Padded bike shorts and other apparel

Fran ranted about bicycle culture a while ago. I wanted to chime in, but frankly, earlier drafts were mired in analyzing and commenting on every sentence. This a compliment to Fran’s depth of writing. I’ve moved a ton o’ my drive-by prose to the great Unauthorized/Unpublished blog storage depot in the Cayman Islands. Instead, I’ll focus on one comment she had:

The human body should not be sausaged into that loud shirt and skin-tight, shiny black shorts with the padded crotch.


First, some background. Contrary to what Blogshares may think, I am not a racer. Doug is a racer. To emphasize this point:

AreaDougJim


About half my mileage comes from bike commuting to work, currently three times a week. The rest comes from the occasional weekend warrior events I participate in as motivational candy – for example, the Lilac Century Surprise or a populaire.)  I do a broad range of biking. Now, let’s talk clothing…

  • Padded bike shorts prevent chafing and rash… assuming you’re not so daft as to also wear them with cotton underwear. Seriously, wear them with nothing underneath. Once you get past the weird feeling, you’ll be much more comfortable. Because good-quality padded bike shorts are kind of expensive, I “go civilian” (shorts and a T-shirt) on my commute and family rides. These last less than an hour and always have a quick change of clothes afterwards.While I want to flaunt my nice legs (over, say, the two-liter), I prefer black shorts for reasons that may not initially be obvious. (Possibly borderline for for viewing at work!)Bike shorts won’t help with perineal numbness. That kind of discomfort is likely caused by an incorrect seat adjustment. If your seat’s too high, you’ll shift from side to side as you pedal, rubbing things that ought not to be rubbed that way. Improper seat pitch will also cause problems. Too much rearward tilt, and your crotch will hurt or go numb.  Too much forward tilt manifests itself in your arms.
  • Tights are for warmth in cooler weather.  As I write this, I’m chuckling at the notes I had from rides I did as a graduate student in Houston where less than 50°F was considered “too cold to bike.” Unfortunately, now that I’ve acclimated, weather over 75°F feels uncomfortable. I have a few pairs of unpadded, form-fitting — and black — variety I put on top of whatever I’m wearing. I’ve tried biking with jeans, but my pants flop around in the wind and, sometimes, the cuffs catch the chain ring. I haven’t figured out how the “chain ring tattoo” happens, or how to remove it from clothing.
  • Loud jerseys provide a combination comfort, functionality and style.On my commute, I wear a T-shirt.  It gets soaked, even on a short ride. I couldn’t stand having damp and clammy rags touching my skin for anything longer than an hour.  So, I have a few jerseys. They’re all made of some polyester variant and purport to “wick” moisture away. The funny thing about all the polyesters is despite the fancy naming, the technology hasn’t really changed that much since I collected the summary back in 1990. If I won lottery, I’d prefer the very functional wool wear for the wascly weather.  Fran is absolutely right about how much the polyester can stink.
    Each jersey has a set of pockets in the back, where they don’t interfere with anything. I use these to carry food, batteries, camera, map, and other essentials that I need quick, on-the-bike access to.  (A handlebar bag is also useful for these items.)
    Since I ride so darn slow and on a freaky bike, most of my jerseys are mono-color, with relatively inconspicuous manufacturer logos. That being said, I’m willing to be a marketing whore and shill a sponsor’s logo for a modest fee. Operators are standing by!

    My fifth jersey is my favorite, acquired after finishing my first RSVP (see picture above). The corporate sponsor logos are tastefully small and on the sleeve. It’s purty. There’s also a 3/4 length zipper for ventilation on long climbs. Try not to visualize this in too much detail.

    I’ve seen themed shirts appearing in catalogs with weird stuff like Spaghetti-Os and
    Pink Floyd Records. Why Spaghetti-Os?

  • Socks — Most of the time I wear the 1/4 height, cotton socks you find at Costco. If it’s going to rain or I’m doing a century, I’ll wear wool socks. As Lena Horne used to say, “Wool keeps you warm.” If it’s rainy and cold, I’ll do the socks plus neoprene booties. It looks weird, but my feet stay warm and dry. (The fenders also help.)
  • Shoes are kind of a strange thing. back in 1990, I used extremely hard-soled shoes with clips. I switched to the Look-style clipless pedals because I was riding a lot faster then. The problem with them is you can’t comfortably walk. Worse still is on a slick floor like in a grocery store, they’re dangerous. I used to carry rubber covers for that particular use case.After buying my third set of ARC (red) cleats in one season, I decided to switch to the more practical SPD pedal. These are nice because the mountain bike shoes have the cleat recessed so you can walk in them. Better still, the cleats are metal and last as long as the shoes.5,500 miles later, my shoes were cracking at the heels. I picked up a replacement pair with slightly stickier rubber bottoms. However, after Fran posted her diatribe, I thought about why I still wear clipless pedals. Honestly, I don’t have a good reason. It’s not like I stand up out of the saddle to power up a hill or am especially efficient.
  • Gloves have two purposes, both equally important. The first is providing additional cushioning of my palms. The other is to wipe my nose. I know there’s a latin name for the symptom, but my nose fills up a lot from the cool morning weather. After I purge it, I need to wipe.
  • Eye protection is essential, even in the gloomy northwest. In the spring, there are a lot of bugs flying about, and it’s not fun having one fly into one’s eye.

