The right pair of cycling shorts will help keep you dry, comfortable and warm (or cool, as conditions demand), utilising modern fabrics to create breathable garments that channel moisture away from the skin.
Different types of shorts will serve different functions according to their intended use – from padded lycra racing shorts to MTB ‘baggies’.
Quality shorts are a sound investment no matter what discipline of cycling you prefer, with body-hugging lycra the best bet for long hours of pedalling and tough but lightweight baggy shorts able to take the punishment of trail riding.
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Bike shorts as with other types of cycle clothing are designed to keep you dry by channelling moisture from perspiration to the outside of the fabric (‘wicking’) and in the case of Lycra garments, warm and comfortable by trapping a layer of insulating air close to the skin.
Bike shorts differ from ‘normal’ shorts in taking into account the different demands of cycling and the riding position – high, elasticated waistbands; vents to allow cool air enter; avoidance of flapping fabrics that can chafe or get in the way; seams designed and placed to prevent irritation etc.
The key factor that separate most bike shorts (except for Downhill (DH) or Freeride (FR) garments) from ‘normal’ shorts is the pad or chamois in the seat area for maximum comfort when pedalling in the saddle.
The two most common types of cycle shorts are skintight padded road shorts and baggy MTB shorts.
Tight-fitting Lycra road shorts are the ‘classic’ cycling garment.
Lightweight and snug to the skin, Lycra shorts are regarded as the most comfortable and aerodynamic option for long, pedal-intensive riding as they allow for fantastic freedom of movement and are not prone to chafing. They are made of modern materials which are ‘breathable’ (allow water vapour to escape through the fabric, rather than condensing on the skin) and which draw sweat away from the skin to where it can evaporate (a quality known as ‘wicking’)
Better-quality shorts are made up of more individual panels to provide an optimum fit to your body contours, while chamois quality will also improve with premium shorts: contoured, multi-density ‘shammies’ that are more supple and comfortable on long rides and less prone to bacteria and odour. It is worth noting that chamois care is essential to prolonging the life of any shorts, with post-ride washing obligatory and pre-ride treatment with special cooling and moisturising chamois cream advised for both comfort and long life.
Lycra shorts come in different lengths and configurations:
• Waist shorts: These are Lycra shorts secured with an elasticated waistband (as opposed to a bib, as below).
• Bib shorts extend up over the abdomen and have straps that go over the shoulders, rather than a waistband. These are less prone to chafing and cutting into stomach. They are also useful as a semi-base layer to keep the kidneys warm, and don’t leave any skin on your back exposed should your jersey ride up, so the extra expense is worth it if you intend doing any chilly-weather riding.
• Tights (¾ or full-length, bib or non-bib) provide more leg coverage and are better for colder weather conditions.
• Winter tights are made from thicker material offering better insulation to keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures. They are however heavier, less breathable and more restrictive than ‘normal’ shorts so a cold-weather option only.
• Women’s specific Lycra shorts and bibs are widely available, cut not only to reflect the differences in female anatomy but also with chamois contoured to suit.
The closest thing possible to a second skin, Lycra bike wear is the road-rider’s uniform. However many MTB riders and casual city cyclists prefer baggier-style clothing over figure-hugging and unforgiving Lycra. Some riders will even go for the best of both worlds choosing a Lycra base layer with more flattering baggy shorts worn over them.
Chosen over Lycra shorts sometimes for reasons of style over practicality, ‘baggies’ are generally the preference of leisure MTB and trail riders (mountain bike racers will generally stick to Lycra for the same reasons as road riders).
However baggy shorts are not solely a style choice, featuring many practical additions that the MTB rider finds useful. Made of tough but lightweight nylon fabrics they provide better protection again brambles, branches and the occasional encounter with the ground than do thin Lycra, while cooling air vents and a multitude of pockets are also helpful.
Most baggy shorts also feature a chamois, save for DH and FR garments in where long hours pedalling in the saddle are not an issue. The chamois can be an integral part of the shorts, or with more expensive garments, can form part of a removable liner. This is a useful option as it means the shorts can be worn off the bike without the liner, or liner and shorts can be washed separately. A quality liner should have leg grips to stop them flapping or riding up.
A comfortable and adjustable elasticated waistband is essential, as is a secure method of closure that is easy to operate with gloved fingers (snap buttons or velcro in preference to ‘normal’ buttons, for example). Lycra stretch panels are good for an optimum on-bike fit, while cooling vents may appeal if you are a hard-working rider who sweats a lot. A selection of cargo pockets as well as a zip-secured pocket for valuables is good for storage, but bear in mind that it’s not comfortable or advisable to pedal with pockets stuffed to the brim, or to carry sharp objects like keys in your shorts pocket when there is a risk you may fall off.
Women’s specific baggy shorts are also widely available and are typically shorter than the men’s equivalent which will usually extend to the mid-thigh or just above the knee.
Cycle courier-inspired ¾-length shorts are more and more popular for their style and for the extra knee protection and warmth they offer, but if you are smaller or taller than average check the fit as they may be too long or short and look odd compared to standard shorts.
Many shorts will feature additional bells and whistles some of which will be useful – such as adjustable straps to tighten around the legs and prevent the fabric flapping or fouling, reflective panels for night-time commuting – and some of which will be not.
The best baggy shorts strike a simple balance: lightweight but durable fabric, a comfortable fit without chafing or irritation, plenty of adjustability and enough pockets to be practical.