Cycling shorts are the most important garment in the road cyclist’s summer wardrobe. The combination of long days, warm weather and decent fitness levels means that you’ll likely to be spending several hours on your bike, so ensuring you cycle in comfort boils down to the shorts your are wearing, so it’s worth investing a pair of bibs that can suit both your body shape and your cycling ambitions.
Producing the ‘World’s Most Comfortable Bib Shorts’ is somewhat of a Holy Grail for cycle clothing manufacturers, so it’s no surprise that a massive amount of R&D is invested in their development, especially by the leading brands. Rapha, Endura, Castelli and Assos are just some of the cycle clothing manufacturers who utilise members of the pro peloton to provide feedback as they attempt to hone the look and feel of the final design.
The choice available is wide ranging, from both from a design and economic point of view, but the key to ending your ride with a smile rather than wincing in pain at every undulation in the road surface is down to the quality of the chamois and the price you pay for your bibs is invariably governed by the comfort of the pad. The majority of brands use inserts from specialist manufacturers, such as the Italian company, Cytech, often working in close collaboration to develop and perfect the pad so that the shape and foam density meets both the ergonomic and anatomical requirements of the cyclist, based on the cycling discipline, the likely duration of rides and gender.
Manufacturers are now producing bib shorts with pads that are very specific to the amount of time you are most likely to be spending on your bike – Gore and Assos are two brands that have a clearly defined distance that their shorts are suitable for. Likewise, there have been huge strides taken to accommodate the differing needs of male and female cyclists, with increasingly complex combinations of foam densities and insert shapes to work in harmony with the respective anatomies of the sexes.The combination of highly technical fabrics will also raise the cost, especially if they have been developed by the respective manufacturers.
The first area of concern is the straps. Not everyone likes bib shorts, opting instead for an elasticated waist, but straps eliminate any danger of elastic digging into your waist, whilst also keeping the shorts (and their contents) uplifted and providing a little protection to the torso too, especially the kidneys. Ensure the straps are soft and wide enough so as they are not going to dig into your shoulders or cause unnecessary tightness or irritation. Mesh straps that allow for ventilation are pretty much the norm in summer bibs and will help to regulate your core temperature in hotter conditions whilst also making the bibs feel more lightweight.
Proprietary fabrics will ensure that the shorts have good breathability, wicking sweat away from your body. As the majority of bib shorts are predominantly black, they have had a tendency to feel hot in the sun, but huge advances in fabrics have reduced this greatly and the advent of Coldblack technology, which effectively reduces the absorption of sunlight, thereby reducing heat, is also a feature to look out for.
Construction is also a contributing factor – with both the number of panels and the way they are sewn together impacting on price. The more panels, the better the shorts will wrap around the contours of your anatomy, though there are now some very tightly woven lycra based fabrics being developed, which are so stretchy that the need for complex panel construction is becoming less of a concern.
Another factor to consider is the combination of fabrics used. A more robust lycra on the seat will ensure longevity of use, but a thinner, more lightweight fabric on the legs will provide the necessary breathability. Thermal or water resistant bib shorts, which are aimed more at spring/autumn riding, will incorporate even more advanced fabrics, which will again push the cost up. Whichever shorts you opt for, ensure the fit is good. The ideal bibs will have a snug, compressive feel, without any tightness around the torso and groin. You know when you’ve found the bib shorts that are right for you the minute you forget you are wearing them!
Finally, the grippers on the hem of the legs. The majority use a silicon strip or tabs to stop the shorts riding up, keeping them firmly in place and your tan lines razor sharp! Wider, compression bands are also becoming more common, sometimes paired with a few silicon tabs, which hold the hems in securely in place.
Before investing in a pair of bibs it’s advisable to check out what your fellow riders are wearing and if they rate them for comfort and performance – a good recommendation from another cyclist is a far more accurate yardstick than the bold claims that the manufacturers are in the habit of making.
