers use different numbers of panels to achieve the fit of the shorts. Generally, a larger number of panels used in the shorts construction can mean a more snug fit and therefore less chaffing.
If you pick a pair of cycling shorts up on a hanger in a shop, you’ll see that the legs point forwards rather than straight down. Now, this may feel a bit odd if you try the shorts on stood up, but don’t worry they’re definitely much more comfortable when you’re riding. This is what’s commonly know as the ‘anatomical fit’.
An anatomical fit and having the material of the shorts fitting snugly against the skin is really important for cycling shorts. The key benefits of the anatomical fit are.
- Close fitting material helps to wick away sweat
- Having no loose material reduces the potential for chafing
- A snug fit can help keep your muscles compressed to keep them warm, supple and increase blood flow.
Some manufacturers also offer a variety of fits for their shorts. Different fits are designed for different riding styles. The race cut is designed for leaner cyclists, who ride in an aerodynamic position and are looking for increases in their performance. Comfort fit is designed for the for riders looking for a bit more padding, warmth and an upright riding style.
At the cheaper end of the cycling shorts spectrum, the same material is used for all of the panels of the shorts. As you move up the ranks in terms of design, technology and a price, manufacturers begin to use different fabrics for different panels.
The different materials used are for their beneficial properties for the rider. Some shorts are designed with thicker material, or a heavier fleece lined fabrics to keep your legs warm in the cooler spring and autumn months. Other shorts are made from thin lycra to keep you cool on a hot mid-summer ride.
Whilst you’re riding the abrasion of the shorts on your saddle can put some real strain on the fabric of your shorts. The constant rubbing of the material of the shorts on rough surfaces can cause pilling of the lycra. Some shorts are more durable than others however they will all suffer from natural wear and tear. Pilling can be made much worse if really abrasive surfaces are close by such as velcro from saddle bags.
On everyday clothes, people recommend cleaning pilling up by trimming it back using a razor. If pilling does occur on your shorts its best just to leave it as is. Leaving the pilling on your shorts won’t affect their performance. If you’re worried about the appearance, don’t worry, virtually no-one will notice. But, going at your shorts with a sharp implement, serrating the already worn fibres will only weaken your shorts further.
problems with stitching.
Washing your shorts properly is key to their longevity.
- For personally hygiene reasons, it’s crucial you wash your shorts after every ride. Whilst you ride you do get a bit of abrasion on your skin. If you have a build up of bacteria in your shorts this can lead to sore and infections.
- Whilst the fabrics are designed to be abrasion resistant, they can be susceptible the high temperatures of the washing machine or harsh detergents. Always follow the washing instructions of your shorts.
- This might seem like common sense but always wash your cycling clothes separately to your regular clothes. This is because cycling clothes need to be washed on a gentler setting. Mesh laundry bags will further protect your cycling apparel from the rough and tumble of a washing machine drum.
- When you pick your washing machine’s cycle, pick a low temperature and a lower spin setting. This will help to reduce the wear and tear on your shorts. If your worried about your shorts not getting clean at a lower temperature you can use specific detergents. Use either a specific sports clothing detergent or a detergent which is designed to work at lower temperatures.
- When you’re drying your shorts, never use a tumble dryer. The heat from a tumble dryer can ruin the lycra in your cycling shorts.
The stitching used to sew the panels of your shorts together is equally as important as the material they’re made from. Stitching can cause additional points of pressure and abrasion in your shorts. This is where ‘flatlock stitching’ comes in. Flatlock stitching means that two of the panels are stitched together with a seam that is flat and has the same appearance both inside and out. On a good pair of shorts, the panels are designed so that the stitching is located in less sensitive areas.
With the force of the bibs pulling the shorts up your body, it would be easy for them to ride up and irritate you. Fortunately, cycling shorts manufacturers include leg grippers to hold the bottom of your shorts just above your knees. Leg grippers used to be just a zig zag stitched hem with exposed elastic. More modern shorts have little sections of tacky silicon located just above the bottom hem of each leg of the shorts. The silicon can come in different forms, such as little blobs or a thin strip all the way around your leg. Silicon is better than the exposed elastic.
The silicon can come in different forms, such as little blobs or a thin strip all the way around your leg. As silicon isn’t breathable, a thin strip can cause a white line in your skin when you take the shorts off. Whilst not a major issue, the little blobs eliminate this problem. Silicon is better than the exposed elastic because it is much gentler on the skin and rarely causes allergy issues like elastic grippers can.
Reflective Tags / Logos
If your planning on riding in the evenings or at night, it’s a good idea to look for reflective material on your shorts. Some manufacturers make the logos they put on the shorts reflective, however, these can come away with repeated use and washing. Others stitch little slivers of reflective material into the seams at the back of the legs. Cycling shorts which are designed for night riding are available and have large areas of reflective material.
Other Special Features
Finally, some cycling shorts have other little bonus features. Race radios are often used by professional cyclists to communicate with the team and the team car. Top end cycling shorts can come with a race radio pocket. Whilst you might not need a race radio on your commute to work, this pocket doubles up nicely as a handy spot for an mp3 player.
Other things to look out for might be additional pockets, extra zips to make access quicker for toilet stops or anatomical cutouts in the chamois. Whilst not usually make or break for cycling shorts, these little perks can be a nice touch when needed.
The Round Up
So that rounds up our complete guide to cycling shorts. How did we do? If you think we’ve missed anything please let us know in the comments. Alternatively, if you think we’ve got most bases covered, please feel free to share our content to help other budding cyclists.