38 thoughts on “Padded bike shorts and other apparel”

  1. One thing I’ll say on bike shorts is that you get what you pay for. For years I used the low grade REI shorts. While they may have been good enough in the beginning, after over a year of regular use (many days per week) they were showing their age. Of course, I didn’t realize this until I picked up a couple pairs of high end Hincapie shorts (~$100/pair). Wow, what a difference. Amazing padding.. significantly more comfortable overall. With this particular investment, spending more is worth it.

    Oh, and I recently switched to bib shorts.. love ’em. So much better than standard shorts.. but it’s a personal perference.

  2. Ok, I have to say that I’m with Fran on most of her diatribe… so I was really interested in hearing your counter points. Since I’m always going to laugh at the outfits that bike people wear, I like to know what I’m laughing at. Thanks.

    But, really, seriously, for the black bike pant info… I’m at work and I think I just looked at porn in the office. Guess I won’t be running for mayor of Spokane.

  3. > Mayor of Spokane

    I added a disclaimer about the photo.

    What’s really funny about the attire is the tan line it imparts at the end of the summer.

    > Bib shorts

    I agree with Doug about the shorts. Bibs are more comfortable, but they’re a bit harder to deal with at rest stops.

  4. Umm.. yeah, pit stops are a bit difficult in the bib. I would ask about your technique, but that discussion might fall into the same category as that photo. 🙂

  5. Oh crap… in my careful editing I managed to sound as if office porn was a bad thing! I left out the big THANKS!!! for the picture. I was honestly looking for a good excuse not to run.

    Now I’m on the hunt for real life non-black bicycle short guys.

    There is a huge black bike riding dude who on my bus in the mornings. Really well cared for dreds. Black pretty much everything in his bike clothes. Really nice looking guy but huge – I mean don’t mess with me huge – and he always wears an expensive size appropriate backpack that is – I swear – pink. I need to get a picture. And I’m not at all sure why I’m sharing this…

  6. (I dropped in following Susan Dennis)

    I didn’t learn to ride until I was 26, couldn’t afford a bike as a kid or a student. In 1988 I started out with regular toe clips. The two mods that I did that made a difference were bar ends and SPDs. I found the bar ends a huge advantage in climbing, the SPDs speak for themselves. I actually kept those shoes and pedals and was using them until this year, I tried replacing them several times but in the end I have gone back to a shoe very like those I had in 1988, Shimano’s SH-M180. Oh and I changed to Crank Brothers Eggbeaters pedals, for the good reviews and amusement factor in fairly equal measure. The Eggbeaters work fine but they feel a lot softer on insertion, but they are still very secure, strange.

    When I was shopping for my latest shoes, which are finally as comfortable and effective as the first ones, I asked a number of people if there was any good reason for the impractical nature of the road shoes. All they could tell me was that they thought the road shoes were a bit stiffer and that some roadies wouldn’t be seen dead using MTB shoes.

    I also found a saddle at least as comfortable as the ‘racing’ saddle that came with my bike in 1998. In the junk box. It had been rejected off a new bike by someone who wanted something that looked more comfortable. When my saddle was wearing out I tried a couple of those ‘ergonomic’ saddles they were trying to sell us a few years ago, they were horribly uncomfortable. Now I’m back to a tiny sadlle that someone who never tried one might think was a terrible design, but there are good long term reasons for these designs.

    Curiously when I was talking to my mother about this she turned out to know all about it, they already knew how to make saddles back in the 40s and 50s.

    I can’t do bib shorts, I’m too long in the body.

  7. Jim,

    I used to ride the off-road SPDs, but switched to SPD-SLs a year or so ago. It (combined with a stiffer sole) got rid of the hot spots I used to have on the sole of my feet. They also have plenty of float, which my knees appreciate.

    The SPD-SLs are somewhat walkable – you obviously don’t have a normal angle while you wear them, but they have a couple of soft plastic pads so you don’t get to go skating every time that you wear them – I can’t recall them slipping at all.

  8. Some thoughts:

    Black shorts vs. other colors: one time my husband did Flying Wheels in a set of grey bib shorts. It rained. His bike didn’t have fenders, and muddy rain water splashed up all over his rear. The fabric went transparent. You could see not just, uh, details through the fabric, but the mud made it look like he had lost bowel control on the ride. It was quite amusing for me, drafting him. I don’t know how anyone else on the ride might have felt.