Below are Five of the Best bib shorts currently on the market, tried and tested in the Spring sunshine of Mallorca and the faltering early summer in the UK. The prices reflect the fact that these are made with high quality fabrics and pad inserts – perfect for long days in the saddle in the heat.
Assos s7 Equipe
The Swiss manufacturer, Assos, has a reputation in some circles for making the best bib shorts on the market. Launched in Spring 2014, the s7 range superseded their hugely popular s5 range and included several ‘Game Changer’ innovations that Assos had been working on in secret for several years. There are four bib shorts in the range – starting with the NeoPro and then rising in performance (and price) through the Equipe, the Cento to the top of the range Campionissimo.
The s7 Equipe on test are marketed as the more racing fit, as opposed to the next pair up the scale, the Cento, which are aimed at cyclists who will be spending several hours in the saddle – cyclosportives or multi-day events. The Equipe have been regularly tested on rides of 4+ hours and also a six hour sportive and the comfort they provide is superb, which given the amount of development that has gone into their design is hardly a surprise.
So what is the secret of their success? Firstly, the pad features ‘MemoryFoam’ – an innovation Assos first used in their s5 range of bibs. MemoryFoam quickly returns to its original shape, thereby optimising comfort as you shift around in the saddle, the foam literally filling the gap as your weight moves around the contact points. The pad also benefits from a couple of their own recent innovations, including the perforated ‘waffle’ foam used in the midlayer, which helps to reduce weight and increase breathability.
An innovation of the entire s7 range is the Assos patented ‘Goldengate’ attachment of the pad to the main body of the short, whereby the pad is not stitched all the way round, but only at the front and rear. The reason is simple – to ensure there are no seams around that sensitive area between your legs, which reduces friction whilst also allowing the pad to move in tandem with your own position on the saddle. Whether it’s a combination of waffles or Goldengates, the pad does deliver superlative comfort, though I did have doubts on first inspection as the pad is quite wide, compared to others I have used in the past and I thought it might feel bulky.
So what about the look. I’m 5’10” with a 30″ waist and the Medium size is a snug fit, with just the right level of compression. The bibs look great on, hold their shape and there is no unsightly sagging or bunching of material. The hems are a wide, stretchy band, with additional silicon grips, and together they hold the shorts firmly in place. Assos branding is kept to a minimum – the left leg hem features a thin purple band (the colour was specifically chosen for the s7 range and matches the colour of the pad). There are a couple of reflective strips on the rear of both legs and a small Assos badge on the front, and a more discreet black one on the rear.
The distinctive Assos branding that one finds on their jerseys is confined to the rear of the straps and out of sight, which will please anyone who errs towards a more classic, refined look. The stitching of the pad is very visible and rather than try to hide it, the Assos designers have appeared to make a bit of a statement – emphasising the Goldengate stitching of the pad to the bibs.
Lastly, those all important pee stops are really easy – the front is very low cut, more so than the norm, and pulls down with little effort.
Our one criticism of the s7 Cento when tested last Summer was the straps cut uncomfortably down the chest, causing a nipple irritation for the tester that was difficult to ignore. That’s not the case with the Equipe – the wide, seamless straps are set wide on the torso and are so comfortable one forgets they are there.
OK, these are not cheap but if you intending on doing several big rides over the warmer months, then these are a sound investment. Superlative quality and further evidence that when it comes to bib shorts, Assos really are the brand at the top of the tree.
The Assos s7 Equipe are available in sizes ranging from Small to XXXL and come in only one colour, the wonderfully named BlackVolkanga, They retail at £165.99 and can be bought via Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles and Evans Cycles. Visit the Assos website for more information or Yellow Ltd for a list of UK stockists.
Isadore Apparel Bib Shorts
Does being a professional cyclist (or ex-Pro) somehow entitle you to a fast track career into the world of fashion? Several high profile riders have been getting in on the act including Mark Cavendish (CVNDSH), Chris Hoy (Hoy), Yanto Barker (Le Col) and both David Millar and Sir Bradley Wiggins have been dabbling with fabric samples and colour charts of late.
