The cyclist’s journey towards velo mastery involves progressively replacing each item of clothing in their wardrobe with the equivalent garment made out of Lycra (Spandex to our US brethren). Cycling shorts are generally first on the list.
In this post, I’ll explore the exciting world of padded gussets and elasticated waistbands, and then give a few recommended shorts for you to check out.
Why Are Cycling Shorts Important?
Well first, al fresco riding on your bottom half is both breezy and likely to get you arrested. I’ve been there. (I haven’t)
Secondly, as one of the key junctions between you and your bike (the other two being at the handlebars and the pedals), there’s likely to be a spot of… er, rubbing.
If you’re anything like me, you value your undercarriage quite highly. You want to show it the respect it deserves (“Respect my ar*e!”).
Since your derriere is going to be lodged upon the saddle for hours on end, you want to make it as comfortable as possible.
Oh yeah, something about reducing wind resistance by not having excess material flapping around whilst you’re riding. Whatever.
Note: The links to products in this post are affiliate links. If you click on one and buy something, I’ll get a small commission. You won’t pay any extra, but you will get an immediate happiness boost from knowing that you’ve supported this site.
Types Of Cycling Shorts
In Le Mont’s almanac of all things road cycling there are essentially three different design of ‘short’:
- ‘Short’ shorts – let’s be honest, these are glorified (and gloriously tight) underpants. They cover you from your waist down to a point on each leg between the middle of the thigh and the knee. They have elasticated waistbands to keep things nice and tight.
- Bib shorts – these are like short shorts but with the addition of elasticated braces (UK) / suspenders (US) over your shoulders. The shoulder straps make the shorts stay in position whilst riding, and means that the elasticated waist band can be dispensed with. They also mean that going to the toilet becomes exponentially more difficult.
- ‘3/4’ length – other almanac makers might be tempted to lump these in with cycling tights. Not me! To my mind, they’re shorts for which the manufacturer has seen fit to extend the legs to just below the knee. As we all know, 80% of body heat is lost through the knees. Three quarter length shorts can be bought in bib (with shoulder straps) and ‘non-bib’ format.
How Much Can You Expect To Pay
Now you’re asking. Oh right, you are.
[Monty fumbles with Google]
At the budget end, cycling shorts (without the bib straps) start from around £20 / $30.
At the top end, the likes of Castelli and Rapha charge £150-200 / $200-300. Which is a lot of money.
What Do You Get When You Pay More?
More marketing bumph. Ha, I jest.
As the price goes up, you tend to see higher quality materials being used. The lycra (spandex) is more robust, squeezing you into the optimal shape to minimise wind resistance on the bike (or something). The padding becomes more substantial and is perhaps more intricately-shaped.
You see features like elasticated (and slightly sticky) bands at the end of the legs to stop them from sliding up your thighs, or small zipped pockets at the bottom of your spine (obviously not right at the … bottom).
And a bit more money spent on marketing. I no jest.
Bib Shorts vs Shorts (vs Non-Cycling Shorts)
Bib shorts are better. There, I said it.
Cycling shorts without bibs rely on an elasticated waist in order to hold them up. This can bite into your midriff and become increasingly uncomfortable the longer you spend on the bike.
Bib shorts tend to be more flattering in the gut area, an important consideration for a neo-MAMIL such as I.
With a tight(ish) lycra jersey, at best, elasticated waist shorts will dig in below the tummy, emphasising any inadvertent carbo-loading you might have indulged in. At worst, the shorts ride down, the jersey rides up and you have an opportunity to feel the wind upon a strip of your tum tum.
On the other hand, a bib, whence attached to a short, will tend to act a bit like a corset, keeping ‘all the right junk in all the right places’.
The only caveat to all this is when I want to wear cycling shorts under casual shorts (say I’m riding my road bike into town – a 30 minute ride each way – on an errand). Here I’d wear my waist cycling shorts because wearing lycra bib shorts under normal shorts and t-shirt feels faintly subversive (see also: going to the toilet).
And for completeness, I generally don’t wear non-cycling shorts on my road bike, other than for very short rides. Partly that’s habit I guess. Plenty of people ride bikes without padded shorts. Up to you – they’re your nether regions.
Can You Get Waterproof Cycling Shorts?
On the face of it a faintly ridiculous question. But the answer is actually yes.
Well, strictly they’re not waterproof. I don’t think anyone would want to wear skintight goretex shorts, no matter how breathable.
Quite a few companies now (including Sportful) make cycling shorts that are designed to give some protection from the elements (the wet ones). The main way they do this is by applying a water-repellent coating to the short fabric, causing the water that hits it to ‘bead up’ rather than be absorbed.
