Look, the short (ha!) answer is that you should ALWAYS wear cycling tights OVER the top of cycling shorts.
The reason being: the vast majority of cycling shorts have a foam pad (also known as a chamois or a chammy) positioned directly under your, er, ‘undercarriage’.
The pad is there to provide protection and comfort as you sit on the saddle, spin your legs, look moody in expensive sunglasses, or whatever else it is that you do on the bike.
The pad is designed to be located directly against your skin.
(I am hoping I don’t need to tell you not to wear underpants with your cycling shorts).
If you wear cycling shorts underneath your tights, you add an extra layer that might (ok, most likely will) compromise the performance of the pad and the cycling shorts.
Without getting overly personal around my anatomy (to be fair, I share a lot on this blog…), the big risk I foresee for me would be the material of the tights rumpling up in the, er, crevice between the top of my thigh and my (technical term) gooch.
This rumpled material would then rub against the skin in this most sensitive of geopolitical regions, causing a saddle sore, much wailing, complaints to my significant other and ultimately a slightly embarrassing period of ‘recuperation’ off the bike.
What About Tights Under Or Over Unpadded Cycling Shorts?
Wash your mouth out young Padawan. You come round here talking about ‘unpadded’ cycling shorts? Go back whence you came.
Ok, I guess if you have a perverse predilection for unpadded bike shorts, this negates the argument above. You could wear the tights underneath the shorts.
However, you’d end up needing to wash the tights more. If you wear tights over your cycling shorts, you can get away with wearing them for a number of times between washes (assuming they don’t pick up too much grime from the road).
If it’s the tights that are closest to your nethercrackers, well you’ll be wanting to wash those after every ride because, you know, hygiene.
Tights With Or Without Chamois/Pad?
Well, you’d think this would go without saying, but definitely don’t wear PADDED cycling tights over PADDED cycling shorts.
Whilst it might sound like a good idea (double the cushioning), none of the manufacturers make pads that are designed to be worn double decker style.
At best I reckon you’d have a pretty unstable ride, as your backside slips and slides on the saddle. At worst I think you’re at risk of causing yourself a saddle sore.
For me, I prefer the versatility of tights without pads. You can wear them on top of a pair of bib shorts and take them off mid-ride if you need to. Once padded tights are on, they’re staying on (assuming you’re not riding to World Naked Bike Ride Day).
To be honest, the main time to be aware of padded cycling tights is when you’re trying to buy the unpadded ones. A surprising (to me) number of cycling tights do, in fact, come with pads.
If you want this, fine (in which case you can just wear the tights whence riding your bike); if not, make sure you get the unpadded variety.
Why Does It Look Like Pro Cyclists Wear Tights Under Their Shorts?
What you are looking at there, dear sir or madam, are leg warmers. Essentially the two legs from a set of tights with no bit at the top to join them together.
Leg warmers extend as far, er, northwards as just about half way up the rider’s thigh. They have a rubberised ‘grip strip’ at the top cuff that holds them in place on said thigh, then the bottom of the shorts are rolled down over the top of them.
Thus the impression is given that there is more going on within the rider’s shorts than is really the case (at least in terms of tight wearing).
Which Are Better, Cycling Tights Or Leg Warmers?
For me, leg warmers all the way. They look more pro (#MorePro) – the key consideration. You can wear any set of snazzy coloured bib shorts and pair them with a sombre pair of black leg warmers.
Or you can elect for garish high vis ones without (quite) crossing the Rubicon of becoming a full on high vis warrior.
More practically, you can start a ride with leg warmers on, then remove them as the day, or you, warms up. Leg warmers take up much less space that tights in a jersey pocket.
Also they look better.
You can read more of my musings on this vitally important topic by consulting this blog post here.
That All Said…
… I do sometimes wear cycling tights. If the weather is looking really filthy, they do offer an extra layer of material over the shorts, which will help marginally in keeping me warm.
Recommended Cycling Tights (And Leg Warmers)
Both my sets of cycling tights are very old. They are made by Nike, who stopped being fans of cycling at around the time of the Lance Armstrong ban (coincidence?).
Anyhoo, if I was buying tights now, I’d go for ones made out of Roubaix Lycra/spandex (slightly thicker; soft and fluffy inner surface), probably like these ones:
My ‘go to’ leg warmers remain these ones by GripGrab:
I’ve got a pair in black and, yes, high vis yellow.
Great quality, and fit really well.
And yes, they make me look pro…