We tend to test mountain bike shorts in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall when the weather can be unruly and unpredictable. This year we tested our mountain bike shorts in Central Oregon, where spring came early and fall mostly played nice. With miles of open trails, we were able to take our pick and test the shorts in a variety of weather and terrain.
Each pair was tested on short rides and longer rides, primarily on smooth singletrack mixed with some rocky, technical terrain. Often, we swapped shorts mid-ride so that we could compare them back to back in identical circumstances. And sometimes we hit the jumps, just for fun. Mountain bike shorts need to protect you from the elements, so we noted how well they block the wind, sun, and sometimes rain. If they got muddy we investigated how well they cleaned up in the wash. We tried them with and without knee pads to see if they maintained functionality and covered well — or if they created the dreaded gap. And of course, we evaluated how they fit on a ride.
Fit and Comfort
Because apparel manufacturers all use different sizing, we looked at size guides for each model and ordered to fit the size of our lead tester, typically a small, but sometimes an extra-small. We evaluated how they fit relative to each other, and how adjustable the shorts are to dial in the perfect fit. In addition to having a good fit, we think about comfort as the type of stretch, the amount of fabric that bunches around the waist, and whether any spots rub, pinch, or chafe on a ride.
Do shorts ride up on our legs when pedaling? Do they stay up on our hips? Are they breathable? These are just a few of the things that we look at for this metric. If you don't notice your shorts when you are riding, that is a good sign.
The protection metric is related to the length of the inseam and the durability of the fabric. Terrain and riding style will typically dictate how durable you want your shorts to be, but even if a rider opts for lightweight shorts, we look at protection from wind, sun, and weather. Longer inseams offer greater protection and work well with kneepads.
Most mountain bikers want to have at least one pocket for easy access to lip balm or a small snack. Others prefer not to carry a pack, so lots of pockets are desirable. We evaluate the usefulness of pockets based on their material, size, placement, and security (whether they zip or not).
Style is subjective, of course, but several manufacturers are putting a lot of attention into details, fabrics, and cut that make shorts feel and fit differently from their male counterparts. Shorts with high marks for style are the ones that get reached for over and over again because they are more fun to wear or they just have a little more finesse.
Using these metrics, our goal was to test the most popular and top-rated ladies' mountain bike shorts and present our findings to you.