Nothing’s more fun that thick, constricting, water-logged denim chafing your thighs as you ride, am I right?
Kidding aside, the average pair of jeans is kinda sorta usable for cycling…just like a garbage bag is kinda sorta usable for rainwear. Far from ideal, in others words.
But don’t worry. You’re not relegated to wearing tights or gym shorts just to cycle for daily transportation. In fact, some clever designers have take the jeans styles we all like and turned them into athletically inclined garments.
Below, we’ll cover exactly why biking jeans are kind of a big deal, then take a quick look at every worthwhile pair on the North American market as of writing.
(There are also some great chino- and slack-style pants for bike commuting, but we’ll cover those another time, and stick to classic jeans for today.)
Wait, what’s wrong with regular jeans?
Your run-of-the-mill, 100% cotton denim has two main issues. You can read the full story here, but here’s a quick run-down.
First, it doesn’t stretch enough for the range of motion most cyclists use. That means slim, stylish cuts are basically out of the question. Or, at the very least, pedaling and saddle pressure create a lot of tension that leads to fraying and holes in the crotch.
That tight, constricting feel gets worse on bikes with more forward-leaning posture, like a typical road bike or even sportier hybrids. It feels similar to doing squats or lunges in jeans, which is seldom pleasant.
Second, cotton denim is miserable when wet. Wet fabric sticks to your skin, which makes the lack of stretch even more noticeable. It also gets heavy, and takes an eternity to dry, to boot.
Long story short: dashing a mile or two around town in jeans is just fine, but more than that, and you’ll start wishing for a better option.
What to look for in cycling jeans
We each have our take on what does and doesn’t matter in practical cycling attire, so most brands also take slightly different approaches. We’ll see exactly how that plays out later.
Here are my criteria for good cycling jeans, roughly in order of importance:
- At least modest stretch, so you keep full and free movement even when damp
- Quicker-drying fabric, usually achieved with some polyester, nylon, or other synthetics blended in (but avoid high polyester content due to odor)
- A reinforced crotch, preferably gusseted to avoid pressure on the seams
- A tapered cut to accommodate movement (and well-developed quads) up top while keeping the lower legs and cuffs free of the chainrings without ankle bands
- Reflective material on inner hems/seams, pocket flaps, or other spots that are easy to conceal when off the bike
- Durable water-resistant (DWR) coating to fend off a drizzle
Osloh Indigo Denim Traffic Jeans ($149)
Brooklyn-based Osloh has been around longer than most of the brands that spring up in this niche.
Their signature indigo Traffic jean has 99% cotton + 1% spandex, which should feel much like any other stretch denim in your closet.
What stands out is some of the burliest crotch and chainring-side leg reinforcement I’ve ever seen. The sewn-in chamois pad in the seat isn’t for me, but I suspect bike messengers or marathon commuters would appreciate it.
The cotton/spandex blend is not especially quick-drying, so skip them if you expect frequent rain or significant sweat.
Sizing comes in 2″ increments, but the waistband tab should give a little extra sizing flexibility.
Find them here.
Duer Performance Denim Jeans ($129)
Vancouver, Canada is a hub of all things outdoors, and lately one of the more bike-friendly cities in North America. So it’s no surprise that Duer, another relatively stalwart name, comes from that corner of BC.
They have a handful of denim options, some of which are seasonal, but their Performance Denim in the slim cut is hard to go wrong with.
The 70% cotton + 28% polyester + 2% spandex composition gives ample stretch for even a fairly aggressive riding position, providing you don’t squeeze into the skinniest pair you can. It also dries much more quickly than pure cotton denim.
In my experience with similar fabric, something in the ballpark of 25%-40% polyester gives a good balance between fast drying but avoiding the odor that comes with higher polyester content. Speaking of which, Duer wisely added this silver-based treatment to ward off the sweat-loving microbes that make fabric stink.
The crotch gusset is wide enough to improve movement and avoid seam chafing, but not overly conspicuous unless someone is taking an awkwardly close look.
There are no reflective bits or other bike-y features, but given their tone-downed style, that’s a perfectly reasonable choice.
Sizing is in 1″ increments through 33″ and 2″ increments thereafter.
