Why Do Cyclists Wear Tight Bike Shorts?

Bike shorts offer both comfort and function on the bike

Bike shorts provide functional comfort
Bike shorts provide functional comfort. (c) Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

Tight, black or brightly colored spandex bike shorts may look a bit strange to some people, but for a cyclist, bike shorts, and other essential bike gear offer both comfort and function on the bike.

Why Wear Bike Shorts?

Once you get over your initial, often negative, reaction to the look of bike shorts, you'll be surprised by the comfort and functionality the comes with the tight spandex shorts. The main purpose of bike shorts is to provide comfort during long bike rides.

Bike shorts are designed specifically for the needs of a cyclist. These needs include padding in the right places, strategically places seams, tight-fitting, flexible materials like Lycra and spandex that reduce air resistance and allow a full range of motion on the bike, and the right amount of breathability and wind block.

How to Choose Bike Shorts

The most important features of bike shorts include a lack of seams in the crotch and extra padding to reduce chaffing and discomfort while riding. Bike shorts are also made from flexible fabrics that move with you and don't bind while pedaling.

Bike Shorts - Buying Tips

There are a variety of bike short styles and designs, including those that look like regular shorts with a padded inner liner. The best way to choose the right bike shorts for you is to decide the type of riding you intend to most often and buy shorts for that purpose.

  • First Things First - Keep in mind that bike shorts are meant to be worn without underwear.
  • Set a Budget - Bike shorts can range from $20 to $100, so try to set a budget before you shop.
  • Tight or Baggy - Consider tight-fitting race shorts if the majority of your ride time is fast cycling on the bike. This offers the most comfort and aerodynamic fit. If you spend time off the bike, touring or commuting by bicycle, need pockets, or are more concerned with the look of the shorts than your speed on the bike, you might want to look for "baggy shorts" with an inner liner. Some people just carry along a pair of loose fitting shorts to slip on when they aren't on the bike.
  • Type of Padding - Bike short padding is generally made from chamois or a synthetic material. Both offer benefits, but chamois tends to need a bit more care than the synthetic linings. The padding also ranges from thick to thin, with triathlete shorts having the thinnest pad so athletes can swim, bike and run in the same shorts. Bike shorts are also made with a pad that is designed specifically for men and women so choose accordingly.
  • Number of Panels - Less expensive shorts usually have fewer panels of fabric, while the most expensive and form-fitting bike shorts can have up to eight panels. They all fit a bit differently, so try on several styles.
  • Waist Band or Bib - You can buy bib shorts that offer shoulder straps, rather than an elastic waist band. Some people find this style the most comfortable after hours of riding bent forward at the waist.
  • Inseam Length - Shorts come in a variety of inseam lengths. The shorter shorts work great for spin class, triathlons, and a good tan, but most cyclists like an inseam that is just above the knee. This is long enough to stay in place and prevent chaffing of the inner thigh on the saddle. In cold weather, consider a knicker style bike short that covers the knees for added warmth or even a full tight that goes to the ankles.
  • Fabric - Bike short fabric can be thick or thin, sheer and shiny or textured and made of wool, CoolMax®, Lycra®, spandex and a variety of other wicking materials. Think of the conditions you ride in most frequently - is it hot and dry, warm and sticky or cold weather? Buy fabrics that work in your climate.
  • Color - These days, the sky is the limit in bike shorts colors, patterns, and designs. Do you want the traditional black or do you want to be a bit flashy or support a brand or team? This is where you can let your personality shin through.

Compare prices: Bike Shorts

Other Bike Gear Essentials

In addition to bike shorts, there are a variety of bike-specific clothing and gear that you may want to consider essential if you bicycle for fitness. They include the following items:

  • Bike Helmet
    A bike helmet should be on the top of your bike gear list every time you ride. A bike helmet significantly reduces the severity of head injuries such as concussions, especially during low-speed crashes. Always wear a properly fitting helmet.

    Compare prices: Bike Helmets

  • Cleated Bike Shoes
    Cycling shoes come in a variety of styles and offer specialized fit and function. Most bike shoes now accommodate cleats (special bindings that clip into special pedals) and all offer a stiff sole that helps transfer power to the pedal. Be sure to buy shoes that work with your pedals and try on a variety of styles before deciding.

    Compare prices: Bike Shoes

Athletic Socks
Socks may sound boring, but they are one of the most important pieces of exercise gear you can own to make your workouts comfortable and blister-free. Be sure to buy socks that wick the perspiration away in the heat and provide enough cushion and warmth for cold-weather riding.

  • Sun Glasses and Eye Protection 
    If you cycle, you need to protect your eyes from the wind, the sun, and flying debris as varied as bugs, sand, and gravel. Look for sports sunglasses that are shatter-resistant.  
  • Cycling Gloves
    Bike gloves offer cushion and protection for cycling. You can find long-finger, short-finger, colorful and functional gloves for cycling. The main goal of a bike glove is to provide padding in the palms to cushion your hands during long rides, to provide protection in case of a fall, to provide a tacky surface for a good grip on the handlebars and brakes, or keep you warm in the cold.  Compare prices: Cycling Gloves
  • Bike Jerseys
    A bike jersey offers some features you won't find in a tee shirt. The main benefits of a bike jersey include back pockets, a long front zipper for temperature control, a long back and shorter front to fit well while riding and a tight fit to reduce wind drag.

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