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What to look for in a good pair of cycling shorts

Alia Parker's picture
Assos women's knicks. Finding the right cycling shorts. Cycle Traveller

Let's face it; the human bottom wasn't designed to bump and rub against a small hard bicycle seat all day. For cyclists, the end result is often chaffing and saddle sores. But we're a persistent lot and fortunately technology has a way of making these things more comfortable for our gluteus.

Cycle touring involves a lot of saddle time, so investing in some good cycling shorts will make your days much more enjoyable. So what should you look for?

First up, you generally have four main options: knicks, bib shorts, mountain bike shorts and skin suits. We'll start with the two most popular options: knicks and mountain bike shorts.

Knicks

Knicks are the normal tight Lycra padded shorts you see most cyclists wearing. As with all the options above, knicks are designed to be worn with no underwear. Not only can the elastic in underwear cause irritation over the course of your ride, but all cycling garments are designed to wick sweat away from your body and if you're wearing undies, you're likely trapping moisture inside your pants. The key with getting a good pair of knicks is to make sure they're comfy – try different pairs on – and don't have tight elastic all the way around the waist. Higher-end products often have elastic around the back but not in the stomach region to prevent the elastic cutting into your stomach as you bend forward. Try bending over in a cycling position, standing straight and then bending over again when trying on a pair of knicks to see how the elastic behaves. A good pair of knicks also often have some sort of grip on the inside hem of the shorts to prevent them slipping up. Lastly, but critically, you need a good chamois – the padded part you sit on. I'll come back to that later.

Mountain bike shorts

Netti mens bib. Finding the right cycling shorts. Cycle Traveller

Mountain bike shorts, or baggies, look like any other pair of shorts you would wear out and about, but are generally worn over a pair of knicks or have knicks sewn into the inside. Many touring cyclists who aren't that comfortable strutting about town in tight Lycra prefer to wear a pair of mountain bike shorts over their knicks. They can also be worn without knicks if you really don't want some padding around your seat. The shorts have seamless crotches and don't have seams down the inner thigh to prevent friction. You may still find that the loose material will rub on your legs causing a bit of irritation on long rides, but these are a good option for cycle travellers who may find they're frequently stopping to visit tourist locations along their ride.

Bibs

Bib shorts are similar to knicks, but are held up with a bib (Lycra suspenders over the shoulders) rather than an elastic waist. Many road cyclists prefer these because they prevent the shorts slipping down at the back as well as prevent elastic cutting in under our stomach rolls. The bib goes underneath your cycling jersey, so while they may be comfortable, they may be a little annoying for touring cyclists who want to make a bathroom stop at some point on their all-day ride, especially if you're in an exposed region with no loos. If you haven't tried a pair on before, give them a go and see what you think.

Skin suits

These are all-in-one garments that combine the knicks and jersey in one and are popular with pro cyclists looking for something lightweight and aerodynamic.

Material

These days, almost all knicks are made from Lycra or Spandex and these materials provide a nice tight fit and reduce irritation caused by your thighs rubbing on loose material or the saddle. They're also more aerodynamic. Importantly, the tight fit will keep the chamois close to your body. Basically, you don't want this part slipping about or you'll end up with some very sore skin.

Chamois

The chamois is the most important part of your cycling pants. It has two main functions: to create some padding between your sit bones and the seat; and to wick sweat away from your skin. The padding will help prevent saddle sores and tender sit bones while the sweat absorption and breathability will help prevent rubbing and chaffing. If chaffing is an issue for you, try an ointment like Aussie Butt Cream to improve your comfort.

You'll find many different chamois designs and the cuts are different for men and women due to the difference in our bone structures. The chamois are divided into panels to improve comfort and fit. When comparing cheaper and more expensive cycling shorts you'll often find the biggest difference lies in the quality of the chamois. Cheaper chamois will likely provide less cushioning and ergonomic design. Higher-end products often incorporate antibacterial materials into their designs. Some chamois have more padding in the rear end and these are better suited to town cyclists who sit straighter on the bike. Most touring cyclists will be leaning forward to some degree, so you'll want a chamois with more even support.

Cycling shorts can vary dramatically in price, normally between $40-$250. You should be able to pick up a good quality pair for about $80-$120, and less if they're on sale. In Australia, Netti makes some comfortable cycling clothing in an affordable price range, while in a higher price bracket, riders rave about the comfort of Assos. But, there are many good brands on the market and each make a number of different styles, so the best thing for you to do is get out there and try some on to see how you feel because the most important thing is that you're comfortable and enjoy your ride.

Images from top: 1. Assos women's knicks. 2. Netti men's bib.

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