Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Cycling specific clothes (shorts with padding and jerseys with pockets in the back) can at first look odd and uncomfortable but the benefits highly outweigh the initial aesthetics. If you’re leisurely riding for under an hour, running errands, athletic pants/jeans will probably be sufficient. If on the other hand, cycling is becoming a form of regular fitness, that’s when cycling (bib) shorts come into the picture. Below are some initial thoughts to keep in mind when buying shorts:
1. Padding (AKA Chamois, pronounced “shammy”)
The key distinction between cycling shorts and non-cycling specific shorts is the padding. That added cushion makes a world of a difference on long rides.
a) It alleviates pressure to prevent aches and numbness (yes, it happens!).
b )The material is designed to reduce friction and guards against chafing between you and the saddle.
c) Moisture wicking and anti-bacterial properties ensures hygiene is also kept in mind. Machines for Freedom, a women specific brand, provides an excellent example of the science that goes behind well-designed chamois.
Note: Keep in mind that the amount of padding for men and women are concentrated in certain areas to support our anatomically differences.
Another property with cycling shorts are the silicone grippers (an elastic band) that are at the hem of the shorts. You want to find ones that hug your thighs but not constrict them - just enough grip that it stays put when you pedal. Without them, the shorts can slide and the fabric will unnecessarily rub against your skin which leads to chafing. It comes down to experimenting which one is most comfortable for you.
When you’re starting off, the price point for cycling bottoms can get pretty steep (like over $200 for just one). Generally, the steeper the price, the higher the quality and technology used in design. It's apparent when you start riding in them. If you do go down that route, check to see what their return policy is like. Some higher end brands like Rapha.cc or Machines for Freedom have a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, that's how strongly they believe in their bibs - I own 4 from MFF. If it’s something you want to explore but with a lower price point check out cycling shorts on Amazon, TheBlackBibs, and other cycling websites. You’ll find some with similar properties in points 1 and 2, and if you take good care of it (hang dry vs dryer) then you can extend the life out of it. For starters, purchase shorts/bibs that hit your criteria plus fit within your budget until you feel ready to jump in and get into the gritty details of what matters more to you.
4. Shorts or bib shorts?
I’d say this comes down to preference. Does the waist band on your shorts slip when you ride and you find yourself having to pull it up? Do you value the ease of going to the bathroom on long rides over the long term comfort of feeling “put together”? Because I have an indoor trainer with rides lasting under an hour, I wear just cycling shorts that are less than $40 that I can be more lax with when it comes to washing and care. For long rides where comfort is of high importance, I invest more in the quality, wear bibs shorts, and take better care of it. Personally, on long rides, I don’t mind the extra 30-60 seconds of removing your jersey, long sleeve zip up (if it’s winter) then the bib. The big benefit with bibs, and it feels like tight overalls, is that unified feeling and keeping my pants from riding down. The clothes hug closely to me, helps with aerodynamics, and I feel like I ride better since the pieces are practically second skin.
Cycling specific shorts help with your personal comfort so you can focus on the joy of cycling (in whatever way to means to you). I will point out that comfort isn’t just a combination of shorts + saddle, it's also matters how often and how LONG you often ride so your butt can get used to the duration. Ultimately, the best bib shorts are the ones that fit your style of riding (short vs long rides, mountain vs road, etc) and makes you feel like a rockstar on the bike!
Stay tuned to part 2 about what to expect when wearing cycling shorts.