If you’re new to biking or haven’t been on one in years, it doesn’t take long to realize how many options you have for outfitting yourself for riding. Buying a pair of bike shorts seems like it should be such a simple thing, but one look at all the choices makes you quickly realize how overwhelming the process could be. Cycling shorts are just cycling shorts, right? Not quite.
There is a wide range of options out there, but they aren’t all created equal. Knowing what makes a great pair of women’s bike shorts can mean the difference between a comfortable ride and extreme discomfort. Even when you know what to look for, it can take some time to find the right pair of cycling shorts for you. Different styles fit certain body types better than others, and some brands create designs for the wonderfully diverse shapes seen in women cyclers. Make sure you’re ready for the summer riding season by finding your perfect pair (or two) of shorts.
Stick With Bike Shorts Designed for Women
When specialty biking gear was born, it was designed to fit men’s bodies. If a brand carried women’s sizes, they were usually just smaller versions of the men’s cuts. Obviously, there are some significant differences between male and female body structures. In addition to the biggest difference that separates the sexes, women also tend to have wider hips, longer waists, and shorter thighs. All of these factors come into consideration for the design and fit of cycling bottoms.
Now, female-specific gear is widely available. You can check Terry’s Breakaway Knicker here. Even bibs, which are relatively new to the market, can be found in various women’s styles. Once the industry caught on that women love to bike, too, designers started paying attention to what would make bike shorts comfy for them. They also recognized that female body types vary and created shorts to fit different bodies, which is great for women cyclists. In addition to sticking to women’s bike shorts, there are other features to be on the lookout for when shopping for a great pair.
Cushion Your Undercarriage
One of the reasons for wearing specialized bike shorts over regular ones is for comfort. Riding in a saddle for any length of time can tenderize your tender spots. Cycling pants have a built-in pad to cushion your undercarriage called a chamois. There is a difference between the shape of the chamois in men’s and women’s bottoms, highlighting yet another reason to make sure you look in the women’s section.
The chamois padding used to be made out of leather — not much in the way of padding — in the early 1900s, when they first arrived on the scene! Now, it is constructed out of an inner layer of foam or gel, with an outer layer of breathable, moisture-wicking fabric. It provides a soft spot for your sit bones to rest and cushions the undercarriage center.
How Much Cushion Do You Need?
It depends, to a degree, on personal preference, but the biggest factor is how long you plan to sit in the saddle. The longer you ride, the thicker you probably want the chamois to be, though some cyclists who get used to riding long distances eventually opt for a thinner layer. If you plan to experiment with triathlons, you’ll want a thin layer that dries out quickly after the swim and feels a little less like you’re wearing a diaper when you run.
Choose a Snug Fit
Your bike shorts should fit like a well-worn glove. You don’t want them to be too tight, or you’ll find pedaling to be uncomfortable. You also don’t want them to be loose, or they’ll slide when you ride, and you’ll end up chafed. Make sure you try on shorts before you buy them. Sizes vary between brands and styles, so you won’t know if a pair work for you until you slip them on.
The shorts shouldn’t have any wrinkles when you’re standing up or bag anywhere, a sign that they are too big. Sit in a chair and hunch yourself over in a biking position, moving your legs around. You should be able to move comfortably and breathe easily.
Leg Length Variations
While the legs in men’s cycling shorts tend to cover the quadriceps, extending almost to the knees, women’s shorts come in various leg lengths. On the shorter end, you’ll find leg lengths between three and five inches. These are typically worn in triathlons or for cross-training. The mid-range lengths are between six and eight inches. Many women prefer this length, and most bike shorts are made in this range. If you prefer longer shorts, you can find ones that are between nine and 11 inches, which typically cover the quadriceps.
Another feature to look for in the legs is the grippers. Many cycling shorts have elastic at the bottom of the legs. Frequently, there is also a layer of silicone covering the elastic. Both of these materials help to keep the shorts from sliding up your leg as you ride. When you try on shorts with grippers, make sure they’re not too tight and that they’re comfortable when your legs are in motion.
The waistband should fit comfortably while holding your pants up. They’re made out of elastic and can be between 0.5” and 1.5”. When you’re in the biking position, they shouldn’t be so tight that you find it hard to breathe. On the other hand, if they’re too loose, you’ll have to contend with them sliding down while you ride.
Cycling shorts are constructed of different panels joined together with flat or welded seams that prevent painful pressure points from sitting, bending, or moving. The panels help create the shorts’ contour, so the more there are, the more refined the fit. You can find shorts with anywhere from four to 12 panels.
For casual, short-distance rides, you’ll probably find shorts with four panels perfectly comfortable. If you ride more regularly, six-panel shorts are a better bet. Higher-end shorts with eight to 12 panels aren’t really necessary unless you plan to go on regular, long rides.
Choose the Right Fabric
While the chamois insert in bike shorts is made to breathe and wick moisture away from the body, the same can’t be assumed for the rest of the fabric. Most cycling shorts are made from Lycra, which has great stretchability, but it does not inherently deal well with heat or moisture. For summer riding, you may want to look for shorts that are designed to be breathable and moisture-wicking.
Lycra bike shorts might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Fortunately, there are alternatives!
If you like Lycra shorts but aren’t crazy about the elastic around your waist, bibs may be your answer. Elastic waistbands can feel constricting and actually restrict breathing. Bibs take care of both issues. They don’t have an elastic waistband. Instead, they have two Lycra straps that go over the shoulders, keeping the bottoms in place comfortably. They come in a variety of styles, so look around to see which ones are appealing to you.
One additional consideration with bibs is the little matter of using the restroom. Depending on the style, dropping your drawers isn’t as easy as with standard bike shorts. Some brands are now adding clips or snaps on the straps for quick removal.
Mountain Biking Shorts
If you prefer the look of looser shorts, you may like mountain biking shorts. These look more like hiking shorts, but they’re made to be comfortable when worn in the saddle. While these aren’t a good option for serious road cyclists, they’re great for casual riders, mountain bikers, commuters, and backpackers.
Mountain bike shorts come in different leg lengths, just like standard cycling shorts. You can find them with or without an integrated chamois layer. The chamois is usually removable. If you get a pair without it, you’ll most likely want to purchase chamois underwear. Wearing your regular underwear for more than a short ride will likely lead to chafing.
Leave the Underwear in Your Drawer
When you wear cycling pants, you don’t need or want to wear your underwear. Bike shorts are made of material that lets air flow while wicking away moisture. When you wear underwear, especially if they’re made of cotton, it negates these two important features. It also helps to prevent chafing.
When you add another layer, you get increased friction and moisture, leading to a greater chance of chafing. The seams of your underwear also cause discomfort and create issues. For longer rides, you may want to consider chamois cream for even less friction. Finding the right pair of bike shorts for summer riding is key for your comfort. Do yourself a favor and try on as many as it takes to find ones that fit your body and riding style. At Like A Bike U.S.A., we’re passionate about making biking fun. If you have any questions for us about bikes, cycling, gear, or riding tips, feel free to give us a shout!