The age-old decision between cycling shorts and bib shorts continually plagues many female cyclists who just want a comfortable ride. Cycling shorts are easy to figure out, unlike bibs that sometimes come with complicated straps with funky zippers or buckles.
However, despite bibs' intimidating designs, most women decide they are simply more comfortable once they've given them a try. Here are some advantages bibs have over shorts:
- Bibs don’t have an elastic waistband that restricts breathing
- Bibs prevent belly aches by reducing pressure around the waist
- Bib straps hold the shorts in place and keep the chamois from moving around
- Bib straps prevent 'droopy drawers' when the shorts’ rear end sags
On the other hand, bibs can be troublesome when a bathroom break is needed. Women must remove their jerseys to get the bib straps over their shoulders to take care of business.This is tricky – and chilly in winter months. However, with the introduction of some innovative designs to help women 'go on the go', even natural breaks aren’t an issue anymore.
The question now is what style of bibs is best? What is most comfortable and functional? In this roundup we tested five pairs of women’s bib shorts and evaluated them on four criteria:
- Chamois comfort: how do they feel on long and short rides?
- Leg bands fit: do they ride up or cause sausage legs?
- Strap comfort: do they restrict breathing or chafe?
- 'Pee-ability': how easy is it to take a natural break?
Rapha Women’s Classic bibs – for the long ride
US$220 / £150 / AU$240
The Rapha bibs have the most comfortable chamois of the roundup. It fits in all of the right places and stays put even on the longest of rides. Chafing isn’t a problem and the seams in the padding feel invisible.
The leg bands gently compress the legs to keep the shorts in place but, even with narrow bands, they don’t cause sausage legs. With tight leg warmers underneath, the leg bands even out and hide most bulges and lumps.
The built-in baselayer distributes pressure evenly over the shoulder and keeps the bibs comfortably in place. The mesh baselayer is soft and supple and doesn’t restrict breathing even during the hardest, most intense efforts.
With a zip-up, built-in base layer, the Rapha Women’s Classic bibs don’t do much to make natural breaks quick and easy. You still have to remove your jersey before taking care of business and this can be cold in winter.
These bibs are fantastic. While they don’t make natural breaks a snap, they do provide an incredibly comfortable ride. They are definitely on the pricey side, but after years of painfully searching for a quality chamois, we can say that a comfortable ride is well worth paying a bit more for.
Sugoi RSE bibs – the racer’s pick
US$230 / £140 / AU$229.95
The Sugoi RSE chamois fits extremely well and is comfortable even after many hours in the saddle. The chamois stayed in place without any chafing even while riding bumpy dirt roads.
These extra long leg bands are best of the roundup. The wide bands evenly disperse pressure and keep the legs looking smooth. Also, the band material grips well to the legs or leg warmers and prevents the shorts from riding up.
In the back, the straps crisscross and create a pleasant angle over the shoulders. The front straps wrap out and around women’s curves, reducing uncomfortable rubbing.
The RSE bibs keep things simple and straightforward when it comes to bathroom breaks. Sugoi’s traditional bib design does mean you have to remove your jersey for natural breaks, but the bibs’ stretchy straps make the whole process quick and easy.
While they don’t offer much in the way of innovative bathroom break features, the comfort, fit and function of the Sugoi RSE bibs makes them a top pick for the roundup. At US$230 / £140, these are tied as the most expensive bibs in the roundup, but once they’re on you’ll want to just keep riding.
Louis Garneau Course Race bibs – for small-bladdered riders
US$230 / £140 / AU$279.95
Garneau’s chamois is mediocre. The seams didn't rub in the wrong places and there were no empty gaps between panels caused any pinching, but there are better chamois pads on the market.
The cut of the Garneau bibs was quite different than the others in this roundup. They completely forego leg bands as well as most seams on the shorts. This smooth seamless look is great for warm weather riding but using leg warmers with these bibs is a big mistake – it leads to the attack of the sausage-legs look!
A single front strap that travels up the torso and splits at the shoulders – these straps add a little extra pressure on the shoulders and neck. Also, while taking a bathroom break, remember to lift the strap overhead before pulling down the shorts or you’ll get the straps caught around your neck.
The Louis Garneau Course Race bibs hit the mark with their innovative strap design. The center clip on the front of the straps is easy to unclip and lift over your head. The back of the shorts can then easily be pulled down without taking off your jersey. It’s also surprisingly easy to put them back on, even with a jersey still on. Best in the test on this front.
The Garneau bibs are a great pick for fast and efficient natural breaks and they’ll keep you comfortable and happy on shorter rides. However, these bibs don’t deliver the level of comfort we expect from such a price. Also, keep in mind that they fit quite snugly and really hug your body, so if you prefer a more forgiving and looser cut then you should probably look elsewhere.
Giordana FR-C bibs – great choice… if they fit
US$175 / £110 / AU$199.99
The Giordana chamois did not have a great fit. The seams are hidden and the amount of padding is on par with the competition, but the cut and shape of the chamois doesn't fit all body types and some testers found it uncomfortable.
Giordana’s wide leg bands are great. They eliminated the sausage-leg look and stayed in place long into each ride, even with leg or knee warmers.
The straps are a bit looser than some of the other bibs in the roundup. Not only are they comfortable while walking around upright, but they feel great when you're bent over on the bike as well. The looser fit allows the straps to wrap around any size curves without adding extra pressure on the shoulders.
Giordana keeps it simple with their classic, two-strap approach to their women’s bib shorts. Without any flashy buckles or drop tails, you know what to expect when you head out for a ride in these bibs. Natural breaks still necessitate taking off your jersey.
The Giordana FRC bibs fit well and have comfortable straps and leg bands. However, the chamois just doesn't cut it. The FRC bibs are reasonably priced, and could be a great option if the chamois fits your body.
Hincapie Power bibs – future potential
US$130 / £80 / AU$129
We never managed to get along with this chamois. The seams rubbed in painful places and large gaps between each section of padding caused pinching while riding bumpy roads. However, since we tested these shorts, the chamois has been repositioned and may fit better with this update.
The Hincapie leg bands fit well without causing sausage legs. However, they don’t have sticky grippers to hold them in place so they constantly ride up. With leg warmers, the shorts ride up so easily they leave a gap of bare skin between the warmer and the shorts.
Part of the innovative buckle system, these straps take a singular path up the torso between women’s curves and then up and over the shoulders. The placement of these straps around the shoulders added extra pressure though, and made it uncomfortable to breathe during hard efforts.
The Hincapie Power bibs score big with an innovative buckle design making bathroom breaks faster and easier, but the buckle in the back is difficult to reach and makes clipping back into the shorts a struggle.
While these bibs did make bathroom breaks much easier and efficient, the chamois, straps and leg bands made for an uncomfortable ride. With a little more attention to comfort and fit, these bibs could make big waves in the future. Even with a nice pricetag, we recommend waiting for an updated version of these shorts.
The bottom line
Whether you’re a hardcore racer, a touring enthusiast, or something in between, there’s a pair of bib shorts out there for you. With different strap and leg band options you can choose the style that fits and flatters your body shape best. If a quick bathroom break is a priority, the bibs with a buckle system design are a good option.
However, in my experience, having ridden up to 14 hours at a time, the comfort that bib shorts bring to cycling far outweigh the minor inconvenience of awkward bathroom breaks. While some of the industry’s new strap designs help in that area, none of them have yet found the perfect balance of comfort and function.
Kristen Peterson is a former professional triathlete who rode the entire 2012 Tour de France route ahead of the race with a number of other women as part of the Réve Tour.