Swrve Indigo Cordura Jeans ($100)
Los Angeles-based Swrve has perhaps the broadest range of any brand featured here, covering everything from pants to water bottles.
But their jeans are particularly popular, and to my eye, the slim version of their Indigo Cordura Jean is one of the best deals around.
That’s not only because the price is competitive, but because the Cordura nylon-cotton blend basically cannot go threadbare from normal use. (That’s the sort of nylon they use it military backpacks and the like, so it’s up for significantly more than a typical bike commute will dish out.) Unlike the durable Outlier nylon/poly pants I’ll highlight below, these are still denim that looks, feels, and ages like denim–despite the more industrial fabric.
Exact fabric specs aren’t available, since I suspect it’s proprietary, but Swrve mentions “a ton of stretch” that presumably comes from spandex.
These, like Duer, have a moderate and inconspicuous gusset for pedaling comfort. But Swrve added reflective strips along both outer seams, which you reveal by rolling a cuff. I’m not sure they’re large enough to make a huge difference in visibility, but it’s a nice touch.
And you’re in luck if you ride in a very forward-leaning position, since they also have a slight low front and high rear waistband for comfort and coverage.
Sizing is 28″, then 30″-34″ in 1″ increments, and 2″ increments thereafter.
Vulpine Men’s Cycling Jeans ($135)
UK-based Vulpine makes a full range of both cycling-specific clothing and more casual but still bike-friendly attire.
Their aptly named Cycling Jean is a simple and thoughtful design that doesn’t call particular attention to itself.
Fabric details unfortunately aren’t published. Seeing as they refer to stretch but not to technical/synthetic fibers, I’d speculate something like 98% cotton + 2% spandex. (If you know for sure, then please confirm or correct me!)
The gusset maximized mobility and avoids chafing, just you’d hope for, and Vulpine added a higher rear waistband to cover you in a more forward posture.
There’s also a neat reflective pattern that appears when you roll up the right cuff, but that doesn’t do much if you’re in a country that drives on the right side of the road. That’s a minor feature, though, and shouldn’t be a deal-breaker either way.
Sizing is in 2″ increments, but uses a S/M/L system as their chart describes.
Find them here.
Rapha Premium Denim ($205)
These days, no brand of cycling attire carries more cachet than London’s Rapha. While their sportier, stretchier gear gets most of the attention, they’ve also put together a wide and growing casual line.
And that lines includes their Premium Denim, which is one of the most utterly “normal”-looking options I’ve found yet.
That is, normal until you roll up the right leg (they are British…) to reveal a reflective Rapha insignia as well as high-visibility piping inside the outseams of both legs. I’m not sure how great a practical difference it makes, but I’d expect no less detail at the significant price.
But on the topics of details and price, actual fabric specification aren’t available online as of writing. They mention only “solid-colour cotton” and “optimum stretch” which leads me to assume 2-3% spandex and the remainder cotton…but you’ll need to contact the company (or one their many stores) for specifics.
One subtle but oft-overlooked detail is their grippy, rubberized interior waistband. That’s a small but thoughtful feature that I wish more brands included. Even off the bike, it’s a great way to keep a shirt tucked in.
I couldn’t discern a gusset in any of the photos, nor does their description mention one, so you may need to look elsewhere if seam contact is a problem.
Sizing is in 2″ increments.
Find them here.
Resolute Bay JX3/NX4/NX5 (~$110)
It’s a shame Belfast’s Resolute Bay isn’t readily available stateside, since they’re making some of the most thoughtful cycling jeans out there…and at more than reasonable prices.
Just what do I mean by “thoughtful”? Take their reflectivity for example: rather than just the usual shiny spots inside the cuffs, they included reflective piping across the back hip seam and pockets. It’s all discreet by day but fairly eye-catching at night.
Equally discreet is the hidden vertical-zip pocket on the outside of the right thigh. It’s terrific for a phone or other delicate items while cycling, and I’m a fan of similar pockets for passports while traveling, too.
Their gusset is a bit larger than most, but not excessively so, and (they note) is easily and cheaply repaired when the time comes.
Fabrics vary slightly but are typically either 70% cotton + 29% nylon + 1% spandex or 70% cotton + 27% nylon + 3% spandex. Both are good balances between the nice feel of cotton and the quick-drying (but relatively low-odor) performance of nylon, all with adequate stretch in either blend.
