A good quality, well-fitting pair of shorts can be the difference between an enjoyable ride and absolute misery on the bike. Beyond just choosing your fit and chamois, there is also the option of bib straps or shorts/waist shorts.
Bibs have primarily become the default for the best cycling shorts and are what you'll find the majority of experienced road riders wearing. Bibs are a carryover from yesteryear when the fabrics that made up our cycling kit were less refined and required a pair of suspenders to hold them up, and even despite improvements in manufacturing, fabric tech and tailoring, the straps have persisted.
Nowadays we have self-supporting fabrics and improvements in fit to the point that leg grippers are slowly disappearing, and brands are beginning to rethink their take on cycling overalls. Mountain bikers the world over have been wearing bib-free liner shorts under their baggies for years, and outfits like Rapha, Sportful, Machines for Freedom and even Assos are offering high-quality waist shorts.
So is it high time to ditch the braces, or are suspenders for cycling still the way to go?
The main argument for bib shorts is that the straps eliminate the need for the waistband, instead using straps that go up and over your shoulders. With no elastic needed around your waist, there is nothing to restrict diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, which can help you through a rough effort. While there may be nothing to dig into your abdomen, the straps aren't adjustable, and for larger riders, they can sometimes dig into the shoulders.
While you may look a bit like a Luchador in just bibs, there is no arguing with how well the straps hold everything comfortably in place, and the chamois stays precisely where it needs to be regardless of whether you're sitting, standing or slogging up that brutal climb. This reduces the potential for chafing because things aren't moving around and rubbing in places they shouldn't. For larger riders, bib straps will also help to keep everything where it should be as there is no waistband to potentially roll down.
Traditionally, bib shorts have occupied the higher performance end of the market and have seen better quality materials, fit and chamois, but high-end waist shorts are beginning to percolate through select ranges.
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The other benefit to bibs that it prevents the dreaded lower back sunburn caused by a jersey that has ridden up. Because bibs go up and over your shoulders, they take an extra bit of fabric with them up your torso which prevents gaps. That said, with this extra layer of material, they are warmer too.
It's not all unicorns and butterflies, as beyond just digging in, bib straps can cause their own chafing and chapping, which for some is bad enough to require a base layer to ride in comfort. Worse, bib straps make going to the bathroom an exercise in flexibility for men, and require women to strip off their top half for a nature break. However, there are a few designs that limit the numbers of layers female riders need to remove like Velocio's FLYfree back and a few zip-off and halter-neck designs from Giro, Gore, Rapha, and Assos.
Shorts or waist shorts, as the name suggests, eliminate the bib straps and rely on a waistband to hold them up. The waistband itself comes in a variety of designs, from some that are akin to the top of your favourite gym shorts, to strategically cut designs that come up a bit higher and grip onto your hip bone.
These waistbands are usually made from a higher gauge material that offers a bit of additional structure to prevent the shorts from creeping down as you pedal, and usually act a bit like a sweat sponge that is stuck to your midsection for the duration of your ride.
Even the best pair of waist shorts still won't be as secure as a comparable pair of bibs, and you'll likely have to do some rearranging throughout your ride and will also likely have to pull down the back of your jersey too. Even those with grippers still ride up a bit and depending on how high the waist shorts come, there may be a slight gap to contend with when you lean forward to reach for the handlebars.
Without the straps and panel of fabric that goes up your torso over your back and shoulders, waist shorts are without a doubt cooler, and we've been using them on the indoor trainer to show off as much skin as possible to maximise cooling.
They also make toilet breaks a breeze compared to bibs. We all remember Tom Dumoulin's unforgettable strip show on the side of the road on Stage 16 of the 2017 Giro d'Italia - a race he went on to win, for what it's worth - which was the result of his bib shorts.
Not long ago the biggest problem with waist shorts was that they were reserved to the budget end of the spectrum and usually had a pretty basic chamois sewn in; this is no longer the case. Should you be so inclined, Assos offers its Mille GT shorts, including the Elastic Interface pad of the same name complete with the goldenGate, but without bib straps.
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So, which is best? Honestly, it's up to you, both bib shorts and waist shorts have their merits, as well as their drawbacks. It's down to you to decide what will work best for your style of riding.
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