And to add to that growing list is Isadore Apparel, which is the brainchild of Slovakian professional cyclists, Martin and Peter Velits. Although still riding in the World Tour, Martin with the Belgian team, Etixx-Quickstep an Peter for the Swiss team of BMC, the brothers may have been thinking of their careers post-peloton when they unveiled their inaugural collection last year, a collection that couples some striking contemporary designs with high performance fabrics and draws on their own extensive experience and appreciation of what kit works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
Isadore Apparel is not simply a case of pro riders lending their names to an unexceptional and rather dull collection of cyclewear. No, the Velits brother are very much hands on, taking the leading role in all aspects of the brand, from the vision statement to the design. In fact, when talking to Isadore about their collection it was the affable Peter Velits, not some minion, who dealt with my enquiry (recuperating, incidentally after surgery, before making a successful comeback at the Tour of Austria earlier this month). Can you envisage Cav or Sir Chris manning the phones and despatching your purchase?!
What is refreshing about the Isadore collection is that it has a rather unique and refreshingly imaginative character. The Veltis brothers, the collection suggests, are not the types to follow convention. Take their recently unveiled Climbers Jerseys as a shining example, the designs inspired not by the Alps or the Pyrenees, but by Japan’s Mount Fuji and Mount Haleakala on the island of Hawaii – and yes, that’s Hawaii as in childhood home of one Barrack Obama! That’s not only original, it’s rather brave too and you have to admire the chutzpah it takes to make such a bold statement.
With their bib shorts, however, Isadore has reined in their sartorial impulses. Unlike much of their collection, styling is kept to a minimum, only the subtle logo on the legs interrupt the black look and clean lines of the shorts. Design aside, these are very much a performance orientated pair of shorts – flat lock seams, two types of lycra (a more durable fabric on the seat) plus the addition of ColdBlack® treatment to optimise their effectiveness in hotter conditions, underline the fact that the Velits brothers keep as keen an eye on the how their clothes perform as they do on their respective watts output.
The first thing you notice when you put the shorts on, is just how soft and comfortable the material feels, not at all lycra like. This is reflected in the grippers around the leg, which meld seamlessly with the lycra material on the legs. They are not only comfortable and neat, but from experience of a couple of 4+ hour rides, they do not ride up at all.
Initially I thought the shoulder straps were a bit high and cut a little wide, and that this would mean that the shorts would be a bit on the warm side in hotter weather. This was proven on a sunny day to not be the case. They breathed very well and were no warmer than any other that I have tried, no doubt thanks to the Coldblack treatment, and in actual fact, the higher cut seemed to give really good core support, a bit like compression clothing.
The seat pad has also been a surprise. Off the bike it’s without doubt the most comfortable I’ve used, but I thought this would lead to the opposite on the bike. I’ve a pair of Gore Xenon bibs and the opposite is very much the case – horrid off, but wonderful on the bike, but the Isadore shorts were a match for the Gore’s on a recent 70 mile ride in every way. This is even more surprising as the pad itself is made from re-cycled materials, so you can feel comfortable and righteous at the same time. Isadore claim that their chamois is ‘the World’s first totally ecological chamois’ which shows they have a commitment to the environment too.
Finally, in terms of overall appearance, they have that same understated look of the Rapha Classics. The thing is the Isadore shorts are different, not part of the herd, so a little more individual, but selling for a fairly significant amount less. But with this quality and price, it might not be too long before quite a few other people, chose to be an individual too!
The Isadore Apparel bib shorts retail at 120.00 EUR, roughly £85 in today’s money, and can be bought exclusively via the Isadore website. Isadore also is also a Women’ Shorts (not bibs), which are based on the men’s bibs though a little cheaper at 99 EUR. They feature a female specific pad insert and are anatomically shaped for the female physique.
