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If you’ve spent the winter riding in tights, you’ll be looking forward to the swap to shorts now that the weather has started to warm up. But what should you be looking out for in cycling shorts? And why bib shorts rather than waist shorts?
Why buy bib shorts?
Most male cyclists ride in bib shorts rather than waist shorts, as the bib gives a couple of advantages.
First, the waistband on non-bib shorts tends to cut into you as you ride, due to the bent position in which you’re sitting. It’s also awkward as the waistband has to be a lot higher up your back than your front, so it sits oddly and uncomfortably when you’re off the bike.
Second, with repeated sitting and standing as you ride, the waistband in waist shorts tends to work its way down and you may find that you’re constantly having to hoist the shorts up.
The bibs on bib shorts sort both of these problems. Bib shorts are designed so that there’s no restriction at the waist and the bibs mean that the shorts stay in place whether you’re out of the saddle or seated.
At Pearson, we’ve a range of bib shorts and bib tights designed for different riders and different conditions, which we’ll explain below.
A word about women’s shorts
Bib shorts aren’t such a convenient option for women, as a comfort break means stripping off top half garments to drop the bibs, so many women prefer waist shorts, despite the waistband.
Some brands have designed women’s bib shorts with special features like halterneck designs, zipped panels and the detachable bibs in Rapha’s women’s bib shorts. They’ll give you the benefits of bibs with a lot less inconvenience.
The heart of any pair of cycling shorts is the seat pad. It may look like a lump of foam, but a modern seat pad is surprisingly sophisticated and complex under its covering. It’s designed to be ergonomic and make cycling more comfortable and efficient.
A well made seat pad is one of the main things that you’re paying for in a quality pair of shorts and one of the main reasons for the price differential between high end and basic shorts. It’s also the key component that makes the difference between a comfortable long distance ride and saddle soreness.
A modern seat pad will contain multiple layers of foam padding of different density and there will often be a gel pad in the centre of the sandwich too. Perforations in the foam aim to add a bit of ventilation and they’ll have a soft, antibacterial, wicking face fabric.
There will be different thicknesses of padding in different areas, with more under the sitbones where most of your weight is supported and less at the front and down the centre of the pad, where movement and airflow are more important. Tapered edges make for a comfortable transition between the different thicknesses and the pad will be flat sewn into the shorts, so there are no rough edges to chafe as you ride.
Ideally you need to sit more on top of the pad rather than sinking deep into it, so it doesn’t impede movement and airflow. So higher quality pads are made of higher density foam which will also provide more cushioning from the saddle.
At Pearson, we use our own specially designed seat pad in all our cycling bib shorts. Called the PhD pad, it’s a design that we’ve developed ourselves to be comfortable for a wide range of riders, based on the results of over ten years of bike fitting experience.
Seat pad is actually quite a modern term - you’ll also sometimes hear it called a 'shammy'. That’s because until not so long ago, rather than being made of foam it was a single thin layer of chamois leather sewn into the shorts. It helped absorb sweat, but gave little protection from the saddle. Saddle sores and boils were a common occurrence among pros on stage races - ouch. Cyclists were tough back then.
Fabric and features
One of the key functions of the shorts’ construction is to hold the pad in position effectively - you don’t want it moving around as you ride. Polyester/lycra mix is ideal for the purpose, as it’s lightweight and stretchy. The anchoring is helped out too by effective leg grippers. You’ll often find broad, raw edged, hemless grippers, which are that bit more comfortable than hemmed ones. A wide array of silicone dots tends to be more comfortable than a narrow silicone band too.
For summer riding, breathability and wicking are important, to remove sweat and keep your skin more comfortable - it’s something else that polyester does very well. A good pair of bib shorts should be close fitting but not restrictive. Some are built to be slightly compressive on the thighs to add extra muscle support. Aerodynamics are also improved if there’s a close fit with no wind flap. Some brands like Castelli will include aero dimples in their fabric, which they say enhances airflow further.
The body of the shorts will be higher at the back than at the front, to fit well when you’re bent over the saddle and make sure there’s not a gap between the shorts and your top half garments. There’ll be a rear yoke that extends up the back to connect to the braces of the bibs. You’ll usually get reflective elements somewhere in the build too, to up your low light visibility - we add reflective tabs on the outer leg seams.
For warm weather riding, mesh bibs are more comfortable than if they’re made of thicker lycra, as they allow more airflow, particularly over the back, which can get sweaty easily. That’s something we have on our premium British Summertime Begins bib shorts, along with our own high quality PhD seat pad.
Riding a bike involves thousands of repeated pedalling movements and raised seams can be an issue if they rub. Many brands will use flatlocked stitching on key seams in the bib shorts’ body to reduce the risk of abrasion. We go better though, using Merrow ActiveSeam stitching on our shorts.
It’s a new sewing technology designed specifically for active wear garments that’s lower profile and more stretchy than a standard flatlock seam, giving even better fit and less likelihood of discomfort.
There’s increasing attention to sustainability in fabrics and many brands are now including some recycled polyester in their garments. We’ve taken this to the next level, by making our bib shorts out of 100% recycled polyester, with their lycra content also 100% recycled. There’s no loss of function and the recycled content decreases use of petrochemicals and avoids polyester going to landfill or being incinerated.
Bib shorts for gravel
Gravel riding is developing its own aesthetic. Yes, you can ride perfectly well in road kit and a quality pair of bib shorts is even more important for comfort if you’re riding over bumpy terrain and taking on steep climbs and descents.
But many gravel riders want a more casual look off-bike. You’re more likely to snag kit against thorns and rough surfaces or have a fall than riding on a road, which can ruin the thin material of a pricey pair of lycra shorts. MTB riders get around this by wearing looser fitting kit, although they’ll usually wear padded liner shorts or bib shorts under more durable baggy shorts to add extra riding comfort.
That’s a trend that many gravel bike riders are choosing to follow, with many brands offering looser fitting waist shorts to wear over bib shorts. Although outer shorts designed for gravel tend to be a bit less baggy than MTB ones, they have the same problem as waist shorts in general that they’ll often slip down as you ride even if they have a tight waistband.
We’ve thought of that with our Push Comes To Shove adventure cargo bib shorts. They cleverly combine a lycra inner short - with our top notch PhD seat pad - with a looser outer short over their legs.
That gives you the best of both worlds: extra coverage to repel brambles and a more laid-back look paired with performance features, but minus the outer shorts’ waistband.
Even better, they include cargo pockets on the legs. That’s a feature that many brands are adding to their all-terrain oriented bib shorts, to up your cargo carrying capacity and make the shorts more versatile.
Bib shorts: not just for summer
Bib shorts are a great option not just for summer road riding. Take our Stiffen The Sinews cold weather shorts for example.
Like our British Summertime Begins shorts, they’re made of lightweight, stretchy, recycled fabric, but it’s brushed on the inside so it adds a lot of warmth. There’s the same high comfort PhD pad as in our summer shorts, but the legs are cut a little longer to insulate your thighs better.
That makes the Stiffen The Sinews bib shorts a great option for cooler weather in spring and autumn - and, let’s face it, many summer days too. You can extend their use even further by pairing these shorts up with our Cold Start merino leg warmers or with knee warmers, a combination that could oust tights for the majority of winter rides.
If you prefer tights for your winter rides though, take a look at our Survival Of The Fittest winter tights. They’re a full-featured garment with the same PhD pad as the rest of our range and high cut to help keep your midriff warmer.
And last up, our Kick Back commuter shorts are designed for urban riding, minus the seat pad, but with four-way stretch and a water repellent finish.