A Short Analysis
There’s a big difference between casual shorts, technical hiking/climbing shorts, and those that are actually intended for mountain biking. Back in the day, mountain bikers were limited to wearing either traditional bicycle shorts (Lycra) or less ‘tight’ options, like trusty denim cut-offs or hiking shorts. While these did fine for cleaning/tuning your bike, portaging it, or chilling at the trailhead, they failed to provide any actual comfort while riding. These days, a wide variety of MTB-specific shorts are available, and your crotch will thank you for taking advantage of them.
Aside from the presence of a chamois, dedicated mountain bike shorts sport many features that make them trail-specific. Follow this guide to pick the best cycling shorts for your application.
Lycra shorts are skin-tight options that the general public loves to snicker about. Though they are the butt of many jokes (ha!), these shorts have numerous advantages:
- >They’re aerodynamic–no annoying fabric flapping in the wind and slowing you down
- It won’t snag chassis components such as H2O cages/bottles, suspension linkages, or seat QRs
- Spando can provide fatigue-reducing muscle compression
- Cycling shorts provide support for and containment of vulnerable organs
- They wick perspiration to prevent the eruption of nasty rashes and reduce the volatile friction-to-saddle ratio
Purpose-made cycling shorts have multiple advantages but still aren’t necessarily the best choice for mountain biking. They lack any pocket storage, can tear easily, and sometimes just don’t fit the occasion (think of colorful ’80s bicycle shorts). If you’re looking for a conventional, loose-fitting mountain bike short, continue on to the baggie short spew–but check out the spandex construction and chamois segments, as many technologies and construction methods carry over, and who knows ... maybe spando is in your dynamic future.Endura, Gore, Pearl Izumi, SKINS, Sugoi
Although the rewards of spandex bike shorts are numerous, they still have short comings (wtf puns!)–that’s where bibs come in to play. What cyclists like most about bibs is reduced short migration and elimination of the annoying elastic waist hem that causes discomfort and chafing over the long haul. Most important, though, is that bibs keep hairy midriffs, pasty skin, and ass cracks from hanging out for the world to embrace. So, unless you have a trampstamp you’re proud to show off, bib shorts are among the most comfortable and effective cycling garments. For more in-depth bib short info, see Chaz Boutsikaris’ bodacious Bib Shorts Guide at Realcyclist.com.
One thing that makes cycling shorts stand out on the bike–and not off–is the number of panels. Basically, a panel’s a piece of the fabric. If you made a short out of two panels, it would be one-dimensional (most casual shorts have four-panel construction). Bicycle shorts typically have at least six panels, and some high-end models can sport upwards of ten or more panels (see the red and blue highlighted panels in the image)–providing the most natural, anatomical shape.
Manufacturers can also design compression zones into spandex shorts. These panels can improve blood circulation, enhance muscle stability, increase efficiency of movement, and most importantly, reduce fatigue. Consider compression tights a form of mechanical doping that hasn’t been outlawed yet by governing bodies. SKINS offer a line of compression cycling garments.
Bicycle shorts feature seams that are rotated away from high-friction zones, such as the saddle interface. These seams are typically sewn using a flatlock stitch to reduce any instance of irritation. The flatlock stitch lies flat against the garment instead of hanging loose from it. Imagine a cyclist wearing standard shorts and underwear with the seams pinching and rubbing against his or her skin with every pedal stroke … not a pleasant thought.
Many shorts use elastic and gripper hems to help hold the short in place during the dynamics of cycling. These shorts use a silicone strip around the waist and leg hems that’s somewhat tacky to the skin so the short won’t ride up or sag as you pedal.
Not all chamois are the same. Manufacturers use a variety of materials and construction to achieve the perfect balance of comfort and performance. There are a variety of foam-pad densities, and gel inserts can also vary in viscosity. A high-end-chamois maker will often use more than one density of foam and layer them adoringly, or combine a mix of gel and foam to achieve the ultimate in comfort. The chamois patterns and shapes used to fit different anatomy also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Chamois also use fabrics that maximize perspiration wicking and ventilation (perforated) or enhance flexibility.
Chamois Liner Shorts are available separately and can be used in conjunction with any style short/pant to enhance rider comfort, but their real advantages shine when used in conjunction with dedicated cycling shorts.
Try a couple out, but be aware they’re not for standing in front of a mirror and looking good, they’re purpose-built for saddle time and can feel awkward off the bike.The North Face, DAKINE, Endura, Troy Lee Design, ZOIC, Fox, Jett, Oakley, Six Six One, Sugoi, Pearl Izumi, Sombrio, Nema, POC, Gore, Royal, Dainese
Spando isn’t always the answer. Spandex does wonders for cycling, but it’s not the toughest option, and we all know mountain biking takes its toll on gear–including your shorts. Turf it on some lava rocks with your spandex, and you’re going to look like you’re ready to take the stage for a freak, blood-lusting, Finnish shock-rock band.
