How to Buy Bike Shorts: Sizing, Fit, & Style Guide

Posted On November 30, 2021 / Gear Tips

By: Drew Hincapie

cyclist in bike shorts

Bike shorts are the only barrier between you and your saddle over the bumps and bangs of rough terrain or rocky roads, so the size and style that best match your body and cycling preferences are important. When shopping for bike shorts, remember that quality ensures comfort. The higher the quality, the more benefits your bike shorts bring. Any cycling enthusiast would agree that not just any old pair of shorts will do. Wearing a great pair of cycling shorts can make all the difference between an uncomfortable ride and an enjoyable ride. The key to purchasing the best pair involves finding the right fit using our style guide and trying different options with your saddle. 

What are bike shorts?

Bike shorts (also known as cycling shorts) are snug, but flexible shorts, designed to prevent chafing and abrasion, provide padding against the saddle, and enhance agility and performance when cycling. The chamois (“shammy”), or the pad inside, is the defining feature of bike shorts. Chamois were originally leather made from mountain goats, but today, advancements in design have made them a little less stiff and more sophisticated. Chamois are usually made from either gel, foam, or both. These materials act as a shock absorber, protecting and supporting the area between the two ischial bones (or seat bones). 

We’re pros at designing comfortable chamois for optimal performance. We’ve tested and engineered chamois for men, women, and children. Our Signature 2.0 chamois is made of foam with gel inserts and provides support for 6-8 hours. The Power GT is a lighter option for extra ventilation and body temperature regulation. Use our chamois guide to find one custom-made for your comfort. 

Hincapie Performance Chamois men's and women's bike short chamois

Why wear bike shorts?

Sure, you could cycle in whatever shorts you want–you’d still get from point A to Z, but you will not enjoy it as much as you would in bike shorts. You increase your chances of saddle sores, abrasions, and numbness and might decide to call it quits before you ever reach your full endurance potential. And then, you might decide that cycling isn’t worth such a sacrifice when all you really needed was a more suitable pair of shorts. Let’s look at the benefits of wearing bike shorts.

Bike shorts are best because they… 

  1. Provide comfort for longer rides. The cushioning from the chamois helps prevent bicycle seat neuropathy by relieving pressure from the pelvic pudendal nerve. Quality cycling shorts keep you feeling good for hours on end. 
  2. Prevent chafing. If you wear shorts with extra material, they’ll scrunch up and bunch around the crotch as you pedal. It won’t take long for the fabric to cut into your skin and rub it raw. If properly sized, bike shorts don’t ride up and will fit smoothly into all your grooves. 
  3. Prevent abrasion. Bike shorts protect your skin from rubbing against the saddle and creating sores. 
  4. Keep you dry. Most cycling shorts are made with a moisture-wicking material that draws any dampness away from your skin to the outside of your shorts for maximum comfort. Whereas non-performance fabrics could stretch, loosen, and lead to bunching and chafing. 
  5. Support your muscles and maintain blood flow. Compression is critical when seated on a bike for a long ride. Quality bike shorts offer compression, which maintains the flow of oxygen throughout the body and prevents lactic acid build-up from causing cramping and muscle fatigue. 
  6. Assist flexibility. Bike shorts should stretch with your legs as you pedal and not restrict your movement. But at the same time, the material should be tough so it doesn’t stretch out and lose its supportivess. 

How should bike shorts fit?

First think about the purpose of your ride. Are you cycling for exercise, sport, or transportation? Do you plan to hit the town or the showers once you dismount? The fit or sizing of cycling shorts is much more important with a goal of training, performance, and sweat on the brain. Otherwise, feel free to pedal chic, but we would recommend bike shorts for long commutes to work or shopping and then changing upon arrival. If you’re cycling for sport, it’s a good idea to take your bike shorts selection seriously. 