Orders placed before 1pm will be shipped the same day an costs 10 Euros, but is free for any orders totalling over 250 Euros. Allow 4 days for arrival. More information on their entire collection and shipping is available on the informative Isadore Apparel website.
dhb Aeron Pro Cycling Bib Short
Available in both a men’s and women’s version and coming in three options (red, black and white for men, black, white and fuschia for women) the Aeron Pro are the best selling bib shorts from the extensive range offered by dhb, Wiggle’s in-house brand. Aimed at a variety of cycling disciplines and needs, these have been thoroughly tested on longer, 3-4 hour road rides and provide a very high level of comfort, which I put down to the excellent dual density design of the Cytech ‘Tour Air’ insert and also the wider mesh of the straps, which have flatlock seams to minimise any risk of irritation. The straps, incidentally, incorporate carbon fibre in the mesh, which dhb claim better regulates your body temperature, thus keeping you core heat more comfortable. Certainly on rides in hotter weather these shorts have never felt overly hot, so perhaps some of that can be put down to the use of carbon in the mesh?
The men’s red version and the women’s fuschia Aeron Pro bibs.
The chamois feels reassuringly firm, but does not feel too bulky when standing. The padding is wide enough to accommodate the main pressure points, allowing good freedom of movement, but for longer, all day cycling I would err towards a more robust pad. It is not substantial enough to make you feel like you’ve a dinner plate shoved down the back of your shorts and for those all important ‘nature stops’ the front of the bibs, despite being cut quite high, can be pulled down without effort.
The Aeron Pro bibs are a svelte, flattering race cut. The medium size tested were a perfect fit on my 31″ waist, 5′.11″ and 72kg frame. The legs have a decent level of compression and the straps, though firm and uplifting, do not feel tight. For me, the best cycle clothing are the garments you forget you are wearing – no niggling discomfort or design flaws that can impact on the performance and these come up trumps in every department.
In fact, it’s hard to fault these bibs, especially given the aggressive price point. The Cytech pad is similar to those used by several higher end manufacturers, the panel construction is of a high quality with flatlock stitching throughout and the bibs show little sign of wear and tear after numerous rides and washes.
I’m not usually one for wearing any shorts but black, so the red version (tested) was a bit of a departure for me, but I actually like the way the red is picked up in the stitching down the length of the leg, creating a consistency in design with the red hems. Of course, if you want to go down the more traditional route, then stick with the simple black version, but if you want to compliment a jersey then the red and white versions are really worth considering too. I’ve paired these with a retro red and white jersey to good effect, though they would look equally good with a more contemporary design as the overall styling is quite retrained.
The Aeron Pro tick a lot of boxes, but come packed with some impressive technical aspects. I’ve mentioned the pad and carbon fibre mesh already, but they also feature ‘Field Sensor’ fabric, which helps to wick sweat away from the skin. Again, I’ll have to take dhb’s word about the effectiveness of this fabric over other, similarly technical synthetics on the market, but I have noted that on hot rides, there is substantial salt residue on the bibs, which suggests that moisture transfer is efficient. And in this world of marginal gains we now all inhabit, I’ll happily embrace that innovation if it makes my riding experience a tad more enjoyable!
The dhb Aeron Pro Cycling Bib Short can be bought exclusively from Wiggle and cost £64.99.
Rapha Classic Bib Shorts
If evidence was required as to why Rapha’s Classic bibs are a perennial bestseller for the upmarket British label, then the experience of two club mates of mine who rode the full 260km Tour of Flanders cyclosportive earlier this year wearing these bib shorts should persuade even the most hard-nosed doubters out there. Despite the Belgian cobbles and the persistent rain, they arrived at the finish in Oudenaarde, damp and slightly delirious, but their backsides remarkably intact. Not bad going after a brutally challenging day on the pavé.
