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The Noob’s Guide to Buying Cycling Shorts – Exactly what to look for and what to avoid…

January 2014
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Cycling shorts are a tough purchase.  I had no clue what I was looking for when I bought my first two pair but I knew I didn’t want to spend the kind of money they were asking for at the bike shop so I bought a couple of cheap pair at a big-box sporting goods store.  I spent all I wanted at the time, $35 a pair, manufactured for Canari (in some far off land).  They were certainly better than nothing but now that I’ve ponied up for the good stuff, well let’s just say they leave a lot to be desired. This post will concentrate only on brands that I own – there are other companies that make fantastic shorts, Garneau and Pearl Izumi to name two, but I’m only going to include those names who have profited from me and whose chamois’ have protected my butt (though hey, if you guys want to send me a mid and pro level pair to put some miles on and add to this post, I’m game.  Medium – 32″ waist)

So here’s the unvarnished deal.

Cheap shorts aren’t without use if that’s the best you can do – the two pair I bought served me for two years.  I probably put 3,000 miles on each pair.  I managed to ride everything from simple sixteen mile hops around the block to centuries in them.  Unfortunately after fifteen miles they hurt like hell.  Of course, I didn’t know you could get shorts that didn’t hurt at the time – I thought cycling was simply supposed to hurt like that.

Yeah, no it isn’t (doesn’t).

At the end of my first full year of cycling I laid down the cash for pro shorts (paid $100 for them, 30% off – they were marked down from$150) and I found pure cycling joy. My butt rejoiced, angels sang, yada, yada, yada.  While I love the pro shorts, $400-$550 just for shorts (4 pair in rotation) is a little more than tough to swallow so I started looking for less costly alternatives that would keep me comfortable on a range of distances.  Below is a detailed breakdown of my experience.

Now, as a disclaimer, I ride in Specialized shorts exclusively now and I’ve got the full range from reasonably priced to two pair of the aforementioned pro shorts. In the photo below I’ve got three pair of Specialized shorts and the Canari’s… The Canari’s ($40) are top right followed by the Spec. BG Comp shorts ($65) on the left.  On the lower right are the RBX Comp ($90) followed by the RBX Pro’s ($135-150):

20140113-191214.jpg

Now let’s start with what to avoid. If you’re cash strapped and an avid cyclist skip this paragraph – you’ll be crazy enough to get by on the inferior shorts.  Cheap shorts are good only for short rides.  Avoid gel pads unless they are somehow fused with the chamois fabric.  The “padding” will bunch in the worst places and the chamois material will fold, rubbing your skin exactly where you don’t want it to and you’ll feel like you’re straddling barbed wire after 30-40 minutes. Worse, the cheap fleece-like chamois won’t hold the gel’s form so it will, over time, migrate to undesirable places.  Avoid cheap shorts at all costs if you plan on riding farther than 10-15 miles a crack (no pun intended).  Your butt will thank me.  If, on the other hand, the cheap shorts are all you can afford, get them and ride in them.  They’ll work till you can afford better, just know that cycling isn’t supposed to hurt like that.  Also, if you don’t want to spend a whole lot of money to figure out if you like cycling or not, same thing applies just broom the cheap-o’s as soon as you figure out you’re happier on a bike than you ever thought possible.

20140113-191856.jpg

Next are the Specialized BF Comp’s. At only $15-$25 more for a pair, they’re worth every penny. Gone is the fleece and gel, replaced with a medium-dense foam with a welded fabric surface (I say welded, it’s probably heat-glued on or something).  Shorts in this category are good all the way up to 50 miles or 2-1/2 hours.  The hot spots that come with the cheaper models are out the door as well.

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Next up are the RBX Comp’s and these are sexy.  A little longer in the leg with a fantastic gripping system that holds the short legs in place but not obnoxiously. The foam is a heavier density and just a touch thicker. The RBX Comp’s are built for the long haul. They are a fantastic if you want to save a buck or fifty over the pro-grade line. The interesting thing about this “chamois” is that with the denser foam it feels like you’ve got a piece of cardboard stuck to your butt and it’s a little unsettling… Until you’re in the saddle.  Then it’s pretty much beautiful.  If you’ve ridden at length in cheap shorts, upgrading to something in the upper echelon (like these) may even bring a tear of joy to your eye.  The RBX Comp’s are built for one thing: comfort over the long haul and they possess several desirable qualities to look for: 1. The chamois is foam, not gel. 2. The chamois foam holds it’s shape, it’s comparatively stiff.  3. Same story with the outer fabric – it’s a part of the foam padding.  After having only ridden these on the trainer, I’m wont to sing their praises, but I think they’ll go the distance…by feel I’d say their good up to a full century (they’re only two weeks old and it’s dead of winter).

