Best Cycling Shorts: Form, Function, or Just Fashion?

Best Cycling Shorts
Jerry Mueller
Written by Jerry Mueller

What makes a pair of cycling shorts worthy of being counted amongst the best cycling shorts? How does a pair of cycling shorts differ from a pair of gym tights? And just how important is a good quality pair of bike shorts; is the correct seat not equally important?

Whether you’re engaged in competitive road, mountain bike racing, use your bike as a mode of transport, or simply bike to keep fit while also enjoying the outdoors, cycling has become big business.

Not only is there a race to make the lightest bikes, but cycling apparel design is equally competitive, and the race is on to produce the best bike shorts.

There can be no denying that pressure and friction on our hands and feet is a distant second when compared to that which gradually builds between our buttocks and the bicycle seat as we ride. But that’s why having the best pair of cycling shorts can take away your problems.

They’re padded in just the right areas to ensure that you’re still comfortable, even after a long ride.

A Brief History of Cycling Shorts

There was a time when cycling clothing was made from wool because it dried quickly. However, it was itchy on the skin and sagged when wet. During the 1940’s an innovative Italian designed shirts and shorts from silk, and this presented a few added benefits beyond being light, body hugging and therefore aerodynamic.

History of Cycling Shorts

It was also easy to print on and turned cyclists into moving bill boards. The use of seams in the nether regions, however, resulted in chaffing and saddle sores as a result of the sweat.

Anyone who has washed a car with a chamois leather cloth can vouch for its super absorbency and strength, and these were the characteristics riders wanted in their cycling shorts.

By the 1970’s spandex had been invented and this, along with new padding design technology, is the basis for cycling shorts as we know them today.

What to Look for in A Great Pair of Cycling Shorts

Whilst the overall fabric and design features are important, nothing is more important than the padding, and many would be surprised by the amount of resources which are dedicated to improving the padding design.

Cycling Shorts features

The purpose of the padding is threefold:

  1. Pressure: pressure points (also referred to as hotspots) develop where the bones inside your buttocks that you sit on meet the seat. The padding should cushion your sit bones and spread the pressure over as wide an area as possible, so that the soft tissue of your nether regions can be protected.
  2. Moisture: wicking is the capillary-like action of drawing water away from the surface of the skin and allowing it to evaporate. This is an important objective of padding, as moist skin which is subjected to pressure and chaffing will cause saddle sores.
  3. Friction: clearly the quickest way to cause chaffing, combined with moisture and pressure, will harm the skin surface before long. The challenge here is to ensure that the padding is not only molded to follow the curves and shape of your body, but is also held firmly against your body. This will essentially transfer the movement away from the skin and to the outer surface of your clothing.

Having said this, not all cycling short have an integrated chamois. In fact, serious cyclists often prefer not to have an integrated chamois, and will wear a pair of tight fit shorts beneath there cycle shorts instead.

Bibs, Road Cycling, and Mountain Biking Shorts

Mountain biking (MTB) is a relatively new form of cycling, and a range of apparel has been designed specifically for mountain bikers, most notably the shorts. Whilst road cyclists prefer the sleek, aerodynamic design of tight fitting lycra shorts, MTB shorts are more akin to a pair of surf or board shorts.

Mountain biking shorts

They are similar in look at first glance, but that’s where it ends. Generally manufactured from rugged, all-weather fabric, it has an inner liner, which is a tighter fitting under garment component, and padding.

There is a third type, and these are bibs, which is almost like a pair of road cycling, tight fitting shorts, with braces.

Serious mountain bikers prefer the bib style, which uses an integrated shoulder strap design to ensure that the padding remains exactly where it should, especially when your nether region is lifting on and off the seat, particularly over rough terrain, bibs are designed to achieve:

  • Lightweight, 4-way stretch fabric,
  • No waist adjustment or band, and
  • maximum body hugging padding.

There is really only one inconvenience with bib style shorts, and that is having to remove your cycling shirt, to take a comfort break.

