Like it or not, the chamois (“sha-mee”) is one of a cyclist’s distinguishing features. The padding sewn into bike shorts sets serious cyclists apart from leisure bike riders or people wearing bike shorts as a fashion trend. We certainly don’t think looking like we grew a baboon butt makes our sport look enticing. A cycling chamois makes long and sweaty rides enjoyable as it absorbs shock, relieves pressure, and wicks moisture from our rears. A brand new cyclist or spectator might think they’d never be caught dead in a chamois, but one long and challenging ride is usually all it takes to convince someone they need one. But not just any old padding will do. There’s a science behind the design of cycling chamois and a list of mistakes to avoid when shopping for one that we’ll share in this ultimate guide to cycling chamois.
What is a cycling chamois?
A cycling chamois is a shock-absorbing, antimicrobial pad sewn into bike shorts. The chamois defines a pair of cycling shorts–without a chamois, they’re just really tight shorts that aren’t suitable for aggressive cycling. Chamois vary in density for different ride durations and styles. The padding dampens vibrations from the road’s uneven surface and relieves pressure from the pudendal nerve. Without this support from the chamois, your backside would soon start to experience pain and numbness while riding. Cycling chamois have a close and ergonomic fit, meaning they either conform specifically to male or female pressure points in the saddle. A quality chamois usually has perforations for breathability and moisture-wicking, antibacterial fabric to keep you dry and fresh.
Cycling chamois design
When the chamois first arrived on the scene in the early 1900s, they were leather pads in wool bike shorts, but leather doesn’t conform to a rider’s shape, and wool bunches easily and causes discomfort and chafing. Leather chamois and wool shorts were later abandoned for the foam or gel pads sewn into lycra bike shorts that cyclists use today.
Chamois technology has improved drastically over the last century, but designing bike shorts with a chamois is complex. Designing a chamois requires an expert understanding of cycling form and skilled craftsmanship. We’ve designed high-quality bike shorts and chamois worn by elite cyclists at Hincapie for over 15 years. When designing a chamois, we have to consider the cyclist’s anatomy, riding position, and varying ride durations to determine the pad’s density and placement in the shorts.
Bike short designers have to consider the different pressure points on men and women and create a chamois customized to the differences in anatomy. Women’s bike shorts are wider in the back and shorter in the front since women have wider sit bones and a shorter length of sensitive tissue compared to men. Men’s chamois have a depression in the middle to prevent numbness from restricted blood flow to sensitive areas. The best chamois are also designed with minimal to no seam lines to reduce friction.
A quality chamois is thin but also dense. A fat and cushy chamois will cause you to sink into the saddle and create more pressure on your sensitive areas. A chamois should feel firm and not compress easily to provide you with better support and comfort. It should also be denser in the center and thinner at the edges to prevent chafing during pedal strokes.
Chamois come in a variety of densities for different ride durations. A slim foam pad works well for short distances, but if you ride over 10 miles multiple days per week, you need something heftier. Many high-mileage cyclists choose a high-density gel or a hybrid gel and foam chamois over strictly foam padding since a gel is often thinner and denser. Chamois are often described as either single, dual, or triple density, depending on the layers of cushion and level of shock absorption.
Placement of the chamois in a pair of bike shorts can also contribute to a comfortable or uncomfortable ride. The widest part of the chamois should line up with the widest part of the saddle when the rider is seated. When chamois placement is off, it puts pressure on the wrong places. A chamois is designed for riding, not standing or walking, so try new cycling shorts on your bike to make sure the chamois lines up with the saddle. Every person’s anatomy and every brand of bike shorts is different, so you’ll want to make sure the shorts and chamois fit you snugly and don’t shift in the saddle and cause uncomfortable friction.
How long does a chamois last?
A chamois generally last six months to two years, depending on how often and how far you ride and how well you care for your bike shorts. If your chamois has lost its oomph and feels like a flat and heavy slab of material, or if it’s starting to unravel from your bike shorts, it’s time for a new pair of bike shorts. It’s also time to retire your chamois if it continues to smell gross after washing.
The better you care for your bike shorts, the more longevity you’ll get from your chamois. Always wash your shorts after every wear, and follow the washing and drying instructions carefully. Since a chamois should be worn without underwear for the best fit and maximum comfort, you should wash it inside out to make sure it’s cleaned well. And many bike shorts must be line-dried to preserve their structure and fit. Learn how to wash and care for your cycling kit.
