1. Why cycling shorts?
If you've been experiencing any discomfort in the seat while riding your bike, your first thought might be to try a new seat. But a better investment might be in a good pair of cycling shorts. Cycling shorts enhance your riding comfort by providing three key benefits.
First, the padding in the shorts provides a little extra cushion between your own, um, "seat" and the seat of the bike. The padded area provides a smooth interface, as opposed to regular pants and even many athletic shorts, which have a seam running right down the middle, which makes for a lumpy and incomfortable interface. The padding is referred to as the "chamois," because it used to be made of chamois material.
Second, cycling shorts reduce friction, by providing a snug-fitting fabric that moves with you as you pedal, rather than rubbing against your skin.
Third, cycling shorts provide moisture management. The Lycra, Spandex, and other technical fabrics used in cycling shorts promote the movement and evaporation of sweat away from your skin. Cotton used in blue jeans and other "regular" pants and shorts tend to trap moisture and hold it next to your skin, which can cause excess heat, rash, and promotes the growth of bacteria.
2. Selecting the type of shorts for you
Cycling shorts come in many varieties. The most basic type comes up to your waist, and goes down to just above your knees. For a little extra protection from the sun and cooler weather, you can opt for "knickers," or "3/4 shorts," which are a bit longer and come down to below the knees.
The "bib shorts" continue up above your waist, and have overall-like straps that go over your shoulders. Although these look a little odd at first to some people, once they try them, the comfort over regular shorts is amazing, because you don't have worry about the shorts sliding down or the waistband bunching up. They are a little more inconvenient during mid-ride bathroom breaks, however.
The knicker-length shorts with the bib-style uppers are referred to as "bib knickers."
Cycling shorts come in women's-specific styles to better fit a woman's shape. Basic shorts for women sometimes come in shorter lengths that come to about mid-thigh, for those women who like to show off their toned cycling legs. Bib shorts, knickers, and bib knickers are all available in women's-specific sizes. Some bib shorts for women have buttons that allow the straps to be undone, to make those bathroom breaks a little easier.
Also available for women are cycling "skorts," with a regular tight cycling short attached to an outer, more modest-looking skirt.
Baggy shorts, or just "baggies," are cycling shorts that have the tight liner short on the inside, but also an outer layer that looks like regular casual shorts, often with handy cargo pockets. Baggy shorts can be a little warmer than regular cycling shorts on hot days, but the outer layer is made from a lightweight nylon or similar material that still has good ventilation and moisture management.
Some baggies have the inner liner permanantly sewed in, while others have a removable liner. Baggy shorts are also available in knicker-length versions.
3. Try before you buy
Try on the different styles of shorts to find out which you prefer. Remember that cycling shorts are designed for optimal fit while positioned for cycling, so they will feel a bit awkward while you're standing and walking around, but the feeling will be very different on your bike.
For sanitary reasons, wear your underwear when trying on cycling shorts (men - go with briefs that day instead of boxers).
Cycling shorts usually don't come in numbered sizes like pants, but just come in Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large, and XX-Large. Eye them up at first to take a good guess, then go up or down in size as needed as you try them on.
Try several models at different price points to find the best combination of performance and value. What's the difference between a cheap cycling short and an expensive one? Most of the cheaper shorts use a basic fabric and a one-piece sewn-in chamois. Better shorts have a double-sided fabric that optimizes the moisture-wicking properties. Some shorts have flat-stitched seams on the inside for more comfort, and utilitize strategically-shaped fabric panels for better fit and motion. Some chamois have anti-bacterial treatment and multiple layers of foam in varying densities in specific places for optimal fit and comfort.
4. Proper wearing of cycling shorts
Rule #1 - you do NOT wear your underwear under cycling shorts. Having a pair of cotton underwear inside your cycling shorts negates all of the benefits provided (friction control, moisture management).
If you have bib shorts or bib knickers, your cycling jersey goes OVER the bib straps, not under. Thus, if you're wearing them properly, nobody should ever know you're wearing bibs if they see you during a ride.
Most road bikers prefer regular cycling shorts, while mountain bikers like baggies, because the outer layer provides some extra protection from weeds and thorns. This is mostly a matter of tradition, though, and you can wear whichever you like whether you're a roadie or mountain biker.
Some riders who enjoy bike touring or commuting like to wear baggy shorts, because as they interact with people throughout their travels, they look more like a "normal person" rather than a "bike guy."
Baggy shorts with removable liners are convenient for multi-day cycling tours, because you can wear the same outer layer for a couple days in a row, and just put in a fresh liner each day, saving you space in what you have to pack and carry on your bike.
Although cycling shorts go a long way on their own to enhancing the comfort of your ride, applying a cream (such as Paceline Products' Chamois Butt'R) to the inside of the chamois can further help to reduce friction and chafing during especially long rides.
After your ride, change out of your cycling shorts and shower or bathe as soon as possible. Despite the moisture-wicking ability of even the best shorts, a chamois after a long day's ride becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to saddle sores and other unpleasant issues.
5. Care of your shorts
Check the product label for proper care instructions, but in most cases, you'll be fine if you wash your cycling shorts in cold water on the delicate cycle, and hang or lay them flat to dry. Harsh detergents and bleach will shorten the life of the fabric, and fabric softeners will "clog" the material and hamper its moisture-wicking ability.
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