Bicycle shorts evolved to solve problems that cyclists encountered as bicycles developed and allowed for longer rides and more time in the saddle. The bicycle started as a two wheeled scooter you could straddle. After pedals were attached and a transmission was developed, the greater mechanical advantages increased the useable range. Acceptance for exercise, commuting and travel resulted in quick development of the bicycle. As people rode their bikes further they discovered that their crotches needed better protection from their saddles.
Harken back to the early 1900’s and you will surmise that there were few flexible fabrics. Early shorts were made of durable wool fabrics and designs were modified from pants and knickers. With little flexibility or stretch, these early shorts required design characteristics to eliminate bunching for a more streamlined and sculpted fit. Multiple paneled shorts allowed the shorts manufacturers to better match the human form for less chafing and a more aerodynamic fit.
Multiple seams crisscrossing the center of the crotch came from copying existing pant designs, but created a problem for riders. To solve this, a chamois insert was developed to cover the seams and provide a smooth surface on which to sit. The material chosen was sheepskin leather, probably because it was well known as durable, softer than cow or horse leather, and already in use to reinforce clothing where extra protection and flexibility were needed. Regardless of its origin, leather chamois inserts became the norm in black wool shorts.
Over the last 20 plus years, fabric technology has allowed for many improvements in design, durability and easy of use. Today’s highly flexible and durable fabrics are easy to care for and provide many improvements. The standard today is a spandex-dominated fabric with a breathable, padded chamois insert. At this point “chamois” has become a generic term to define the smooth surfaced insert that covers the seams, just like the original leather chamois.
Why is this background important? To put to rest preconceptions that most of us have about today’s modern shorts. There are hundreds of brands of shorts in today’s marketplace. So what do you think about when you decide to buy a new pair of shorts? As avid cyclists of 30 years and now working for one of the few American manufacturers of cycling apparel, we feel confident in advising you that you can do whatever you want, as long as you have thought through for your needs and have a reason to do what you want.
Here are some things to think about when choose your next pair of shorts:
- If it is one item, why is it called a pair?
- What sort of chamois do I want?
- Do the number of panels make a difference?
- Who am I buying this from?
- What is the best pair of shorts?
We can’t answer the first question so we’ll move on to the rest, but to see if you are skipping ahead, we won’t discuss them in the order presented. This discussion does not include baggy shorts which are typically a street-type short over a modified cycling short. Introducing a covering designed for carrying things in your pockets or to visually cover perfectly good cycling shorts with a less aerodynamic and more baggy fabric (read: more places for wear and rubbing) doesn’t make sense to us so, like a weird friend, we are going to ignore them for now.
The most common question for a person buying shorts has to be: “What is the best short?” and if stated slightly differently: “What is the best chamois?” If you were talking to an educated retailer, then you were probably queried about your likes and dislikes or riding style or issue with current shorts. If you were talking to your friend or riding buddy, then you were wasting your time and should have been doing long division in your head.
Many people confuse “most expensive” with best. The “best” shorts are those that fit and are most comfortable to you. Different shorts models are designed with differing numbers of panels, different lines for looks, constructed of differing materials and differing chamois inserts. How they fit you is a function of your unique anatomy, saddle type and set up, riding style and type of riding you prefer. There are no two butt, seat, chamois, skin type and riding style combinations that are exactly the same. What is perfect for your friend may not work for you – our friends have little taste, education, experience or feeling in their butts. At least, their’s do not seem as sensitive as your own refined buttocks.
That said, there is a general correlation between price and quality. In general, a more expensive pair of shorts will be made better and last longer. Many people find that the $30 (or less) shorts, made in Southeast Asia, on special at their on-line favorite discounter, are “the most comfortable short” they have ever worn. These same people seem disappointed when the shorts last only a year. Other people find that if it costs over $100 it has to be comfortable and defines their future expectations. Shorts, properly washed and not prematurely worn out by an errant saddle bag, should last many seasons. The concept is: first buy what fits, without consideration for cost, then determine the “value” or cost versus the expected longevity of the shorts. A $150 pair of shorts over five years, has the same value as a $30 pair that lasts one year.
Most fabrics, including Lycra (a brand name for a spandex material), are sold by the pound (excluding highly specialized or limited editions). As the fabric gets heavier, the fabric gets more expensive. Most cycling spandex is between 6- and 8-ounce material (the weight of a square yard). An 8-ounce fabric is more expensive than a similar 6-ounce material. Is it “better?” That depends on what you like. If you want to feel like you are wearing nothing at all, you want a light, high quality material. If you like the feeling of support in your shorts, you would gravitate toward a heavier material, which at 8-ounces, will feel more “firm” on your legs. We have not found any appreciable difference in the thermal characteristics except when you are sitting at the cafÈ and no air is moving over your legs. Some older and some heavier riders prefer the firm feel of the heavier material. Often, a given manufacturer will have identically designed shorts in more than one material so that you can truly feel the difference in just the materials.
