8

Road Cycling

There is a very strong case for tight-fitting clothes on a road bike:

  1. Wasps (I'm listing the reason that firmly converted me first.) A wasp entered my shirt while driving, and I momentarily lost control of the car from agony at the moment it stung me. A wasp sting on a bike would be a rather dangerous event.
  2. Crawling sweat On climbs or when the wind is so stale it doesn't evaporate one's sweat fast enough, cycling in street or baggy clothing results in the creepy feeling of drops of sweat crawling on one's back, chest, and under one's arms. Tight special fabrics quickly wick sweat, spread it to a larger area, and evaporate it without the cyclist ever feeling the moisture.
  3. Rain During drizzles or even downpours, there is really no reason to seek shelter unless there are thunderstorms. Cycling in the rain is thrilling (and, as an aside, the "casquette" helps a lot with keeping most of it away from glasses). Here tight-fitting clothes and their special fabrics also help significantly. They magically somehow keep one warm.
  4. Rashes If you've ever ridden a long distance with baggy shorts, you will have noticed inflamed skin where the hems touched you. Lifting then lowering the legs tens of thousands of times will do this. Tight-fitting hems solve the problem.
  5. Aerodynamics As long as one is riding with a leisurely group at 15-20 km/h, wearing sail-like clothes could sometimes be pleasantly refreshing. But ride over 20 km/h and the clothes will move up your limbs, and the sail-like clothes become irritating, not to mention that they will make it harder for you to keep up with a faster group.
  6. Fitting in Road cyclists typically do wear tight-fitting lycra. Concerns of lack of modesty quickly disappear with a group, and as a bonus one fits in.

Mountain/Trail Cycling

By comparison I see no reason to acquire specialized clothing for MTB, and all the reasons above still apply, except that aerodynamics matters more or less depending on speed, still as with road cycling.

Sports stores are of course happy to tell us that the pockets on tennis shorts make them unsuitable for doubling as soccer shorts.

Can you suggest any advantages to MTB's baggy clothing, besides "fitting in"?

Related

Wear fabrics that do not hold much water

This question has been edited to make its focus distinct from a similar question.

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  • 2
    For some reason many people are afraid of wearing tight clothes.
    – Michael
    Aug 18 at 18:34
  • 1
    @Michael I see. And their fear of wearing tight clothes exceeds their fear of a wasp entering their sleeve or their shorts and getting very angry because the draft makes it difficult to find the way out.
    – Sam
    Aug 18 at 19:17
  • 1
    @Michael That also makes me wonder (a question more suited for psychology.stackexchange): why might MTB cyclists be more afraid than road cyclists of tight clothes?
    – Sam
    Aug 18 at 19:30
  • 8
    I’m voting to close this question because its a rant framed with an opinion based question at the end. Also Dup of bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/30690/…
    – mattnz
    Aug 18 at 19:51
  • 4
    The long section about road bike clothes does nothing to the actual question beside "there are good reasons for road cycling clothes". Like @mattnz, for me this reads like a rant too. However, there is a good question. Can we get the emphasis on the question in an edit?
    – gschenk
    Aug 19 at 11:51

9 Answers 9

20

As someone who has been around long enough to have seen at least some of the early days of the MTB, I would have to surmise that the reasons for the baggy MTB attire can be one or more of the following (in no particular order):

  1. The perceived relative comfort of a looser fitting shirt and shorts. This could also be due to inexperience regarding how comfortable snug cycling clothing can be.
  2. Possible separation to establish an identity different from the "roadie" look. The perception of "no rules" MTB vs. the strict regimen that road riders had, and still have (not necessarily bad regimen, just a bit too rule-ridden for the free spirit MTB crowd). MTB riders are the "rebels," and therefore dress differently.
  3. If a rider's first foray into cycling is via MTB, and they don't have other clothing, then the use of just shorts and a shirt (baggy) seems natural. They are just riding a bike, not going for fashion points. Plus, they may not have taken time to invest in cycling-specific clothing yet, and are comfortable looking similar to their fellow MTB'ers.
  4. If a MTB rider is biking to a location where they may extend their adventure on foot (i.e., hiking), then the cargo shorts/t-shirt option serves that better than tighter-fitting clothing, and the cargo shorts would have plenty of pocket storage.
  5. The aerodynamic advantage of snug-fitting clothing used for road riding is not as much a factor at relatively slower speeds while mountain biking.
  6. Being a little self-conscious about wearing snug fitting clothing. It does reveal more than baggy clothing would.

