A recurring theme here at Two Wheels is that it’s ideal to cycle in your everyday clothes. For most of us, that means jeans.
But while they’re convenient and stylish, nobody wants a one-way ticket to chafe-town.
So, bottom line: are jeans actually good for cycling?
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Why jeans aren’t ideal for ccyling
Jeans are adequate for short rides, as long as they’re loose enough to move easily. However, they’re uncomfortable when wet from rain or sweat. It helps to choose stretch denim and avoid skinny cuts, but you’ll be more comfortable in synthetic pants (with low polyester content for minimal odor), wool-blend pants, or even cycling-specific jeans.
To put it another way, jeans are about as good for urban cycling as they are for brisk urban walking. Just fine for most people most of the time, but less and less comfortable for serious exertion, very long trips, or when significantly wet.
By the way, this all applies to chinos, heavier slacks, and any other (mostly) cotton pants as well.
Criteria: what to look for in casual cycling pants
For urban cycling, we’re not looking for athletic performance or for comfort in a deep-forward-bend riding position. We just need something simple, that feels and looks decent, for moderate distances and modest exertion.
It’s cheap and convenient to use clothing you already own. By definition, it already fits into your life, and doesn’t require expensive or time-consuming shopping sprees.
Once dressed, you need room to move. Skintight cuts are obviously out, unless they stretch like a pair of legging.
You also need to be able to move comfortably even if your pants are a little damp from rain, or even a bit of sweat. Keep in mind that wet fabric clings and can become quite uncomfortable if it doesn’t stretch.
Likewise, it’s ideal that they dry quickly when damp. No one likes to sit around in soggy pants all day.
Additionally, we want to ride in the same pants that we work, visit friends, and do errands in. They need to stay looking sharp. The fabric shouldn’t be prone to tearing or to quickly wearing thin.
Finally, you want pants that don’t stink when you sweat just a bit. Even a very relaxed ride can lead to a tiny bit of perspiration on a warm day. For some fabrics, that means instant odor. For others, not so much.
Do Jeans Meet Our Cycling Criteria?
Now let’s see how jeans stack up against these criteria, where they fall short, and what else you might like better.
Cost and convenience
“I already have it” is a hard price to beat. I’d wager 99.9% of us have a pair of jeans at the ready, and are probably wearing them right now.
Conditions permitting, you can simply hop on and go. And that’s the goal.
On the other hand, more specialized clothing takes more brainpower (and money) to find.
Movement and comfort
For decent room to move in jeans, you need a loose cut, slightly stretchy fabric, or both. Those are easy to find. On that account, jeans can be perfectly comfortable to move and ride in.
When you’re trying them on for size, remember that pants always feel tighter when you’re seated on the saddle because it creates another pressure point and source of tension. So non-stretch jeans that are just OK to walk around in can become surprisingly uncomfortable when you hop on the bike.
Drying time and comfort when wet
Cotton is notoriously terrible when wet. Rain is the main concern, since we presumably won’t bother with jeans when we plan on getting very sweaty.
Pure cotton jeans will cling to your skin, which is both restrictive and uncomfortable. Wet cotton also shrinks a tiny bit and gets very heavy, which doesn’t exactly help with movement. To top it all off, it can take hours to dry even in a warm room with good circulation.
Suffice to say, jeans and rainy rides don’t mix. A mile or two in a gentle sprinkle isn’t bad, but more than that gets unpleasant.
Looks and durability
Jeans suit most of our lives nicely, which is why this article exists in the first place! They look just fine for most people, most of the time…but we do want to avoid torn and ratty-looking ones.
Decent quality denim is tough and fairly abrasion-resistant fabric. However, good synthetics or synthetic blends outlast cotton denim quite easily. Most of them also retain a new-ish look as they wear in. (Some folks like that worn-in denim look, though, so that could be a pro or a con.)
One reason is that cotton threads will fray and fall apart with wear. That leads to rips and threadbare spots in areas that get a lot of contact or movement. For cyclists, this is usually around the crotch seams and perhaps behind the knees.
Cycling in particular can also create a prominent, contrasting saddle fade on your rear.
The rapid wear and significant fading might undermine the look of your jeans. If that’s unappealing, then limit cycling to very brief trips to help them look sharper, longer.
We’re usually trying to avoid serious sweat during everyday cycling, just like we don’t sprint to the grocery store or do lunges to the coffee shop.
But even at lower effort, a big hill on a sunny day will make anybody break a sweat.
Cotton isn’t so prone to odor. We all know it still needs washing, but unlike polyester, it won’t reek the second you think about sweat. In this respect, jeans are nice for cycling.
Wool takes the cake for natural odor-resistance, but cotton isn’t too shabby. Breaking an occasional sweat in denim won’t lead to the horrific stench of sweaty polyester.
Conversely, odor is the biggest problem with synthetics (especially polyester), even for laid-back riding. On a microscopic level, something about the texture of the fibers makes it too easy for bacteria to cling and multiply.
“Athleisure” clothing (think Luluemon) can work and look great for cycling, but the typically high polyester content means you’ll need to change sooner rather than later.
Better Alternatives To Jeans For Cycling
We’ve seen that jeans are manageable for brief and gentle bike rides. But for more exertion and/or rain, they’re not great. They also lack the durability that daily riders may want.
If you don’t ride very frequently or intensely, then standard denim may still be a good choice. I’d lean toward some stretch and a non-skinny fit. That’s something that fits any wardrobe and still suffices for occasional, practical cycling.
If you do ride more frequently and still prefer the style of jeans, then check out cycling-specific brands liking Swrve (men’s), Duer (men’s, women’s), or Ohsloh (men’s, women’s). They look more or less the same as your favorite Levi’s, but add significant stretch, synthetic-blend fabrics for quicker drying, a gusseted crotch for comfort on the saddle, and even reflective bits for nighttime visibility.
But if you ride regularly and aren’t attached to denim, then try the wildly popular Outlier Slim Dungarees / Strong Dungarees or Western Rise AT Slim pants. They’re designed and cut like slim jeans, but in mostly nylon, which is both tougher and much lower-odor than polyester. You can also get a half-wool, half-poly alternative from Makers and Riders (men’s here and women’s here). Many retailers offer budget alternatives, too, but fabric and stitching quality vary a lot.
Personally? I swear by Slim Dungarees for everyday cycling as well as one-bag travel. If you fall in either camp–and have room in your budget–then this sort of thing is the most versatile, practical, and normal-looking alternative to jeans for cycling.
But one final thing…
Simplicity is number one. It’s ironic to end a gear article on that note, but hear me out.
Gear is cool and fun, to be sure. But you don’t need anything special to live a more active, free, fun, and human-powered life.
In fact, the less “special” gear we worry about, the more relaxed and relaxing it all is. I stand by all the suggestions above, but consider exhausting the possibilities of your own closet before going on a shopping spree. In other words, don’t replace what you have unless or until it’s making life unnecessarily challenging.
In fact, I rode to the grocery store just the other day in my $40 Uniqlo jeans and a light rain…and survived!