Here are a few fit factors to keep in mind:  

  • Bike shorts should be tight but responsive. They should grip the leg and not bunch or roll up while riding. The shorts should move with you. They should support your movement rather than restrict it. 
  • The waist should be flexible. It should not squeeze you and hinder breathing while riding. It should allow for motion without rolling down.  
  • The waistline should be slightly higher in the back. This keeps you from accidentally giving other cyclists an unwanted view from behind. 
  • Bike shorts should be worn without underwear. Underwear adds additional seams that lead to discomfort and chafing. Bike shorts are made for a close, snug fit and designed with antimicrobial fibers to prevent bacterial growth. But be sure to wash (but don’t dry!) your shorts after each wear. 
  • The stitching should be smooth. Seams are a good thing because they’re made for a close fit, but the stitching should not rub uncomfortably against your skin while riding. 
  • Bike shorts should be looser while standing. They’re made to fit best while cycling, not walking, so there should be a little room for stretching on the saddle. 
  • Length depends on preference. Longer shorts are standard for us, but some people prefer shorter lengths to avoid tan lines. Just make sure your skin does not rub against the saddle while pedaling. 
  • The chamois should not be too thick. A too-thick chamois offers less flexibility and could hinder your pedal stroke. Usually, beginner cyclists need thicker padding as their bodies adapt to the pressure against the saddle. But beyond beginner level, thinner but denser padding is best. A dense chamois doesn’t give under pressure as easily, which makes it more supportive. 

Before you decide on a pair of bike shorts, always try them on. If you don’t have your bike handy, squat in a cycling position or do knee raises to mimic a pedaling motion to test the fit. We offer home try-on kits (and free returns) so you can be sure you love your cycling clothing and guarantee the right size before making a final purchase. 

Women's Power Bike Short

Types of bike shorts

The different types of cycling shorts depend on your discipline. 

  1. Road or racing bike shorts are long and form-fitting with a dense chamois.
  2. Triathlon shorts have a shorter inseam for running and swimming and are made of a thinner material for extra ventilation. 
  3. Mountain bike shorts have a compression short layer underneath a baggy short. The outer layer protects you from getting snagged on branches. 

You also have the option to choose between cycling shorts or a cycling bib. Bib shorts are bike shorts with shoulder straps. Many cyclists consider them more comfortable than shorts. The bib keeps the chamois from shifting and eliminates a restrictive waistline and chafing. The only potential downsides to cycling bib shorts is that they’re difficult to remove during bathroom breaks and some think the shoulder straps cut into their shoulders. However, high-quality bibs are designed to alleviate pressure from the shoulders.  

Learn more: Bike Shorts vs. Cycling Bib Shorts: Which is Better?

Men's Black Bib Short

 

Men’s vs. women’s bike shorts

Men’s bike shorts have a wider waistline and narrower hips than women’s shorts, and women’s shorts are usually shorter than men’s. Women’s seat bones are generally wider, so the chamois is also wider. The chamois itself is designed differently to account for anatomical differences between men and women. 

Shop men’s bike shorts and bib shorts or women’s bike shorts and women’s bib shorts

Learn more: 10 Best Padded Bike Shorts for Women

Bike short features

Below are a few features to account for when comparing bike shorts. 

  • Moisture-wicking material: Make sure the shorts keep you dry to prevent friction and chafing. 
  • Flexible fabric: Bike shorts are made of a mix of nylon or polyester to transfer moisture and spandex (Lycra) to provide flexibility. 15-20% spandex is ideal. 
  • Panels: Usually higher-quality bike shorts have more panels to contour the body better. The number of panels ranges from 6-12. 
  • Padding: Make sure the chamois fits you, your riding style, and your saddle well. Even if it feels like it fits well off the saddle, try the shorts on your bike if possible–that’s where comfort matters most. 
  • Pockets: These aren’t a requirement, but they do come in handy if you need a place to store your phone, money, or energy gels. 

Bike short sizing

You’ll want to measure your waist, inseam, and hips to find your size in bike shorts. The inseam should extend just a few inches above the knee. When sizing a bib, also measure the circumference of your chest. If your waist or hip measurements do not fit a size exactly, size up so your shorts aren’t too restrictive and uncomfortable. 

Bike shorts are often sized as short, medium, or long in the following lengths:

  • Short: 5-7” 
  • Medium: 8-9”
  • Long: 9-11” 

The Hincapie standard is an 11” inseam for men’s bike shorts and a 7” inseam for women’s bike shorts. We also offer a men’s 9.5” inseam and a women’s 8.5” inseam if you prefer a shorter length. Use the bike short size chart below to find your size.

Bike short size chart 

bike short size chart (men's and women's)

Bike shorts aren’t the only component to comfort while cycling. Great bike shorts and a great saddle go hand-in-hand. You can’t choose one or the other without sacrificing comfort and performance. Learn how to measure your sit bones so you can find the perfect saddle.

 

You might also like:

Cycling Training Plan for Beginners

Ultimate Bike Helmet Size, Fit, & Style Guide

How to Wear Bike Shorts (The Cyclist Guide)

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