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Stores only allow you try out shorts with an additional layer of underwear because of the hygiene issues. While this is great for public health, it seems to make it impossible to evaluate whether a pair of shorts is comfortable before buying. While it may be possible to return merchandise at some retailers, it would be nice to be able to compare different shorts before buying. The only usable advice I've heard is to always avoid gel padding.

What can I do to "kick the tires" on a pair of bike shorts to get a sense of whether or not the chamois will be comfortable? What should I look for either when looking at a chamois in person or when reading the marketing techno-babble on manufacturer websites (e.g., what the heck is a four-dimensional chamois)? Do more expensive shorts always have better padding, or are there certain styles of chamois that work for some people but not others?

Related questions: What should I look for in a good pair of cycling shorts?, Tights, Shorts, and Padding

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My recommendation is to buy from a place with an awesome return policy. For instance, REI takes anything back without question. –  Glenn Gervais May 23 '13 at 19:54
    
@GlennGervais - That's a mixed bag for REI. Nice that I can return anything, but not so nice knowing what I buy there may have been tried on by people without underwear. –  Carey Gregory May 25 '13 at 0:47
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I think most returns get put into their quarterly 'garage sales' not back on the floor. –  Glenn Gervais May 25 '13 at 14:55
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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I have bought my last few shorts by direct experimentation at stores, and had the same doubts as yours.

Mostly, what has worked is: you dress the shorts, and stand right up with feet in the normal position. In this position, the shorts should not produce a "bulk" between the thighs. Shorts that produce the bulk tend to be too uncomfortable either while on the bike or while walking.

Also, raising each foot alternately while flexing the knees should not produce a rubbing sensation against the inner thighs, which would mean skin irritation.

I have noticed that the padding should not be flat, that is, it should have a saddle shape. That means you cannot easily fold the short to put it in a drawer, for example, and when you hold the shorts by the waist, the short keeps like "inflated".

At last, the overall compression of the fabric should feel "fine" and specifically the elastic bands around the waist and the thighs must feel "right": a gentle compression, not a tight one.

I think that's it, hope it helps!

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The only way to truly evaluate padding is by wearing the short/bibs for a few rides. Once you find a brand that you like the chamois in, stick with them.

In regards to evaluating the chamois in the store, the only advice I can give is to look at what you already have and compare to that. It depends on what you are looking for in a chamois, but padding in the right places should be up there on the list. In addition putting on the chamois with thin underwear will help in evaluating.

It's all about preference and experience in different chamois to find ones that you like. You can almost completely ignore the Marketing dribble that comes from the sites as it really doesn't mean anything in real life.

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The short answer is, ask friends for recommendations. Bike shorts are, unfortunately, much like buying underwear: You need to try them on to know what'll work, and you pretty much can't return them after trying them on. Unlike underwear, good bike shorts are a not-insignificant expense. Some stores will let you try them on if you wear underwear, though. I own some skin-tight no-seam underwear that works well for this.

However, your best bet is probably to ask for recommendations from other cyclists who both have the same body type as you and do the same kind of riding. Maybe you're a skinny racer who likes hard Italian saddles? A utility cyclist who has a cushy saddle and generous "padding"? A mountain biker with a bony butt? There are still too many variables for this to be a sure thing, but it helps narrow things down.

A site like this is a terrible place to ask for recommendations, but discussion forums like Bikeforums or the Crazyguy forums are great places for this kind of inquiry. For example, I'm a heavy guy who does a lot of touring on an unsprung Brooks saddle. The name batted around for guys like me is Aerotech Designs; I bought a pair of their bib shorts and have never been more comfortable. I now own two pairs I rotate between.

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I like the find-a-brand-you-like-and-stick-with-that idea. If the store let you try them on then they let someone else try them on, too.

Remember, chamois' are not padding. They are for moisture management. A proper saddle and fit is for comfort.

I have several brands of bibs and I only use one. My riding buddies are the same way but with their own brand. Hopefully, you won't find that your brand is the expensive one. I like Castelli.

I am also moving towards a thinner chamois. I have had issues with all the added bulk in my crotch and a thinner chamois fits better. I have heard others say the same thing.

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I'm not a professional and I only ride 2500-3000 miles in a typical year. I never pay full retail for bike clothing unless I have a compelling reason. For example, some items are very rarely available for a discount. Typically when I need clothes I prowl the Nashbar sales, the REI sales, Chainlove and so forth, and I am patient (slow to buy).

That said, you generally get what you pay for. Online reviews can be helpful, but you have to weigh reviews carefully, as it is possible some are shilled (paid) reviews. There is no substitute for personal experience, as other responders have noted. Saddles and bibs/shorts/chamois are highly personal, and what one person likes may be disliked by another. Neither of them is right or wrong in such circumstances.

You can research this kind of thing to death, and I believe you are better off riding. Get some shorts or bibs, and ride with them. If you like them, buy more. If not, buy something different.

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BTW I just noticed that Nashbar has Nike Livestrong shorts & bibs on sale for an obvious reason. Still a bit pricey, but worth watching. –  Zippy The Pinhead Jun 1 '13 at 22:06
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