There has to be additional reasons not listed above...

2
  • I'd just like to point out that MTB riders can and do reach (and in certain cases) exceed the speeds of road riders. Speaking locally, on my local trail I (and others) routinely reach 35 to 40km/h. Looking at local road courses on Strava shows me an average of just around 35 to 40km/h as well. Additionally, there is a group of MTB riders that wear relatively snug fitting clothes, the Downhill racers, while it's not as snug as road or even Cross Country Spandex, it is a lot more snug than what you're average Freerider wears
    – MindSwipe
    Aug 22 at 14:22
  • @MindSwipe as a roadie primarily (gravel and MTB to a lesser extent) I routinely can break 80km/h (50 mph). This is on long and fairly straight downhill sections, which is much faster than the speeds you stated. That said, the overall average speed is what should be applied to the comparison, and with terrain and fitness being equal, the road rider is going to be faster by some factor. I would agree that aero will help the MTBer by some measure and is a benefit when the speeds are higher. It’s not how wide your tires are. It’s how fast you are moving.
    – Ted Hohl
    Aug 22 at 16:38
14

One advantage is in the robustness of materials used.

For example on a wet muddy/gritty ride the spray coats the saddle with dirt which acts as a grinding paste. Given the nature of MTB riding, there can be a lot of small movements in the saddle due to the bumpy terrain. This can cause lycra cycling shorts to wear extremely quickly.

To combat this, MTB shorts often have a more robust material like cordura in the seat area.

2
  • Upvoted. Thank you. "Fitting in" is not a reason for me to bother placing an order for MTB clothing (and find yet more closet storage mini-containers). Padding is likewise definitely not a reason. And of course the wasps-to-aerodynamic listed in the question are reasons for avoiding MTB clothing. Your answer here provides the first reason.
    – Sam
    Aug 19 at 13:47
  • Moving on. Hopefully I won't be shoved around past this point.
    – Sam
    Aug 19 at 13:48
10

One fairly important aspect of MTB clothing is indeed the visuals. I think the other answers have elaborated on the psychological and social explanations of this very well already. I just wanted to bring up an interesting piece of supporting evidence: in competitive DH racing, the baggy clothing is mandated by UCI regulations! When casual riders see their heroes wearing a certain clothing style, they are naturally drawn to replicate that look.

Found in this document (UCI Regulations, Part IV: Mountain Bike), the section concerning DH racing says this:

4.3.011 All lycra-elastane based tight-fitting clothing is not permitted. (p. 25)

I didn't write the rulebook so I can't say exactly why this is, but I would imagine it has to do with the culture and optics surrounding downhill riding. Interestingly enough, modern DH outfits appear to be pushing this rule as much as possible by being tight-fit while still non-stretchy. The aerodynamic benefits of tighter clothing are undoubtedly significant when average speeds are often in excess of 45km/h. Take Loïc Bruni for example (2021 image):

enter image description here

This rule regarding clothing does not apply to XC races, and so as expected, everyone is wearing skintight lycra there.


As a somewhat related side point, here's the rest of the clothing specification section:

4.3.012 A full-face helmet must be worn properly both when racing and when training on the course. The helmet must be fitted with a peak. Open-face helmets may not be worn.

4.3.013 The UCI strongly recommends that riders wear the following protection:

  • back, elbow, knee and shoulder protectors made of rigid materials;
  • protection for the nape of the neck and the cervical vertebrae;
  • padding on shins and thighs;
  • broad full-length trousers made from rip-resistant material incorporating protection for the knees and calves, or broad-cut shorts made from rip-resistant material plus knee and calf protectors with a rigid surface;
  • long sleeved shirt;
  • full finger gloves.

(p. 26)

While not as clear-cut as the lycra ban, I think all these recommendations do contribute to creating an overall theme for what DH racing looks like.

