Shorts are superior to bib shorts

Russell Eich on why the common wisdom is wrong

After decades of riding, my chamois time these days is split between cycling bibs and shorts. I own 14 pairs of chamois-lined shorts and 16 sets of bibs. After many hours in the saddle, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we were to start anew, designing cycling clothing without any trace of historical input, we’d never have bib shorts.

Can someone remind me why bibs are so popular? Yes, I know you can’t be a serious cyclist if you don’t wear bibs. But why? Because some hard-nosed cyclist said so back when fabrics and materials were so inept that you had to wear suspenders to hold not only your cycling shorts and pants up, but also your socks? By that logic we should have cottered cranks, down tube shifters, and rim brakes, oh wait...

So let’s dissect the merits of bibs and why they don’t make any sense.

How is all this extra material on the stomach, back, sides, and shoulders so much cooler and more comfortable?
How is all this extra material on the stomach, back, sides, and shoulders so much cooler and more comfortable?

Bibs are supposedly more comfortable around the waist. My rebuttal to this is if you’re relying on shoulder straps, or a drawstring, or a waistband to hold your shorts and/or chamois in place, you’re doing it wrong. Bibs or shorts, they need to be practically second-skin tight.

Cyclists' affinity for bibs makes me thankful that they don’t have much say in everyday clothes… “My waist is soooo sensitive! I can’t breathe with this dang belt on! I can only wear one-piece overalls.” 

Bibs allow better breathing? How does having two straps pulling down on my shoulders while excess material squeezes my stomach and the sides of my chest improve breathing exactly? Is it the bib short’s crotch region pulling up on my privates helping my diaphragm and lung power? That’d be news to me.

I’ve also heard that bibs prevent the dreaded muffin top. So, again, squeezing the excess into a tube shape is more comfortable how?

The straps, also known as one of the most annoying parts of these bibs
The straps, also known as one of the most annoying parts of these bibs

Let’s touch on that first part some more. Who likes bibs straps over their nips, mesh material rubbing like some quiet yet insanely effective torture? I have yet to find anyone.

“Oh, you need to wear an undershirt. It’ll help wick, too.” I’m calling shenanigans on that. Wearing another layer is never cooler, it’s just not. “Gee honey, looks like a scorcher today, better layer up!” said no one ever. 

It is nice in the winter I admit, to have a wool base layer tucked snugly under bib straps. When riding in the winter I’m usually so bundled with three to six layers that I can’t feel much anyway, so having bibs on isn’t as much of an issue. Layering in the cold makes sense.

Also, outside of suspenders that only hipsters wear (because belts work!), it’s rare to see two parallel straps. Think about it. Messenger bag, lady’s purse or man’s murse, even seat belts: all diagonal. Yeah sure, a five-point racing harness is close but forms more of a V. Backpack straps are parallel, but fall on the outside of the sensitive areas.

Look at other sports attire. Do any other activities use bibs? Not that I can think of, because they don’t make sense. If bibs were superior the giants playing NFL football would wear them. They spend a lot of time hunched over at the waist just like cyclists. 

What about yoga? The entire premise is contorting your body into unnatural shapes and following your breath, so obviously any sort of waist band must be some sort of sadism. Yet, bibs simply do not exist. If cyclists were in charge, downward dog wouldn't be a resting pose, it'd be a punishment. 

How about another niche sport like horse racing? Nope, jockeys somehow manage to ride humped over on a stampeding, half-ton monster at around 60 km/h in pants with a waistband. What a group of 50kg savages.

What about the chamois moving? My counter to that is “What size shorts are you wearing? You need to size down.” Again, all bike bibs and shorts need to be form fitting. That last little bit is important, form fitting. Again, if you’re relying on shoulder straps, or a drawstring, or a waistband to hold your shorts and/or chamois in place, your sizing is off. 

A ton of brands are represented, from high-end to little niche companies
A ton of brands are represented, from high-end to little niche companies

In my experience, again this spans more than two decades, thousands of miles and probably around more than 50 or so chamois, there is little to no difference in the fit between shorts and the short part of bibs. I say little to no difference because bibs typically pull up in the crotch area whereas shorts don’t. That’s not a positive in the bib column. 

What about coverage; should a jersey slide up? Who cares? It’s comical that a cyclist who’s riding around in a neon, logo-plastered sausage casing with shaved legs is self conscious if their jersey slides up for a moment. Also, most jerseys have decent grippers at the hem to prevent this. 

About the only category that bibs surpass shorts is the chamois. This is simply due to manufacturers putting their best chamois in bibs because that’s what the market thinks it needs, again based on some ancient, pre-technology decision making. 

Now, don’t dismiss me simply because I can see the light through the historical bib short fog. I ride nearly everyday and have thousands of miles in my legs. I’ve raced silly long XC races, endured multi-day stage races, done multiple 100+ mile rides, suffered through many 12+ hour days in the saddle, ridden every single day for months numerous times, and been playing with bikes for over half my life. 

So are shorts better? In many ways, yes. They’re lighter, cooler and should be less expensive. They're easier to pull on and take off. Shorts don’t dig into shoulders, don’t rub nips raw, and don’t require another layer of clothing to work. 

And perhaps the biggest benefit is going to the bathroom. It’s utterly ridiculous that in age of electronic shifting and hydraulic brakes on carbon nanotube frames cyclists are expected to contort themselves to pee, or, worse yet, have to strip down almost naked just to sit on a toilet.

We have the know-how and the technology. It’s time to move on. We no longer use hair-net helmets or crochet gloves, nor smoke cigarettes while riding in a group. Why are we still using an antiquated and compromised way to wear shorts?

Russell Eich

Tech Writer, US
Russell fell head over heels in love with bikes in the '90s, and has been involved in the bike industry ever since. Between wrenching in bike shops, guiding professionally, and writing about bikes, Russell has honed an appreciation for what works, gained knowledge of what doesn't, and can barely contain his enthusiasm for what comes next. His two-wheeled passion continues in the Rocky Mountains high above Boulder, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road, cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: High altitudes, forgotten singletracks, bike parks, roads without cars
  • Current Bikes: Custom Meriwether steel hardtail, Specialized S-Works Enduro 29, Kona Jake the Snake, Trek 69er, and a bunch more
  • Dream Bike: Yeti SB5c, Intense Tracer 275C, Black Cat custom road
  • Beer of Choice: Gin + Tonic
  • Location: Rollinsville, CO, USA

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