Dear New Cyclists, Don't Wear Underwear With Bike Shorts

Selene Yeager
·8 mins read
Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

From Bicycling

So you’ve made the leap and gotten yourself a pair of cycling-specific shorts with the padded, sewn-in chamois (pronounced “shammy”). Now you’re left with just one question: How do I wear these things?

File that one under “Stuff Nobody Tells You.” Whether you’re brand new to the sport or have been turning the cranks padding-free for years, you’ve undoubtedly had someone recommend that you get some “proper” bike shorts. But the advice typically stops there, which frankly can lead to some pretty uncomfortable user errors.

Just ask coach and mountain bike icon Alison Dunlap. The 2001 XC World Champion made one of the most common slip-ups during her first major collegiate race: wearing underwear.

“This was the biggest event I’d done in my life, and I was scared out of my brain. Literally 10 minutes before the start, this guy I had the biggest crush on comes up to me and says, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re not supposed to wear underwear under your bike shorts.’ Our shorts had white panels down the sides, so I’m sure he could see the color of the flowers on my panties. I was horrified,” Dunlap told Bicycling in a 2010 interview.

Whoops!

Dunlap actually ducked into a porta-potty and stashed her undies in her jersey pocket before dashing back to the start line. The moral of the story is: Confusion happens to the best of us. But we’ll spare you those uncomfortable newbie moments with this easy guide to wearing those padded bike shorts properly.

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Skip The Skivvies

Obviously, the first tip here is to wear your shorts sans underwear. The chamois inside the shorts is designed to wick moisture and dry quickly, which not only helps keep you cool, but also prevents the growth of bacteria that can cause rashes and sores. The chamois is also meant to fit snuggly against your skin to prevent friction and chafing as you pedal in the saddle.

That means going commando in your chamois shorts, because if you wear underwear, you add a layer of extra material—often cotton—and more seams and such that can trap moisture, bunch up, and increase friction. Friction is not your friend, so leave the drawers behind.

Do the Chamois Dance

Okay, there’s no actual “chamois dance.” But there’s a little “two-step” that you can do to ensure your chamois is set and ready for the ride, says Boulder, Colorado-based product consultant Jon Knoll, who helped develop apparel for Pearl Izumi and Specialized.

“No one ever tells you how to put on bike shorts. You want to put them on properly to make sure that they work properly. That means having the fabric stretched smooth and taut everywhere without any sagging or bunching and having the chamois positioned snuggly against your skin,” he says.

To do that, pull on the shorts and then place a hand over the pad between your legs and bend your right leg up and out a little, pulling the pad firmly into place and repeat with the left leg. When you’re done, the shorts should sit firmly and smoothly across your body without any sagging, bunching, or bagging.

Position the Straps Under Your Jersey

If you’re wearing bib shorts—the type with suspender-like straps that hold the shorts in place—the straps are designed to be worn under, not over the top of, your cycling jersey. If you’re wearing a base layer, you can tuck that into your shorts and secure the straps over the base layer before pulling on your jersey. For women, the order should go: sports bra, base layer, bib straps, then jersey.

Butter Up, Maybe

Some people like to wear chamois cream—an anti-chafing balm or lotion that you apply to your skin or to the pad—to further eliminate friction and reduce the risk of chafing.

Chamois cream was necessary back in the old days when chamois pads were actually made of high-quality leather like a baseball glove, rather than high-tech synthetic material. Today’s carefully engineered chamois pads, however, are designed to work without it.

“I believe if you need to smear all kinds of lotion on you, there’s something wrong,” Knoll says. “You probably have shorts that don’t fit your body properly. You shouldn’t need chamois cream to ride without friction or sores.”

That said, if you’re going to be riding in wet conditions, especially for a long ride, chamois cream can provide added protection in those more extreme circumstances. Likewise, if you plan to ride gravel or rough unpaved surfaces where you may be shifting around in the saddle a lot, a layer of lotion can help reduce friction and keep you comfortable.

Chamois Creams to Consider for Long Rides

Buy the Right Shorts for Your Body

If you haven’t yet made the leap to cycling-specific shorts or the ones you have just aren’t cutting it, these tips will help you find the best cycling shorts that are right for you.

Start with Gender Specific

Every body is different, but generally speaking, men and women have different proportions and they definitely have different anatomy, which means different cuts, fits, and chamois for men’s and women’s cycling shorts.

Women’s chamois pads are generally wider in the rear to accommodate wider sit bones and have a shorter, rounder nose. Men’s chamois pads tend to be less wide in the rear, but have a longer nose, often with a center cutout, to provide padding, but not too much pressure, on men’s soft tissues.

Men’s shorts may also have an extra layer and/or insert in the front of the shorts to support male anatomy and eliminate pressure in that area so there’s less risk of numbness or the need to “adjust yourself” during the ride.

Go Ahead and Try the Bibs

You can choose between traditional shorts that are held up by a waistband or go with bibs, which forgo the waistband and are held up by straps that slip on over your shoulders like suspenders.

Bibs have a few distinct advantages in that they’re better at keeping the chamois in place; they eliminate bunching or digging in at the waist when in the bent-over riding position, and if your jersey rides up, you’re not left with exposed skin in the back.

“Most people who start with regular shorts eventually convert to bibs,” Knoll says. “I don’t know anyone who goes the other way.”

The biggest drawback of bibs is during bathroom breaks. Brands have improved women’s bib shorts by offering models with drop-tail options that allow quick mid-ride pit stops without needing to disrobe to pull the straps off your shoulders. For men, most brands cut the bibs low enough in the front that you can pull them down for a pee stop without much trouble.

That said, there are still riders who prefer the ease of shorts or who prefer to not have straps over their shoulders. There are plenty of quality non-bib shorts to choose from if you find yourself in that camp.

Going Long? Go With a Multi-Density Chamois

Lower-end cycling shorts tend to have a plain chamois pad that is uniform all the way around. Higher-end shorts offer multi-density foam pads that place denser padding where you need it most and thinner padding where you don’t.

“If you’re only doing short rides, you can go with pretty much any padding that you like,” Knoll says. “If you plan on doing longer rides, it is worth going to a higher-end pair of shorts for the multi-density padding. It will support you better and keep you comfortable for the duration of the ride.”

Try Them On

You probably wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans without trying them on. Don’t buy cycling shorts even if they’re “in your size” without slipping them on first. One brand’s medium can fit like another brand’s small, and not every large will fit every large body the same way, again, because every body is unique.

“You have to find a cut that works with your shape,” Knoll says.

They should be uniformly snug all around without being restrictive or feeling like they’re squeezing off circulation anywhere. They also shouldn’t sag anywhere, especially in the rear, where loose material can snag on your saddle.

Oh, and just like swimsuits, keep your skivvies on while trying on cycling shorts for obvious hygiene reasons.

Care for Them and They’ll Care for You

Finally, once you have a pair of cycling shorts you love, a little TLC will ensure that they last. To clean your shorts, either hand wash or machine was on the gentle cycle. Use detergent with no additives. “If you smell perfumes or fragrances on your shorts, that means those chemicals are coating the fabric. You don’t want that,” Knoll says. Residue from these additives, as well as fabric softeners can clog up the fibers and interfere with the wicking ability.

Hang them to dry inside out. Line drying is fine, but don’t let them bake in the sun. UV exposure can cause the fabric to breakdown prematurely.

While this may seem like a lot of information for a simple pair of shorts, one of the most important factors of riding happy is being comfortable, and the right pair of shorts that fit well and suit your style of riding can make all the difference.

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