Jun 23 2017

Questions Cyclists Are Asked: Why Do You Wear Lycra Bike Shorts? by Tamia Nelson

Many cyclists wear tight lycra shorts, but why do guys and gals do this? Is it showing off? Or don’t they care that they look silly? The reason for the popularity of lycra shorts is a lot simpler than you might think. You might even want to consider getting a pair or two for yourself if you ride a bike. You say you’d never do so? Tamia thought she never would, either. But she changed her mind. Read why.

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 they’re 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:


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 to 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. These days, the leather chamois has been supplanted by absorbent, synthetic designs which usually don’t require treatment to remain soft and pliable.

Together with a well-chosen bike saddle, snug-fitting chamois-augmented lycra shorts contribute to a comfortable ride. Do you need special bike shorts? Not if your backside is happy wearing street clothes while riding your bike. 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. Even so, for many folks the major concern is…


Face it. More of us than ever have bodies closer to resembling the Michelin Man than the trim, thigh-bulging super-models displaying second-skin lycra in the bike catalogs. Don’t let it get to you. Your comfort is the main concern. When I returned to cycling after a long hiatus, I worried about how I’d look in bike shorts, so I wore loose cargo pants and cut-offs. Big mistake. Serious chafe and saddle sores brought tears to my eyes and eroded my concerns about appearances. I bought an inexpensive pair of lycra bike shorts and my troubles went away. I’ve never gone back.

If you worry 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 skinny jeans, form-fitting yoga pants, and everyday work-wear. Ride often enough, and your sags and bulges will sweat away, and you’re more likely to ride often if it’s comfortable in the saddle. Besides, 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 convertible pants — legs zip 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.


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 online retailers like our old standbys Performance Bike and Bike Nashbar. A quick check just now surprised me with a variety of lycra shorts for about USD10. I suggest buying two pair if you will be riding daily, because you’ll need to wash them after each use. If you discover you like wearing bike shorts and want models which are better designed, 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’re more likely to form folds that will cause chafe. Choose the size carefully — read customer reviews for their evaluations about size accuracy, comfort, and durability.

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:

Bike Shorts Compared

The only way to know which shorts suit you best is to buy a pair and try them. Cheaper shorts will probably have rolled seams rather than flat-stitched ones, and the chamois of cheaper shorts are less likely to be well engineered or complexly shaped. Flat seams are less likely to chafe, but the thick chamois is a mixed blessing for some cyclists — some prefer thin padding. Beware of chamois that fold and bunch when you pedal, because this will cause chafe and saddle sores.

After a ride, don’t leave your sweaty shorts in a heap on the floor or in the laundry basket. This will only lead to a moldy tang that will be difficult to purge. Instead, dry your shorts by suspending them from a hanger, an outside line, or a drying rack, then put them in the laundry basket. Resist the temptation to wear used shorts till you wash them, and when laundering, use a mild detergent and cool water. Air dry them outside in the sun if you can, turned inside out so the chamois is exposed 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…


It’s true. Bike shorts are designed to be worn without underwear. Boxers or, worse, tighty-whities worn under bike shorts are sure to promote chafe. Underwear seams will rub against you and defeat one of the purposes of the shorts — seamless contact between you and your clothing.

Still not sure if you like the idea of wearing lycra shorts in public, but you would like some padding? Then maybe you need…


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 airy mesh pockets for my keys and wallet, and they’re baggy enough to be comfortable over bike shorts. Or buy purpose-made baggy biking shorts, which are padded inside but loose and look more like streetwear. 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.

Mountain Bike Shorts


Lycra bike shorts might make you feel immodest and exposed when you first pull them on, but after a couple rides chances are you’ll discover why so many cyclists wear them. Bike shorts won’t instantly transform your body into that of a super model, but they can make cycling a lot more comfortable. Your nether regins will thank you.


Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jun 19 2017

The Gross Anatomy of a Bike by Tamia Nelson

A bicycle is the sum of all its parts — headset, crank, cluster, and many others. But what are these parts, where do you find them? Tamia dissects a bike to identify the most commonly referenced anatomical features. Don’t worry, though, the demo isn’t gross.

Do you know what’s meant by a bike’s headset? Or the rear dropout? Or the chainstay? You might not if you’re new to cycling. Or if you’ve been riding bikes for awhile but never gave thought to more than the pedals, saddle, and tire pressures. Yet if your bike develops a strange knock, or the steering seems wonky for no reason, or the brakes aren’t functioning properly, than you’ll have an easier time diagnosing the problem if you know how to identify the bike’s constituent parts. This is doubly true if you are thinking of learning to service and repair your bike.

Even simple bicycles are built of many parts. The frame is obvious, as are wheels, tires, the saddle, pedals, and handlebars. But what about the other parts? Some you can see, at least partially. Others are hidden. All are important. In the photo below, shot by TNO‘s Contributing Photographer Anthony Jancek, you can see how one kind of pedal breaks down:

Breakdown of a Bike on Display - Photo (c) Anthony T. Jancek

This is part of a larger display of a dismembered bike in a shop window. Each part is suspended from the ceiling by a length of monofilament, which probably accounts for why the pedal’s ball bearings aren’t there. (It wouldn’t be easy to suspend spheres from even the finest thread, after all.)

But what about the bigger picture? Well, here it is:

Gross Anatomy of a Bike - Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

This is a touring bicycle, so will differ in some ways from a racing bike or a mountain bike, but all bikes share a similar anatomy. Listed in the annotated photo above are the main important parts. Caveats? Shifter levers will be in different places on bikes with brifters or grip-shifters, and the handlebars will differ from a straight or raised set. One glaring absence in the diagram is the right side pedal. New bikes, particularly more expensive bikes, aren’t equipped with pedals. The assumption is that each cyclist will have a favorite pair. (Why this doesn’t extend to saddles and handlebars is beyond me.) But you know what pedals are located, right? That’s a good start!

