As one of only three contact points with your bike, the comfort of your derriere is paramount when bike riding and a good pair of women’s cycling shorts can make all the difference.
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While a large proportion of your comfort on the bike will come from finding a quality women’s saddle that suits you, the what sits between that and the most delicate part of your body is just as important.
With a plethora of women’s cycling shorts on the market, finding comfortable short can be a minefield. It’s not just the chamois that matters – you’ll want leg grippers that sit well and fabric that provides comfortable compression.
We’re here to help you find that pair that allows you to freely ride your bike without the worry of sore bits or a builder’s bum making an appearance.
The best women’s cycling shorts
We’ve gone into detail about exactly what to look for in women’s cycling shorts below – but first, here are some of our favourites. You’ll notice we have included mostly bib over waist shorts, largely because if the improved performance they do offer – which is explained below.
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We’ve got new pairs of 2019 bib shorts dropping into the office (including something quite exciting from Rapha!) and will get some brand new reviews up soon, but for now, these are our top picks from kit we’ve tested…
Alé Green Road Lady bib shorts, £145
These shorts bowled us over because not only do they offer supreme comfort and performance, they’re also made from fabrics that are Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certified.
The leg grippers are all and spread the compression, fabric was muscle hugging and breathable and pad gave us plenty of support on long rides – earning these shorts the coveted 10/10.
Gore C7 women’s long distance bib shorts+, £180
These top end race shorts are designed with the rigours of long distance riding at front of mind.
The cuffs are wide with silicone dots to hold them in place, and sat very flat against the skin with no pinching. The fabric is soft to the touch and we found these to be a joy to wear.
Assos UMA GT half shorts, £95
Most of the comfort in these shorts comes thanks to the 8mm of memory foam chamois and S7 ‘waffle design’ alongside the ‘goldenGate’ – which means the pad is attached at the front and rear, allowing for movement and ‘float’.
The leg grippers are also really wide and graduate towards the centre, meaning they stay put without digging in, and the waist rises up at the back to ensure no bare skin is ever exposed.
Assos quality for under £100.
Odlo Element Cycling shorts £50
Easy to wear and versatile pair of shorts, that will be a great addition to any cyclists wardrobe. Balancing both comfort and practicality, the exceptionally well made shorts punch well above their price bracket when compared to their peers, making them one of the best non-bib options on the market. A great buy.
Specialized SL R women’s bib shorts £140
Extremely comfortable shorts with a racing pedigree and a comfort break system that actually works without having any negative impact on fit or performance.
At £140 these shorts are an investment – but they come in better value than many of the offerings from premium brands, offering performance that surpasses most.
Santini Legend bib shorts £110
The women’s specific Santini Legend bib shorts are all about long days in the saddle for great value. The fabric, fit and padding are all geared this way, enabling the rider to crack on with cranking the pedals round. Perfect for long distance cycling – though some may find the eight hour ready chamois a bit too thick.
Assos T.laalalai shorts_s7 women’s bib shorts, £165
An oldie but still a goodie, the Protective ‘type.439’ fabric offered compression and abrasion resistance, but they’ve been dipped in an ‘IceColor’ dye that helps to reflect sunlight – providing a cool ride even on super hot days. Wide, 4.5cm leg grippers have been used and a clasp at the waist can be disconnected and swing over the head for easy comfort breaks. These will become keepers.
Women’s cycling shorts chamois
At the top of the check list for any women’s cycling shorts is the padded insert, otherwise known as a chamois. There’s a fine line between sufficient padding and too much bulk, and this also depends on the kind of riding you’re going to be doing. Long days in the saddle will require more cushioning, but if you’re on and off the bike a lot, for example a quick commute or a cyclocross style ride, you may prefer much less.
A quick squish test can give you a rough idea as to the level of padding, but also take into account construction: is it made from foam, gel or both? As a rule of thumb the more variety and densities of layers, the more cushioning you will receive, especially over a longer time period (both in terms of riding time and age of shorts) when padding can compress flat – offering little in terms of support.
On the whole, the addition of gel inserts may help reduce some shock absorption, but can add weight and bulk to the shorts. Foam may give you a little more road buzz feedback, but will create a lighter, more streamlined and less restrictive pair of shorts.
To add to this gel-versus-foam conundrum is a myriad of construction fabrics, with a view to reducing the risk of saddle sores (of the infected hair follicle type). But try not to get too bogged down with this as most shorts’ chamois now offer some kind of antibacterial properties, breathability, sweat wicking and quick drying capabilities. To be honest, the best prevention of saddle sores is self help and chamois care by always wearing fresh shorts, using an antibacterial chamois cream, limiting chamois time when not on the bike and hopping into the shower asap post ride.
Areas of soft tissue need protection. This is often in the form of extra soft padding to help alleviate pressure points and the all-important avoidance of stitching in these regions. The design also needs to appreciate that women’s sit bones are wider apart than men’s and position the thickest padding accordingly.
This attention to padding placement will also help you decide your overall chamois size requirement – bigger is not always better. Bear in mind that when on a bike your legs aren’t any wider than hip distance apart at the top, so too much padding overspill can create an un-natural leg position. While too much length at the rear may just be unsightly, too much at the front will potentially cause friction burns to the top of legs and groin when you start pedaling.
