Outside of your bike with its components, and of course your helmet to protect your head, cycling shorts might be most important bike gear purchase you make. Cycling shorts are indispensable to anyone who spends time on a bike. A good pair of cycling shorts will prevent saddle sores, reduce chafing, and make the overall experience much more comfortable for a cycling. Additionally, having the right quality cycling gear will help you be more comfortable, responsive, and safer on the bike.
While cycling shorts, triathlon shorts, and compression shorts share some similarities, they are fundamentally different in a few respects. First, cycling shorts have the obvious padding in the seat and are built with excess space to house that padding. Second, cycling shorts give up some of the compression engineering in favor of comfort, particularly in the crotch and on the thighs. A good pair of cycling shorts allows the rider to be comfortable after even 100 miles – or as comfortable as one can be after 100 miles.
Key Features of the Best Bike Shorts
Cycling shorts come in all varieties – range from low-end and basic to high-end and reflecting years of engineering. While there is not a one-size-fits-all answer for cycling shorts, especially when factoring in the range of potential budget you might be working with, there are a few key concepts to consider when shopping for your cycling shorts. We will get to some specific shorts recommendations a little later in this article.
- Designed for the Right Purpose. The first thing you need to do when evaluating bike shorts is to make sure you are buying shorts that fit your intended use. Some shorts are made more for mountain biking, others for competitive road riding, and still others are built more for very long endurance rides. Then there are triathlon shorts, which are a different animal altogether and made for the combination of swim/bike/run. We will highlight some of our favorites in each category below, as well as some good all-purpose shorts that can be good for multiple uses.
- Construction Quality. Build quality is important in all of your cycling gear, and that goes for your cycling shorts as well. A good pair of cycling shorts will be made of reliably tough material that is suited for your intended use. The shorts will have strong stitching that should last through many, many wash/wear cycles, but the stitching should be flat against your skin.
- Seat Pad. Seat pads are woven into the saddle area of the shorts, and usually made of chamois. Chamois is a napped cotton-flannel blend that acts kind of like moleskin on your bottom, making sure that any friction between your body and the bike seat is minimized. Outside of a proper bike fit, the chamois pad could perhaps play the most important role in keeping you comfortable on a long ride. A good seat paid will have as few seams as possible, seamless stitching into the pants, and just enough cushion to keep you comfortable. Some cyclists apply a cream — chamois cream — to their shorts to reduce friction even more. We suggest not taking that gooey step unless you really need to. Most cyclists don’t. Just be sure that your seat bad gives you the comfort you need on long rides. Besides having major comfort benefits, studies have shown that a good seat pad, along with a quality bike seat, can reduce worries about certain health issues and function in male cyclists.
- Leg Grips. One of the areas where the cheap bike shorts show their inferiority is in the leg grips. Having a bad leg grip is a quick way to make you throw a pair of cycling shorts into the trash. Imagine a scratchy or rough leg group on your thought, rubbing you just the wrong way as your leg goes up and down 50 times per minute. Yeah, you want good grips. A good leg grip will have enough elastic to keep its firmness for many rides, but will be completely smooth to the touch and offer nothing abrasive or uneven.
- Shorts Features. Features are largely a matter of personal preference, but the choices are many. We recommend a short that is at least 8 inches on the inseam, as the provides more protection from the sun as well as an extra layer of armor in case you get tangled up with a tree or another cyclist. We are also big fans of having at least one pocket, and preferably two. This can be useful for carrying gel packs, hauling your litter, or simply having a place to stash a few emergency dollars. Other possible features are to go with a bib style, and of course the design. Many cyclists simply wear black shorts, but others want liven it up and the possibilities are endless.
- Comfort. Just because this is the last point on our list doesn’t make it an afterthought – it is probably the most important. Make sure you find shorts that are comfortable for you. The fit, placement and thickness of the pad, tightness of leg grippers, and quality of the stitching are all elements that can make one pair of bike shorts feel good for one person but annoying for another. A rule of thumb from many experienced cyclists is to try a few different types of shorts over time, and when you find one that works, just keep buying the exact model again and again. There is also a safety benefit of having shorts that feel good, as you will have fewer distractions on the road. Cycling no doubt has some risks, but being completely comfortable and focused helps the health and mental benefits outweigh the risks by an order of magnitude.
What to Look for in your Cycling Shorts
Our Favorite Cycling Shorts
As a starting point, here are some of our favorite cycling shorts based on past experience. We do not include bib-style shorts which are used by some hardcore cyclist but generally not used by average weekend athletes. Our goal here is to provide several good recommendations regardless of your price range and intended use.
Pearl Izumi Attack Cycling Shorts ($65). PI makes some of our favorite gear anywhere, and the Izumi Attack Cycling short combines some of the best material and construction that we see in their gear. We find that Pearl Izumi gear tends to fit most athletes well and has a very comfortable feel against the skin, unlike some higher-end shorts which focus on being stiff but can have the side effect of feeling too “hard”. The Flatlock seams help keep chafing away, and the seamless chamois pad tends to be very comfortable for most athletes. While you can buy more expensive PI cycling shorts, there is no need for the average weekend athlete – these will service most cyclists very well. Available here.
Castelli Free Aero Race Shorts ($180). Warning – these shorts are expensive. If you are on a budget, you may want to skip these. However, if you are willing to drop $150 or more on your cycling shorts, the Castelli Free Aero shorts are about as comfortable and durable as you will find. The fabric is firm and will keep a cyclist comfortable for even long rides, and they are built with no inner-leg seam so there is no chance of chafing regarding of body type. Castelli’s are geared a bit more toward racers, time-trialers, and long-distance riders. You may not be the right fit for them if most of your riding is leisure or on a mountain bike. Available here.
