I don't currently own a pair of cycling shorts. I just wear a pair of running shorts underneath some running leggings. I'm thinking of getting my first pair of cycling shorts, but as there are so many choices available, what should I be looking for? In terms of padding, is there some type of padding that is better (more durable, more comfort) than others?
What type of shorts?
First you need to work out what sort of cycle shorts you are looking for:
- Regular cycling shorts - these are your classic lycra bike shorts, no bibs, no extra fancy bits.
- Generally quite comfortable
- They do have a tendency to "roll up" under your gut a bit, particularly for those of us that carry a bit more weight than we should.
- Obviously a lot easier to relieve yourself with these - probably an important consideration on longer rides
- Bib shorts - like regular cycling shorts, but with a "bib and brace" arrangement that go over your shoulders to keep the shorts up.
- Even more comfortable than regular cycling shorts as they don't have the tension of the waist elastic around your waist and they tend to stay in place better.
- They don't roll up under your belly like regular shorts
- They are more awkward to go to the toilet with, requiring you to either remove half your clothes, or stretch them around a bit.
- Shy shorts - basically normal looking shorts with a cycling short liner.
- Less comfortable on the bike than proper cycling shorts, but still a lot better than non-cycling specific shorts.
- More durable, which is often a good thing when mountain biking
- If you are not comfortable wearing lycra in public, or are going to be off the bike for a while during the day, they can be less embarrassing to wear.
- Undershorts - like regular shorts, but usually made of a lighter mesh fabric to allow them to be worn under other shorts or trousers.
- Allow you to have most of the comfort of bike shorts with any of your regular clothing.
What features to look for?
Now, what are the features that you are looking for in good quality bike shorts:
- A high quality chamois - these days this means that the chamois should be "3-D" molded and offer a reasonable degree of padding, but not too much.
- Good quality material - look for the fabrics that have 4-way stretch rather than 2-way stretch. they will fit your body more closely.
- Leg grippers - good leg grippers at the bottom of the shorts will hold the shorts in place without being excessively tight. Often they will have a "tacky" rubber feel.
- Number of panels - the more panels, the more the shorts are tailored to fit your body.
- Height at the back - not really applicable for bib shorts, but regular cycling shorts should be long in the back so that they don't expose your back when you are bent over in a cycling position. Some cheaper shorts don't do this.
- Compression fabric - a more recent trend, but some cycling shorts are being made with a compression fabric that applies more pressure to your muscles to help them perform better.
A die-cut and formed chamois will generally be more comfortable than just a plain pad. This type of chamois will usually have pre-formed creases and differing levels of padding in different areas.
More "panels" will generally contour to fit your body better than fewer panels. All of my favorite shorts in the past have been 8-panel or higher. I also prefer shorts sewn with flat seams.
I personally prefer bib-style shorts, and will wear them under a tough shell if mountain biking. I find that the waist band of regular shorts tends to bunch and roll under my stomach when I bend forward at the waist.
The lycra comes in different weights or thicknesses as well. The thicker the fabric, the more support and durability, but the trade-off is more heat.
As far as personal comfort goes, you want a chamois that's thick and stiff enough to provide padding, but not so thick or stiff as to feel diaper-ish. A thick pad that you can squeeze to almost nothing with your fingers will act the same way when you sit on it.
But whatever you do, don't skimp on your shorts. Everyone will have personal preferences as to comfort. Some prefer a gel chamois over a foam one, and vice versa, but the key is to get the best shorts you can afford, and the more you pay, the more likely you are to be comfortable on the bike.
I personally prefer bib shorts over any regular shorts I've ever tried, and will probably never buy a pair of non-bibs again. I find that the bibs hold the shorts in place much better (could be because I have a bit of a gut :p) and that I don't feel myself wanting to adjust my shorts while I'm riding.