People new to cycling are often off-put by some of the clothing gear that cyclists wear. Classic cycling shorts and bibs with extra padding are among the frequently ridiculed pieces of equipment.
Many spectators and beginners consider shorts and bibs tasteless and funny, particularly when the riders are off the bike.
To avoid a fashion penalty, some people seek another way to increase their riding comfort. One of the most examined alternatives is a saddle with extra padding.
The reasoning is simple – if you get a comfortable saddle, you wouldn’t have to wear bizarre cycling armor…at least in theory.
Unfortunately, this logic faces a large obstacle – the fact that padded shorts continue to be the norm for experienced cyclists.
Why? Why do the pros choose padded shorts over padded saddles?
Padded shorts and bibs are the serious cyclist’s choice because they keep the cushioning exactly where it needs to be, namely around the sit bones, regardless of the riding position.
Also, unlike a wide and soft saddle, padded shorts in conjunction with a firm saddle decrease the contact area and subsequently minimize friction and the chances of inflaming the soft tissues around the sit bone area.
Softness = More Friction = More Pain
To the inexperienced cyclist, a wide and soft saddle may appear incredibly comfortable because it resembles a nice padded chair. That’s a deception of the highest order.
The primary function of cycling seat isn’t to make you feel like you’re sitting on a sofa but to support your “sit bones” which carry most of the stress when the body is in a seated position.
The anatomic term for sit bones is ischial tuberosity.
It’s logical to assume that a wide and extra smooth saddle is necessary to protect the soft tissues covering the sit bones.
In practice, however, this engineering has proven to be inadequate and a source of extra pain rather than comfort.
Here are the reasons why a soft, sinking saddle fails to provide the expected performance:
1. Increased friction.
When a saddle is extra soft, the body sinks into it. As a result, the area in contact with the saddle augments, and the body suffers from the increased friction. Skin irritation and bruises are among the possible outcomes.
FAQ: Wouldn’t shorts increase the friction too? After all, padding is padding.
Shorts act as a glove and thus play the role of a second skin layer when fitted properly. They either don’t move or do so minimally.
Hence why the increased contact with them is not as problematic as riding a soft saddle because there is no rubbing between the skin and the padding of the shorts.
2. Extra stress on the perineum
When the sit bones sink into the saddle, the entire pelvis lowers. In consequence, the front part of the saddle could come in contact with the perineum and irritate the area by compressing it.
Whether this will happen depends on the entire shape of the saddle, but the chances are greater when the saddle is large and squishy.
3. Fixed/Immovable padding
The padding of a saddle never moves. Therefore, when you’re out of position, you instantly lose its benefits. This issue can be particularly problematic when covering long distances (commuting and touring).
Conversely, when you wear padded shorts, the cushioning is attached to you and always there even if you get out of alignment.
4. Extra weight
The wide, ultra-cushioned saddles with multiple layers of gel tend to be heavier than the hard and slim ones.
The weight penalty could be problematic for cyclists trying to make their machine as light as possible.
5. Poor fit
Many extra-padded saddles are designed for leisure riding and bicycles with an upright geometry. When installed on a mountain or road bike engineered for aggressive riding, they tend to fight with the original geometry and function of the bicycle.
Wide saddles trying to play the role of a pillow cause misalignment too. When a saddle is too wide, it comes in contact with the thighs and irritates the area.
If it’s extra wide, it may even push the hips of the cyclist apart and alter the natural pedaling technique.
6. Low airflow/ventilation
The extra contact that squishy saddles create reduces the airflow/ventilation. The aftermath is excessive sweating and discomfort.
The possibility of numbness due to compression of the perineal nerves makes the situation even more unpleasant.
7. Questionable aesthetics
If someone tells you that aesthetics don’t matter in the world of cycling, you are talking to a liar.
Many otherwise reasonable cyclists showcase over-awareness of their image. Don’t be surprised if you see a cyclist replace their stem and bar ends because they don’t match the color of his new handlebars.
Saddles are no exception. They have to look slick. And it just happens that wide, extra-padded saddles don’t quite match the lines of an expensive road or mountain bike.
8. Inefficient power output
When you’re racing, every detail that affects your efficiency matters. A slide rub of the thigh against the saddle may be considered a minuscule interference with one’s power generation, but in a world where milliseconds are crucial, it’s necessary to optimize even minor parts of the “engine”.
