I’m not a real cyclist, I say to myself as I buy a cheap, basic exercise bike. I’m not that into spinning, I say to myself as I replace that bike a year later (it wore out from constant use). I’m not dressed like a silly cyclist, I say as I strap into my cycling shoes. And I climb on the bike and proceed to ride for an hour in normal, unpadded shorts. Because I’m a dumbass.
Look, sometimes I am at the forefront of smart and important hacks, like rinsing out my exercise gear in the shower or bringing back sweatbands. And sometimes it takes me forever to start following the advice that every single cyclist impresses onto beginners. And this one is: Just buy the padded shorts already.
Why cyclists wear padded shorts
The padding isn’t actually the point, but it’s a nice bonus. A cycling chamois (pronounced “shammy”) is a pad that sits against your skin to prevent chafing. Originally these were thin leather made from sheep or deer skin, and you’d rub in a cream to soften it. Eventually cycling apparel companies figured out how to make a synthetic version, which wicks moisture and provides some extra padding as well.
When you wear cycling shorts with a chamois, you’ll have a layer of wicking, friction-free material between your nether regions and the seat. You can shift positions on the saddle during the ride, and the padding will stay in the right place, because it’s attached to you, not the saddle. Padded saddles tend to aggravate pressure points because your sit bones sink in to the padding; chamois shorts don’t usually have that issue.
I bought my first pair of cycling shorts on a whim, like, “let’s see how good they actually are.” I was never a person who had much trouble with saddle soreness, but I have to admit that long rides are much more comfortable in the chamois than when I was wearing unpadded leggings or bike shorts.
How to buy your first pair of cycling shorts
When you buy your cycling shorts, they’ll be sold as either “men’s” or “women’s” models. Women’s tend to have wider padding in the back, and men’s tend to have longer padding with a groove down the center to avoid pressure on the perineum (which can cause numbness).
The next thing to pay attention to is what kind of shorts the chamois is sewn into. You can find regular Spandex-y bike shorts; “liners” that are sheer or mesh because they’re meant to be worn under regular shorts; and “bibs” which have overall-style straps to hold them up while you ride. Serious road cyclists usually wear bibs. Mountain bikers often prefer liners. If you don’t know what to get, the regular bike short style is a good all-purpose choice.
Cycling shorts to consider:
- Basic shorts: women’s (NOOYME), men’s (BALEAF)
- Inexpensive liners: women’s (Terry Mixie), men’s (Przewalski)
- Nice bibs, if you’re fancy: women’s, men’s (both Pearl Izumi Pro Bib)
How to wear a cycling chamois
First of all: You do not wear these with underwear. Even if you don’t normally go commando in your workout attire, it’s mandatory here. Avoiding underwear seams and wedgies is half the reason you’re wearing cycling shorts.
The second point follows from the first: Wash it every time you wear it. A thorough rinse in the shower is a good-enough way to keep your chamois fresh if you don’t have time to do a full load of laundry before your next ride. (Cycling shorts tend to dry quickly.) Cyclists recommend taking off the chamois as soon as you’re done with your ride, rather than sitting around in it any longer than you have to. Pack a change of shorts if you aren’t going home right away.
If you still have chafing when you wear chamois shorts, that’s what chamois cream is for. It’s not for softening leather anymore; it’s more of a lubricant and ointment, sort of a BodyGlide/diaper cream combo.
And, speaking of diapers: Yes, it will feel like you’re wearing one. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing a gigantic max pad, it’s a lot like that. But the awkwardness ends as soon as you hop on your bike; then you just feel comfortable.