Cycling shorts are unlike regular shorts in that they have padding built into the crotch and posterior region. It may sound odd to put the padding there, rather than on your bicycle seat, but it’s actually much more effective and efficient to do it that way. And, unless you’re riding a bike with one of those big, wide, spring-loaded seats, you’ll definitely want to invest in a good set of padded cycling shorts. Regular shorts will just not cut it! (The pad, by the way, is called the “chamois”, in reference to the old days when it really was a soft leather chamois.) Don’t skimp on shorts, either – better shorts have better padding, which leads to a much more enjoyable ride!
A typical pair of cycling shorts
SPECIAL NOTE: When shopping, you’ll likely notice that many of the better cycling brands come from Europe (Castelli, Girodana, Assos, Santini, Etxe Ondo, just to name a few). While excellent style and performance can be had from both North American and European brands, you should be aware of the size differences. European brands are generally one size smaller than their American counterparts. Check the manufacturer’s website for sizing guidelines, but going up one size compared to your normal shorts is generally a good rule of thumb!
SPECIAL NOTE 2: Most shorts are designed for men, since most cycling enthusiasts are men. But there are also woman-specific shorts that you should seek out if you are a female rider. I don’t have to tell you that the sensitive parts of a woman are definitely different than those of a man, so naturally the padding in the shorts is different as well! Most major brands offer both male and female versions – you just may have to look a bit harder for the fairer-sex models…
When I bought my first bike I asked the salesman whether I should upgrade my pedals or saddle (seat) or something else on the bike. His reply has always stuck with me, “your best upgrade is to invest in a really nice pair of bib shorts”. I thought that was odd advice, and didn’t pay much attention to it for several months until I heard it again and again from other sources. “What is so special about bib shorts”, I wondered? They are either nearly obscene looking or just plain dorky, depending on viewpoint, and they didn’t look like they could be particularly more comfortable than regular shorts at the time.
But, turns out I was wrong. Curiosity got the better of me and I bought my first pair of bib shorts from that same bike shop. The experts were right – bib shorts are significantly more comfortable than regular shorts! The basic advantage they have is that the “suspenders” (the straps that go over your shoulders and hold everything up) ensure that the padding below stays in the proper place. Regular shorts tend to work their way down and end up feeling like you’ve got a “load” in your pants! With bibs, everything stays in place nicely and the entire fit is just more comfortable overall. …I could go into great detail, but suffice it to say that I will never buy anything but bib shorts again! The main drawback is cost – bibs typically run from about $75, all the way up to over $300 for a pair. If you’re a good shopper, though, you can frequently find them for half off or more at closeouts online or even on eBay (where I buy most of mine). My best score so far was a $150 pair of Hincapie shorts I paid $33 for, brand new! Just beware of sizing, though – as I mentioned above, European brands tend to be a size (or two) small.
Typical pair of cycling bib shorts – they come in all sorts of wild colors and graphics
Oh, there is one other small disadvantage of bibs vs. regular shorts – the restroom break. If you’re someone who has to make a lot of pitstops along a ride, you might not want bib shorts, or you might want to make sure you get a high-end pair that is very low in the front. It’s nearly impossible to get them off in a porta-potty or a restroom stall, so you generally have to just pull the front down to do your thing, if you know what I mean. If the front covers your chest, that can be a bit of a problem!
SPECIAL NOTE FOR WOMEN: Any women reading this are probably thinking, “there is no way I’m putting those straps over my chest” and they’d be right. Not the best strategy for comfort during a long ride! But, not to worry, there are bib shorts with a single strap that goes up the middle of your chest designed specifically for women. Some brands also have the option of a completely-covered chest area, sometimes with a zipper down the front. Or some have “suspender straps” that are designed to go around rather than over your frontal area. (There are also woman-specific models of traditional shorts for those not wanting to mess with straps at all.) All of these approaches allow for a much more comfortable fit for women, but some of them certainly don’t help with the potty break problem! Try before you buy if you can, and get the ones that are most comfortable to you…
(Stay tuned for my review and comparison of several low to high-end bib shorts, coming soon! I’ve tested models from Castelli, Assos, Pearl Izumi, Craft, Hincapie, Giordana, Voler, GSG, Santini and Etxe Ondo)