What are Bike Shorts?

wiseGEEK Writer

Bike shorts or cycling shorts are closely fitting shorts used by bicyclists. Early versions were usually made from a wool knit fabric, and had a chamois inset to protect the crotch and add a little padding. Chamois (often pronounced shammy) is goatskin leather. Many modern versions of bike shorts do not have true chamois, but feature a patch that is made of synthetic chamois.

A bike wheel.
A bike wheel.

Today’s bike shorts are most frequently made from Lycra, which provides thin, breathable comfort and promote better aerodynamic support for the avid biker or the bike racer. The bike shorts are meant to adhere as closely to the body as possible, and usually fit to slightly above the knee. They are meant to be worn without undergarments, and usually come in dark colors that are not see-through.

Compression bike shorts.
Compression bike shorts.

Bike shorts that are close fitting help to reduce friction on the upper thighs, which come together repeatedly as a person pedals. When you wear looser shorts or pants, the friction of the material can cause painful friction burns or rashes. This is especially true when you bike long distances or for long periods of time.

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Some styles of bike shorts, instead of featuring a chamois crotch, are actually padded with materials like memory foam or a gel foam insert. These can be a good choice for the person who doesn’t cycle frequently, since most bike seats can leave you with a very sore posterior, especially when you are not used to cycling. It should be noted that frequent biking usually resolves this issue. An alternative to padded bike shorts is purchasing a padded gel cover seat. These can definitely be a comfortable addition to your bike, without having to carry the addition “padding” by wearing it.

Padding or chamois patches are different on women and men’s bike shorts, due to our different anatomy. It’s therefore not a good idea to sub out opposite gender bike shorts. You’ll get the most comfort from wearing well-fitting bike shorts made for your gender. The way the shorts are sewn can also make a difference in comfort level.

Though many would think that bike shorts with fewer seams are more comfortable, the opposite is usually true. A greater number of panels tends to translate to greater comfort. You can expect that bike shorts containing more pieces sewn together will be more expensive. Usually prices top out at about 80-100 US dollars (USD). If you only plan to bike occasionally, though, you may be well satisfied with a less expensive pair.

A few modifications in bike shorts exist. Bib or overall bike shorts are held up with suspenders, and have a non-binding waist, which can provide a bit more comfort. Some bike shorts extend past the knee, and you can purchase bike pants that fit down to the ankles. These may be a better choice when you plan to bike in cold or inclement weather. Though padding may be desirable, less padding is usually more breathable, so consider adding padding to your bike seat instead of buying heavily padded bike shorts.

Road cyclist wearing bike shorts.
Road cyclist wearing bike shorts.

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Discussion Comments


When I see bike riders wearing bike shorts, I always feel like they take their sport seriously. I'll ride a mountain bike around my neighborhood for exercise once in a while, but I've seen these guys and girls run loop after loop around the city. I know I'd have to change into a pair of real bike shorts before I tried anything like that.


I didn't see the point in wearing bike shorts until I decided to try out a new bike and hike trail that was a ten mile loop. I wore regular jeans and rode one of those 10 speed bicycles with the very skinny seat. When I finished the loop, my thighs were completely chafed and I was very sweaty. I bought a pair of padded spandex bike shorts the next day.

The difference was night and day. At first, I was uncomfortable with the idea of wearing those shorts without underwear, but the padding provided some modesty. I felt like I could pedal faster, since there was a lot less resistance. I finished the loop and didn't feel any chafing at all. The sweat was wicked away from my body and I felt cooler.

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