At the time of writing, they’re also taking orders for upcoming Cordura-blend jeans that should be a terrific Swrve alternative for the UK market.
Sizing varies between cuts and fabrics but is generally in 2″ increments.
Find them here.
Levi’s 511 Commuter Jeans ($???)
The Levi’s 511 Commuter jeans were a classic and probably sold more than the rest of this list combined. The price point was just right–often on sale for $50 or less–and they had all the thoughtful details like a reinforced crotch, poly-blend stretch cotton, reflective pieces, and even of U-lock holder sewn along the waistband.
Unfortunately, as of writing, they’re gone.
Why Levi’s discontinued this line is beyond me, but they’re still easy to find on eBay.
I wore a couple pairs years ago, and vaguely recall that sizing was similar to regular 511s, but with a slightly higher rise…if memory serves.
Not-quite-jeans from the future: Outlier Slim Dungarees ($198)
Finally, NYC cult brand Outlier might be the most popular clothing company you’ve never heard of. They’re known for experimental cuts and high-tech fabrics, but their classic Slim Dungarees have been a bike-commuting and world-traveling staple for years.
Their goal was to keep the essential form and style of your typical five-pocket jeans, but rather that marginally improving upon cotton denim, just do away with the whole thing. In its place they use an 82% nylon + 16% polyester + 2% spandex blend. It simply blows away cotton-based jeans in terms of weight, comfort when wet, and time to dry.
For cyclists in wet climates, that’s a big deal.
Now, while the cut and the pocket layout are just like jeans, the fabric has a different drape and texture that subtly says, “I’m not a normal pair of pants.” It depends on lighting and isn’t totally in your face, but there’s no mistaking them for Levi’s, either.
Having worn my Slim Dungarees more than all my jeans combined, on commutes and recreational rides and extended travel alike, I can vouch for their utility. Abrasion-resistance is incredible, and they’re significantly more breathable that jeans in warmer weather. Their one and only shortcoming is snags, so think twice if you can’t avoid exposure to thorns, cat claws, or splintered benches.
While they’re one of the pricier options on this list, they easily replace 2-3 pairs of other pants (if you choose a dark, neutral color) and are the obvious first choice for regular travelers.
Sizing is in 1″ increments through 36″ then skips to 38″.
Find them here.
What else are cycling jeans good for?
I’ve mentioned traveling a couple times already, and that’s no coincidence. All the properties that make jeans great for cycling also make them useful for travel: ease of movement, quick-drying fabric, even a hidden zippered pocket or two.
They’re good for any activity, really, short of all-out efforts that leaved you soaked in sweat.
I’m not sold on fancy pants; what else can I cycle in?
Nobody says you have to have cycling-specific pants, and in fact, anything with adequate range of movement will do. The usefulness of all these bike-friendly features depends heavily on what kind of bike you have and how you ride it.
For instance, if you sit comfortably upright and maintain a dignified pace, then a bit of stretch is plenty of “bike-friendliness.”
But if you’re out shopping on a budget, you can do a lot worse than Uniqlo’s $50 stretch denim or Target’s amazingly cheap Goodfellow Slim Fit Tech Chino for just $30. Those chinos are quite light and extra-stretchy, with a great nylon blend, but not quite substantial enough for cooler weather. And the Uniqlo jeans have a lower rise than most cyclists would prefer. Still, I’ve used both frequently.
The Banana Republic Traveler Jeans are another good deal on one of their frequent sales, although I can’t speak to durability. For only a few bucks more, however, you might get more longevity from any of the options covered above.
Are cycling jeans going to wear out?
Well, yes. Cotton has a shorter lifespan than high-quality synthetics, and all the more so when pedaling puts it in constant friction with itself.
You’ll probably see threadbare spots and eventual holes in the crotch very first. Any tailor should be able to patch it inconspicuously at at a reasonable price, however.
You’ll also see fading on your seat, especially where your “sit bones” press against the saddle directly.
Both problems are practically eliminated with non-cotton alternatives from the likes of Outlier (or Western Rise, Bluffworks, etc.).
Saddle material may increase friction, with tackier vinyl or textured leather wearing fabric faster than, say, the smooth leather of a Brooks B17.