12
  • All modern/quality MTB kit is stretchy in the directions needed for cycling (along with quality chamois, and tailoring detail such as sleeves and trouser legs with bends, pockets such - just the same as Lycra road outfits. Its highly specalised and technical clothing designed to perform and look a certain way, just like Lycra.. A lot of non-MTB folk appear to think that MTBers go to the local department store and buy a cotton tee shirt and shorts off the casual clothing rack.
    – mattnz
    Aug 19 at 1:33
  • 3
    @mattnz I'm totally unfamiliar with high-end MTB gear, so I may very well have made some false assumptions in my answer, but I'm unsure as to whether such stretchy gear as you describe is legal for racing use.
    – MaplePanda
    Aug 19 at 1:43
  • That's really a fabulous photo. Illustrates a few things most of us could do better. Keeping the outside pedal loaded (leaning the bike and not the rider), looking ahead where he wants to go not immediately in front of the bike.
    – Andy P
    Aug 19 at 12:11
  • @AndyP There’s a reason he is DH world champion and you/I are not :D
    – MaplePanda
    Aug 19 at 22:35
  • The MTB style of clothing offers room for the protective equipment as well.
    – Jeff
    Aug 20 at 15:22
8

I mix and match road and mtb stuff, often wearing road jerseys on trails, but sometimes mtb-specific or even hiking kit to ride.

In terms of sweat running down, it doesn't make much difference. MTB clothes move around enough that almost any covered area comes into contact with fabric pretty soon, while even my close-fitting road jerseys leave plenty of places uncovered to get sweaty. Most mtb and a lot of hiking or general outdoors kit is as good at wicking sweat as road kit.

Baggy shorts are often worn over close fitting liners anyway.

The snag hazard is more of an issue - on some trails - while on others you never get near the vegetation.

Plenty of mtb riders do wear road jerseys, but the pockets can't always be trusted to retain their contents in hard landings; the pocket contents can also clash with hydration backpacks.

4
  • 1
    Uh oh... the three answers so far are all good and give different perspectives to the problem—how to choose..?
    – Sam
    Aug 18 at 20:48
  • 2
    @Sam that's good, and they may well evolve to include more points (I tried not to overlap with others). Sometimes the answer that says the most to you won't be the most popular and that's fine too
    – Chris H
    Aug 18 at 20:50
  • 1
    @Sam no need to choose one (I also tried to not overlap with Ted's answer). Depending on who reads the answer, an answer can be better than another.
    – Renaud
    Aug 18 at 21:01
  • @Renaud I knew there were many other factors that I couldn't recall at the time... which is why I finished my answer open ended. All good answers so far!
    – Ted Hohl
    Aug 18 at 22:04
7

As far as I'm concerned, there's one practical reason: on some trails you get flogged with brambles, thistles, nettles, etc. The spines absolutely poke through tight cycling shorts.

Baggy shorts offer much better protection against this, mostly because they're a bit further away from the skin, so the spines don't take off a chunk of meat. They're also thicker, which helps.

For the same reason a shirt with slightly longer sleeves that are not skin-tight is a plus.

I also need pockets. Usually I'll be using a Camelbak, so I can't use the traditional pocket at the back of the cycling t-shirt, because the backpack would rest on it. It's nice to have pockets with zippers in the shorts, so whatever I put in them doesn't fall off.

1
  • You just provided actual reason #2 (after Andy P's answer). (Still omitting "fitting in" as a good reason—though it of course is, especially during intermissions at cafes and such.)
    – Sam
    Aug 19 at 14:07
6

Cross country riders have clothes that are very close to the ones of roadies. Maybe a bit reinforced, but 'tight with some sponsors written of them' is common.

Baggy clothes have an advantage when one wears padding and special protections: a branch/stone between a protection and yourself can be very uncomfortable. They are more likely to come back at the right position: with tight clothes, you may end with a gap between the protection and the short.

I also haven't tried it personally, but for the sections that look closer to what you might have in enduro/downhill, it's much more of a "static effort" kind of exercice rather than the dynamic one with wind that you might have in road/cross-country. I think that baggy clothes are more confortable for this kind of effort, especially to evacuate the sweat: they create an illusion of wind, rather than having clothes staying tight.

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  • 2
    Regarding the last point - as someone who rides both on and off road - MTB does seem to involve a lot of hanging around off the bike: fiddling with kit, talking about the ride in car parks, recovering in cafés, etc. But my road rides tend to be with a long distance club, unlike my mtb.
    – Chris H
    Aug 18 at 20:53
  • "More likely to have tight clothes under the baggy ones." Isn’t that only for looks? The baggy overlay doesn’t serve any purpose, does it?
    – Michael
    Aug 19 at 5:18
  • @Michael pockets (if you wear a backpack and want to access quickly energy gels), protection, "availability" (MTB shorts are often sold with lycra underpants). Style also.
    – Renaud
    Aug 19 at 5:49
  • 1
    @Michael It's possible yes, I've also seen some road shorts with pockets. But personally I just don't care about aero (and I'd assume that a good proportion of MTBers don't either), so I won't be looking for something tight, except if it has a fabric performance advantage (winter pants for example). Pockets are actually more useful when I'm not on the bike (on the bike, I put everything in a hip bag, I don't think a short pocket is a safe place for a phone when biking — in case of fall), and for the off the bike use, non-tight has an advantage.
    – Renaud
    Aug 19 at 6:14
  • 1
    Yes, sorry. Trying to reply fast between two work-related mails, not the best idea ;)
    – Renaud
    Aug 19 at 14:12
6