Baggy mountain bike shorts have burly construction–typically made with a tear-resistant nylon–and use heavy-duty stitching, combined with bar tacking and gussets in key areas such as the crotch. These extra reinforcements ensure the shorts hold up to trail abuse without giving up the ghost. Baggy mountain bike shorts also use stretchy elastic panels around the waist to keep them in place and allow for flex while riding.
Not all bike shorts come with a chamois; some have a removable one, and others have them built in. If you want to use the shorts outside of riding, pick up a pair with removable liners. While chamois are designed to protect against saddle sores, they fail at protecting against impacts from crashes. Enter Under Short armor–these garments provide impact resistance so your hips or tailbone won’t take the brunt of the hit. Most downhill shorts offer a looser fit to accommodate the armor.
Many shorts, such as The North Face Downieville, also feature built-in zipped vents to regulate temperature–sparing the embarrassing revelation that you’ve just spent happy hour rehydrating with your fly down because you used the time-honored technique of lowering it for a cool breeze while riding.
One of the ultra-important features of a pair of mountain bike shorts is the pockets. Pockets play a big roll when riding; the saddle position combined with body movements can cause items to migrate and jump ship. When you’ve been riding for two hours and go to retrieve your car keys, bottle opener, or cell phone and can’t find it, you’re bummed. Mountain bike short pockets have fasteners such as zips, hook-n-loop, or snap buttons to keep your stowables stationary. Also, mountain biking often leads to wet crossings, damp vegetation, and unexpected showers. For this reason many manufacturers use
watertight closures, and some pockets have mesh liners to aid in ventilation when left open. Pockets also aren’t always located in the common position; they’re often moved to accommodate the motion of pedaling without the contents being a distraction, such as a modified-cargo pocket location. Last but not least, mountain bike short pockets are often tacked to the short at the bottom so they won’t pull out when you go digging in ’em with your gloves on.Cutter, Sugoi, Ibex, Gore, Endura, ZOIC
Or something completely different? It’s your guess, but they won’t get caught in your chain. They won’t keep you as warm as pants, but won’t keep you as cool as shorts. They do pack all the technical features of dedicated cycling garments, so when the coverage of shorts doesn’t fit the bill and full-length pants are overkill, gear up with a pair of knickers.
Bike shorts are an excellent breeding ground for fungus and bacteria–so, unless you’re a mycologist or bacteriologist looking for healthy samples, wash your bike shorts frequently and follow manufacturers guidelines.
Typically, manufacturers recommend washing your gear on the gentle cycle in warm water with a quality detergent. Most important, though, is to drip dry; your bike makes a great hanger to dry gear from. Using a dryer with high air temperatures will ruin the garment's seams/construction.
The worst thing to do is use fabric softeners with your technical clothing. One reason is that it clogs the chamois’ pores, which are designed to keep moisture moving away from your body. When this feature’s inhibited you significantly increase your chances of rocking a red, sore monkey butt. Also, hook-n-loop fasteners can wreak havoc on your clothing in the wash. Fasten them shut, including zippers, to make sure your gear lasts. One good option is to use a mesh wash bag to keep pieces of gear from clinging to each other.
One common rookie mistake is to wear undies with your shorts. This not only detracts from the technical shorts' ability to wick moisture, it also introduces seams to the equation that result in chafing and irritation–exactly what cycling shorts are designed to prevent. Keep the underwear at home for post-ride, and make sure they’re clean as well–your bum will thank you.
Washing shorts after every ride is the best way to prevent harboring a farm of foul microscopic friends, but that’s not always possible on long road trips/mega rides. In these cases, the best course of action is to rinse them, wring ’em, and let ’em dry completely. Typically, you can go two to three days before a mass of funk arrives, followed closely by a swarm of flies.
Skincare products exist to enhance antimicrobial properties of your chamois and condition the skin. These work wonders and significantly reduce the chances of saddles sores. Some racers swear by slathering up with facial skincare cleaners–the kinds available at drug stores that unclog pores and fight acne. If you happen to be a farmer, you probably have some udder cream lying around. Spread it down under to reduce grundle grindage when shredding your ranch’s private singletrack. Herbs can work too if you’re a little more granola. Do some research and find natural, alternative sources of allantoin. These options do exist–but unlike a dedicated chamois cream, they’re not as specialized at fighting microbes, effective as a long-term lube, or designed to work with chamois.
Like handlebar grips, knobby rubber, and brake pads, chamois pads lose cushion and deteriorate over time. If you’ve been sporting the same pair of shorts for three years, you may not notice the lack of comfort—until you slide into an ultra-fresh loincloth. It’s like a tune up for your gluteus maximus.