The Tri shorts won our Best Budget Buy award because of a combination of moderately low price and broad versatility. The shorts performed better than average across all of our measures, and they're relatively affordable. It's clear from their name that they are suited to the triathlete's life and are therefore best used for rides in the hour range. They are great for running, swimming, and as we like doing: hitting spin followed by an hour of lifting - something much less comfortable in the standard diaper shorts/bibs. Read to see how these shorts compare to the rest of our fleet.
On the whole, cycling clothes are not cheap, so when one needs to buy on a budget, it's essential to get something that will be long-lasting, do the job, and have enough versatility to be comfortable across activities. These shorts retail at $80, roughly the same price as the Aero Tech Designs touring shorts and Performance Elite bibs, both of which have shown signs of deteriorating seams in our testing - which means a risky investment for a budget buyer. The other big price competitor is the Canari Cyclewear Velo short, which also has inferior durability, but also has oversized padding that bunches up and causes discomfort early on in a ride. While they will function and will do if $50 and tax is the extent of your budget, we think the Zoot will be the better long-term low budget buy.
Our testing and analysis detailed below examine these shorts alongside the rest of the field, pointing out inherent strengths as well as design flaws and drawbacks. We believe this product earned the designation of Best Budget Buy, but we also hope that you take our analysis and draw your own conclusion and use the information we present to make the best decision about the products we review.
Testing our Budget Buy winning Zoot Active Tri shorts in a spin class.
The style of the Active Tri short might be the sort of thing to jump out at particular riders, but its lines and panels have a plain, uninteresting cut from the front (when you're off the bike at the bar or cafe when you're trying to make friends and plant seeds for business contacts). The profile view is pretty good looking, with bold curvature and strong lines, with good color accenting. We'll give it to them that they are about one cut above the average bike short, but they aren't super outstanding. In the serious, pragmatic world of triathletes, these might be a little flagrant, but for roadies, these are blank shorts.
We found a few other products in our review to be more attractive if style is a significant driver in your selection process. For one, the Aero Tech Designs shorts were more stylish, but we don't think they deliver the versatility in application or durability of the Zoot. Farther up on our scale are last year's Editors' Choice winner, the SUGOi Evolution Pro Bibs, which include more color, better accenting, and give an overall look of competence, as opposed to the look of a fred in solid black shorts. But the outstanding bike short in our review is the Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2, which also outscores the Zoot in fit comfort and efficiency/pedal friendliness, but aren't as durable.
Side-by-side comparisons with the Active Tri 8-Inch Short.
Zoot used Endura 3D panels on the sides and Performance Endura+ fabric to increase the breathability of these shorts. Between hours of riding and a few washing and drying sessions, we found that their design was effective, tending to dry faster than average shorts and better than half of those in our review. This characteristic is especially important because these shorts are meant to hit the water and then hit the road and no one wants soggy shorts on the bike.
The great thing about such simple padding and light material construction is how breathable the product becomes. This aspect helps the shorts dissipate moisture during exercise and after they're washed and hung out to dry, especially for those who only want to buy one pair of shorts and like to exercise back to back. It is incredibly demoralizing putting on tight, damp shorts, especially when it's cold out and the body is already trying to tell you that it's not humane to exercise today.
The award winners turned inside right and airing out after drying for 12+ hours. Left to right: Gore Power 3.0, SUGOi Evolution Pro, Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2, Zoot Active Tri.
Many of the other products in our review employed additional fibers like polyester in their fabric to achieve higher breathability, but the primary materials in these shorts are simply nylon and spandex and yet still achieve excellent breathability. This simple makeup could also help explain the comparatively low price of these shorts compared to the more complex fabrics of items like the SUGOi Evolution Pro Bibs. These bibs have superior breathability but retail much higher.
Padding and Protection
The Zoot shorts feature a fleece pad that delivered surprising comfort over at least an hour of riding. But unsurprisingly, as we took them out on longer rides, the pleasantly surprised face quickly turned into grimacing discomfort and mutterings about being 20 miles out "aka 10 minutes from an Uber." It was important to see if there was a different experience on mid-distance and long-distance routes, and we stuck it out. If you are looking to do an hour of riding, these are good for that. The soft fleece fits the body's form and seriously cuts down on chafing without doing the padding overkill thing that so many of the average bike shorts do. You don't miss the padding until passing the hour mark and the aching sets in, and these are perfect for that. Once you get beyond an hour, it's time to look for more padding.
Our Top Pick for Short Course winner is the Gore C5 Bib Shots+. We think they are the best shorts out there for things like criterium races or short circuit races in the hour to 90-minute range. Their padding is more of the traditional road shorts padding, but it lacks firmness, primarily providing cushioning. We felt that given the distance at which the padding starts to lose its efficacy (about 30 miles), the padding has a particular application to the short course realm. It works very well for that specific application in the same way that the Zoot pad works exceptionally well for its use to 20 miles or less while also needing to function across activities. But the best padding, irrespective of distance, is the SUGOi Evolution chamois, which has the right cushioning and firmness to comfort for the first 20 miles and last into the 70 and 80-mile range.
Top chamois/padding. Zoot Active Tri shorts (top), SUGOi Evolution Pro bib shorts (bottom, left), and Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts (right). Note the malleability of the Zoot fleece padding as well as the highly concentrated padding of the two chamois below, especially the narrow neck along perineal channel to prevent folded padding.