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Finally we’ve come to the high-end shorts, the RBX Pro’s.  Without gushing effusively, while high-priced, they’re worth the money.  The chamois is upgraded and the foam is just a bit heavier in density (it’s also a shade thinner than the RBX Comp’s).   I don’t know what kind of material the rest of the shorts are made of but it feels like cycling whilst getting a massage wearing them.  The RBX Pro’s are made to get you home with a smile on your face.  Having ridden in the neighborhood of 8-10 centuries in them, a 200k and countless 40-90 mile rides, I’ve never walked in the door with a hot-spot from these shorts.  Not one and I don’t use chamois crème either.  They’re that good.

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Oh, and did I mention that all three of the Specialized shorts shown in this post are made in the US?  That’s right.  Not “assembled”, not “imported”…  Made in the US.

So that pretty much wraps it up.  As with anything in cycling, I recommend getting the most expensive model that you can reasonably afford.  Unlike many other things in life, high-priced cycling clothing is actually worth the money – and don’t forget to try eBay and the discount online shops if you must.  You can always find a bargain there – just remember to support your local bike shop.  They’re usually worth it and you won’t be able to put a price on the amount of knowledge they’ll share with you (if you’re nice about it).

UPDATE:  I also wrote a post that delves into the ever important topic of “shorts or bibs” here.

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15 Comments

  1. Paige says:

    Now that I have stared at and deeply considered the butt end of your shorts I kinda feel like I need to hurry home and get a shower. 😊

    • bgddyjim says:

      Sorry… Unfortunately that’s the important part. The outside material is important too but far too often the inside, or the chamois, is overlooked terms of discussion… And let’s face it, that’s the most important part.

  2. unironedman says:

    Do you use any kind of cream, ever? I have Eurostyle chamois butt’r and use it on long rides. Can’t honestly say what it’s like without as I’ve got into the habit of using it.

  3. I’ve done pretty well on Amazon with Pearl Izumi Innercool tri shorts for teaching indoor cycling class (overly padded seats). I busted out the wallet on my first pair of bib shorts from Voler(.com), based in California. Loved them so much went back and bought two more. What’s great is that they sell their ‘samples’ at a huge discount. If you don’t care if they’re ugly, they’re a great buy on pro level shorts. I despise elastic grippers on my thighs so PowerGrip legs are a blessing – no leg muffins!

  4. Great article! Yes, there are plenty of differences in both shorts and us… and there will always be something that suits some and not others. As an ISM saddle user for the past 6-7 years (I never use anything else!), I’m now less fussy about my shorts. I have done 24 hour TT’s using Assos and cheap Santini’s and there is no difference on an ISM. I do use Sudocrem, however, when doing really long rides – cheapest stuff around and if it is OK for babies then it’s fine for me.

    • bgddyjim says:

      A buddy of mine uses an ISM on his Cannondale team bike… I was all set to give one a try but he said he wasn’t all that impressed. I might have to bite the bullet and order one, just to see what’s up.

      • Worth a try – they do demo models. The trick is to ensure that your install it properly – the nose of the ISM has to be up to 1.5 inches behind where you would normally have it – and yet you sit in the same place relative to pedals and bars. You really have to perch off the front. I jointly own an online cycle retail business (www.pedal-pedal.co.uk) and we have sent hundreds of these on demos – I would say that the huge majority (80%+) prefer them and go on to buy them. Like everything, though, some people can’t get on with them – I reckon most of them don’t fit them properly

      • bgddyjim says:

        Thanks, my friend. I’ll be sure to check one out. At the very least, for the tandem.

  5. […] Also, I wrote another post about what to look for (and what to avoid) when shopping for cycling shorts here. […]

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