We'd just made it to the top of Mount Shasta (well actually only as far as the road goes) when the subject of old-school bike shorts came up. In those days I was still pounding the roads training for marathons, oblivious to the cyclist's tribulations. My Mount Shasta riding partner was the real hero from yesteryear.
He's the guy who'd lived through the days of wool bike shorts.
You know. . . those old wool bike shorts that were washed in cold water. . . if you ever wanted to squeeze into them again. Even with the utmost of care they crept further and further up, gradually squeezing all the life out of your legs.
It's rumored that the entire Speedo company was founded by a cyclist who washed his wool bike shorts in hot water.
So what modern improvements do we enjoy in the world of bike shorts?
An Upgrade In Materials
The most obvious upgrade is also the aspect of modern bike shorts that makes the newbie most nervous. Namely. . . Spandex. Lot's of bulges and unseemly adipose rolls. Spandex is like those lyrics, “Nowhere To Run and There's No Place To Hide".
The Spandex used in bike shorts comes in two thicknesses. You have eight ounce and you have six ounce. There's not much of a difference between the two. Eight ounce Spandex costs a bit more and is said to squeeze the cyclist's massive thighs tighter.
Six Panel vs. Eight Panel
In the bad old days bike shorts were made of inflexible materials, namely the above mentioned wool fabric. If you haven't noticed, the part of the human anatomy in and around the unseemly parts is fraught with curves. This isn't inflexible-fabric-friendly.
After inventing the wheel and harnessing fire, mankind's greatest minds tackled this problem. Their solution. . . multi-paneled bike shorts.
More panels made for more form fitting conformation. If it weren't for the irritation of the seams, we may have seen shorts that looked like Grandma's most intricate quilt.
Anyway, eight panels was better than six. But now that modern materials can stretch to the moon and back, this issue isn't as critical for comfort or function. However it's still very important for prestige.
One piece of Spandex could quite likely cover the middle sections of two cyclists standing very close together, virtually eliminating the need for a multitude of panels. However, veteran cyclists insist on eight panel bike shorts.
Going For Broke
Some bike shorts cost $30 and some cost $275. But what if the $275 bike shorts are actually cheaper than the cheap ones? Huh?
Here's how you sell your spouse on some $275 Assos bib shorts. Just remember that the Assos bib shorts last for 18 ‘biking’ years (a chronological year times seven) while the $30 dollar shorts last for one ‘mouse’ year (a chronological year divided by seven).
The Assos bib costs a little over $2 a year while the $30 shorts cost a whopping $210 dollars a year. So you tell me. . . who'd be foolish enough to buy anything other than the $275 Assos bike shorts?
Biking shorts are cut differently than the pants your plumber favors. The waist is higher in the back and lower in the front. Since the cyclist spends a lot of time bent over, as does the plumber, biking shorts preclude a wind vortex from assaulting the butt crack, even in the fiercest headwind.
A plumber's customers should be so lucky.
Waist strings should be wider than the G string on your guitar so they don't cut into your gut. Most bike shorts have an elastic waistband instead of a string. Some, like my Hind shorts, couldn't decide so they provided an elasticized waist string. I guess you can have it both ways.
Leg grippers are sticky bands on the inside of the short's legs. They serve to thwart your short's efforts to ride up your leg, applying more pressure to the groin.
Funky Bib Shorts
Bib shorts (bike shorts with built-in suspenders) keep a constant upward pull so that the crotch liner is snug against the nether regions. This is important because bunching or rubbing of crotch material is a nuisance after a few hours of riding.
A down side to the bib short is that they make it more difficult to urinate while riding. Well not while actually riding, but more accurately when taking a break during a ride. Bib shorts and non-bib shorts perform equally well with regard to urinating while riding.
The Chamois Insert
A good argument could be made that the ultimate function of the bike short is to keep the all-important crotch liner successfully aligned between the saddle and the rider.
In the past, the liner was usually made of sheep skin. It's main feature was to protect the rider from all of those seams holding together the many wool panels. Things have changed.
Today, seams aren't as big of a problem and man-made materials have surpassed the lowly sheepskin.
Each bike shorts manufacturer has developed a liner that surpasses all others. It's up to you to decide which is most comfortable for you personally. You can usually make your decision soon after you've ridden in them long enough to keep you from returning them for an exchange or refund.
Beware of non-breathable inserts like gel pads. Unnamed experts claim that if the crotch can't breath, moisture will build up, resulting in an irritation like a diaper rash.
While I may argue that the crotch doesn't actually inhale and exhale, they have a valid point.
So get courageous, suck up your gut, arrange yourself carefully, and pull on your modern, padded, itch-proof bike shorts.
Ron Fritzke is a runner converted to cycling. His unique view of cycling apparel and accessories adds spicy humor to his reviews. You can read more of his opinionated drivel at http://www.cycling-review.com/ .