One of the biggest causes for short discomfort can be the chamois-to-short interface. Unfinished edges and badly positioned stitching can irritate legs, buttocks and groin. A niggle, when multiplied by several thousand pedal revolutions, can swiftly turn in to full blown painful chaffing and skin loss. To protect yourself from this, look for flatlock sewing right at the edges of the padding and ensure that the unpadded fringes of the chamois flow a few centimeters below the groin to prevent irritation in creases.
How to dress for hot conditions
Shorts vs Bibshorts
There are two kinds of cycling shorts: ones with bibs and ones without, and both have pros and cons. It’s very much horses for courses as to what type will suit you and your riding needs best, and like chamois padding, this need may change depending on what riding you’ll be doing on any given day.
Waist shorts for women
The biggest benefit to plain and simple shorts is easy access, be it for the inevitable comfort break on long rides or just a bottom half change for quick rides to and from the office.
With no body upper, shorts can also be a cooler option on hot days or indoor training sessions. With less fabric, this generally makes them lighter weight and a cheaper option price-wise.
The downside is, unless you’re a unicycle rider, all forms of bike riding require you to bend in the middle – the exact point where a waistband sits. This can create a ‘digging in’ sensation when on the bike, which can range from merely an ‘awareness’ to ‘organ squeezing’! Some shorts get round this issue with the creation of a low slung waistline, but that can give an unflattering pot belly illusion and create a gap between shorts and jersey at the back. The better option is a wider waistband with a high back to counter the stretching effect on the bike.
However, construction of waist shorts varies hugely, so when trying on, make sure you try with a bike specific jersey and adopt an on-the-bike position to see how the waistband fits and feels.
Brands and retailers agree that waist shorts are currently the biggest sellers for women. However, in terms of performance, bibshorts to tend to offer a better experience when on the bike.
Bibshorts for women
Bibshorts more or less overcome this waistband issue as the shorts’ leg fabric continues much higher up the torso before eventually transitioning into the bibstraps. A good pair of women’s specific bibshorts will take account of a female’s increased hip to waist ratio compared to a man’s and ensure they fit snugly around the waist, preventing crafty gaps and sweat channels. Unlike shorts, some bibshorts offer an element of skin protection if you’re unfortunate enough to end up sliding on tarmac – though the amount of coverage will vary depending upon the design.
This male/female fit difference also holds true for bibstrap design. Traditional up and over straps may work for some, but others find straps directly laying on breasts uncomfortable and/ or find the shorts no longer sit flush on the stomach, again creating drafts or sweat channels. Look for bib straps that take account of the female form by contouring either side of the chest, running directly down your middle or having another solution, such as the dhb halterneck design.
The other thing to look for on the straps is length: too short will become painful and sore on the shoulders, too long and shorts will sag and not hold the chamois in position. A good fit will feel slightly too short when standing, so again when trying on, adopt a riding position to get a better idea of how they’ll feel on the bike.
Many women are put off bib shorts because taking a ‘comfort’ or ‘nature’ break is made a little bit more difficult. However, almost all reputable brands have now come up with a solution for this. Popular options include halterneck bibs, which can be pulled over the head and threaded under a jersey (Ale), or simply pulled down at the back (dhb and Giro), as well as zips around the waist (Gore) and clasps that clip at the waist or back with a similar function to the halter neck (Gore again and Assos).
Though some women prefer to go with the bog standard bib strap design featured on most men’s bib shorts, unzipping a jersey and removing the straps when it’s time to ‘go’, the assorted options offers by those catering for women in this way do make bib shorts more accessible for those who might otherwise have opted for waist shorts.
Bibshort designs without a quick pit stop drop will require you to remove your jersey first, so just watch out for dropping items from your pockets and if you’re wearing a race number, make sure its not pinned through your base layer too!
Legs on women’s cycling shorts
While function is imperative, form isn’t far behind, with the links between looking good and feeling good on a bike being well documented.
As women generally having a higher fat percentage than men, skin tight lycra can be both friend and foe, with the ideal short legs being body contouring and muscle supporting, while avoiding over-compression.
Aim for a close, but not a restrictively tight fit on the legs, especially on the leg cuff. This is a particularly tricky area to get right, as they need to be snug enough to prevent the legs riding up when pedalling, without squeezing the thigh giving that ‘sausage leg’ look. Wide leg cuffs and raw edges often create the most flattering finish, and when teamed with silicone or other tacky fabrics on the leg gripper, will stay put when riding.
Until relatively recently only the use of multiple fabric panels would deliver a close fit, and even now it’s a good way to ensure a simple lycra short contours the body.
With the advent of more technical materials that flow and cling to the skin, a snug fit can now be achieved using fewer panels. These fabrics often have multiple attributes, such as being incredibly lightweight and breathable, so expect a premium price tag on these shorts.
Trying on will allow you to see and feel the fit instantly, but unfortunately it’ll be difficult to judge the shorts’ legs’ staying power until you get out on the bike, so look out for women’s specific cycling shorts reviews to test that for you.