Why Special Shorts?
Why do you even need a specific cycling shorts in the first place? Why not a general athletic short or a pair of baggy mountain bike shorts? The answer is in the materials, chamois (padding), and fit.
Most athletic gear is made of materials picked for their breathability and their ability to wick sweat away from the skin to evaporate on the outside of the fabric. Merino Wool is a natural variety of this kind of fabric, but nylon, polyester, and spandex are all synthetic varieties that are usually found in athletic shorts. You don't need a bike-specific short to go for a bike ride — as a kid, you probably didn't gear up before hopping on your bike (we've all seen the Facebook memes pining for the good 'ol days before anyone wore helmets). However, once you get into the world of cycling and you get serious about riding far and hard, you need some protection between you and the saddle.
Both road cyclists and mountain bikers wear shorts that have a chamois in them. They're usually foam or gel padding, true chamois is a fine leather made from a European mountain goat or some other type of wild ungulate and real chamois hasn't been commonly used in riding shorts for many decades. Ever taken leather Timberlands out to do work and had it rain or had to work in water puddles and waited for those things to dry the next day (they become craggy, hard, and unworkable)? Just image the superior comfort offered by sweat-hardened leather strategically placed directly under the weight-bearing contact points of your unmentionables.
In road-specific gear, the padding is usually more ergonomically shaped, and made with a forward, aggressive riding position in mind. This prevents fabric from bunching up, creating pockets and discomfort while in the saddle. This is also why the chamois bows toward you or away from you when examining the shorts in your hands — you can't lay the chamois flat on the ground. The chamois is usually fixed in place and positioned toward the front of the bib or short, unlike mountain bike chamois, which are often on removable liners and in the middle of the short.
The fit of tight cycling shorts is another distinguishing factor. Unlike baggy mountain biking shorts, form fitting Lycra reigns supreme, and a tight, aerodynamic fit is the norm. This creates less friction on the road bike when you are in one position for longer periods of time. It also decreases wind drag, allowing you to cut the air in a more streamlined fashion. Baggy mountain bike shorts focus on protection from falls and unrestricted movement with a looser-fitting short.
It should be noted that many serious cross-country mountain bikers and racers prefer form-fitting cycling shorts or bibs with a fixed chamois since this style offers the most performance and most aerodynamic fit. Any type of cycling that involves hammering the pedals for a long period of time can benefit from the style of cycling shorts covered in our bike short review.
Shorts or Bibs?
If you were to poll road cyclists on riding with shorts or bibs, the majority would say that bibs are the hands down best choice for medium to longer rides, and that shorts are reserved for shorter rides or leisure rides. In our testing here at OutdoorGearLab, we generally concurred with this assumption, with the exception of touring shorts, which suit a difference riding need. For the sort of folks who like to go pound out 50 or 60 miles on the weekends or do their annual century ride, bibs are the way to go. For those folks who like to go out on week long tours, spending 8 or 10 hours in the saddle, stopping in towns, needing to get in and out of your clothes for obvious reasons, bibs can really be inconvenient - needing to take your jersey off to get your shoulder straps down in a cramped bathroom stall, etc.
The distinguishing factor of bibs is the upper part with the shoulder straps. These straps hold the chamois in place, minimizing movement while changing positions on the bike or even walking around. This reduces hot spots and chafing along the waistline and can help reduce saddle sores from spending a long time in the saddle, as well as keeping the fabric from bunching up around the crotch. Bibs are also more comfortable around the waist. Continual pressure around the abdomen while cycling can lead to gastronomic distress — a situation that isn't always easily dealt with on the road. The lack of waistband also allows for less restrictive breathing while on your bike.
Another benefit of bibs is that they function better off of the bike. The shoulder straps keep the chamois closer to the body, helping mitigate the wet diaper look, and you don't have to adjust yourself before hopping back on your bike after a pit stop.
With all the benefits of bibs, it's hard to think shorts are worth it, but they have can have great advantages - plus personal preference might push some toward shorts. Shorts are cooler than bibs. The uppers on bibs provide more coverage, which traps heat. Brands mitigate this in various ways, including fine mesh and varying the cut of the garment like the Pearl Izumi Elite In-R-Cool Bike Bib shorts, which included a large open vent across the lower back. Not only do shorts have the natural advantage of less coverage, but some models take the extra step of including venting features in the legs, like the Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts.
Shorts fit a wider range of riders than bibs. Bib straps can be too tight or too loose, depending on your torso. The bib straps can also irritate your skin, depending on how sensitive you are. Some shorts are now being cut lower in the front, which doesn't cause as much pressure around the abdomen and doesn't restrict breathing. As it happens, the shorts in our review all had very high cuts.