9. Inconsistent firmness
The softness of a saddle changes over time, especially if it’s of poor quality. When that happens, the cyclist ends up sitting closer to the frame of the saddle and loses the benefits of padding while also suffering from the greater contact area.
This effect is greatly correlated to the weight of the rider. The heavier you’re the more you’ll sink into the saddle.
10. Slower adaptation of the sit bones
Seasoned cyclists can ride for hours without pain for two main reasons:
- Gradual adaptation
- Proper cycling gear
Excessive softening may limit the strain on the sit bones for a while, but ultimately, that part of the body has to adapt to the stress of cycling.
This task requires two steps:
- Purchase a properly sized saddle respecting the original geometry of your bike.
- Progressively increase the riding distance.
FAQ: In what situations are big, spongy saddles good?
Normally, those saddles work well only on bicycles engineered for upright riding, namely dedicated commuters and cruisers.
In both situations, the back angle of the rider is more vertical. Subsequently, the saddle supports more of the rider’s weight.
For that reason, commuters and cruisers necessitate wider and more padded saddles.
When the geometry of the bicycle is more upright, the factors listed below diminish the negative effects of a wide and squishy saddle:
Shorter distances. Commuters and cruisers are not designed for long touring because they are poor climbers.
More protection. The upright posture puts the sit bones in a more vertical position which results in greater skeletal support and extra elevation.
When the extra support is there (the saddle is wide enough), the sit bones elevate the rider far more than they do in the aero position.
The glutes are semi-contracted and assist that outcome by providing extra natural padding for the sit bones and further elevating the more sensitive areas.
An easy way to feel that effect would be to do the following exercise:
Step 1: Sit in a chair and keep your back vertical to the ground. Take notices of how the sit bone area feels.
Step: 2: Lean towards the ground to mimic a more aggressive riding position. The stress will move from the sit bones towards the lower portion of the glutes and the perineum area.
11. Low effort riding
Cruisers and commuters are not designed for super aggressive riding. The people who ride them aren’t normally trying to win a race. The lower intensity reduces the stress on the entire system.
Hard Saddle + Padded Shorts = Ultimate Performance
After changing many saddles, most people come to a surprising conclusion – a hard saddle in combination with padded shorts is the most comfortable way to ride for long hours while exerting substantial effort.
The hard saddle prohibits the sit bones from sinking in and redistributing load on more sensible areas whereas the padding in the shorts provides an additional barrier between the sit bones and the saddle.
Additional Benefits of Padded Shorts and Bibs For Serious Cyclists
Cycling shorts are designed with one goal in mind – to make cycling more comfortable and easier. Unlike regular clothes (e.g., jeans) they do not restrict your motions because the material is stretchy and has no seams at the places that flex the most.
Cycling shorts are made of materials moving sweat and moisture to the outer surface (away from the body) where it can evaporate faster. They also dry more quickly than street clothes which are usually made of cotton.
The moisture-wicking capabilities of cycling shorts increase the comfort of the rider, prevent chafing, rashes, and facilitate the process of cooling down.
Shorts support the male genital area and stop it from moving unnecessarily.
The material of cycling shorts and their tightness reduce friction.
When you add a fairly narrow and firm saddle, the contact point becomes smaller and the level of friction drops even further.
Shorts and bibs are lighter than some regular clothing and sportswear.
The Downsides of Padded Shorts
Padded shorts have the following downsides:
Poor aesthetics off the bike
Cycling clothing, and especially shorts with visible extra padding, is notorious for triggering external ridicule.
Sometimes even experienced riders consider shorts funny. This effect increases multiple times when the cyclist is off the bicycle.
A set of padded shorts could cost a decent chunk of money. And if you want to have more than one, the expenses could quickly augment to high proportions.
Wear & Tear
Unlike saddles, shorts and bibs wear out fairly quickly. A cheap pair may not survive 3000 km/1864 miles. But even the more expensive ones have a hard time matching the life of a quality synthetic saddle.
This is one of the strongest arguments that people give for implementing a padded saddle. Unfortunately, the money savings do not outweigh the lower performance and the discomfort that such a saddle could create when used to replace a pair of padded shorts.
Padded shorts have to be cleaned regularly whereas saddles work on the “set it and forget it principle”.