When Rapha do things well, they tend to do it exceptionally well and it’s no surprise that their Classic bib shorts remain a firm favourite with their customer base. The secret lies in the pad – a high density, extremely comfortable foam insert made by the Italian chamois expert, Cytech. The top of the range E.I.T. pad used in the Rapha Classics is a robust insert that has a high resistance to compression. Even the fabric of the inserts have been carefully chosen to reduce friction and provide a perfect level of elasticity so that the insert moulds itself to the contours of your anatomy. It also has good breathability to help transfer sweat away from you body.
Rapha classics: the men’s version in black and black/cream and the women’ hi-viz pink
But it’s not just about the pad. The success of the Classic bibs also relies on their very simplicity. These are ‘classic’ in every sense of the word. The tailoring is top drawer, the quality of the fabrics, both the soft lycra of the main body of the shorts and the mesh straps, are luxuriant and strike just the right balance between compression and comfort. Purists will prefer that black version, but the black/cream version perfectly complements some of the more retrained, classic Rapha tops, but would look just as good paired with a retro style jersey.
The Rapha Classic Bib Shorts are available in sizes XS- XXL and our priced at £160. They come in two versions – all black, or black with cream straps and white logo on the leg and are available to buy on the Rapha.cc website. For the ladies out there, Rapha also have the female specific Women’s Classic Bib Shorts, again priced at £160, in a good range of sizes from XXS to XL, which features a higher cut on the chest and the added bonus of an extra colour option with hi-viz pink detailing.
ashmei Men’s Pro Bib Shorts
ashmei is the company founded by Stuart Brooke, who formerly worked for Rapha, developing some of their most successful garments, including the Rapha Classic bib shorts no less! Brooke has spent the last twenty years working in the sport clothing industry and launched the ashmei label in 2011, initially confining the collection to running gear. Last year he extended the range to include clothing for cyclists and the ashmei softshell jacket, tested in December, proved to be an exceptional piece of kit and proof that Brooke was not joking when he claimed he wanted to knock a few of the established higher end kit manufacturers off their lofty perches!
Like all the bibs on test, the ashmei bib shorts are packed with innovations, all of which are aimed at transforming your cycling experience from the mundane to the ethereal. Do they succeed? Well, initially, No. The first thing you’ll notice about these bib shorts, assuming you get your sizing right, is how tight they are to pull on. At my ‘fighting weight’ I have a 30″ waist and ashmei advised that I went for the Small size. Pulling on the shorts for the first time and hoiking the straps over my shoulders did not instil much confidence in their recommendation. Once on, they felt no better. The straps were cutting into my shoulders and as for down below, well, let’s just say I am pleased that my testicles are no longer operational. Looking at my reflection in a mirror, with newly shaved legs and my crown jewels now residing is a place they had never been before, my lower half resembled that of a female cyclist. It’s not a great look.
Attempting to swing a leg over my top tube induced a yelp (imagine squeezing a deflated balloon in your fist) that caused my teenage son to look up from his GCSE revision with amused indifference. The thought of actually getting on the bike and riding simply brought tears to my eyes and my wife commenting that I looked like a eunuch did not exactly steel me for my first outing.
A call to ashmei ensued, but their line was clear: ‘Hold the Faith’. The tightness of the straps, I was assured, would disappear once on the bike and likewise the tightness around the groin would slowly reduce the more miles I rode with them on and the more washing cycles they went through. Two months, several washes later and my inital misgivings about these shorts have evaporated. No longer is every pedal stroke accompanied by the pained, twisted expression of a Rapha model.
They are actually a pretty formidable pair of shorts and I use that word with care. The discomfort, thankfully, has reduced considerably. Yes, they are still tight, but the shorts are designed to provide a high level of compression..
