Cycling Shorts Are a Necessary Evil
Road cycling: that can mean a lot these days, including everything from riding a fixie around town in your skinny jeans or meandering along a boardwalk on a cruiser bike to a Giro Rosa hopeful: a lithe and light carbon-framed roadie clothed in a skin-tight Lycra onesie, rushing toward a first-place finish. Considering that the road scene can cover such a wide swath of activities, scenes, and styles, it's no surprise that compiling a review of the best shorts out there is a big deal. After all, you wouldn't want to show up to a distance race in a pair of shorts built for a midtown commute.
So, you need to bring the same consideration you would use for the decision on what bike to buy (all-carbon race frame, flat-bar road bike, cross bike, or cruiser) to what shorts are going to protect your heinie. Let's face it: a seat/saddle that's only a few inches wide is NOT going to be that comfortable for hours on end. The sole purpose of the cycling short is to alleviate your thoughts of discomfort, so you can focus on other aspects of the ride that matter, like not getting hit by a car or not missing that next feed zone. The short (or bibs) you choose should fade away into the background. In other words, if it's a garment worth what you paid for it, you shouldn't even know you're wearing it.
Bike Short Evolution
The great cycling short as we know it today is the product of many years of human suffering brought on by the desire to traverse vast swaths of space and time by bike in clothes that weren't at all designed to do that. Early on, cycling shorts consisted of wool or cotton (fabrics sure to rub your skin raw after about ten minutes). If they had a chamois at all, it was some form of deer or sheep leather (like the chamois cloth you use to dry your car) and needed "chamois cream" (a product that is still around today) to keep the leather inside (not your backside) from cracking.
These days, synthetic fabrics, foam pads, and gels have replaced the leather-chamois of the past, and have led the way in revolutionizing the cycling world. These new materials offer your nether regions a wicking, padded comfort intended to reduce the wear-and-tear that sitting in a saddle for half or an entire day brings along with it. (And if it is a genuinely high-quality short, that chamois cream should also be a product of the past.)
But, let's go back to the road scene just for a minute: there's a wide range of activities, demands, weather conditions and style considerations that weigh on what short you choose and why. The midtown commuter, for instance, might prefer a looser, longer style that offers more coverage and a little more modesty than the road racer, who is focused on performance and speed. The enthusiast might want a short that will go the extra miles while a beginner might not need to spend as much on quality materials and construction — especially if they only plan to ride for an hour or two at a time. And then, let's not forget the person who just wants to look AMAZING when they feel AMAZING because they are riding their bike because riding a bike is awesome (there is a short for that person, too).
We encourage you to read our advice, below, with your particular goal in mind: maybe you're training for a century, or maybe you want to race. Or, like a lot of us, you're looking for a short that finds a happy middle ground between offering you enough comfort to get your workout in without making you look like you inherited the backside of the Michelin Man blimp. We get it.
The Age-Old Debate: Bibs Versus Shorts
No Buying Advice article worth its salt would fail to mention the age-old debate of shorts versus bibs. People tend to fall heavily into one camp or another. Either you find a person who swears by bibs, races in bibs, whose ordinary pants for work would be bibs if they didn't have to tuck in their button-up shirts, or you find the person who despises bibs with every atom of their being. They won't be caught dead in bibs and go so far as to make cruel, cruel fun of the people who wear them. Then, there's us: review writers who have tried both and smile and nod and find value in both.
So here's the deal: both shorts and bibs are awesome in their own way, sort of like chocolate and vanilla or yoga and pilates or Star Trek and Star Wars. They are both incredible solutions to the puzzle caused by a narrow, hard saddle and a lot of miles to cover. Bibs and shorts are just different. In general, shorts are lighter, easier to take on and off, and tend to be less expensive than bibs. Bibs move better with your body and protect your lower back from the elements more effectively.
The Bib's Primary Downfall
What do we mean that shorts are "easier to take on and off?" Typically, bibs are worn underneath a shirt or jersey. If you need to use the restroom in such an outfit, you'll need to remove your shirt before taking off the shoulder straps. What is a simple action in shorts becomes a more difficult and slower process in bibs.
In a nutshell, that is the performance downside of bibs, especially for women. For most makes and models, you have to completely undress to use the restroom, which is a real drag especially when your only option for relief is a super-nasty public restroom or a small bush. Some companies, like SUGOi and Shebeest, have come up with solutions to this problem, but honestly, it's still more of a pain than shorts - especially if you have a weird phobia like us about dropping keys, cell phones, and other important items down that oubliette of despair.
The Short's Primary Downfall
Now that you have the low-and-dirty on bibs, let's talk about shorts for a while. Sure, shorts are cheaper and weigh less, but they have their limitations, too. Imagine this: you're doing your first Century ride. You are excited and nervous. You are in and out of aid stations like a pro. You are eating and drinking enough, just like your coach told you. The entire ride feels like a success until you hop into your car and a searing pain hits you the moment you rest against the seat.
This is nature's tramp stamp, the place you don't put sunscreen because 1) it's hard to reach your lower back and 2) isn't your short supposed to cover that? Alas, there's the downfall with shorts: they don't stay put the way that bibs do. Manufacturers of cycling shorts have tried to come up with all sorts of solutions for this: silicone coatings for the ends of each short leg and sometimes the waist, elastic bands of various widths to hold the shorts in place (these can cause some GI discomfort, FYI). We should also mention a fair portion of the human population is slightly allergic to silicone and might develop a rash if they wear a silicone-coated fabric for a long ride.
Some riders use shorts exclusively for shorter rides for the convenience but stick to bibs for the more serious stuff. Other people swear by bibs because, honestly ladies, they do hold all the stuff in where it needs to be. Not that we advocate suspenders per se, but these things have the capacity to make even the most middle-aged among us look slightly superhero-esque, and that's always worth a little porta-potty drama (didn't Superman have issues in that phone booth?)