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jun 15 2017

Shopping by Bike: How to Use Panniers to Haul the Load by Tamia Nelson

So you’ve decided you’re going to try doing your food shopping by bike, and are ready to load up the panniers. Good for you! This time around, Tamia offers some tips on how to do just that. Practice makes perfect!

If you’re going to try grocery shopping by bicycle, then good for you! This can be a healthy and rewarding way to bring home the bacon, or any other foods you fancy. And if you’ve outfitted your bike with panniers to do the job, you may have a number of questions about how to pack everything for the trip home. Last week I answered some of the most often expressed questions I’ve been asked by the uninitiated watching me load upat my local HyperMart. But Shopping by Bike: Your Questions Answered dealt with the very first steps of how to get a bike set up as your mule, and there’s more to making this work than having the right kit, plan, and mindset.

This time around I’ll touch on the basics of using panniers for carrying the load. And the best way to show you how we do it is to invite you along on a typical grocery run. Ready? Good! Then let’s first talk panniers.

While you can carry the shopping in panniers designed for touring, packing is made easier when your panniers are designed for carrying groceries. We use Nashbar Townie panniers. which are still available, while ours are still going strong after almost a decade of use. Here’s what they look like when folded flat against the rear rack:

Nashbar Townie Pannier Folded Flat

And here’s how they look when open and ready to accept a load:

Nashbar Townie Panniers Ready to Be Fed

There are other brands of shopping panniers on the market, so shop around for a pair that will suit your needs.

Now let’s prepare to shop. Once we arrive at the HyperMart, a shopping cart corrals bike gear when going indoors to shop. Bar bag, gloves, water bottle, tool bag, and helmet fit nicely into the fold-open kiddie seat. I clip the helmet’s chin strap to the cart to help insure against its being knocked out to the floor. Why haul all this stuff while shopping? You could say I’m trying to keep honest folks honest.

I open the panniers inside a shopping cart and load goods into the panniers — seen in a shopping cart in the photos below — while moving through the store. Doing this helps avoid buying more than can be carried.

At checkout, I unload the panniers so the clerk can scan them, then return your purchases to the panniers. Then I roll the cart outside and mount the panniers on my bike. The bike is unlocked and moved out of the way of pedestrians while I rearrange items in the panniers so that the heaviest items are low and evenly distributed side-to-side, and then slip the rain covers over the panniers. As panniers are loaded, the imbalance of the introduced load could topple the bike, so be prepared to brace it so this won’t happen. After both panniers are secured on the rack, I assemble the rest of my kit and make ready to roll out.

When saddling up, remember that the bike will feel a lot different now. Gravity will compete with you when you stop and lean at traffic lights, stop signs, and at additional stops on your way home. Take it easy, don’t try to set any records, and enjoy the feeling of bring home your food under your own power. You’ll have earned your dinner!


Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jun 11 2017

The Relaxed Alternative to Finding Your Cycling Comfort Zone by Tamia Nelson

Bicycling isn’t only for jocks in lycra, and there are alternatives to a traditional diamond-frame road bike, too. So if you’re looking for a more relaxed ride, consider one of these bikes.

My article on a friend’s Day 6 Dream semi-recumbent bike sparked the imaginations of readers who wanted for more information about a kind of bike which they’d never seen before. Clearly there are plenty of folks who would go cycling if they had a choice beyond the mountain bike or road bike. They like the idea of a more relaxed frame geometry, because that gives them a bike with traits such as these:

  • Upright position when cycling
  • Little to no pressure on hands and wrists
  • Comfortable seat
  • Feet can be placed flat on ground while sitting in the saddle
  • One size of bike frame can fit a range of riders
  • Lower center of gravity inspires confidence
  • Easier to straddle than diamond frame bikes, especially if the bike has a step-through frame

Bikes with qualities like these are known by a number of terms, including:

  • Comfort Bikes
  • Crank Forward Bikes
  • Semi-Recumbent Bikes
  • Relaxed Geometry Bikes
  • Flat-Footed Bikes

Whatever they’re called, one thing is universal—bikes of this design allow a cyclist to put his or her feet flat on the ground while still sitting in the saddle. That seems to be the most appealing characteristic for most folks, and it’s easy to see why. If your back or hips have a limited range of motion, or if your balance is wonky, you don’t need to be quite so concerned about toppling over when you slow down and stop. Furthermore, saddling up is easier, especially if the bike has a very low top tube or a step-through frame (often seen on women’s bikes, but also with some unisex frames).

Here’s a diagram showing six different models of relaxed frame bikes, with a Surly Long Haul Trucker at the top for comparison’s sake:

Name That Bike

You can see how the main elements of the different bikes compare with one another and with the more traditional diamond frame of the Surly. Note hot the saddles on relaxed frame bikes are below the level of the handlebars, rather than on the same level like with the Surly. The pedals are very much further forward of the saddles of the relaxed frame bikes, too. Moreover, your sitting position is lower to the ground with a relaxed frame. All these features endear the relaxed frame bike to folks looking for a more relaxed ride.

RANS Crank Forward Bike Photo (c) Vik Banerjee

The six bikes in my graphic are but a sample of what the marketplace has to offer. So, if you’re intrigued by a bike which offers comfort and sure-footedness when you come to a stop, you can find a model to suit your needs and pocketbook. Prices range from below USD100 for a sale bike in Walmart to a few hundred US dollars. They’re becoming more popular, and it’s possible you might even find one used. Before long, I’m betting you’ll be finding your comfort zone with a relaxed alternative to the diamond frame bike.

This article is an update of one originally published on 22 August 2009.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

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