Road cycling shorts typically make use of 4-way stretch spandex-based material that provides a particularly body-hugging result, and this design accentuates all of the design components, most notably being the padding.

Road cycling shorts

As a consequence of this this, a considerable amount of design technology goes into the construction of the padding, given that the challenge is to achieve:

  • maximum weight distribution to eliminate pressure points,
  • maximum water wicking characteristics,
  • body contour hugging position, and
  • minimum width and breadth.

The mountain biking shorts, on the other hand, concentrate far more on the functionality of the garment, and place importance on the overall look of their cycling shorts.

Shorts for cycling

They typically include a removable air-mesh fabric inner liner, which is essentially designed to accommodate the padding. The challenges which mountain bike shorts designers and manufacturers concentrate on a slightly different set of characteristics and these are focused on:

  • rugged and durable fabric typically made from polyester,
  • multiple pockets including both concealed, zippered and open,
  • position of pockets to ensure low impact on the pedaling action,
  • easily adjustable waist band, and
  • the ability to accommodate knee pads.

The mountain biking shorts provide a carry-all, rugged garment with a detachable inner liner. The chamois or padding is located slightly forward in road cycling shorts, to accommodate the typically forward body angle of a road bicycle cyclist.

How to Properly Fit Your Cycling Shorts

Choosing a pair of cycling shorts means that you want to be comfortable, but you won’t get that if you buy the wrong size. In particular, the inseam should be the most important measurement to consider, as this is where you’re going to have the most chafing if its not fitted properly.

Another measurement to keep in mind is the leg cuffs. Most cuffs either have silicone grippers on the insides of the bands to keep them in place, or compression cuffs are used.

Fit Your Cycling Shorts

Either way, you should ensure that they don’t pull on your skin or leg hair to add more discomfort.

However, you can’t really tell how a pair is going to feel just by trying them on. If you’re buying your shorts from a cycle shop, be sure to ask if you can try them out while sitting on a bike to ensure that they’re going to comfortable throughout.

Other Features to Consider

Now that you’ve sorted out the basics on the kind of cycling shorts you should get, there are other considerations to keep in mind to ensure that you’re always comfortable throughout your ride.

  • Material: the majority of cycling shorts are designed to wick away moisture from the body. This is why they are made from either lycra or nylon, or a combination of both. Some cycling shorts do the job better than others, due to their own trademarked materials, but you’re guaranteed to have a cool and sweat-free ride no matter what you pick.
  • Pockets: some cycling shorts come equipped with small pockets, which some people may not find necessary. However, it’s beneficial to have that extra store capacity for your house key or energy gel just in case than to be without.
  • UV Protection: in addition to preventing chafing, a good pair of cycling shorts should protect you from the elements, including the sun. Damage from the sun increases the longer you’re out riding, and even though you could slather on some sunscreen to get the job done, having an article of clothing that can block sunlight entirely is worth investing in.

With all of that in mind, here is a short list of some of the products that customers are raving about. Keep in mind that this is only a list that is designed to help you find the right pair of cycling shorts you’re looking for, and shouldn’t be the only products that you consider.

Top Cycling Shorts for 2017

Pearl Izumi Elevate

Pearl Izumi Elevate

Available Sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL.

Price: $49.76 – $100.00

Fabric: 95% Nylon / 5% Spandex.

Features: 4 way stretch fabric, 3 zippered pockets, snap fasteners, zip fly.

Note: no liner included.

Description: Pearl Izumi have been innovators and industry leaders in the production of cycling apparel, particularly cycling shorts for several decades. In fact, they are claimed to be the first manufacturer of the integrated synthetic chamois.

The Pearl Izumi Elevate is made from nylon and spandex blend and provides a 4-way stretch, rip-stop material, making it ideal for pedaling. The leg openings are sufficient to accommodate knee pads. Snap fasteners, and zip fly make comfort breaks a breeze.

