After a bike and a helmet, a good pair of bike shorts is your next best investment. With so many options out there, there is a pair that will work just right for you. This guide will help you choose the best bike shorts for your next ride.
Types: The first question to ask is: baggy or tight? There are basically two types of biking shorts, those with a tight-fitting, stretchy inner short and a loose-fitting outer short, and then those with no outer shell. There are tradeoffs to each, but generally the road riding tribe wears spandex while the mountain bike set wears baggies. There are exceptions, of course. Road riding to work or the coffee shop? Go baggy. Racing your mountain bike? Go spandex.
Road Biking: The higher speeds of road riding can make flappy baggy shorts annoying, and slow. Also on a long, hot climb when it feels like the asphalt is melting beneath your tires, single layer shorts will keep you cooler than double layer baggies. Within the tight-fitting variety, there are two sub-types:
Bib Shorts: These biking shorts have integrated mesh suspenders and are the top choice for racers. Bibs have the advantages of staying up in the back (avoiding the dreaded cycling plumber’s crack) and not constricting your breathing.
Bib-less Shorts: Without anything over your shoulders, bib-less shorts have one big advantage: you can answer the call of nature without taking off your jersey.
Mountain Biking: On the dirt, baggy shorts reign supreme. To generalize, mountain bikers are going slower, stopping more, and hanging out post ride, giving comfortable baggies the edge. Pro tip: look for baggy shorts where the inner short detaches from the shell. This way you can wash the inner short separately, and mix and match as your short collection grows, even going with bib shorts under baggy shells for the best of both worlds.
Material: Bike shorts are made out of various levels of stretchy inner shorts and nylon outer shells. There are a few considerations. The inner short material should wick away sweat and support your muscles. The outer short should be durable and at least a little bit water repellent. With bibs, the more mesh in the upper half, the cooler you will feel. For baggies, consider the weight, stiffness, and stretchability of the shell. Lighter will be cooler and a little stretch goes a long way. And don’t forget sound – some baggy shells can make a loud swish with every pedal stroke!
Chamois Type: Bike shorts can come with a whole range of different chamois (say: “shamy”) pads, the bike-seat shaped cushion that makes them so magical. Chamois vary from a basic uniform foam pad, to a wicking, three-dimensional masterpiece of modern technology. Some of the best chamois pads have different levels of padding, with thicker padding under the “sit bones,” where most of your weight hits the seat.
Fit: Despite how stretchy bike shorts are, they are not one-size-fits-all. Different brands and different versions can fit very inconsistently. (When Internet shopping, be sure to check the brand’s fit guide to see which size is right for you.) Look for leg openings that will fit snug without constricting or riding up on your legs, a chamois that doesn’t sit too far forward or too far back, and enough coverage for your lower back. For the outer shell, an adjustable waistband is key to on and off the bike comfort.
Number of Panels: Fit is also partially determined by the number of panels sewn into the shorts. Simply put, more panels = more money = better fit.
Inseam: Both spandex and baggy shorts come in various lengths. Your ideal length will be determined by the length of your legs and your riding style. One rule of thumb: the more suspension your bike has, the longer your baggy shorts. Women’s shorts often have shorter inseams, but not all women prefer this and there are options for longer baggy and non-baggy shorts.