Monday, 1 August 2011

Adventures with Padded Cycling Shorts

"Should I wear padded bicycle shorts?" is one question I get asked a lot by women, especially since photos occasionally reveal my wearing them. As with most comfort issues, there is no straight answer here. Everybody is different, and the best I can do is provide feedback about my own experience.

When I cycle casually or for transportation I do not wear cycling shorts. It is crucial to me that my transportation bikes be comfortable and upright enough to ride in regular clothing, and I do not ride them strenuously. I also do not find that padded shorts are a solution for saddle discomfort. If a saddle causes me pain, the shorts can at best mask it for a brief time, but the saddle itself will still need to be addressed.

I began wearing bicycle shorts when I got into roadcycling. In that context, I find them beneficial, in that they provide just the right amount of compression and cushioning. It is difficult to explain why this is necessary, until you yourself get to the point where it makes sense. For a while I rode wearing non-cycling-specific leggings, but ultimately did not find them sufficient. The tight, stretchy fabric of bicycle shorts - unflattering as it may be - makes the muscles in my legs feel better when I pedal vigorously. The slight padding (and minimalism is key here) creates just enough of a buffer zone between me and the saddle during active rides.

T-Warf, Rockport MA
I have owned several pairs of cycling shorts so far. The first one I bought was by Pearl Izumi. Everyone kept saying to me "But how do you know that you can't wear synthetics? These high-tech fabrics have come so far!" And so I tried. You won't see a picture of the Pearl Izumi shorts here, because they made my legs look like overstuffed sausages and it's just too traumatic for me to share that. But the bigger problem is that I really do have a sensitivity to polyester and wearing these things gave me a disgusting rash along the back of my legs. Also, despite Pearl Izumi's promises of being wicking and temperature regulating, they were nothing of the sort. Sweat pooled in every skin fold, and words can't describe what an unpleasant experience it was to wear this garment. I got rid of them a month later, struggled with my cotton leggings again for a bit, and then finally bit the bullet and bought a pair of wool Ibex cycling knickers.

Wellfleet, Sept 2010
I have been happily wearing the Ibex El Fito wool cycling knickers since last August, and have since also bought a pair of their Seree shorts. I think the version of the knickers I have is last year's model or older (I bought it from a discount retailer), because the currently produced version features a new pad design that is less noticeable from the back.  In both the new and the older design, the padding is minimalistic and feels comfortable. Overall, I am happy with the Ibex shorts and knickers, and I alternate between them depending on the weather and on which pair is clean.

1st Randonneur Test Ride
Now let's be honest: no cycling shorts are flattering unless you are super-slender with sinewy thigh muscles. But all in all, these are not nearly as horrific as other cycling shorts I've tried and the "sausaging" effect is very slight. At least I am willing to post pictures. A wider and softer waistband would make them more comfortable around the middle, but that is my only real complaint. The wool does not feel especially thin to the touch, but I can wear these things in 95F heat and they feel wonderful. No skin sensitivity, no pooled sweat.

Seven Axiom S, Lexington MA
More recently, I got a pair of Harlot Scarlet X Tech knickers via a trade with the manufacturer. These knickers are stretchy nylon and spandex (to which I am not sensitive), and are meant mostly for mountain biking. I thought they could work nicely for touring because of all the pockets and the relaxed tailoring.

Harlot Scarlet-X Knicker
The elasticised waistband is soft and comfortable and the styling is that of casual capri pants. They are formfitting throughout the hips and upper thighs and loose around the knees.

Harlot Scarlet-X Knicker
The padding is not visible. There is a meshy panel that runs along the inseam, providing ventilation. Decorative white piping runs along the outside seam (more pictures here).

While the Harlot knickers are well-made, flattering, and do a good job disguising the padding, I have not been wearing them much after the initial "Oh, neat" reaction. I think the reason is that I have no need for this particular style of cycling shorts. If I am going to wear something padded, then I am going to be roadcycling and I want the shorts to be tighter, more stretchy, less constricting, and without any extras such as pockets. Likewise, if I am commuting or just cycling with a friend in the park, then I don't need cycling-specific attire at all. But if you can use cycling shorts that are made like regular capri pants, only with padding, knickers such as these and the ones by Chrome I wrote about earlier, could work nicely.

Wellfleet, Sept 2010
As I see it, padded cycling shorts and knickers are one of those "If you need them, you'll know it" things. If you are comfortable without them, I think that's just fine and there is no need to question yourself just because other cyclists are wearing them. And while cycling shorts can look silly, they are designed that way (tight, padded) for a reason, and changing that design in order to make them look like regular pants can also reduce their functionality. That's my take on it at least, for the time being.

Do you wear padded cycling shorts? What kind and for what type of cycling? I am especially curious about any experiences with Smartwool, Icebreaker, and other wool cycling shorts - particularly for women.


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