In addition to the two zippered side pockets, there is also another pocket (also zippered) at the back.

Related Products: If you don’t already have a hydration pack, this is a fantastic aid to mountain bikers, and apart from its primary use of holding water, or energy drink of your choice, they make the ideal carrier for spare tubes, lube, etc. Ospreys’s Raptor 10 Hydration Pack is a great example.

Troy Lee Designs Ruckus Shorts – Men’s

Troy Lee Designs Ruckus Shorts - Men’s

Available Sizes: 30, 32, 36.

Price: $124.95 – $175.50

Fabric: 92% Polyester/ 8% Spandex.

Features: 2 way stretch fabric, zippered pockets, Velcro waist adjusters.

Note: liner included.

Description: Troy Lee Designs Ruckus Shorts – Men’s is the shorts of choice for America’s Curtis Keene, and that is high praise indeed for the Ruckus shorts.

For those multi day event riders, the ability to remove and wash the inner liner between rides, whilst still able to wear these stylish shorts is practical, and they certainly look good.

The 92% polyester and 8% spandex blend incorporates a single snap fastener and zip fly, and the hip-high Velcro waist adjusters are particularly effective. One side zippered pocket, one open access pocket and rear zippered pocket provides ample carry options.

Related Products: In addition to very well made mountain biking shorts, Troy Lee offer a number of other cycling apparel items including the A-1 helmet.

ZOIC Men’s Ether Cycling Shorts

ZOIC Men's Ether Cycling Shorts

Available Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL.

Price: $65.99 – $80.00

Fabric: 95% Nylon / 5% Spandex.

Features: multiple pockets, 3 zippered pockets, snap fasteners, zip fly.

Note: liner included.

Description: If pockets is your thing, the Zoic Ether shorts will not disappoint you, Zoic have placed pockets on every panel, some of which are zippered, made from air mesh, and some are open.

If there is anything to criticize, it could be the chamois, which is a little on the light side.

Having said this, many riders prefer a thinner chamois, as opposed to the diaper feeling created by thick chamois. The benefits of removal liners are well known, and Ether shorts also have hip-high Velcro adjustable extenders on either side.

Related Products: Apart from the option of including an additional liner, saving you having to wash and wear during multi day use, the Zoic Essential Liner is a good choice. And, it is not often that one comes across a full front button-up loose fitting cycle shirt, and the ZOIC Men’s District Cycling Jersey is a great alternative to the body fitting options.

Dakine Boundary

Dakine Boundary

Available Sizes: 30, 34, 36, 38.

Price: $44.97 – $101.81

Fabric: Material: 85% polyester, 15% spandex.

Features: 4 way stretch fabric, very light weight, concealed waist adjuster.

Note: no liner included.

Description: For cyclists that enjoy a slimmer looking and fitting cycling shorts, Dakine Boundary is the option for you. Although it is made from a 4-way stretch nylon and spandex blend, it remains a fairly loose fit.

The inner thigh vents are great to keep your legs cool, and the concealed waist adjuster keeps all lose ends from snagging on bushes. The slim look does come with a drawback, and that is the lack of adequate pockets, there is just one inside zippered pocket.

Related Products: Dakine do supply an inner liner, and this is the Mens Comp Liner.

Fox Head Men’s Ranger

Fox Head Men's Ranger

Available Sizes: 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44.

Price: $34.17 – $83.84

Fabric: 100% Polyester.

Features: 2-way stretch fabric, multiple pockets, snap fasteners, zip fly.

Note: liner included.

Description: You would be forgiven for thinking that Fox Head Men’s Ranger is a pair of regular cargo shorts, at first glance, but this belies what is really a great mountain biking option. The detachable inner liner is particularly good with a high quality Evo chamois.

You get two flap-close cargo pockets, which can carry loads of accessories and two side (and more rearward) zippered pockets. You are also likely to get the perfect fit thanks to the inside-adjustable waist band.