Probably more important than the materials are the basic design characteristics. Since there are so many manufacturers, we will keep our comments very general. Most shorts are designed in a “racing”/”sport” configuration or they are designed as an “entry level”/”touring” configuration. Any of these can be an 2, 4, 6 or 8 panel design. In general, a sport short will be lower rise (front and rear) and more articulated in the hip. An “articulated hip” means that the shorts are designed already bent over into a typical riding position. A touring short will typically be a higher rise (front and rear) and less articulated in the hip. These features are important depending on your personal modesty, amount of time spent in your shorts off the bike and how important it is to you to have a “racing” attitude. As to the number of panels, remember why they were created? To solve limited flexibility in older materials. With today’s spandex based materials the number of panels is not critical. Well fitting and comfortable designs come in all panel numbers and this factor is minimal compared to the overall design. We think 8-panel shorts are over rated and we wonder how a seam down the inside of each thigh actually helps the comfort when it provides another seam to cover or on which the threads can wear.
Another important variable is the chamois insert used for the short. There are almost as many chamois inserts as there are manufacturers. Again due to the overwhelming number of styles, we will keep our comments short. Chamois inserts are to provide coverage for the inside seams of the shorts and to provide a breathable pad to mellow the interface between your crotch and the saddle (padding). Let us make one thing perfectly clear, the chamois as a pad cannot make up for a saddle that isn’t set up properly or is not comfortable to your bottom. Will not, can not, does not!!! Now that we have that out of the way, here are some considerations. Is the pad micro-bacterially treated? Does the chamois insert have several seams of its own? Does the chamois insert fit the shorts?
A thicker chamois insert in a light-weight material short will not be well balanced and will tend to stick out where the material doesn’t hold it in. If the chamois is shaped (has more than one material and is seamed together, opportunities arise for chafing. If you choose a chamois insert that is shaped, the shapes (usually the arc around your leg) needs to fit your body. Small arc, big leg, bad fit! Do you live in a wet area? Does the chamois dry extra fast, or will you be growing mold in your chamois? The combinations are endless so look at the size, construction and materials and then try several – what looks good may not feel good and vice versa. Chamois inserts, probably more than the shorts themselves, require that you try several to feel the differences. You may think you need a thick chamois when in fact your saddle is comfortable and provides adequate padding and a thick chamois makes the interface less comfortable instead of better.
If you are going tour, we recommend fast drying chamois inserts so you don’t have to take as many pairs. We also recommend finding several chamois inserts you like and alternating them so you eliminate the repetitive motion injuries. Let’s face it, even if you sit in your comfy car seat for four hours, your butt gets sore. Reduce that surface area to two inches by six and it is normal to get sore, why make it worse by not varying the wear points?
Today there are several chamois insert enhancing materials available. Most of these involve a lubricant of sorts to minimize chafing. We have used some creams and some dry lubes and found them to provide the lubrication they promised. We do not know the long-term effect to your shorts. We do know that any petroleum-based lubricants will eat your petroleum-based shorts over time. This may initially appear as thinning or localized wear. We also wonder what affect these lubricants have on the breath-ability of the material.
Your shorts work best when they can breath and the chamois can fluff. To make sure this happens, wash them regularly. Get the sweat and road grime out and do not replace it with washing additives. Use a minimalist detergent with no fragrances, bleaches, softeners or any other additives. Baby detergents are very mild with no additives. Several sport washes are available that have been tested to leave no residue. We recommend these products to minimize retaining anything that might irritate your skin over time. Just sitting on that small space is hard enough without saddle sores or skin irritations.
In summary, we believe you should try several types of shorts and wear more than one type to break up the monotony. From time to time try different materials, chamois inserts and possibly lubricants. Wash regularly with a mild environmentally sensitive and non-accumulating detergent. Do not try to solve bike set up or saddle problems with a pair of shorts or chamois insert. Never try on a pair of shorts standing straight up, bend over like you are riding and see how they fit, we expect shorts to pooch out in back when you stand straight. We design them for riding, not standing there in front of a mirror or your significant other, that is what lingerie is for. Just like music, food and life, your butt sometimes just needs a change to be happy.