If you're going to be riding your bike for more than a couple of miles at a time, padded, cycling specific shorts are essential. Choosing the right pair of shorts is vital for a comfortable ride and there are a number of features to consider that will impact the comfort of the shorts including seat pad, grippers, material, fit and strap style. It will be well worth your while investing in a good quality pair; poorly fitting bib shorts can quickly ruin a ride and put you off getting back out there again.
Made from stretchy material, usually a combination of Lycra and nylon, a good pair of shorts will sit close against the skin and move with your body while you ride, reducing the chance of chafing. The seat pad (chamois) will protect you and provide a soft surface in the contact areas between you and your saddle.
Bib and waist shorts are available although most people choose bib shorts, and for good reason; shoulder straps of varying design hold the shorts in place and they are hard to beat comfort-wise. The straps not only hold the shorts up, but eliminate any issues with a waistband digging into your hips, consequently causing discomfort. You also don't run the risk of having a gap between your shorts and jersey which can become quite draughty.
Bibs are extremely versatile and a good pair will see you through every season. You can wear them alone or with leg or knee warmers and on the coldest days you can put tights over the top. They are designed to be worn next to the skin, so no underwear is needed. Some people don't like wearing bib shorts and like the added practicality of waist shorts such as the Castelli Free Aero Women's Short which is essentially a lycra cycling short with an added chamois pad. However, waist shorts are more susceptible to moving around and may require adjustment while you ride.
You tend to get what you pay for although all shorts are made slightly differently and you need to discover what works best for you; you may end up finding a pair of £50 shorts more comfortable than a £250 pair. Generally though, the more expensive the shorts, the more improvements there will be, with higher quality, lighter fabrics, flatlock seams, improved leg grippers and other technical features.
There are a huge range of options out there for both men and women. Ensure you think about how you will be using the shorts and take the below factors into consideration.
Fabric and fit
Find a pair of shorts that fits you perfectly and you will never want to wear any others. Cycling shorts are cut to work best when you are on the bike and it's important to remember this when trying them on - they may feel a bit strange, but will be far more comfortable once you are riding.
The shorts should be skin tight but not restrictive (although some are advertised as having compressive properties) so the fabric doesn't rub against your skin when pedalling. The seat pad should also be flush against the skin so whether you are in the saddle, or climbing or sprinting out of the saddle, there is limited movement. The addition of chamois cream can further reduce the risk of irritation. Whatever the bib strap style, they should be snug but not digging into the shoulders and wider straps tend to distribute pressure more evenly.
The quality, thickness and weight of the fabric can vary greatly. Shorts like the ASSOS T Equipe S7 Bib Short are lightweight, breathable and constructed for hot summer rides with larger cutaways in the back and thinner mesh materials to help cool you down. Others are perfect for the UK winter, being engineered with a fleece-backed thermal inner lining to keep you warm. Some even offer a degree of water resistance (Sportful Fiandre NoRain Bib Short) and shorts with sun protection are becoming more prevalent, so you only need to use sunscreen on exposed areas.
The more panels a cycling short is constructed from tends to equal an improved, more precise fit. Flatlock stitching is another feature present in high-quality shorts and reduces the chance of irritation of seams against the skin.
Always check the size guide when buying shorts as sizing can be fairly inconsistent between brands and models.
Most will agree that the seat pad, or chamois, is the most important part of the short to get right, however, the fit of the short will also affect how the pad feels. If you are new to padded shorts the seat pad is likely to feel a little strange at first, but once on the bike, you will definitely be glad it's there! The pad can range from a single layer of foam at the lower end to those with multiple-density layers and antibacterial, sweat-wicking and anti-chafing properties.
The purpose of the seat pad is to provide padding and comfort in contact points between the body and the saddle and more advanced shorts will have variable densities of padding to suit requirements. An antibacterial hygienic finish is common and channels or perforations will assist in wicking away sweat. A good quality pad will feel soft and have some flex to move with your body. Ideally, you want to be able to feel the pad as little as possible while riding.
It's now possible to buy cycling shorts specifically for different types of riding; shorts may have a slimmer pad for shorter rides or races than for endurance rides. The seat pad in women's and men's shorts will differ to suit the different anatomy. A women's seat pad tends to be narrower and shorter than a men's but once again, what suits one person may not suit the next, regardless of gender.
Deciding to go for bib shorts over waist shorts tends to be a choice most cyclists make, mainly for comfort reasons. Once that decision is made, there are a few options out there.
Men generally have less choice in this area, with most bib straps being widely spaced and going up and over the shoulders. Women, however, have more options. As well as the straight up and over design that works well for some women, a halterneck or a single central strap that may also include the option to unclip are common. Others have full coverage over the chest area offering comfort and added support. Comfort and practicality are the main reason for gender differences in bib design and Velocio have designed shorts with a zipper to make them pee-break friendly. Having an option such as this may make the difference between a woman choosing bibs or settling for waist shorts.
Leg grippers keep the shorts in place and good grippers eliminate the short leg riding up. Silicone tape or dots are common although wide, elasticated, compressive hems are becoming more common and offer a more progressive fit, resulting in less 'squeeze' and a more flattering silhouette. Bad grippers may pull at the skin and cause skin irritation.
There are a number of other features to look out for. Reflective detailing is key if you are riding at night or in low light conditions, where enhanced visibility is needed. There may also be times when a one-piece suit is a better option. A speedsuit or skinsuit is an extremely comfortable option and offers improved aerodynamic efficiency, so is often used in races.
Browse the Sigma Sports range and stay comfortable on the bike by investing in a pair of cycling shorts.