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I tested a lot of bib shorts in 2020. Like, way more than was reasonable. And through all that testing, I learned quite a few lessons about bib shorts — what makes a good pair, what makes a bad pair, what features I love, what features are extraneous, and much more.
All of that testing helped me determined what bib shorts were the best in 2020, and I’ll share that with you in a moment. But more importantly, I learned that choosing the right bib shorts isn’t just about fit and feel; very often, the best bib shorts are the ones that work for you, at the right price.
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Must-have bib shorts features
I’m very particular about bib straps. That’s the one element of any pair of bib shorts I focus on with the most scrutiny, second only perhaps to the chamois. As such, I know exactly what I like in a bib strap and exactly what to avoid. For my money, I wouldn’t buy any pair of bib shorts that lack laser-cut or lay-flat straps.
That’s because anything else with stitching and seams has a tendency to bunch up and cause rubbing over my shoulders. Lay-flat straps do exactly that: lay flat, comfortably, without much pressure on your shoulders. So if a pair of bib shorts has anything but seamless lay-flat straps, I’m already dubious.
Of course, the main event for all bib shorts is the chamois, right? Over the course of my testing in 2020, the chamois I found most comfortable almost all ended up being from the same company: Elastic Interface. (Sometimes you’ll see the company’s chamois marketed as CyTech, but it’s the same company.)
The chamois dance is a precarious one: I tend to like luxuriously thick and supportive chamois rather than minimalist race chamois, but I don’t like the loaded diaper feeling either. That means a chamois that trims down the bulk but still offers the support and comfort I’m looking for will always end up the winner. Elastic Interface seems to have nailed that. A good example of a pair of bib shorts I loved with an Elastic Interface Chamois is the Gore C5 Cancellara Bib Shorts+.
The last feature worth mentioning is one I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into until my colleague Betsy Welch started testing shorts with me. For her, the ability to get out of the shorts to pee is a key feature. For guys, it’s a lot easier to pull up a leg or pull down the front of the bib shorts to relieve ourselves, but for women, a good pair of bib shorts will feature some sort of release mechanism so you can get out of the straps and visit the little girl’s tree on the side of the road or trail.
Bib shorts extras — and gimmicks
With gravel growing by leaps and bounds, it stands to reason that the clothing we wear for such riding should also evolve. In that spirit, some brands have released bib shorts that include thigh pockets for easy access to snacks and other essentials. I’ve ridden a few pairs of these now, and while they aren’t my cup of tea, I can see how such pockets can be handy, especially during big-mile gravel races.
That said, it’s important to note that not all pockets are created equally. A common pitfall: These pockets tend to be made from mesh with elastic hems in order to keep them from flapping. That’s great, but it can make the process of actually getting your hands in and out of the pocket somewhat challenging. Make sure if you buy such shorts, you can actually access the stuff you stash in there.
Other features that have become commonplace on bib shorts in recent years are extraneous but nice for the right person; some are downright useless.
A good example of feature most riders can probably do without is the radio pocket. Such pockets are useful if you’re on a team, but in that case, you’d likely have team kits given to you. This otherwise extraneous bit of fabric on your back isn’t really useful for a phone either, since it’s generally unreachable without removing your jersey.
Assos has long touted its KooKoo Penthouse, and other brands have followed suit more recently. The ridiculously-named feature is essentially extra room in the crotch area to give your sensitive bits room to move. I admit, this may be useful for some riders, but for me, it just leads to extra movement and rubbing.
Several brands have also experimented with bib strap placement. In my experience, it’s best to stick with tradition here. Velocio’s Luxe bibs, for example, are extremely comfortable and they look great. But I don’t quite understand the advantage of the bib straps crossing over each other in the back. Mostly it makes putting the bibs on properly a bit more confusing, and the straps have a tendency to roll when I put them on. I imagine this design is supposed to help the straps stay centered and keep from wandering, but there’s likely a better way to do this.
What to avoid at all costs
The easiest ways to make a good pair of shorts go bad is by putting seams in unfortunate places, and by including poorly-designed leg grippers.
Cycling is all about movement, which means a seam in a bad place can lead to discomfort very quickly. In some cases, you can tell a seam is problematic just by looking at it: Is it bulky and on the inside of the leg? Avoid it. Is it positioned somewhere that is bound to cause a lot of rubbing issues, like at the top of a bib strap? Ditch it. The best bib shorts feature seams that lay flat and avoid high-friction areas.
I also now have an intimate understanding of sausage-casing legs. Leg grippers and hems help keep your bib shorts in place, but they can also squeeze uncomfortably. Personally, I prefer laser-cut hems with small silicone grippers on the inside. This combination is comfortable and stable. Long hem panels also stay in place well, but they require added seams and awkward transitions to the shorts themselves. This can create a pinch point.
And finally, a good pair of bib shorts sculpts itself to your body. There shouldn’t be any bunching anywhere, and they should not be bulky or baggy around your butt. The whole point of bib shorts is to keep everything snug, aero, and friction-free. Avoid shorts that don’t wrap your body well enough; they may be good for someone with a different body style than you, but ultimately, the excess material will lead to unwanted movement; you don’t want your chamois shifting around during your ride.
My favorite bib shorts of 2020
Assos continues to be the cream of the crop when it comes to bib shorts, though of course, you’ll pay for the privilege.
The bib straps lay flat and hold solid. Assos makes a big deal about its A-Lock support system, which is a combination of design elements intended to keep the chamois in place where it should be during your ride. I can’t tell you if this actually works any better than Assos’ other designs — they’ve all been pretty wonderful in that regard — but I can say that these shorts are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. In fact, it’s tough to find a pair of Assos bibs that aren’t comfortable and supportive.
Okay, I know I said these crisscrossed bib straps drive me crazy, and they definitely do. But the straps themselves are ultimately quite comfortable, topping off an otherwise attractive pair of bib shorts. Velocio’s style game is on point, much more so than many of its competitors. That helps for sure, but more importantly, I found these bibs to be comfortable for daily riding. The leg hem does have a seam that can be bothersome for some riders, but I didn’t find it to be uncomfortable in most situations.
Cancellara aesthetic aside, the C5 shorts from Gore feature laser-cut lay-flat bib straps, an Elastic Interface chamois, and a snug, comfortable fit. They do have those leg hems that I’m not wild about, but the sausage-leg feel was fairly minimal and comfortable. I like the way the mesh back panel keeps the bib straps in place, too. And hey, blue shorts? I’m happy with something other than black for a change.
The C5 shorts are also half the price of most of its competitors. There’s a lot of value packed into these bib shorts.
The bib straps are the star of the show here. They’re so light and soft, and they’re laser-cut seamless, that they all but disappear on your ride. But they still have enough strength and structure to support the rest of the shorts. The unique shape of the back panel keeps the straps from wandering while still allowing an open-back, breathable design.
A supportive and comfortable chamois is placed within a compressive pair of shorts, and most importantly, the seams all lay flat and are welded. The hems are also laser-cut for a smooth transition to your legs. The plain black aesthetic may not be flashy enough for you — and holy cow are they expensive — but Pearl Izumi has made some of the best shorts on the market otherwise.