Louis Garneau Fit Sensor 3D Shorts ($75). For a good-looking and comfortable short that doesn’t break the bank, we like the Fit Sensor from Garneau. Garneau, or LG as it is called in many circles, really focuses on cycling gear and tends to put our very high quality products. Louis Garneau is an actual person, a Canadian cycling racer from the 80s who first created a line of cycling gear in his father’s garage. The Fit Sensors are one of the only shorts in this price range to offer a seam-free inner leg as well as a 10-panel pad. One thing we have always liked about LG is the durability over time – something you might not always see in reviews because so many reviews are done within the first few months of owning a product. Garneau’s quality of bike shorts is exactly what they also give you in cycling shoes, snowshoes, and tri gear. Available here.
Pearl Izumi In-R-Cool Pro Shorts ($150). You might notice a theme, we like the Pearl Izumi brand. Originally developed in Japan but relocated to the USA several decades ago, PI has been consistently making not only great cycling gear but excellent workout year for years. Not priced for the faint-hearted, the In-R-Cool shorts follows a line of In-R-Cool products by Pearl Izumi that really stand out and are worth every penny. The fabric is strong with high-end stitching and leg grips, but what sets these shorts part is the cooling fabric, which the company calls Minerale — it transfers heat out and keeps your skin dryer. The fit is consistently good for all builds, and the chamois pad performs very well for a long time. Our testing suggests that if you are on the line, go with larger size as these run snug. You might not feel great about spending $150 on a pair of shorts, but if you do very long rides, you will soon forget how much you paid and simply remember how comfortable these are. Available here.
Sugoi Pace Shorts ($55). These are the shorts for you if you don’t want to be seen in skin-tight spandex gear. Sugoi is a reliable maker of cycling, triathlon, and fitness gear, and they have a great lineup of shorts. The model we like are the Pace shorts. The Pace shorts are not a form-fitting spandex short like you would want on a road bike, but rather a loose short with padding that is more suitable for off-road trails or leisure rides. Sugoi adds two pockets to the shorts which are very useful, and uses high quality elastine along with an effective seat pad. We only wish they were a little longer, because at 5.5 inches they feel pretty short…. but that is by design as you don’t want to invite snags while on off-road trails. Available here.
Canari Velo II Shorts ($45). Finally, you say, something under $50. Canari Cycling is a California-based company that has been cranking out good bike gear for over 30 years, all made in the USA. The Velo shorts are a great all-purpose short, providing an 8-inch inseam, stretch chamois, six panels of fabric, and flatlock seams. While perhaps not the first shorts we would reach for if doing a century ride (we would probably go with the In-r-Cool, above), the Velo falls right in that category of “quality at an entry-level price” which is actually what the casual rider probably needs. If you are trying not to break the bank, or need a good pair of shorts to add to your arsenal, these are a good set from a maker who has been around for a long time. Reviews suggest that they run large, so err a size smaller when ordering if your sizing is on the borderline. Available here.
Craft Active Shorts ($75). In the mid-range pricing point are the Craft Active Shorts, a pair of shorts we really like and that can hold their own in many different cycling situations. Craft boasts a seamless chamois pad (why doesn’t everyone do that?), a nice 9-inch inseam, and leg grips designed for comfort. One thing we like about Craft is that they are pretty no-nonsense in their design… so these have a pretty basic black-on-black look, but the important part is comfort, something these shorts can provide. We have used Craft for other pursuits too — running, skiiing — and have no problem standing behind the brand. Available here.
2XU Compression Cycling Shorts ($200). So you want to go all out, and merge the world of compression gear with the world of cycling shorts? 2XU lets you do that with their compression cycling shorts. These are made of 2XU durable stabilizing fabric that is found in so many of the brand’s tights and other gear. Coupled with high-end leg grips and a Fusion Pro2 chamois, the fabric allows for a nice four-way stretch while also incorporating the recovery-acceleration compression technology that has made compression shorts so popular. If you want to splurge and are serious about bringing compression gear into your cycling workouts, these are definitely worth a good look. Available here.
Road Biking versus Mountain Bike Shorts
A common question is if the same type of shorts are used for road cycling and mountain biking. The short answer is no. The shorts listed in this review really focus more on the road biking world. While these shorts would feel great on a mountain bike, and might work great for a fast trail ride on a road-like trail, mountain bike shorts are a different breed. They are usually baggier, and often have multiple layers with the inner part of the short fitting more tightly and the exterior hanging loose. Mountain bike shorts often have a removable chamois liner that can be clean and changed. most importantly, mountain bike shorts are made to be sturdier, because your risk of taking a tumble is many times higher. Even if you don’t fall, there is a good chance you will rub and scrape against things that you want to be protected against. A good example of a standard, quality mountain bike short is REI’s Novara Double shorts.
There you have it, our lineup of recommended shorts at various price points. You will notice that we did not recommend any shorts below $50, and for good reason. If you go online, you will find all kinds of cheaper shorts, made overseas by brands who have been in business all of a few months…. but our advice is to stick with the folks who know what they are doing. They make shorts that are specifically meant for quality, long, hard bike rides. Don’t skimp on your shorts, because if you take care of them you might get years of comfortable use out of them. You will thank us at mile 40 for recommending reliable shorts!