Padded shorts vs adding in a chamois
Quality bike shorts come with a chamois sewn in. Many cyclists use “bike shorts” and “chamois” interchangeably, assuming that you don’t have one without the other. Unpadded bike shorts can be worn for jogging or yoga, but not in the sport of cycling. Mountain bike shorts or “baggies” are the exception, and some mountain bikers wear padded underwear for additional comfort. But every other type of athletic cycling shorts should already have a chamois, or they aren’t suitable for cycling more than a few miles. It is possible to wear chamois underwear with unpadded shorts, but we don’t recommend it for cycling because the layers add seamlines that cause friction and chafing, and it’s more likely that your chamois will shift out of place since it’s not sewn to the shorts.
5 cycling chamois mistakes
1. Buying low-quality bike shorts.
You get what you pay for when purchasing chamois. High-quality bike shorts will have a more comfortable chamois that’s thinner and firmer and great at absorbing shock. A cheap pair of shorts may have a chamois that feels cushy to the touch, but it won’t be as enjoyable on a long ride.
2. Buying a chamois that’s too thick
It seems logical that the more plush a chamois, the more comfortable a ride will be, but extra-thick does not necessarily make a chamois extra comfy. A super thick chamois isn’t flexible, which impedes your ability to pedal efficiently. Each downstroke puts pressure on your sit bones and soft tissue, so a chamois must be firm enough to absorb the force and offer support so you have more pedaling power. A thick cushion makes you press harder and longer into the seat and pedal with less efficiency. Sinking into an extra-cushy chamois also puts more pressure on sensitive areas and causes discomfort or numbness.
3. Buying a unisex chamois
Your chamois should conform to your shape and have channels that reduce pressure and optimize blood flow in the right spots. This means a men’s chamois and a women’s chamois must be designed differently to account for anatomical differences and provide support and coverage in the right places. Even if a brand says they offer gender-specific chamois, double-check to make sure they differ in design and shape and not just color or length.
4. Wearing underwear with a chamois
A chamois is made to fit closely against your body. You can’t experience the full benefits of a chamois while wearing underwear, and underwear can cause even greater discomfort on the bike. It adds extra material and seamlines along with the greater potential for chafing, saddle sores, and wedgies. Most underwear is also made of cotton and doesn’t have the moisture-wicking benefits of a chamois.
5. Adding extra cushioning to your saddle
A chamois and quality saddle should provide all the cushioning you need. If your experiencing pain in the saddle while wearing a chamois, a lack of cushioning is likely not the cause, and adding more cushioning between your chamois and saddle could make your pain worse. For a more comfortable ride, make sure your bike shorts are sized properly and fit well. If they fit nicely, then the saddle may be the source of your pain. The next step would be to find a new bike saddle and ensure your saddle is sized properly.
How to buy the right cycling chamois
When shopping for new bike shorts, you’re also shopping for a new chamois, and you’ll want to make sure both fit well. Here are a few things to consider when buying bike shorts:
- The quality and fit: After reading the information above, you know what to look for–a dense but firm chamois specified to your anatomy and positioned for proper alignment with the saddle.
- The duration and style of your rides: Chamois are designed with specific ride lengths in mind. We offer bike shorts with chamois in the 1–2, 2–4, 4–6, and 6–8 hour ranges for different riding disciplines. For example, our 1–2 hour time trial chamois is designed for a short distance in an aggressive riding position, and our 2–4 hour triathlon chamois is designed to keep you dry and comfortable while cycling, swimming, or running. If you’re training for a gran fondo, you’ll want a chamois appropriate for long hours in the saddle.
- The features: A good chamois should have perforations for breathability and be constructed from moisture-wicking materials. For triathlons, make sure your chamois are also slim and waterproof. High-end chamois can also be made with memory foam for a more customized fit.
Chamois aren’t one-size-fits-all, so make sure you try a new pair of bike shorts out in the saddle before committing to them. When you design a custom kit with Hincapie, request a home try-on kit to make sure you feel comfortable in them before purchasing. You may also choose to upgrade your chamois to a different style.
Like a chamois, cycling socks and baselayers are two not-so-glamorous and often taken-for-granted cycling essentials. Learn why you really do need bike socks or choose from our lists of the best cycling socks and the best baselayers.
Learn more about cycling bike shorts and chamois from the guides below.