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How We Tested Mountain Bike Shorts

Wednesday May 29, 2019

For obsessive mountain bikers and gear nerds like us, testing mountain bike products is one of the more enjoyable jobs imaginable. Typically it involves long days in the saddle with intense scrutiny of the products in question before, during, and after our rides. In this case, we tested all the pairs of mountain bike shorts in this review for an extended period on the incredible variety of trails in and around the Lake Tahoe area in northern California and Nevada. The scope of riding locations nearby exist in a range of climates, from loamy foothill forests to high desert hardpack and everything in between. We splashed through streams and mud, sweat in the hot California sun, shivered in some late spring storms and abused each pair of shorts as if they were our own. We don't discriminate, so we used each pair of shorts for all types of riding: laps at the bike park, XC hammer-fests, all day epics, short enduro laps, you name it. Each pair was tested with and without kneepads on trails that ranged from silky smooth to knock-your-fillings-out rowdy. We crashed occasionally, had many a close encounter with tree bark and bushes, and always got the shorts dirty, so dirty that we even washed and dried each pair after every ride. Through it all, we kept detailed notes on all aspects of each pair's performance, and we rated them all on six predetermined metrics: Comfort, Fit and Pedal Friendliness, Features, Style, Durability, and Protection. We compiled these scores to determine which shorts are the best and why.

Comfort


We feel that the overall comfort of a pair of mountain bike shorts is one of their more important attributes. While comfort is somewhat subjective, there are some factors that go into this assessment, things like ventilation, feel of the fabric, overall fit, and chamois liner (if included), all affect the comfort of the shorts. Some of the shorts we tested come with an included chamois liner, while others are intended to be worn over your own. Chamois liners are not created equal and many people have specific preferences when it comes to this very personal piece of riding kit, some don't want their shorts to come with one, while others feel that an included chamois is an added value to a pair of baggy shorts. Since our test shorts were split on this, those shorts that didn't come with a liner were not scored lower than those that did. For shorts that did include a chamois liner, we did test it and provided our opinion on the comfort and quality for each.

We rode in varied temperatures and took note of each shorts' ventilation, specifically about sweat management. This includes vents of any kind and how well they work, as well as the materials and their ability to breathe, wick sweat, and dry quickly. In addition to maintaining good ventilation, comfortable shorts are generally made of high-quality fabrics that also feel good against the skin. Throughout a ride and thousands of pedal strokes, rougher materials may cause discomfort or abrasion, while softer and lighter materials go unnoticed. In general, we find that the best mountain biking shorts are the ones you forget that you're wearing.

The Syncline shorts are comfortable and versatile  with a clean and casual look.
The Syncline shorts are comfortable and versatile, with a clean and casual look.

Fit and Pedal Friendliness


Throughout our testing we pedaled hundreds of miles in each pair of shorts and we rated the fit and overall pedal friendliness of them all. The fit of every pair of shorts varies based on some factors including the cut, articulation, length of the inseam, circumference of the leg holes, waist adjustment, and stretch and feel of the materials. We do make a note of how the shorts fit off the bike, but we were primarily concerned with how they fit while riding. It quickly became evident to us that some shorts are better suited to hammering out the miles, while others are less pedal friendly. The fit of the shorts and the materials used are the primary factors that influence the pedal friendliness, and some shorts provide more resistance during the pedal stroke than others. Sure, all of the shorts in this review are suitable for use during any mountain bike ride, from XC to downhill, some are just better for specific styles of riding than others.

The Enduro Pro shorts had a great fit and features made for charging both up and down the hill.
The Enduro Pro shorts had a great fit and features made for charging both up and down the hill.

Features


Generally speaking, mountain bike shorts are relatively simple in form and function, but these days they often have a variety of features designed to enhance the riding experience. We took all the features on each pair of shorts into account and judged them based not only on the fact that they are there, but how well they work. What good are pockets or vents if they aren't functional and useful? We don't tend to use the pockets on our riding shorts for much more than stashing the phone for easy access, unless we're kicking around town, but we assessed the number, placement, and security of them all. We loaded our pockets with much more than we'd normally carry, to see how easy it was to get stuff in and out of them, and most importantly, where and how the pockets hung when riding.