Like all wet weather clothing, there’s a limit to how much rainy punishment can be taken. Still, given our climate here in the UK, worth considering, particularly for early spring and autumn riding when you’re really not in the mood to get cold and damp…
Chamois Pad Shape – Does It Make A Difference?
First things first, chamois pads are no longer made out of chamois (i.e. soft leather, originally made from goat skin). Modern bumpads are made out of foam and gel inserts – neither of which have seen a goat.
And we probably don’t want to see a return to the good ol’ days. Chamois was originally inserted into cyclists’ (woollen) shorts to give a bit of ‘glide’ when sat on the saddle, thus reducing chafing. Provide padding it did not.
To answer the question, I’m sure pad shape does make a difference, within reason. My cheapy (and old…) Nike Discovery Channel short (see below) have a rubbishy thin pad. I wouldn’t wear them for more than a couple of hours on the bike.
The pads on my dhb and Specialized shorts (again, see below) are more sculpted, thicker (particularly in the case of the Specialized RBXs) and made of denser foam. Both pairs of shorts do a good job at protecting my valuable assets.
Whilst the clothing manufacturers, certainly the premium ones, will extol the virtues of their own superior pad ‘technology’, I’m sure the law of diminishing returns applies.
The ‘best’ chamois pad will be highly personal, based on the sculpting of your own pad (your backside). You may need to experiment with a few different brands and models (is that the right word?) before finding your optimal ‘bumfort’ (…bum comfort… ahem).
What Cycling Shorts Do I Wear?
Well, I went through a phase of liking the Discovery Channel pro cycling team in the mid 2000s (clearly I was a naive young man), so I bought a pair of the team bib shorts. They were made by Nike (or at least branded by Nike) and I would describe the ‘gusset pad’ as lo-tech.
I don’t wear these anymore unless all my other options are in the wash (unlikely). When I do, I say it’s because I’m fan of Roger Hammond (rather than he who shall remain nameless…).
And no, Nike don’t make cycling gear anymore. I can’t think why.
Best Cycling Bib Shorts For Under £60 / $70: dhb Aeron Bib Shorts (Mini Review)
My ‘go to’ cycling shorts are a pair of dhb Aeron bib shorts. I bought a set after having been impressed with a pair of dhb thermal bib tights (essentially padded cycling shorts that extend down to the ankles) that Wiggle sent me to review.
I have not been disappointed. Nay, I have been very happy with my purchase.
They look good (in my humble sartorial opinion). The lyrca is high quality and the cut seems flattering.
The coloured bands at the end of each leg (I went for red), via the medium of optical illusion I confess, give the impression that my thighs are more muscular and cycle-pro-like than is really the case.
(In the photo above, I’m also wearing leg warmers…)
I’ve owned this pair of shorts for over four years (a Wiggle search reveals I bought them just after Christmas 2015) and the pad remains comfortable.
So these are a solid, no-nonsense pair of cycling shorts, available for a reasonable price (dhb is the ‘own brand’ belonging to online cycling retailer Wiggle, so the prices offer good value for money).
(And no, we do not want any nonsense from our shorts)
Best Cycling Shorts For Long Rides: Specialized RBX Bib Shorts (Mini Review)
I bought the Specialized RBX’s back in 2013 as a treat to myself before doing RideLondon. Until then I’d only worn cheaper shorts on the bike. These were reasonably pricey.
The RBX is short for Roubaix and alludes to the Paris-Roubaix cycling race and, in particular, the 28 cobbled sections. As I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog, the likes of Specialized and Trek cunningly dress up their ‘endurance’ bikes as being suited to the arduous Belgian spring classics rather than those simply looking for more of a comfort fit.
The same branding applies here for these RBX shorts. The implication is that if they can protect a pro from an attack of the cobblestones in northern France, they’ll be padded enough to protect your undercrackers from the pot-holed roads of Blighty.
And in fairness they do. The padding in the ‘sit bones’ area is thicker and (with a quick poke test) denser than for my dhb shorts. The pad is slightly more pronounced in its moulding (though I have no scientific way of determining if that’s a good thing).
The shorts have lasted well. They’re still going strong over four and a half years later. The elasticated bands at the end of each leg has faded to a dark grey from the original black.
I marginally prefer the dhbs because of the red stylin’ but that’s personal preference. The dhb shorts are also slightly easier to get hold of.
What I can say though is that for the 110-ish miles of RideLondon (there was some riding to the start and away from the finish) I did not have any cycling shorts related discomfort. These are definitely good shorts for long rides.
