Types of Bike Shorts
Road Biking Shorts
If pedaling pavement and sharing the bike lane is your idea of a good time, then we would recommend a pair of road biking shorts. Road cycling shorts are generally comprised of lycra and/or spandex and provide a snug fit. Road cyclists have an aggressive posture on the bike, pedaling up and down hills. And while they may ride in and out of the saddle, the positioning is consistent, and minimizing wind resistance is the name of their game. They're looking for a tight fitting, compressive short that will stretch with them, and reduce drag as much as possible. The seat of the short is also padded, eliminating the need for a liner short, also known as a chamois.
Mountain Biking Shorts
Where you're going you don't need roads? If the idea of packed singletrack, rock gardens and attempting to roll the big rock slab in the backyard makes you happy, we're going to suggest a pair of mountain bike shorts rather than road cycling shorts. Mountain bike shorts are designed as a looser outer short meant to fit over a chamois and are typically comprised of some combination of polyester, nylon, and spandex meant to protect you against abrasions and crashing. They'll vary in detail, such as the number of pockets for storage, inseam length, and overall fit. Finding the right combination of features will help you perform at maximum happiness.
Bear in mind that we chose shorts that rivaled each other in their advertised features and inseam to compare them as equally as possible. Almost all of the brands mentioned in the test make several styles of women's shorts, some of which may best suit your riding style but aren't disclosed here.
Not all mountain bike shorts are designed to do the same thing, though they might tout themselves as such. From here, we'll break down different categories of riding and help you to narrow down which short best fits your own personal riding style and terrain preferences.
Think buff, rolling singletrack. This is a style of riding that is powered by pedaling. Typically, the terrain is fast and rolling, and the distances are greater. As the rider, you're working hard in the saddle, and not too worried about the technical terrain in front of you. You want a short whose fabric is lightweight and breathable and has stretch that maximizes mobility while pedaling in and out of the seat. These qualities are paramount to a durable construction and protection and would take precedence when choosing a short best for cross country.
Of the shorts tested in the review, we found the Club Ride Apparel Ventura to be one of the most breathable shorts. The mesh backed waistband and quick-drying material proved ideal for warm days and miles of pedaling. The four-way stretch of the Pearl Izumi Elevate Women's kept us pedaling with reckless abandon, stretching and moving with each pedal stroke. The fabric was lighter than that of other four-way stretch shorts, favoring the Pearl Izumi Elevate over other shorts.
If you're downhilling, you're most likely moving at high speeds through rocks and roots. Whether it's lift access ski-resort-in-the-summertime terrain, or shuttle laps to your favorite downhill trail, you're not doing too much uphill pedaling. You're not too concerned about how lightweight or breathable your shorts are, you want them to be tough and with a longer inseam. Downhill shorts should be all about protecting the rider from crashing in the gnar, sliding along the granite or being swiped at by a tree branch while going mach chicken. You want your fabric to have ripstop construction and to not feel like tissue paper. Honestly, you're wearing as much protective gear as necessary, like a full face helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads.
Inseam is an important consideration for downhill riding. Longer is better. The leg opening at the hemline should be wide enough to slip over kneepads without a gap or bunching at the knee. You're looking for optimal protection, in fact, seasoned downhill veterans will wear motocross gear to the park.
The softshell construction of the Norrona Fjora gave our testers the protective confidence to charge rock garden. The material was pretty indestructible, never snagging on branches or white thorn, a local's favorite shrubby hazard. Another favorite was the Fox Freeride - Women's, which had the longest inseam of the test. Both of these shorts provided plenty of protective length on their own but also paired well with kneepads. The Yeti Norrie and Pearl Izumi Elevate also yielded a heavy duty construction, which when paired with kneepads, offered sufficient coverage.