Comfort and Fit
In general, we liked the way the Zoot Tri shorts fit, and they were among our top scorers for fit and comfort. The fabric gently squeezed the legs but wasn't overbearing. Likewise, the padding didn't get in the way or feel like a diaper - a rare exception to padded shorts. But there were some drawbacks. Cycling shorts typically use either elastic bands to secure the waist or drawstrings. The Zoot shorts use drawstrings, which are a pain because they are such a concentrated securing force across a small portion of the waist. Because of this feature, it feels like they will either fall off or cut you in two; plus it's annoying trying to get the right tightness and then losing it as soon as you go into tying your knot.
The pull string problem was also present with the super stylish Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2. This area shows the real advantage of bibs over shorts because shorts need some securing mechanism at the waist, which makes them less comfortable over longer distances. They also tend to create the muffin-top effect, securing right across your lower chub roll - making a shirtless ride an incredibly flattering affair (friends don't let friends be the shirtless riding guy: don't be the shirtless riding guy; get a jersey with sleeves and pockets like an adult).
Best Budget Buy - Active Tri 8-Inch Shorts.
To get around the pull string issue, we suggest looking at the SUGOi Evolution Pro Bib shorts. The shoulder straps secure the bottoms to your body and prevent slippage while also adding to the support of your cycling form, helping you naturally slip down into a good cycling position.
Efficiency and Pedal Friendliness
These shorts performed very well in this measure, especially given the price point. The problem with a lot of super cheap shorts is that they end up getting in the way of riding. They might bunch up or be too restrictive. But the Zoot shorts do not suffer from that problem. They are tight enough to prevent bunching as seen with the Canari shorts.
Compared to the other award winners in our lineup, the Active Tri shorts did well, but underperformed the other winners - remember, these are a budget buy. We found that the Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 tended to support better - they had a little more compression and tightness than the Zoot Tri. This aspect helped them stay out of the way of pedaling and shifting around in the saddle. We found the leg-gripping performance was about the same for the Zoot and Louis Garneau. The SUGOi was the most efficient and pedal-friendly of the bunch, combining sleek, tight fit with good panel design to make a product that hugs and supports the body.
The award winners showing their design and an upturned leg gripper. Top, left to right: Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 (Top Pick for Short Course), Gore Power 3.0. Bottom, left to right: Zoot Active Tri (Top Pick for Budget Buy), SUGOi Evolution Pro (Editors' Choice).
The Active Tri rated highly in the durability category. We rated them above average because their seams were strong and most placed outside of the high friction areas along the inside of the thighs. It's also important that their simple fleece pad will not face the same degradation as the high-performance gel pads and chamois seen in other products. We might have rated these even higher, but their mix of tough nylon was lower than we would have liked to see in a stronger product. Overall, we found them to have above-average durability, but they might need replacement after about two seasons of vigorous use.
We found that the Active Tri shorts were the most durable of the shorts and as durable as the Performance Elite Bibs. These use higher mixes of nylon in their fabric and include reinforced or moved seams, but also have vulnerabilities in the fact that they have more structures that can degrade such as bib shoulder straps and advanced chamois pads. We think the Active Tri shorts will suit your needs.
The Active Tri 8-Inch Short body has 74% nylon, 26% spandex. The mesh is made of 100% polyester.
As you should divine from their name, these shorts best serve the varied activities of the triathlete: swim, bike, run. These were much more comfortable to run in than the other shorts we tried - but most of the other products were explicitly designed for cycling, not running. The great thing about these shorts is that their simple design and padding didn't sacrifice riding comfort to allow running and swimming comfort (we did not try to swim in the other products, but these felt fine in the Chesapeake Bay).
The Active Tri shorts are great on short, quick rides under an hour and they are better than any of the other shorts or bibs for doing just about any other activity in tandem, like going from an hour of spin to an hour of lifting, running, swimming, rock climbing, or whatever else. If you are looking for a pure bike short for short rides and have a much higher budget, consider the Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts. If it turns out you want to get into rides in the 90 minute or longer range, take a look at the Editors' Choice winner, the Assos T Equipe Evo.
At $80, we feel these are a good price, deserving our Best Budget Buy given their consistent performance and general versatility. As we mentioned before, there are cheaper or comparably priced products in our review, like the Canari Cyclewear Velo shorts, which go for about $50. They will get the job done, but they box you into just cycling, and they don't deliver the kind of quality fit, comfort, or material as the Zoot shorts. The Performance Elite Bibs, on the other hand, are cycling-specific bibs that retail for $79.99, but they have problems with their seams and might not last for long enough to get much worth out them. We think the Zoot shorts are worth the money for the budget buyer.
We were happy to ride in these shorts, and we think they will serve the purpose of most riders doing less than 20 or 25 miles at a time, especially triathletes and those looking to cross-train. These shorts had a great, tight, supportive fit that allowed excellent movement without being cumbersome. They also delivered great breathability, which makes them good for both exercising and drying quickly overnight for next day use. With a retail price of $80, these aren't the cheapest shorts on the market, but they make good budgetary sense because they won't need to be thrown out after a single season and they won't need to be supplemented by a separate pair of performance shorts for other activities like swimming, running, lifting, etc. These shorts did not offer the highest marks in any single category, but they offered good quality for their price point, and we think riders will be happy with them.
Out on a jaunt testing, with the Active Tri 8-Inch Short.