Stolen Goat Bodyline ONE Bib Shorts
I got a pair of Stolen Goat Bodyline ONE (of course it’s capitalised) bib shorts from my sister and her husband for Christmas a few years back. I won’t subject you to another mini-review, other than to say:
- They’re excellent – really comfortable and look good on (insofar as any pair of lycra shorts looks good); and
- You should read my full review of them, which you can find by clicking here.
Other Cycling Shorts Options…
Now this wouldn’t be a Sportive Cyclist blog post without a few recommendations for cycling products that I don’t actually own.
We’ve already talked about the dhb Aerons (that I do own). I previously recommended these as the ‘value’ option.
I still think they offer excellent value for money, even though they’ve gone up slightly in price since I bought them.
Wiggle seem to have done a good job of moving the dhb brand positioning from ‘cheapy own brand’ to ‘attractive, good quality cycle wear’ (at least that’s my perception). Pricing-wise they’re getting closer to mid-range (though I’d struggle to suggest a value alternative).
Talking of mid-range options…
Best Cycling Bib Shorts For Under £120 / $175
Have you ever wished for ‘total comfort’ from your cycling shorts when spending a long day in the saddle? Well, your wish might have just come true with these Sportful Total Comfort Bib Shorts.
(Why does that paragraph feel like it came direct from a 1980s Saturday night gameshow…?)
Sportful, despite having a distinctly un-Italian name, are in fact Italian. And Italians just seem to do cycling clothing. And do it well.
Sportful supplies the kit to mens professional cycling teams, Bora-Hansgrohe and Bahrain-Merida, and to the womens team, Trek-Drops.
Whilst ‘marketing guff 101’ will play up the importance of kit having been tested and improved by professional riders, we can at least hope it meets a minimum build and comfort standard such that doesn’t risk a pro rider’s ability to win. So it’s going to be good enough for me and thee.
You can buy yourself total comfort (and find out a little more about what makes the shorts so comfortable) by:
Best Cycling Bib Shorts For Under £150 / $200
No list of cycling clothing on this site would be complete without an item from Castelli (particularly as, in writing this post, I’ve discovered that Maurizio Castelli invented the first synthetic chamois pad). Usually that ‘item’ shows at the more expensive end of the price scale.
Far be it from me to buck a time-honed tradition. So I give you the Castelli Free Aero Race 4 bib shorts.
Apparently these beauties ‘revolutionized cycling shorts’ in 2007. I don’t recall a revolution in 2007 (I guess all eyes were on the rapidly-deteriorating global financial system). But we are told that a revolution occurred, and it manifested itself in a bib short that provided ‘incredible feeling[s] of freedom’.
And all good revolutions should do that.
As we move into the upper echelons of what you might pay for a pair of bib shorts, you are getting the result of Castelli’s research into muscle support and blood flow (it seems ‘incredible freedom’ is not provided without a little support) and some quality time spent meditating in a wind tunnel (the side panels have aerodynamic dimples).
The shorts also contains a brand new version of the ‘Progetto X2 Air’ seatpad, which according to Castelli is ‘softer and more flexible’ (presumably than previous versions) to the point of being ‘virtually unnoticeable’ (almost like the Emperor’s new clothes…).
Of course, I jest about Castelli (and the company’s marketing spiel) but I seriously covet their clothing. It looks great and is very high quality (Castelli is also a pro cycling team sponsor, for a low key squad you might have heard of).
For my next ‘deluxe’ pair of cycling shorts (with phenomenal amounts of freedom), the Free Aero Race bib shorts will be top of the list.
If you seriously don’t want to go through the hassle of selecting a premium pair of cycling shorts and a premium (uber-tight) jersey then do I have a solution for you.
The Assos CS.speedfireChronosuit_s7 Speed Suit requires quite a bit of panache to pull off without looking like a complete plonker.
I reckon this guy nailed it though.
If you buy one, or you own one already, please send in a photo (and we can give you feedback on whether you look like a complete plonker).
Click here to buy (if you dare…)
The purchase of the first set of bibshorts signals the point of no return for the aspiring road cyclist. His or her future will be lycra-filled (and glorious). Once you protect your sack you won’t go back (as no cycle clothing manufacturer writes on their website).
I’ve been fortunate in that the shorts I own (and have owned) generally do the job. I haven’t suffered badly with saddle sores and the like (too much information?).
What is your experience? What shorts do you use and recommend? Can any female readers recommend well fitting shorts for women?
Let me know in the comments section below.
(Note: This is an update of a previously-published article, hence why some of the comments below have older dates…)