Waist adjustments are another feature that can make or break a pair of baggy mountain bike shorts. The type, style, placement, and ease of use of waist adjustments are significant factors that seriously affect the performance of this feature and dictate how well they hold your shorts up during a ride. We tested these adjustments by using them at home before riding, as well as making superfluous on trail adjustments to rate the user-friendliness of each design. Vents are another important feature that plays a significant role in the comfort of a pair of shorts. In this case we examine the style, size, placement, closures, and effectiveness of any vents on each pair of shorts. In general, the better ventilated a pair of shorts is, the more comfortable they were and the more we liked riding in them. We also took note of other features like the quality and comfort of included chamois liners, water-repellent finishes, and waist closures like buttons or snaps.

The thigh pockets on the Enduro Pro short have a functional design that holds items securely and comfortably while climbing or descending.
The thigh pockets on the Enduro Pro short have a functional design that holds items securely and comfortably while climbing or descending.

Style


Style is less of a tested rating as it is a subjective preference, but we felt it was appropriate to judge, rate, and comment on the way each pair of shorts looks. The pictures of the shorts in action are probably a better way to observe and judge the style of them for yourself, as people's preferences vary depending on a variety of factors. As modern trail riding continues to blur the lines between XC, Enduro, and DH, with strong influences coming from all sides, baggy mountain bike shorts come in a wide array of cuts, colors, and designs. Some have baggier fits, brighter colors, and more moto-inspired looks influenced by the DH scene, while others have slimmer fits, subdued color schemes, and subtle looks that are equally comfortable on the bike or at the bar after a ride. Preferences vary, but we took into account our own opinions as well as those of our riding partners and folks we ran into on the trail when rating these shorts. We found that when we felt more stylistically comfortable we were less distracted while riding and more capable of focusing on the trail ahead of us. We also liked shorts that we could leave on after a ride as we wandered aimlessly around the grocery store trying to figure out what to have for dinner, and not look like we were still wearing our bike shorts.

Clean lines  casual style. The Syncline shorts look good on or off the bike.
Clean lines, casual style. The Syncline shorts look good on or off the bike.

Durability


Mountain biking shorts, and anything associated with the sport for that matter, aren't exactly inexpensive, so the durability of them is an important aspect that we took into consideration. We tested the durability of each pair of shorts by thrashing on them with more gusto than we typically would our shorts. We crashed in more than a few pairs, not intentionally of course, and made frequent and excessive contact with trailside bushes, branches, and tree bark. We splashed through creeks and mud puddles, making sure to grind the mud into the seat of the shorts. We went out of our way to overuse the snaps, zippers, and velcro to wear them out. We washed and dried them after every ride, way more than we normally would, to see how they stood up to the machines. We went above and beyond, and at the end of our test period we examined each pair closely to see how they weathered the storm. At the end of our test period we closely examined the stitching and material for tears or runs, the seat of the shorts for permanent staining, and the zippers, snaps, and velcro for abnormal wear and tear. In general, we found the shorts that are made from heavier weight materials to be more durable, although these shorts often scored lower in other rating metrics because of the bulkier fabrics.

Protection


Shorts aren't usually considered to be a protective accessory, although they do provide the rider with a thin layer of protection from direct contact with objective hazards like the ground, bushes, trees, etc. Differences between the fit and materials of the various pairs help make some more protective than others. The overall length of the shorts dictates the amount of coverage they provide, resulting in more or less protection for the upper legs. The length of the shorts as well as the size of the leg opening by the knee also affect how well the shorts work with knee pads; some are better suited for this than others. The thickness of the materials used in the shorts will also play a role in how well they can protect you from trailside hazards, or in the event of a crash, and our experiences crashing and brushing up against bushes and branches factor into this assessment.

With a long and baggy fit and durable fabric  the Elevate shorts are more at home on the descents.
With a long and baggy fit and durable fabric, the Elevate shorts are more at home on the descents.