I wear baggy mountain bike shorts to protect against branches, bushes, crashes, etc. The thicker material is more durable, and because it is less stretchy it tends not to snag as much. It can't be too tight or else the thicker, non-stretch material would be hard to move around in. If I am on a trail with little possibility of crashing and not a lot of plant growth on the sides of the trail I will often just wear road bike shorts.

1
  • It seems we have so many ideas in the answers we could partition them into classes of ideas. Your answer is very similar to Marbry's, but you're also pointing out that it's a mistake (started by me) to bundle all mountain biking variants into one set of clothing. That makes sense, and it's very wise to choose clothes for MTB that depend on the terrain.
    – Sam
    Aug 21 at 9:59
3

Durability, protection from the terrain and plants. Especially if you're not just riding well developed trails. I think a lot of the other less practical reasons kind of developed out of that over time.

One other consideration would be footwear. You might need to do a fair amount of hiking in some cases in addition to just riding. Having some shoes/boots that are comfortable to use off the bike with a good tread can make a big difference.

3
  • 1
    You're saying that baggy MTB styles are better at protecting from plants? With tight road-style clothing you'd need to be running directly into the plants; wouldn't MTB clothing be more likely to snag?
    – DavidW
    Aug 19 at 16:29
  • On the trails in WA state where I often ride (Capitol Forest), if I wore road kit, the trailside brambles and stickers would poke thru thin lycra and make things uncomfortable for the rest of the ride. And oh, those nasty blackberry thorns in WA state! Not so much a problem in say, Utah or Arizona. But in WA with the lush forests and heavy vegetation on trails, the baggy gear provides real protection. Aug 21 at 5:33
  • Andy P (robustness) and bobflux (encounters with plants, some unpleasant) mentioned the two reasons. You gave both reasons why someone (myself, at least—this is personal) would want to divide a given "cycling clothing budget" (see my comment to Paul Garrett's answer) and purchase additional MTB clothing rather than additional cycling clothing in general that I can use in both sports. Excellent point about footwear, also because I've always wondered whether the two classes of footwear interfaces (SPD vs Look, etc..) are really necessary or there could have been a common design.
    – Sam
    Aug 21 at 9:55
2

A very minor answer: whatever the styles in various sports, by this year there are very good fabrics that wick away sweat, tight-fitting or not. And I can vouch that they really do work. And, in heat, they do function to make evaporation "through" a shirt more effective. In cooler weather, where it is often the case that evaporation-cooling is not desired, and does not occur, the effect is not so much "cooling" as just getting the sweat away from one's body. So, actually, more comfortable if it's chilly.

But, as I've always said, my book budget is based on what I save on my clothing budget. :)

5
  • 2
    But if the fabrics have the same performance, why are the styles so different?
    – DavidW
    Aug 19 at 4:04
  • @DavidW, I can't help but suspect that marketing issues, and style issues, are dominant. People are trying to, and, well, kinda-do need to, make money. Aug 19 at 4:13
  • In the Pacific Northwest, WA state, an hour south of Seattle, road rides and road kit are well-matched. However, on the MTB forest trails in WA with the dense trailside vegetation, thorns, and stickers, road kit would be a poor choice. In other areas, maybe Utah, Arizona, areas without dense trailside vegetation, the road kit (and styles) would work just fine for recreational MTB riders. Aug 21 at 5:38
  • 1/2 In essence you probably suggest what MaplePanda argues above. Cool. Now, even if we fix one variable ("I have a given budget for cycling clothing"), I would still not want to break that budget between the different variants of cycling. For one thing, that will just mean shorter laundry intervals (and the clothes are so tiny, it takes very many sets to fill a washing machine).
    – Sam
    Aug 21 at 9:47
  • 2/2 Also, skiers have always worn a second-skin layer (often called baselayer) for exactly the reason you mention (sweat chills, because the subsequent sweat evaporation is endothermic), but the governing bodies do not go around mandating the look of the variants of each sport to make them visually unique (or at least I'm not aware of it).
    – Sam
    Aug 21 at 9:47

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