The Chamois Goes Under Where?
The next major decision point when selecting a cycling short to carry you through the miles is what is called the "chamois." As previously discussed, the chamois was once a piece of soft leather in early versions of cycling shorts to keep some distance between the rider's private parts and the seat of the bicycle. Chamois cream was intended to keep the leather soft and supple (not cracked and brittle) which, as you can imagine, was much more comfortable.
We've retained the name of that part of the short, but everything else about it, due to innovations in synthetic materials, has changed. Virtually any cycling short you pick up online or in your local bike shop today contains ZERO leather in any part of it. Instead, the "chamois" is a highly evolved and super-specific piece of equipment intended to keep you padded, protected, and as high and dry as you can be on a long bike ride.
Just like people, chamois come in all different shapes and sizes, and they also come in male versions and female versions. Chamois for men are longer, narrower, and tend to have less material in the middle of them, whereas women's chamois are slightly shorter, wider, and have a bit more padding throughout. These structural differences are intended to provide each rider with protection where they anatomically need it the most.
Beyond a chamois' "gender," its size is also an important consideration. Do you refuse to stay in the saddle longer than an hour? Then, it stands to reason that you don't need a chamois designed to go hundreds and hundreds of miles. You can get away with something much less aggressive, which is going to 1) cost you less, and 2) not be as bulky. If, however, you're all about the long rides, you're going to have to resign yourself to the fact that you are going to need a high-quality chamois to help you through the ride (unless you like sore sit bones, but that would be strange).
So, how can you tell a high-quality chamois from a not-so-great-one? Well, sometimes you have to do what we do at OutdoorGearLab, and take a chamois for a spin on your bike to see how well it fits your body, your saddle, and your weather conditions. If that's not a possibility, however, there are two key aspects to consider.
2D versus 3D chamois
If you take a pair of cycling shorts and turn them inside-out, you expose the chamois. If you don't see or feel any variation in the thickness of the material (if it looks like one big giant pillow for your butt), that is called a "2D" chamois. If, however, you see mountains and valleys and weird crop-circle like patterns, then you have the higher-quality 3D chamois. So, aside from looks, what is the difference?
If you try to bend the 2D chamois in half, you will notice that it tends to bunch around the edges. It also tends to move as one entity- so, if you can imagine that large pillow under you as you ride your bike, those parts of the fabric that bunch up will rub on your skin. Add some moisture (a.k.a. sweat), and you have the perfect storm for the making of a saddle sore. What is a saddle sore, you ask? If you can't imagine it, we'll let Google answer that one.
Let's do the same thing with the 3D chamois. Due to the variations in thickness in the chamois and "heat stitching" (a.k.a.: the weird crop-circle patterns), the chamois can bend and conform to multiple shapes without bunching up as a 2D chamois does. This means you are less likely to have saddle sores or chafing - instead, the chamois moves smoothly between you and the saddle.
This doesn't mean that chamois record the things you might be saying on a long, hard climb. Instead, this refers to the resiliency of the chamois to "bounce back" after you spent a good six hours pounding it down to nothing in the saddle.
There isn't a great way to test this aside from wearing a short and keeping tabs on how well it performs (this is why we do this for you in our gear reviews), but a good rule of thumb is that the higher quality the short, the more likely it is to have a chamois with "memory."
A great way to get a feel for this aspect of a cycling chamois is to read reviews of various products. What you will find is that brands that have been around for a while typically have landed on a chamois that works well for a specific purpose. Several of the brands we reviewed fall into this category: SUGOi, Castelli, Louis Garneau, Pearl Izumi - the higher-end short offered by each of these companies has been calibrated, tested, revised, and tested again to protect its rider for the demands of this incredibly demanding, but fun, sport called road cycling.
One Last Awkward Moment…
Seasoned veterans will, no doubt, roll their eyes, but it's worth stating: cycling shorts are designed to be worn commando. Whether male or female, please leave the intimates at home when you're headed out to explore the world by bike. This is actually a pretty important point: because modern chamois are designed to wick away moisture and protect you from the saddle, putting another piece of fabric in there - one, very possibly, NOT designed to deal with the specific demands of riding a bike, can result in not only painful skin chafing, but even infections. So, use the cycling short for the cycling and then, you know, shower and change into something else when you're done.
It's OK to Be Who You Are
So, let's go back to that introductory paragraph where we mentioned all the different road bike "scenes." Maybe you identified yourself with one of them - or perhaps not. Either way, sometimes there's a tendency or pressure that you have to be one type of cyclist to ride a road bike — you need to buy a super-high-end cycling short that squeezes your soul out of your body by way of your legs and that you have to race, or talk like you race, and do incredibly hard-core things like hill repeats. While there is that kind of cyclist and we admire their dedication, there are infinite versions of what it means to be a road cyclist. The cool thing? There is also a vast number of shorts available to accommodate your version of the sport that combines function, comfort, and style as an expression of what cycling means to you.
So, there are shorts for the hard-core racer type (the Castelli Free Aero Short is an excellent example of this), but there are also shorts for the ultra-endurance cyclist (the SUGOi RS Pro Bib or the Louis Garneau Fit Sensor 7.5). And there are shorts for the person who doesn't like tight cycling shorts and wants a little more coverage (the Terry Hi-Rise Holster). And then there are shorts whose primary purpose is to look amazing while offering adequate comfort, padding, and protection (the Shebeest Petunia Bib) due to their creative colors and patterns and female-specific cut.
The bottom line is that, if you want to ride a road bike, you're going to need a cycling short. The great news is that there is a short out there for you, waiting to take you on the next great adventure.