Enduro might be considered the backcountry skiing of mountain biking, at least here in Lake Tahoe. You really love the descent but have a great appreciation of the effort it takes to reach the top, and can't get enough of the views along the way. We call it "earning your turns." If you love long days in the saddle and are prepared to climb and descend perhaps multiple times in a ride, then you might consider yourself an endurance or "enduro" rider. You're going to need the gear that can do both: be lightweight, breathable, and stretchy for the uphills, but protective and durable for the downhill.
The style of enduro biking has become a trend the last few years, taking over the race scene and leading to manufacturers attempting to create the one-quiver, do-it-all tool. Fast and light on the up, sturdy and resilient on the down is the theme. Check out our review of the Enduro Mountain Bikes or the Bell Super 2R MIPS helmet for other one-and-done products in the bike world.
Of the shorts we tested, we considered the Pearl Izumi Elevate - Women's to be the best overall short in the test, hence the Editors' Choice award. It has a 13-inch protective inseam, stretchy but durable construction, and an overall breathable fabric, with additional lighter weight panels. It's not the most breathable in the test - that would go to the Club Ride Apparel Ventura or Dakine Cadence. It's also not as protective as the Forrona Njora, which has a softshell construction, but we think the Pearl Izumi Elevate offers the whole package. This is your one-quiver short if you're looking to do some climbing on the way to your downhill. Another short to consider in the enduro category is the Fox Freeride. Though built with a longer inseam, the venting and TruMotion all-way stretch fabric make this short a comfortable ride on the slog uphill. If your uphills are short, but downhills intense, consider the Fox Freeride - Women's as do-it-all short.
Features to Consider
To want or not want pockets? That is the question. Often times, mountain bikers will carry a small hydration pack along for the ride, and in it, you're able to stash your energy bar, phone, and other amenities. If that's how you like to roll, you might not need a short with many pockets. The Club Ride Apparel Ventura has just two zippered pockets on the hip but provides enough storage for an energy bar or your phone, so you don't have to reach for your pack every time you want to take a photo. If you want to go even lighter in the pocket department, the Fox Ripley - Women's has just one rear zippered pocket on the waistband, barely big enough for an ID.
If you like to keep your overall kit to a minimum and not carry a backpack when you're biking, choosing a bike short with ample secure pocket options is important. We preferred the zippered, secure pockets of the Pearl Izumi Elevate, Fox Freeride and most of all, the Zoic Navaeh. In addition to having the most number of pockets, the Navaeh has a secret smartphone pocket within a pocket.
Men have it pretty easy when it comes to finding pants according to their waist size. Take a tape measurer, wrap it around the waist, and order that number. Presto. Women don't get off quite that easily. If you're anything like one of our testers, you have jeans and pants in your closet that range from a size 2 to a 10. It's not easy for us ladies to find the perfect fit on the first try. If they're too snug in the hips, they might be too big in waist. If you have an athletic build, you may prefer a short with an overall looser profile, like the Pearl Izumi Elevate Women's.
We sized our shorts based on the manufacturer's sizing charts, and wore a size medium, with the exception of the Troy Lee Skyline, which we sized up to a large based on manufacturer's suggestions. The Yeti Norrie and Troy Lee Skyline (even in a size large) offered the slimmest fit in the review. If you like a roomier short, we would recommend sizing up from your normal size in these two.
Thankfully, all of the shorts tested offer different ways to customize the shorts to best fit our different body types. Stretch panels in the rear of the Yeti Norrie, and Maloja Peggy allowed the shorts to stretch with your curves. Four-way stretch of the Fox Freeride and Pearl izumi Elevate provided a comfortable, all around relaxed fit.
Finally, waist tab adjustments built into the waistband of the short allowed our testers to cinch in or relax the waist as they needed. Velcro was the most common amongst shorts, but what we preferred was the Club Ride Apparel Ventura's button tab adjusters. Fitting the buttons onto the pre-measured elastic band took the guesswork out of tightening each side of the short equally. It also eliminated velcro bulkiness and weight on the waistband, like that of the Norrona Fjora.