Cycling shorts come in two types: skin-tight Lycra shorts, originally designed for road racing; and baggy shorts, initially made for mountain bikers. Either is fine for commuting, and baggies look okay off the bike; liberal clothing policies may even allow them for work. Unless you're heading for somewhere like The Royal Ballet, Lycra (also known as spandex or elastane) is strictly for the bike.
Lycra cycling shorts have a pad sewn into the seat. It's sometimes referred to as a chamois or chammy, because that's what it used to be: chamois leather. These days it's a soft, breathable synthetic instead, and like cycling mitts, some shorts pads also have gel in them. The pads in men's and women's shorts are shaped differently, as women have a wider pelvis.
Lycra shorts are designed to be worn next to the skin. That's right: no pants! So you'll need a fresh pair of shorts each day. You can wear underwear underneath them if you want, but be alert for chafing and skin rash caused by sweat if you do so. Conversely, if you do suffer any irritation, wear the shorts next to your skin and wash them with pure soap (no conditioner). Apply Sudocrem to your nether regions before putting on the shorts each time if need be.
Apart from the pad, Lycra shorts have few features. The waist is wide and elasticated and the legs have grippers to stop them riding up. Some shorts – called bib shorts – have stretchy shoulder straps. These are more comfortable than waist shorts as there's no waistband to dig in, and the shorts are held snug against your body and can't ride down. They do make loo stops more complicated.
Virtually all Lycra shorts are machine washable on either a 30 or 40 degree setting. Avoid using conditioner, which can clog the pores of breathable fabrics, and make sure any Velcro straps from other cycling garments, such as mitts, are done up to prevent damage to the Lycra.
Sizing varies from brand to brand, so try for size before buying. They're meant to be snug, with few wrinkles. If you're concerned that your bum looks big in them, don't worry: you can wear Lycra shorts under a skirt, tracksuit trousers, or baggy shorts – as well as under cycling tights in winter.
Baggy shorts have an integral pad, a padded short liner (which might be removable) or no inner short at all. They're still more comfortable than normal shorts or trousers as they're designed so that you don't sit on a thick, chafing seam when you're on the saddle. Baggy shorts are worn over underwear, a short liner, or Lycra shorts, as you choose.
Since baggy cycling shorts were designed for mountain bikers, many look overtly sporty. Increasingly, however, baggy shorts for urban cyclists are becoming available. These have similar features – button or press-stud waist, zipped fly, pockets, durable and quick-drying fabrics – but in a more sober style.
Here's a cross section of Lycra and baggy shorts.
Altura Metro Baggy Shorts
The Metro shorts are casual ones that you could get away with wearing in an office. They're made from a durable cotton/spandex stretch fabric, which provides a better fit on the bike than pure cotton. There's a slim fleece pad in the seat, which is enough for comfort on the bike without being obvious off it. If you turn up the hems, you reveal a thick reflective band around each leg. A women's version is available
Madison Tempest Waterproof Shorts
Designed to keep mountain bikers dry in winter, these breathable, waterproof over-shorts are equally suitable for a soggy British summer – especially if you ride a mudguardless bike. Stretch fabric is used in places for a better fit, the elasticated waistband is easily adjustable, and there are useful (and waterproof) zipped pockets in the front. They're best worn over Lycra. There's no women's version as such, but the gent's should work fine as it's not 'fitted' and there's no pad.
Outeredge Shorts Ladies Sport Champ Pad
Good value Lycra shorts for women, with a comfortable pad, an elasticated waist and silicon grippers on the legs to keep them from bunching up. There's a small zipped rear pocket, which is handy for keys. Colour: black. Nearest gent's equivalent is the Outeredge Shorts Gents Basics Coolmax Pad (£21.99).
Lusso Pro Core Bib Shorts
Comfortable bib shorts that are well priced and made in Britain. The antibacterial pad has no seams, as you'd expect, and the material is breathable – especially the 'Airtech' shoulder straps. There's a high percentage of Lycra in the fabric mix, which means a stretchy, snug fit. Colours: black, blue/black, white/black. The nearest women's equivalent is the Lusso Ladies Cooltech Shorts (£44.99), which has no shoulder straps.
Bontrager Race Short
Called a compression short by some retailers, Bontrager's Race Short is supportive and form-fitting. (There's evidence that compressing the muscles improves blood flow to them, reducing fatigue and cramp.) The multi-density 'inForm' chamois stretches well, which should improve comfort further. Reflective details add visibility at night. Also available as a bib short for £10 more. Women's equivalent is the Race WSD Short (£49.99).
Endura Urban Short
These look like normal shorts rather than bike shorts but they're well suited for city riding. They're cut fairly close from a stretch fabric, so don't flap on the bike, and there's no seam in the crotch to saw at your soft bits. The two zipped rear pockets have reflective details and there's a loop for carrying a small D-lock. The fabric has a water-resistant finish. The waist has two press-studs, a zipped fly, and a belt. Women's baggy shorts are available, but not in this style.
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