“Do you wear the shorts?” Ask many-a-coworker when you mention you’re into cycling. They aren’t referring to this summer’s fashionable short style (though the New York Times recently did call bike shorts “an enlightened choice for the times”). They’re talking about ‘the bike shorts with the padding’ or ‘the ones that look like what a wrestler wears’ or even sometimes ‘they look like those old-time-y bathing suits’. The renowned bib short.
Bib shorts, or bibs, have become a symbol of the recreational cyclists. Riders climb into the tight compressive material, hoist the straps over their shoulders and head out on their road bikes. Their clothing signifies that the goal of the ride is not a commute, but simply to bike for the enjoyment of it.
In 2020, bibs are the result of more than 130 years of clothing design specialization.The comfortable and breathable shorts are made to improve aerodynamics, protect legs from the friction of repetitive movement, reduce saddle sores and feature many other important design choices.
Bibs are designed to optimize comfort. Simply put, your butt shouldn’t hurt after a bike ride. If it does, there is either an issue with your bike fit, your saddle or, in many cases, your bike shorts.
The chamois (or shammy) is the padding in the crotch of bibs. It’s the most important part of bike shorts. It feels a bit like you’re wearing a diaper for the first few rides, but you’ll quickly come to love the feel of a portable seat cushion attached to your pants.
Shammies don’t just keep your butt comfortable, they also help prevent saddle sores in the groin area. The repetitive movement of cycling can cause chafing and ingrown hairs, especially when clothing is loose or doesn’t breathe well.
Note: Bibs with shammies are made to be worn without underwear. Be sure to wash them after each use in order to reduce bacteria which could increase your chance of skin irritation or sores.
What’s with the straps?
The straps/suspenders on bib shorts are technically called the ‘bib’ (the nomenclature here gets a bit messy and varies depending on region/clothing brand). They’re worn underneath the bike jersey and hold up the shorts. Bibs are designed with straps to avoid elastic waistbands around the stomach area. When you’re bent over on the bike, a waistband digging into your stomach can be extremely uncomfortable and could cause chafing—bibs avoid this by distributing the tension over your shoulders.
Bibs are made of a mix of sports materials that breathe easily and cling to your body. They’re made to be tight fitting but most of the time they’ll have some element of compression that makes them feel comfortable on your leg and stomach area.
What to look for in a bib short
Whether you’re buying your first or tenth pair of bib shorts, there are a few things you should always look out for. If possible, it’s great to try them on before buying but if you can’t, try to find a review or two online.
Bibs should be very tight fitting. They should cling to your legs without moving in order to reduce chafing and increase aerodynamics. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling self conscious about the fit of your bibs (or jersey for that matter), try a smaller size. Loose bibs and jerseys can look more unflattering than a properly sized kit.
In terms of material, look for something moisture wicking and breathable. The straps should fit snugly over the shoulder but shouldn’t feel too tight. Bend over in a cycling position when you’re trying on bibs—most are designed for cycling not standing up.
If you have a vagina, it’s worth considering how easily you’ll be able to take off the bibs and use the washroom. Women’s bib designs have evolved to include special release clips and all kinds of different straps. Recently some companies have gotten rid of the straps altogether, focusing instead on making the top band more comfortable on the stomach area (and simplifying bathroom breaks).
Other thighs to look out for: The shammy should be thick enough that it retains some of its shape when you hang the shorts. There should be a slightly sticky lining or material on the bottom of the short legs to keep them from riding up. Some ‘gravel style’ shorts have useful mesh pockets on the sides, but the style is a new development and isn’t the norm yet on most bibs.
How much should you pay for bibs?
This is obviously a personal decision, and, as you could expect, bibs will increase in quality as their prices go up. If you’re looking for a first pair of affordable bibs with a good shammy, expect to pay around $100 CAD (slightly less if you’re going for bike shorts without straps). For example, at MEC the men’s Sportful Neo bib shorts are $124.95, and women’s Pearl Izumi Escape Quest shorts (with no straps) are $74.99.