12 Minute Read

An Introduction to Cycling Clothing

A beginner's guide to choosing the right cycling shorts and jersey, as well as specific product recommendations based on personal user experience and feedback. Image contains: Louis Garneau cycling shorts and jersey, beginner's cycling clothing.

Cycling Clothes Maketh the Cyclist

Or something like that!

The above picture is actually a photo of the first cycling clothes I purchased when getting into road cycling back in 2013. I was assisted by some helpful reps over at Performance Bicycle and I walked out of there with some padded shorts and a size large jersey. It was the beginning of my journey into endurance sports, social events, epic traveling, and health improvement and weight loss that I am now so grateful for.

And for whatever reason, cycling clothing is a bit more akin to inspiration for me when it comes to getting out there and riding my bike. So hopefully I can share my point of view on a few things to help others out along their journey here, because it’s not always very straightforward at first!

Personal Disclaimer

Please know that the content in this post are simply my initial recommendations on getting started, and I’m going to do my best to keep any recommendations I have focused towards the more cost-conscious. I am trying to eventually find a way to monetize this site a bit, so there may be some Amazon or other affiliate specific links provided that will help me to do so.

First of all, do I need padded shorts?

Short answer, yes. Yes, you do. At this point, I can’t even imagine riding a bike without them. At least not for any appreciable amount of time.

Voler cycling shorts

I purchased these from Voler, which is a local company out of Grover Beach, CA, and they were my first pair of shorts I really liked. I enjoyed the ones I originally came home with when I purchased my bike, but I remember starting to really take note of my preferences once I got a few miles in these.

A few important points about padded shorts in general:

Not all padded shorts are created equal

Just because there’s a pad in them doesn’t mean that a $100 pair will be the same as a $200 pair (and they go up from there, believe it or not!). If you’re simply getting started, don’t expect to understand the differences or nuances yet, just get something that seems to fit snugly and comfortably, and don’t spend too much money on them. At least not until you become more familiar with what you like and don’t like.

Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon doing a dance in white pants

Some Initial Recommendations

To be honest, I’ve never really shopped on Amazon specifically for cycling shorts, but I am familiar with a lot of the brands that they tend to sell there. I’ve found a few relatively cheap options here to give you an idea of what to start looking for, all from Amazon of course, in case you’re concerned about a good return policy or trying things on from the comfort of your own home.

Pearl Izumi company logo

Pearl Izumi is originally a Japanese company that is now part of the greater Shimano umbrella. They tend to have a wide range of products, and, in my experience, their shorts don’t fit quite as tightly as the Italian-inspired brands (more on that later).

Louis Garneau company logo

Louis Garneau is a company out of Quebec, Canada, focusing on providing good products at reasonable prices. They definitely have something for everyone, including tighter fitting stuff for racer types, but their more reasonably priced stuff tends to be a lot more forgiving in their sizing. Chances are you’ve seen some of their clothing before.

Castelli company logo

Castelli is out of Italy, and was my first foray into what is known as the “Italian” fit, i.e., crazy small compared to what people in the US are typically used to. I’ve always liked their logo! However, they are also quite a large company these days, too, so you can also find a lot of variation in how each of their products fit. For reference, these tended to cost a bit more than some of the other brands I remember oogling over at Performance Bicycle.

The Goldilocks Approach

A common mistake that new riders make here is very similar to choosing a saddle / seat is this: just because it’s soft and squishy doesn’t mean it will be comfortable over the long run. It runs a bit counter to intuition, but something that is too soft will actually compress over time (both over multiple uses as well as over the span of a single ride) and put you into a slightly different riding position than when you first started, meaning that you’re going to have pressure in places you didn’t expect it. Sometimes a denser or firmer pad is actually better for you in the long run.

You wear them directly against your skin

As in, no, you don’t wear any kind of underwear with them. They’re designed to fit directly against your skin, and they’re made to move with you. If you have anything that separates you from them, you’re going to be introducing gaps and additional friction that you certainly don’t want over any appreciable amount of distance.

They’re supposed to be form-fitting

Following up on the previous point, these shorts aren’t designed to fit like a pair of men’s gym shorts. They’re fit more closely to you for several reasons:

  • They will move with you as you pedal over longer distances
  • Less flapping in the wind actually makes the ride easier (aerodynamics)
  • Compression actually helps with encouraging blood flow, much like medical socks or knee braces sometimes do

I remember starting with what sizing that I typically wore in more casual clothing and then trying on a size up or down from there. I usually worse a size medium shirt and pants, but found that the size large was actually preferable to me at the time for the jersey, mainly because I had more, ahem, around the waistline.