Related Products: Fox is a well-known and trusted brand, and has an option for almost every product category from a wide range of sports including moto X, free style riding and mountain biking. And if black is your colour, then the Fox Ranger Jersey and the Reflex Gel Mountain Bike Gloves, will complement your gear perfectly.

Endura Hummvee

Endura Hummvee

Available Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL.

Price: $68.24 – $130.26

Fabric: 100% Nylon.

Features: 4 way stretch fabric, 3 zippered pockets, snap fasteners, zip fly.

Note: no liner included.

Description: As its name suggests, the Endura Hummvee provides a particularly rugged pair of mountain biking shorts, for those who are looking for durability as their primary requirement.

The Humvee does not score well for weight, and comfort on the trail, given its non-stretch heavy duty fabric. There are pockets a plenty, and apart from the two rear pockets, which could well catch your seat, the others are well positioned and secure.

The liner is easily removed, and is a stretch mesh liner, with an integrated foam chamois. The waist is adjusted via a centre buckle.

Related Products: Free-style and urban riders are likely to find these shorts appealing, and will endure considerable abuse from scrapes and scratches. Speaking of free-style riding, you may want to consider a pair of Five Ten Freerider Bike Shoes.

Form, Function and Fashion

Let’s re-visit the question “are cycling shorts for form, function or just fashion,” and it seems the answer: all of it. The shorts that we have reviewed offer a really good form and function, and as far as looks go, they are great.

It is worth bearing in mind that not all shorts come with an inner liner, either detachable or fixed, and it is well worth ensuring that if they don’t, you should select a compatible inner liner. Take special care to read the washing instructions.

Choose your Cycling Shorts

Most will recommend hand washing, and almost all will warn against machine drying; this is largely due to the amount of synthetic materials that are used in their construction.  Thankfully, their synthetic material make-up does mean that they will dry pretty quickly in most environments.

Whilst road cycling shorts quality is often defined by their chamois, owing to the need to keep the shorts light and well formed.

Mountain bike shorts are less concerned about form as far as the chamois is concerned, and if the chamois is an important component of your cycling shorts, you may want to find your ideal inner liner, and then select your preferred pair shorts without the inner liner.

We would be really interested to know which shorts you have found to be best for your specific cycle sporting code.

Jerry Mueller
Jerry Mueller

Jerry ‘Boy Scout’ Mueller spends 99% of his time camping or teaching others how to live in the wild. He became an Eagle Scout which is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting division when he was 17 and after that he still lives the scout life. Jerry always plans neatly every trip, takes leadership very seriously and if you listen to his tips and stories, you can learn tons of useful things.

  • Kim Bromley

    For all my fellow women out there, you may want to give Bibs a go, rather than shorts. They can be a bit expensive but my Bontrager Bibs are genuinely the most comfortable garment I’ve ever worn on my bottom half. They fit like spanx and so there’s no chance of them slipping down. Doesn’t give you a muffin top either!

  • Stefan Sanga

    I was pretty skeptical before buying my first pair of cycle shorts as to how they’d be any better than riding in general shorts. Honestly thought it was all a gimmick. How wrong I was! Finally bought a pair of Izumi Elevates and, safe to say, they’re well worth the money. Can happily ride 30+ miles now without getting a sore posterior! My new rule – and one that is having a huge effect on my cycling – is to not scrimp on any clothing or accessories that connect me to my bike (shorts, gloves, saddle etc.). Makes a world of difference!

  • Jerry Mueller

    Ok we guys here you Kim! And we’ll take your word for it. 🙂
    The bibs are designed for most professionals but one thing remains for all cycling shorts: comfort to enjoy what we all love the most, and that’s ride our bikes!

  • Jerry Mueller

    Hi Stefan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m so glad that you’re investing in top-notch gear. You’ll immediately feel the difference when you’re wearing quality-made clothing. It really does make a difference in your performance – it’s not all hype. 🙂