The first shorts were developed along with the safety cycle to minimize the drag caused by pantaloons and huge knickers. They were knitted wool shorts with a sheep-skin chamois. Thus, the name “chamois” (pronounced “sham-ee” or “sham-wa”) after the breed of sheep the produced the leather deemed softest and most wonderful against the buttocks. We have evolved this simple and timeless contraption into a highly technical piece of clothing. Made with lycra (spandex) and high tech wicking fabrics, cycling shorts now come in so many styles, shapes, and qualities it’s hard to decide what to get!
We return to diapers as cyclists and are more than happy to have that chamois between us and our saddle. It’s not as easy as getting any pair of shorts, however. Like everything adult, there are technicalities and geeky designs and an optimal pair for each unique butt. Let me give you a few metrics by which to judge your shorts.
1. They should fit tightly. The lycra should sit smoothly and the chamois should have no folding or bunching. Seams should be in the right place and not where they can cause terrible chafing. Also, do NOT wear underwear under your shorts. It negates the entire thing and causes massive discomfort. The point of bike shorts is to maximize a cushion that is right where you need it to be and eliminate things like seams. So go bare!
2. The waist and leg openings should fit comfortably and the chamois should match your body shape (ie. sits bones, pubis). Some shorts for women have a soft panel at the front of the waist so they’re more comfortable to wear when you’re bent over in an aerodynamic position. There are shorts, as well, that have minimal amounts of sticky rubber at the leg- a very nice feature if your skin gets irritated by the no slip hem. The con of the softer, no-grip hem is that the shorts will ride up as you move your legs. Professionals and fairly serious cyclists consider this to be bad form and prefer to wear shorts that stay put and ride smoothly. As far as chamois shape is concerned, women’s chamois tend to be wider in the rear, narrower in the front and shorter overall than men’s (just like women’s saddles!). The panels of the chamois are designed differently, too with a groove in the middle to “alleviate pressure on soft-tissue” (euphamism for “doesn’t hurt your vag”). Try on as many pairs as you can until you find a chamois that fits your body.
3. The more expensive the short, the longer the shorts should last and the denser the chamois will be. A denser chamois will get you through the longer/longest rides and a thinner one is perfect for hot, short rides or spinning. And sometimes, less is more! If you are looking for a short to wear commuting or under skirts during casual summer rides, you might even look into getting a pair of triathlon shorts. They will be a little cheaper and have very minimal padding. A $20-40 pair of shorts is a great investment if you’re doing 10-20mi/day and like to wear your shorts under something, like a skirt. The more expensive shorts, since they have a denser chamois, will feel diapery if you wear them walking around. You also don’t want to keep a pair of wet, sweaty shorts on for very long. Take care of your lady-parts and change!
4. No short is complete without chamois cream. Period. It seems gross at first, but trust me, you want an anti-chafing cream for those long rides. Regardless of how nicely your shorts fit, or how much money you invested in them, if they’re dry when your riding they will eventually become a sweaty chafing mess. Try Butt Butt’r if you want something simple and unscented. DZ Bliss is a high end cream for the ladies (DZ Nuts is the men’s version. It’s mentholated, so stay far far away from it, unless you like to have the tingles). Belljum Butter is an all natural cream that is paraben free and niiiice! If you have saddle-sores after your ride, use some zinc oxide cream overnight. It’s essentially baby-diaper cream (which you can use, too) without the baby-scent.
Go try on as many pairs of shorts as you can muster the patience for! If you are still unsure about wearing cycling shorts but are having problems with discomfort and chafing, there are a couple things you can do to help. Wear a wicking underwear, like the ExOfficio travel boy-shorts. Or you can wear stretch pants/shorts with no underwear to minimize the seam problem. Wearing skirts while in the city is also a breezy and classy way to aid in solving the sweaty nethers problem and will let you air out the parts during and after riding. All in all, ride in something comfortable and you’ll want to ride more! I highly encourage everyone to have at least 1 pair of nice cycling shorts in their closet. When someone suggests a longer ride, you won’t be held back by your wardrobe! Get out and have fun, go on adventures, and don’t hold back!
****Note: Yeast infections, UTI’s, and jock-itch are all related and upcoming articles! The prevalence of these conditions in the hot summer months is a confluence of saddle/shorts/overall health. Having nice shorts will help, but getting the right saddle is even more important!