    Clipless pedals: My Mother’s Day present was a set of Power Grips for the stoker on the tandem. The difference in my 12 year old’s output as stoker with the Power Grips is quite palpable. We did a hilly loop out to Duvall and Carnation on Mother’s Day, and I was glad glad glad she had the Power Grips. Would SPDs be any better?

  9. The thing about biker shorts is that so few people look pleasing in them. I balked a bit during that brief time in the 80’s when they tried to slip them into mainstream fashion, because I looked like a cow in them.

    That said, if they are functional and you don’t look like me in them, which you obviously don’t, Viva La Biker Shorts.

  10. I read Fran’s comments, and I read Jim’s reply. When I was in college and first started riding long biking events, I was VERY stubborn about biking gear. I swore I’d never be caught dead in a pair of those shorts – until I finished a ride bleeding. On casual rides around town with my kids, I generally even wear them under a pair of hiking shorts. On cleats – it took me 25 years to switch to cleats, but once I made the switch, I don’t want to go back. I do have two bikes – a 15 year old mountain bike (no cleats) I use for family rides of any distance and short rides around town, and my newer road bike that I use for training and events. I admit, the road bike is kind of my pride and joy, because I am barely 5’3″, and I bought a WSD bike that is the first bike that has ever properly fit, and it has truly made riding a new experience. Unless you’ve been riding on too-large bikes since the age of 14 or so and finally get one that really fits at 39, you probably can’t relate to how good that feels.

    Living in Anacortes, I rode the Lopez ride (on the cleat-less mountain bike) with my family and another one last year. Given the size of Lopez Island, I was a bit frustrated that so many people were trying to turn the ride into some kind of race. It’s too congested for that kind of riding. We had fun, but I skipped the event this year. I can go to Lopez Island and ride any time I want without the frustration of the event! Even on event rides, myself and my riding partner often find ourselves frustrated with much of the biking culture, and I am picky about events because of that. I hope I am not lumped into that category just because of how I’m dressed!

    Lots of people do not have good “hill” etiquette, or even good group riding etiquette. I have taken a fall due to someone stopping suddenly, without notice, on a hill. They didn’t stop because they had cleats, or had not shifted gears, or anything else – they were just tired, and unfortunately unaware of (barely) faster people riding up behind them. My point being, I don’t think it’s fair to pin that problem on riders with cleats.

  11. Great commentary Jim! Sounds like you and the commenters have made sensible choices in bike wear (not that it matters what I think). I guess the most important thing is to use good riding etiquette, stay out of difficult group-ride situations until you have enough experience to go with the flow, and not to show body parts that aren’t supposed to be shown 😉

  12. Thanks, everyone.

    I am in total agreement that riders should be more aware of their situations. Chilly Hilly is a classic example of a long, steep hill that riders bunch up on. It’s been a few months since some were on the bike. Pulsing with pain, they forget to downshift, stay/move to the right, etc. I think the riders racing up are also partially culpable for inadequate spacing and being unaware at how much the rider in front of them is visibly struggling. (Fluctuations in pedaling rate and bike bobbling occurs before the tored rider in front does the Picard Maneuver.) OTO, I’m unsure how one learns group etiquette without actually going in a group. Maybe start out with friends?

    Chris: The ergonomic saddle didn’t work well on my new bike, I’d speculate because there’s more flex. I currently use a Brooks B17, all-leather and am pretty happy with it. Though there’s obviously a lot of variety, the saddles are popular with the rando folks.

    Claire: The PowerGrips sound like a great idea. I can’t think of any benefit in SPDs, especially if R is happy with the PowerGrips. I may email you privately for ideas on tandeming and how to encourage my kids cycling.

    Doug: Over the top.

  13. I just got a chance to look at the not safe for work link and… Eeeww! That’s just way too much information.

  14. Well…that picture answers a lot of questions I wasn’t sure I wanted answered. Does the bicycle seat with the hole in it help with numbness at all? Our local bike shop recommends them for men but not for women.

  15. > Does the bicycle seat with the hole in it help with numbness at all?

    Some people claim it works well. I’ve never tried it, though, as I’m fairly happy with the seat I have now.

    I saw one at a bike expo year before last that took out the “nose” portion entirely – it looked like two pads that your glutes sit on.

    I’d love to try a recumbent sometime. Those seats look comfy.

  16. Re: Hole-in-the-seat bicycle saddles — I switched to this style because of (ahem) internal saddle sores, on the advice of my doctor. I have been happy with the saddle since. Everyone’s heinie and crotch is different.

    Numbness is due to poor fit. You may need the angle or height of the seat adjusted.

    What you don’t want is the no-nose seat. You actually use the nose of your saddle more than you think you do, for steering and balance.

  17. Another thing I’d advocate during the wetter months, e.g. now, is buying a pair of neoprene shoe covers and keeping them on all winter. The $20 pair is a far better deal than the $260 pair of shoes I was seriously contemplating. (However, if there was any amount of winter biking, it’d be an easier sell.)

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