Do You Really Need Cycling Shorts?

Last updated: December 2nd, 2022

The right apparel can mean the difference between hours of enjoyable cycling versus sheer pain. And you’ve probably noticed that most cyclists (at least more “serious”-looking road cyclists) are usually decked out in cycling shorts. But are they really so critical?

Cycling shorts are not necessary, but most road, cyclocross, XC MTB, and long-distance riders prefer them. To figure out whether they’re right for you, too, it’s important to understand exactly what bike shorts actually do, how to wear them right, and what else to consider for comfortable riding. Let’s get into it!

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Do bike shorts make a difference?

Cycling shorts (and tights) make a huge difference by minimizing the friction that causes chafing. They help in two ways. First, the chamois (pad) reduces friction even further, while adding a little cushioning over road vibrations. Second, the slick and stretchy material is like a second skin that moves with you, breathes great, and avoids bunching or wrinkling.

The snug, stretchy fit also maximizes range of motion and keeps them from getting caught on the saddle when you move around. That’s not their primary purpose, but it’s still nice when you’re out of the saddle frequently for sprints or rough trails.

But not all shorts are equally effective.

It’s tempting to buy the cheapest pair around. After all, who wants to drop $100+ on apparel you’re not even sure you want? However, this is one area where it’s best to opt for a quality pair or none at all.

Low-end shorts/tights do cut corners on stitching and fabric quality, but that’s more of a durability issue than a performance one. The real problem is that they use cheap chamois that’s too squishy and porous. That means they compress too easily (creating pressure against sensitive tissue) and retain a lot of moisture, which…you guessed it…creates chafing.

If you’re on a tight budget, then try plain compression shorts without a chamois. They’ll be less effective that high-end cycling shorts (from name brands like Pearl Izumi or Rapha) but they’ll avoid the unnecessary discomfort of cheap padded ones.

Some cyclists actually find the chamois too obtrusive or uncomfortable—especially off the bike—and actually prefer generic, unpadded compressions shorts.

Whatever your shorts, you’ll also benefit from a lubricant like Chamois Butt’r. All the more so in hot, humid conditions.

Do you wear underwear under bike shorts?

No, you should not wear underwear under bike shorts or tights. The main purpose of cycling shorts is to prevent fabric from bunching up on chafing, whereas underwear add fabric that can only cause problems.

Do You Wash Your Bike Shorts After Every Ride?

It’s important to wash bike shorts after every ride, even if just a brief one. While sweat is part of the issue, the bigger priority is removing bacteria that love the warm, moist environment. They cause odors, of course, and can even lead to rashes and infections if not regularly washed.

Keep in mind that the chamois takes much longer to dry than the fabric. If you’re planning an extended ride, like a tour, then consider bringing multiple pairs of shorts/tights. That way, you always have a fresh pair to wear while the other dries. (Along those lines, a third pair is a good idea. Some days on a tour might be too busy or too remote to stop and wash.)

Unpadded compression shorts are much quicker to wash and dry, so they might be a more practical alternative if you find them comfortable enough.

Underwear For Cycling Without Bike Shorts

The best underwear for cycling is moisture-wicking, form-fitting, and ideally made of a slick material. Elasticized polyester and nylon blends are usually the cheapest and most comfortable; merino wool and perhaps Modal are decent natural alternatives. Avoid cotton completely, since it holds a lot of moisture!

Merino wool is the most odor-resistant fabric for active underwear, so it’s the best choice for short rides or just all-around active lifestyles. Modal is a close second. However, natural fibers can be uncomfortable during longer rides because they lack the slick, low-friction finish of some synthetics.

Whatever the material, it’s important to avoid seams that may contact the saddle, which can cause severe chafing and irritation. This makes briefs especially difficult, since the fabric ends near your “sit bones,” but you may be able to find a seamless pair. However, different seam locations suit different individual anatomy and riding positions, so there’s no single best pair. (Although both men and women might like the Uniqlo AIRism line as a starting point that’s cheap and easy to find.)

What About Pants?

In terms of minimizing chafing, underwear makes the biggest difference, but it’s still best to wear stretchy and moisture-wicking pants/shorts, too. Cycling jeans (like the men’s pairs covered here) are fine for shorter or gentler rides, since they solve the biggest problems with cycling in denim. For more athletic riding, stick to synthetics, plain and simple.

Will Bike Shorts Make My Seat Stop Hurting?

Quality bike shorts will practically eliminate chafing, but they won’t solve any other problems or pain with your saddle. If you experience pain, numbness, or intense chafing on your thighs, then the saddle itself is probably the issue.

Here are a few other things to check:

  • Is your saddle at the proper height for knee extension?
  • Is it too squishy to provide adequate support?
  • Is the saddle’s nose tilted too far up (causing excessive pressure) or down (causing a lack of support)?
  • Is it too wide, so your thighs can’t clear it?
  • Are you getting saddle sores?

Some degree of glute soreness is normal. Several other factors might be involved, often in combination. It can be frustrating to pinpoint the cause, but this guide to solving saddle pain should help point you in the right direction.

Will My Butt Get Used to Cycling?

Over time, your backside will get accustomed to some degree of pressure and friction. That’s normal. But painful chafing or pressure are assuredly not normal, so it’s worth investing in the right apparel (such as cycling shorts or bike-friendly underwear) and a well-fitting saddle to avoid unnecessary discomfort.

Conclusion: Are Bike Shorts Right For You?

If you spend long hours on a bike, then cycling shorts/tights are at least worth trying. Start with a name-brand pair to avoid cheap chamois, or buy basic compression shorts if a quality chamois is out of your price range.

Still, they’re not necessary. Many cyclists—including bike commuters like myself—get by just fine with snug, moisture-wicking underwear beneath stretchy, non-cotton outerwear.