So what is it about the ashmei shorts that has won me round? Well, firstly, the pad. It looks so different from others on the market with separate red foam segments for specific parts of your sitting area interspersed with holes for aeration. It looks innovative, it is innovative and is very comfortable indeed. ashmei have dispensed with traditional inserts, opting instead for laser cut, minimalist foam chamois, which keeps you dry and comfortable, especially when riding at a sustained tempo in hotter conditions. There are no seams to cause chaffing and the insert segments are exactly where they need to be, which help you to stay in the same position on the saddle. I’ve ridden with larger pads, which are comfortable enough, but have a tendency to roam around uninhibited and at random. The ashmei, you quickly feel, are more focused on the task at hand, more regimented and efficient. When off the bike, the pad has a very unsubstantial feel and you hardly notice it at all.
The straps, which on my first forays had cut into my shoulder, have definitely softened up after a few washes and though they still feel tight, when on the bike they provide good support without ever feeling constrictive. Again, ashmei’s assurances were well founded – on the bike the straps feel just right. They are beautifully constructed too – laser cut, large perforations stem from the low cut waistline right over the back of the bibs, with a small section of merino based fabric on the inside of the top, just to provide a delicate cushioning on the shoulders.
Next item of discussion focuses on the seams, or rather the lack of them. Seams, even flatlock, can cause unnecessary chaffing so ashmei have dispensed again with traditional practice. All the seams on their bib shorts are ultra-sonic welded, which in layman’s terms means you just don’t see them. The finish is . . . seamless, even the edges of the straps receive the same ultra-sonic treatment and the pad is bonded to the fabric – not an unsightly stitch in sight. The overall look is very sleek, smooth and unadulterated. No flamboyant embellishments, just the single white ashmei logo, which serves accentuate the clean, uninterrupted lines.
The fabric of the shorts is a high density woven lycra which has a feel and rustling sound one would associate more with a lightweight waterproof jacket, which is isn’t’ wholly unsurprising as the fabric used in the main body of these shorts is highly water resistant. Great if you are caught in a light shower and they will also dry out more quickly if you ride into a deluge. The material is very stretchy yet provides a compression fit on the leg, negating the need for silicon grippers along the hem line, which at first feels a little strange, but provides the same level of grip but with a superior level of comfort.
Innovation fuelled many of the now established cycling brands like Assos and Castelli, so it’s refreshing to see a young British company trying to reinvent the wheel, in a cycling context. Just as James Dyson took an everyday domestic product and created a bagless vacuum, Stuart Brook and the team at ashmei have looked at every aspect of cycling bib shorts and succeeded in creating a product conceived from outside the box – pushing the boundaries and keeping the more established manufacturer firmly on their toes.
Now, such innovation comes with a price tag and at £235 the ashmei shorts are going to be well out of the reach of most people’s budget. Many will scoff and even a Rapha/Castelli wearing club mate of mine visibly recoiled when I revealed the price. It’s a personal choice as to how much one is prepared to spend on a pair of bib shorts. When you can pay over £300 for the top of the range Assos bibs, then the ashmei suddenly look a bit of a steal. I would argue that if you are looking for a pair of shorts to provide the performance and comfort necessary for a big challenge – an Etape, a LEJOG or multi-day event, then these are an option that are well worth considering – but that comes with the caveat that you must ensure you select the size that is right for you. Don’t, as my experience has shown, err towards a smaller size. If in doubt, go up a size!
It’s clear that ashmei have created a pretty exceptional pair of bib shorts, but the tightness around the groin area holds me back from giving them 10/10. Yes, I’ve grown to like them, but I have concerns that the minimalist design of the bibs is part of the problem as the lack of panels, despite the inherent stretchiness of the fabric, just don’t follow the contours of the body as effectively as other high end bib shorts I have worn in the past. The tightness I initially encountered plays on my mind a little and sometimes, albeit fleetingly, I feel a little constricted as I move around the saddle, especially if I turn to look behind me. At £235, one would expect perfection and, though these come admirably close, they are not quite there yet.
The ashmei Men’s Pro Bib Shorts comes in either a black or red version and costs £235. For more information visit the ashmei website. If you have any doubts about the correct size for your shape, height and weight, then ‘talk’ to one of the online agents on the ashmei website and they’ll be able to advise.