Shorts can be more versatile off of the bike. A pit stop becomes a little more involved when you have to negotiate bib straps from under your jersey just to relieve yourself. After a ride, bike shorts with a lower profile can be worn under a pair of street shorts as well, but good hygiene dictates that you not be that guy: take a quick bird bath in a bathroom sink or use hand wipes and change into normal clothes if you can.
The chamois is the padding that helps insulate you from the saddle. (We discussed earlier that this is just the name that stuck with the padding, but contemporary shorts rarely have a true chamois.) This is the primary feature that defines a pair of bike shorts and will be the one thing that differs from short to short and usually takes a ride (or someone riding for you and writing about it!) to get a feel for how the chamois functions. You can't always take the marketing claims at face value, and thickness is just one consideration when looking at a chamois. The density of a chamois plays a major role in how comfortable it will ride, as well as the shape and whether or not it has exposed stitching. The SUGOi Evolution Pro bibs have a chamois with a precise fit, which means certain body types might not fit as comfortably as others. The Gore Power 3.0 bibs feature a chamois with less defined features and the fit is more general, meaning that it will be more applicable to a broad variety of body types. The downside is that the less defined padding can end up being too much padding in the wrong areas.
There are many different styles, colors, and ways of affixing chamois in the shorts we tested.
Style of Riding
The style of cycling you will be doing plays a major role in what kind of shorts or bibs to purchase. If you are looking for protection on family cruises or jaunts on the rail trail, the Canari Velo Shorts or other less expensive models will work well for you. The gel chamois and comfortable fit make it a great choice for protecting your underside on general road rides. If you are an avid cyclist looking for a go-to garment, you'll be happy with our Editor's Choice Award winner SUGOi Evolution Pro Bib shorts. These bibs feature a fit that stays comfortable for any amount of time in the saddle and can be worn day-in and day-out without the worry of sores or hot spots. If you're looking for shorts that have a precise fit and chamois for shorter training rides, consider the Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts.
Besides the considerations between bibs and shorts we covered above, you want to make sure that the item you purchase fits you in a way you like that makes you comfortable. The length of the inseam should be considered when making your purchasing decision. The shorts/bibs we tested claimed inseams ranging from 8" to 9.5". When we broke out our handy measuring tape, we found that this feature was hard to confirm. Although all of the leg cuffs came to about the same place while wearing them, it wasn't clear where the brands were taking the inseam measurement.
All of the shorts and bibs we tested were sized medium, and felt true to this size. The Pearl Izumi Elite In-R-Cool fit much tighter around the legs than the others due to their compression materials. All of the straps on the bibs were comfortable and we never had issues with irritation, but you should consider the straps if you have sensitive skin or a longer torso than average to avoid issues with these.
Lastly, the method used to hold the leg cuffs in place differs. The legs can be held down with silicone grippers on the inside of the shorts or with compression cuffs. Usually the compression style grippers are more comfortable, don't pull on the skin or leg hair (if you haven't discovered razors yet), and are found on higher end models.
Comfort is always something to consider, but keep in mind that just because it feels good when you try it on that doesn't mean that a pair of shorts or bibs will hold up in the saddle. However, you can still make sure you don't feel any irritating stitching or straining of the material. Your local bike shop will have no problem if you want to hop on a bike to make sure the shorts or bibs you're trying on are comfortable in the riding position.
Nylon and spandex are the predominate materials in road cycling bibs and shorts. Several of the brands we tested have their own trademarked materials that are some combination of these and often include polyester fibers. Because most cycling garments are composed of the same durable, elastic materials, irrespective of cost, you can be confident that they will perform to a relatively high standard.
That being said, some of our shorts did a better job utilizing materials than others. The Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts were made from four different primary materials that were placed for compression, flexibility, comfort, and breathability. The Gore Power 3.0 bibs were primarily made of two materials and used a special treatment to induce breathability, durability, and flexibility.
The Aero Tech Designs Gel Padded Touring shorts and Zoot Sports Active Tri shorts both included pockets, with the Aero Tech shorts taking up the entirety of each leg. Since it is common practice to ride with a bike jersey, pockets in your shorts aren't a necessity. However, it was still nice to have somewhere to stash a key or an extra energy gel when your jersey pockets are full or you're in a sleek jersey with small pockets.
Another feature worth consideration is UV protection. The sun is no joke, and when you're out riding for several hours it is important to protect yourself. Sunscreen is always recommended, but having a garment that also blocks UV rays goes a long way in protecting yourself against issues down the road. The Louis Garneau CB Carbon 2 shorts, Pearl Izumi Elite In-R-Cool bibs, and the Zoot Sports Active Tri shorts all offered UV 50+ protection.