Jan 09 2010
Bike shorts engender discussion and debate among cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Those who have never worn them can’t imagine why anyone would pour themselves into tight shorts with bulgy padding like an oversized maxi pad. They look so strange, those bike shorts, so silly, and in the eyes of some folks, wearing bike shorts in public borders on exhibitionism. So, if an item of clothing can cause such strong feelings, why wear them? The answer is simple:
Bike Shorts Are Comfortable A properly fitted pair of lycra bike shorts is like a second skin. They stretch without binding when you flex your legs, and the fabric transports sweat away from your body. They won’t bunch up and form folds that cause welts and chafe. They’re cool in hot weather, and when worn under tights in cool weather, they’ll help keep your thighs warm.
Bike shorts are lined in the crotch and backside with a pad called a chamois (pronounced SHAM-ee). Chamois vary in design from thin slabs of suede-like fabric to thick, highly engineered pads. The original chamois were shaped of leather from the hide of a European mountain goat-like animal of the same name. Chamois hide is especially soft and supple, and was kept that way by treating it with an emollient after each washing. But the leather chamois has been supplanted by the absorbent, synthetic versions found in bike shorts today, which usually don’t require treatment to remain soft and pliable
Together with a well-chosen bike saddle, the snug-fitting lycra shorts and chamois contribute to a comfortable ride over long distances. If you wear street clothes when riding your bike and your backside is happy, then you don’t need special bike shorts. On the other hand, if you suffer from chafe or saddle sores, or if you want to ride for longer periods of time, then you’ll probably be more comfortable wearing bike shorts. But for many folks, a major concern is…
Keeping Up Appearances Some are concerned that their bodies more closely resemble the Michelin Man than the slim, thigh-bulging catalog models in second-skin lycra shorts. Don’t let it get to you. Your comfort is the main concern. When I returned to serious cycling after a long hiatus, I worried about how I’d look in bike shorts, so I wore loose cargo pants or shorts. Mistake. I had no end of trouble with chafe and saddle sores. I swallowed my concerns about appearances, bought an inexpensive pair of lycra bike shorts, and my troubles went away. I’ve never gone back.
If you’re concerned about how you would look in bike shorts, just take a gander around you at people in their street clothes. There are plenty of bulges and sags peeking through, so don’t feel bad if you don’t have the body of a bike racer. Ride often enough, and your sags and bulges will fade away. And you’re more likely to ride often if it’s comfortable doing so. In any case, black shorts have a slimming effect on your body. They’re snug and help compress those flabby bits. And if you want to appear more normal when you go into stores or stop at the coffee shop, pull a pair of lightweight street shorts or pants right over the shorts when you get there. In my handlebar bag, pannier, or rack trunk, I carry a pair of pants that can be zipped off to make shorts. They’re compact enough to fold into a small package, but can be pulled over my bike shorts when I need to blend in with everyone else or when I’m shopping and need pockets for my wallet, lists, and other necessities.
Ready to take the plunge and give them a try? Then you’ll want to know more about…
Choosing Bike Shorts If you’re not sure whether you’ll stick with them and don’t want to spend a lot of money, you can buy inexpensive basic lycra bike shorts from retailers like Bike Nashbar for about USD20. I suggest buying two pair if you will be riding daily, because you’ll need to wash them after each use. Cheaper shorts are more likely to be made with thin chamois, lightweight fabric, and rolled seams, than are the more expensive shorts. If you discover you like wearing bike shorts and want models which are better built or have thicker chamois, then expect to pay upwards of USD50 per pair unless you find them on sale. Haunt the online retailers’ sales for discounts if your budget is tight.
Whatever shorts you buy, they should fit snugly without binding. Loose lycra shorts will not support your muscles, and they’ll tend to sag and form folds that will cause chafe. Choose the size carefully—read customer reviews for their views on whether the shorts you’re considering are true to size and then size yours accordingly.
Gals, do you need gender-specific shorts? Not necessarily. When I first began buying them, it was very difficult to find women’s shorts which didn’t cost a fortune, so I bought men’s versions. I now have both, though the shorts I find most comfortable are designed for men. My women’s shorts have high and narrow waists, and they have wide hips, too. I don’t particularly like a high rise, and the wide hips means that the shorts are looser than I like around my thighs. The chamois are wider in the women’s pairs, but don’t need that extra bit at the edges near the sit bones. Here are photos showing a pair of women’s (on the left) and a pair of men’s (on the right) bike shorts:
The only way to know which shorts suit you best is to buy a pair and try them. Cheaper shorts will have rolled seams rather than flat-stitched ones, and the chamois of cheaper shorts are less likely to be thick or complexly shaped. Flat seams are less likely to chafe, but the thick chamois is a mixed blessing for some cyclists. Beware of chamois that fold and bunch when you pedal, because this will cause chafe and saddle sores.
Wash bike shorts after every use in mild detergent so that you rid them of sweat-salt and bacteria which can cause saddle sores. Air dry them outside in the sun if you can, with the chamois side out to expose the padding to the sun’s rays. The sun is a powerful antibacterial agent. If you need a bit of lubricant, consider a chamois cream, or use petroleum jelly, but be forewarned—creams and petroleum jelly can clog skin pores and help promote saddle sores.
One last thing: Bike shorts are designed to be worn without underwear. If you wear tighty-whities inside bike shorts, the seams of the underwear will rub against you and defeat one of the purposes of the shorts—seamless contact between you and your clothing. Having said that, some cyclists do wear undies with their bike shorts and experience no difficulties, but they tend to choose boxers which are free of seams in the crotch.
Still not sure if you like the idea of wearing lycra shorts in public, but you would like some padding? Then maybe you need…
An Alternative If you’re still a bit leery of being seen in public with skin-tight shorts, just wear a pair of loose street shorts over them. The pair shown below work for me. They’re loose and have pockets for my keys and wallet, and they are baggy enough to be comfortable over bike shorts. The mesh pockets even promote ventilation. You could buy mountain biking shorts, which are padded inside but loose and baggy outside. Or you could buy lycra liner shorts intended to be worn under street clothes. I prefer cheap lightweight lycra shorts instead of liners when I’m sure I’ll be wearing street clothes, because the price of shorts is close to liners, and the lycra shorts can be worn on their own if I wanted to.
The Bottom Line Lycra bike shorts might make you feel immodest and silly when you first pull them on, but after a couple rides I’m guessing you’ll discover why so many cyclists wear them. They won’t instantly transform your body into that of a bike racer, but they can make cycling a lot more comfortable.