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What’s in those cycling pants?

20 June, 2011

Indeed you might ask! Rowan Lamont is happy to answer you with a straight face.

There comes a time, usually after a few longer rides, where riding in your running shorts or cut off jeans just isn’t as convenient as you once thought and you find yourself in a bike shop staring at a rack of cycling shorts thinking to yourself, “What is this all about?”

Some of the common ailments we experience from wearing non cycling-specific shorts are chafing, rubbing, saddle sores and uncomfortable, damp clothing. Unlike the simple lycra shorts you see people wearing at the gym, or poking out from under footy players team kit, cycling shorts are made chock-full with features that help to make riding a bicycle more comfortable.

The traditional black lycra cycling shorts, often referred to as ‘knicks’, help reduce chafing and rubbing by hugging your legs so material doesn’t flap around or painfully bunch around the groin. Lycra is generally used as it is stretchy and helps sweat evaporate by drawing it away from the skin, reducing the likelihood of clammy wet areas which can exacerbate chafing. The more panels of material used to make a pair of knicks, the better the fit is likely to be, as the material is able to contour around your body and legs making movement less restrained. Check the stitching is flat-locked not simply seam-sewn so that the edges of the panels lie flat and do not press into your skin. There are often silicone grips at the end of each leg that help to prevent the material rising up through the pedalling motion.

There are tales from yester-year about old-school Tour de France riders placing a thin cut of steak in their shorts to keep their derrière happy in the saddle!  Fortunately those days are long gone and inside the knicks is a padded chamois stitched into the gusset. This helps protect the sitting area particularly if you are in the saddle for longer periods of time. Synthetic chamois are generally used although some high-end shorts use a natural leather which is very comfortable but requires care to keep soft and in good condition.  Look out for the bacteria-resistant varieties which help avoid fungal cultures from inhabiting areas you really wouldn’t want them. Synthetic chamois also do a great job at pulling sweat away from your skin and drying quickly, so there is less chance of nappy rash symptoms. This is particularly worth bearing in mind if you are riding in hot or humid places. Likewise there is often a small terry towelling area inside the front of the shorts to prevent wind chill from creeping into delicate areas should the air temperature drop!

Yes it is true cyclists don’t wear undies in their shorts! Quite apart from spoiling the ‘Euro Pro’ look with a VPL showing through your lycra (thanks Wade!), there is in-fact some sense to going “au naturale”. Extra layers between your bottom and the chamois encourage moisture to build up, chafing to occur and you risk your undies bunching up uncomfortably.

Whilst we are talking about “down there” now is also a good time to mention bum cream – or botty batter or numerous other names, often rude. We will call it ‘chamois cream’. That way you won’t get a funny look when you ask for it in a bike shop. This is a natural, non-petroleum-based, anti-bacterial, lubricating cream that can be applied onto the chamois or directly to the skin of the crotch where the upper leg becomes the bottom, from the perineum to the sit bones. This area is most prone to uncomfortable rubbing and the lubrication helps stop irritation and wards against saddle sores, fungal growths, or sweat spots which will take the smile off any days riding if you let them take a hold.


Aside from the traditional knicks there are two other common types of cycling shorts, bib shorts, and baggies.

Many experienced and serious bicycle riders opt for the more expensive bib shorts which have a set of braces that hold them up and over the shoulders. These add an extra degree of comfort by lifting the chamois up into your undercarriage making it snug and preventing it from moving around reducing any uncomfortable friction which is particularly helpful if riding in hot sweaty or wet conditions. The bibs do away with an annoying waist band to cutting into your mid-riff and the lower back is never exposed to the elements. Popular with male riders as it helps to keep their anatomy lifted away from being accidentally crushed, they are equally less popular with female cyclists who have to remove their jersey and shoulder straps to go to the toilet – less of an issue for male riders.

Baggies are a nice compromise for those of us who want just want to ride around without looking “Euro-Pro” but like a bit more comfort on our bicycles. Often referred to as ‘shy shorts’ they have an inner mini-short made from lycra or stretchy mesh with a built in chamois pad and a tough outer. To the untrained eye they look like a pair of normal shorts. These are preferable to riding in a set of knicks with a pair of board shorts over the top. Baggies are cut to suit your riding position. The back of the shorts rise higher up so they stay in place and you don’t flash you bottom to whoever might be riding behind, and cut low at the front so the waist band does not dig into your belly. The crotch is also kept high so that it does not get caught on the nose of the saddle which is pertinent for mountain bike riders who tend to move around whilst negotiating technical terrain and getting caught is dangerous.

All three varieties of cycling shorts come in male and female versions; the shorts are cut to suit. This is important as the ergonomic ratios between critical measurements such as perineum to ischial tuberosities (sit bones), and ischial tuberosities to the hips, waist band to chamois, the width of legs and length of legs are dramatically different.

Cycling shorts are a very personal thing there are many cuts, shapes and varieties to choose from and what might be perfect for you may be uncomfortable for another. Therefore, when you go into a shop and try on a pair of cycling shorts, it is worth sitting on a saddle in the riding position and checking a few things first. Does the waist band cut-in? Are they flexible and allow unrestricted movement? And is the chamois in the correct position, not too far forward nor too far back and does it covers your sit bones? Then you can be confident in being able to enjoy many comfortable hours upon your bicycle happy in your bicycle specific shorts.

Tip – Care for lycra and chamois

Before you jump into your new set of knicks, run them through the wash, this helps to soften the new chamois and remove the folds pressed into it from being packaged-up. Being made from lycra, knicks are prone to the dreaded rot that plagues old swim-suits, so prolong their life by washing them as soon as you can after a ride. Hang them in the shade if possible, as UV from the sun damages lycra. If you have a leather chamois rub some chamois cream into it to keep it soft and supple. If the leather dries it becomes stiff, uncomfortable and will eventually crack.

This post was for day 21 of Ride On‘s June riding challenge.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Don Macrae permalink
    29 June, 2011 12:36 am

    Chaffing is good natured banter, probably not something that can be prevented by a pair of knicks. You probably mean chafing.

    • 30 June, 2011 4:56 pm

      Right you are Don. Thanks for pointing this out. Change now made.

  2. Wayne Gatley permalink
    29 June, 2011 8:19 am

    Thanks Rowan. Now i can tell my wife & son why my anatomy is ‘out there’ whilst riding in Lycra.
    W. Gats

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