A pro cyclist gets away with wearing shorts all the time because that’s his job. A commuter, on the other hand, may have to attend meetings and other formal events with a dress code that doesn’t include bibs.
In that case, the cyclist would need to either bring additional clothing with him all the time or store clothes at the workplace.
For that reason, many people choose to commute with their regular clothes.
Summary: Padded Saddles vs. Padded Shorts
|Padded Saddles||Padded Shorts|
|Short distances||Long and short distances|
|Low to medium intensity||Low, medium and high intensity|
|Durable||Wear out with time|
|Upright geometry||Suitable for all bikes|
|Increased friction||Decreased friction|
|Look acceptable to most people||Look funny|
|More stress on the soft tissues||Less stress on the soft tissues |
if combined with an appropriate saddle
|Commuter friendly||Complicate commuting|
|Inefficient pedaling||Increased efficiency|
Shorts Cannot Compensate for a Bad Saddle
Even if you buy the best shorts in the world, they will not be enough to make up for a saddle that’s too narrow or too wide for you.
To find the proper saddle width for you, you will have to measure your sit bones.
Normally, that’s done in a bike shop with the help of memory foam, but you can also do it at home by using aluminum foil.
Here’s the process:
1. Place a piece of aluminum foil on a low chair or a stair covered with a fairly thin blanket.
2. Sit on top of the foil and lean forward to mimic your riding position.
3. Lift your feet and then get up.
4. Measure the distance between the two biggest impressions on the foil in millimeters.
5. Add 20-30mm to the final measurement.
6. Find a saddle with a width corresponding to the number.
E.g., If your sit bone measurement is 115mm, then you’ll need a saddle about 143mm wide.
What Should I Look For In a Pair of Cycling Shorts?
Make sure they are the proper size for you.
If the shorts don’t fit your right (too baggy or too tight), they are no good even if the quality is there.
If you’re buying online, read the sizing guide of the company because the fitting of different brands varies. Ideally, however, it would be best if you can try them before buying.
Stay away from cheap quality, but don’t become a snob.
There’s a close correlation between price and quality. Everything of quality costs a decent amount of money (>USD 30-40). Having said that, USD 100 bibs or shorts are not two times better than USD 50 ones. The more you pay for a product, the closer you get to the point of diminishing returns.
For that reason, it’s usually best to stay in the medium price range.
You can check out this model which has some pretty good reviews on Amazon.com.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s better shorts or bib shorts?
Bibs tend to be more comfortable because they are not held by a waistband. Instead, they rely on braces and make you feel like you’re wearing nothing at all. Hence why bibs are considered friendly towards cyclists who don’t have a slim waistline.
Another bonus of bibs is that they neither slide around nor restrict your motions when leaning forward.
However, bibs have downsides too. They’re more expensive and make it harder to take your clothes off when you have to use the bathroom. Some people stay away from bibs for that reason alone.
Is it mandatory to wear cycling shorts? I don’t like them.
Of course not. Many experienced cyclists (e.g., UltraRomance) stay away from cycling clothing because they simply don’t like it.
However, there’s a catch. Even the guys who detest the spandex uniforms wear clothes that make cycling more comfortable.
It’s not uncommon for “anti-shorts touring cyclists” to put on clothes made out of merino wool – a natural material with moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial properties.
Another bonus of merino wool is that it doesn’t develop a bad smell even when left unwashed for a long time.
Why are cycling shorts sometimes called chamois?
The term is a historical relic.
In the past, cycling shorts were made out of wool whereas the padding around the crotch area was chamois leather.
Nowadays cycling shorts rely on synthetic materials. Nonetheless, some people continue to use the word “chamois” when referencing cycling shorts.
What about gel seat covers? Are they any good.
They may be helpful in some very specific situations, but if you have a decent saddle that fits you, you shouldn’t feel a need to cover it with gel padding.
Moreover, the cover pads share the negative effects of overly-padded saddles.
This Post Has 2 Comments
A great summary, but…if you have a cruiser style ebike (as have I), it appears that the padding in cycle shorts is not designed for the upright seating position. What to do? I’m expecting to ride for at least three hours at a time, it’s easy to ride 40 or 50 miles with pedal assist and you don’t need to worry about weight, or pedalling efficiency, so an upright position is ideal. Except for the padding!