Decent padded cycling shorts - bib shorts or waist shorts - are an essential for comfortable miles on the saddle.
It is important for cycling shorts to hug your body and keep the chamois pad perfectly in place while you ride. This is necessary to prevent chafing and saddle sores - the uncomfortable by-products of cycling that can utterly ruin your riding experience.
Choosing the right saddle is also an essential in finding riding happiness. Chamois cream can also help prevent irritation when riding, by eliminating the friction between your skin and padded shorts.
When searching for the perfect pair of cycling shorts, a quality chamois, quick drying and high wicking material, stretchy fabric and a comfortable fit are all things to look for.
Deciding between a waistband or shoulder straps to hold the shorts up is another consideration. Many serious cyclists opt for bib shorts, but waist shorts are becoming increasingly popular for indoor riding.
We run through the pros and cons of both of these options, to help you find the style of shorts that will best suit your needs.
Cycling bib shorts
By using bib straps instead of a waistband, this style of short is designed not to restrict your deep diaphragmatic breaths.
The straps have the secondary benefit of keeping the shorts securely in place and thereby reducing any chafing. Switching from grinding in the saddle, to tip toeing on the pedals as you climb out the saddle, your shorts will stay in the same position throughout.
On a more aesthetic note, the high cut of bib shorts means that even if your jersey rides up, you won’t end up with your midriff exposed. It is reassuring when riding to know a seamless transition will be maintained at all times.
The extra material, however, can make bib shorts hotter to ride in and a little less breathable. This is less of an issue out on the road, but the fact that many people ride with the bib straps down when cycling indoors on the turbo is somewhat telling.
Although bib shorts circumvent the issue of a waistband digging in, they introduce a new problem of bib shoulder straps digging in. This can be a particular issue for women as it can be hard to get the bib straps and bra straps to sit comfy on your shoulders in harmony. Going for a cycling specific sports bra, such as Rapha's Outdoor Voices Sports Bra is a good option to mitigate this issue.
The need to remove your jersey before the shorts can be pulled down makes toilet stops a far more involved affair. The issue is compounded when your jersey pockets are cluttered full of spares and nutrition you need for the miles ahead.
Cycling waist shorts
With a lower waist and by not having straps, waist shorts are a lot more effective in keeping you cool on the turbo than bib shorts. The issues regarding bib straps digging in and making toilet stops difficult are also avoided.
The waistband of waist shorts presents their biggest limitation. These can cut into your tummy uncomfortably and their thick material can soak up sweat, which certainly feels unpleasant as its held against your skin. Although a pair of well fitting waist shorts should stay in position for the most part, they don’t have quite the same security as a pair of bib shorts.
For those concerned with aesthetics, because waist shorts don’t rise up as high, there is more of a chance of exposing your lower back when hunched over the handlebars.
Optimise your shorts
Although there are some sweeping statements we can say about bib and waist shorts, such as bibs are better for breathing and security while waist shorts are better for turbo and toilet stops, there are other factors that should be considered to maximise your comfort and performance.
If you’re a fan of how bib shorts hold themselves so securely in place, but you’re just getting too hot on the turbo, there are some other options you should consider first. Searching for a more breathable set of bib shorts might be all you need to feel more comfortable.
Alternatively, there are some bib shorts such as the Café du Cyclist Annabelle Tank Bib Shorts, where the bibs are specifically designed to function as base layer, wicking sweat away from your skin and cooling you faster.
However, if you want to feel as near as possible to wearing nothing while on the turbo, there are some indoor specific waist shorts such as Rapha’s core shorts and dhb’s Aeron women’s shorts. These combine highly breathable material with a low surface area.
But if you want cooler turbo sessions and don’t want to just throw money at the problem, mountain bike liner shorts present a compelling option, such as the Endura Padded Clickfast Liner Short.
These padded shorts are designed to be worn underneath baggy shorts, and can be made highly breathable without using the most expensive fabrics by utilising simple perforations. The resulting slightly see-through fabric means these are best used only indoors though.
If you find that bib straps always dig in uncomfortably, or just don’t work well with your bra straps, you don’t necessarily need to switch to waist shorts. A skin suit, where the jersey and shorts are one single piece, presents a real alternative to waistbands and bib straps that dig in.
Although most commonly associated with time-trialling for their aerodynamic benefits, there are options which have suitable pockets for road riding, such as the Castelli Sanermo 4.0 Speed Suit. The way that the material holding the shorts up is distributed across the whole of your shoulders means that digging in shouldn’t be a problem.
You might well be sold on the functionality of waist shorts - more breathable with less fabric, not digging into the shoulders and making toilet stops simpler - but be frustrated at the way the waist band digs in.
There are other options before your make the switch back to bibs though. Some brands produce shorts with a cross over waistband, such as the Sportful Women’s Giara Shorts which relieves pressure around your stomach, but still has enough elasticity to keep your shorts up.
Before making any hasty decisions to jump ship, whichever side of the bib shorts vs waist shorts you’re currently on, it’s best to first reflect on the shorts you already own.
If you are experiencing problems with your shorts moving about uncomfortably as you ride, this isn’t necessarily a sign you need to switch to bibs. Try experimenting with shorts that are a bit smaller, it could just be that the pairs you have are a little large.
Equally, if you are suffering with bib straps digging into your shoulders, this doesn’t mean waist shorts are your only option. Going a size up, or opting for a brand with longer bibs could solve your problems whilst retaining all the other benefits you are currently experiencing.
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I’ve been hooked on bikes ever since the age of 12 and my first lap of the Hillingdon Cycle Circuit in the bright yellow kit of the Hillingdon Slipstreamers. For a time, my cycling life centred around racing road and track, but that’s since broadened to include multiday two-wheeled, one-sleeping-bag adventures over whatever terrain I happen to meet.
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