Homer Simpson wearing clown pants that are supposed to be baggy

Your mileage will definitely vary, but try to go out to a store to try some of these on, as there is a lot of variability here, not just in sizing alone, but also from brand to brand, and sometimes even within product lines within the same brand.

Men and Women Specific

Yes, they are different. I’ve heard of some women preferring men’s cycling shorts, but there is a lot of research and science around the anatomy differences here between men and women, and the cycling shorts are definitely designed with them in mind.

Padded Shorts vs Bib Shorts

In case you’ve already been looking around online, “bib” shorts are actually the preferred shorts for cyclists. They look absolutely ridiculous on their own, as they are basically just the same shorts, pad and all, but with a set of suspenders.

Gore cycling bib shorts

They’re absolutely wonderful, though. I don’t specifically advise getting them right off the bat if you’re just starting out, but it’s up to you.

What makes them so much better? Well, they:

  • Don’t really cost much more than their regular shorts counterparts
  • Help keep some of the midsection “inside” so to speak
  • Don’t have a traditional waistline, which tends to roll down and become uncomfortable when in the riding position
  • Available in more thermal options for cooler climates, as there is more material that covers you

Again, if you’re new to the hobby, don’t worry too much about these yet. Try them on if you’re curious, but they look pretty funny on their own, so you’ll definitely need to wear a jersey with them.

Recommendations if you’re interested

If you want to try a pair, anything from Castelli is a pretty safe choice. Try out their Competizione or the Entrata, as they are fairly reasonably priced. Rapha actually has a wonderful “Core” line that is remarkably well priced, too, while still giving you a very premium-brand feel.

There are definitely other factors to consider here beyond simply the pad, namely:

  • How high the material goes up in the front
  • How far the straps stretch
  • What thickness of material you need for cooler / warmer riding (“thermal” shorts, sans bibs, are not common)

Each of these will vary pretty widely depending on your body type and the brand and fit you choose. A taller rider, for example, may find that the straps on a particular bib short are a bit too tight or loose.

Steve Urkel in suspenders gif

What about a jersey?

If you’re like me and get really excited about a new thing, getting a jersey (or two) alongside some new cycling shorts is a welcome addition. It certainly makes you feel the part if you look it.

Pockets!

This is probably the main thing you’ll notice about getting a cycling-specific jersey. There are pockets on the back! Having them for snacks and your essentials is quite handy, as it means that you don’t need to ride with a backpack or other bag.

If it’s your first jersey, just make sure not to get one that is too big, or a jersey that has pockets that sit much lower than to your lower back. This is because as you put things into those pockets, their weight will pull on the material, meaning that you may accidentally catch some of that material on your saddle when getting on and off your bike.

Obnoxious colors? Sure.

Obviously there’s a personal preference here that you should absolutely blend with functional purpose. I think this matters a bit less if you’re just getting into the sport, but a lot of cyclists like having bright or obnoxious colors, particularly on their jersey, to make themselves more obvious to drivers and other riders on the road.

A white and red accented Pearl Izumi cycling jersey

Definitely an important point to consider, and most cycling clothing has considered this to some extent. Even some of the darker colored clothing items have special sections or seams that reflect light in low-light conditions quite well.

You can also go the neon / fluo yellow / green route if you’d like! It’s quite common with riders who plan to do a lot of early morning or later evening riding / commuting.

Sizing

Similar to the shorts, jerseys are designed to be a bit more closer-fitting, too. Uncomfortable chafing can occur if the jersey fit is wrong, but to be honest, they’re fit and cut the way they are more for comfort and aerodynamics.

But let’s not simply skip over that part just yet! Aerodynamics sounds like something only professionals or serious riders need to consider, but it actually is something everyone can benefit from. Once you get over about 18 or 20 mph on a bike, the additional energy you use to go faster is 90% devoted to overcoming wind resistance! It’s quite significant.

Aerodynamic Time Trialist on track bike

So that annoying flapping you hear when riding down a hill or when it’s windy out? It’s slowing you down. And over a longer day, believe it or not, this will absolutely be noticeable. There’s actually a ton of research that the various clothing manufacturers are always doing to better assist here, and it’s why you see riders in criterium races in the Tour de France sporting full-on “skinsuits”, because it can affect a rider’s power output by up to measures of 10% in some cases.

My Personal Notes on General Fit

There is actually a lot of variation on sizing between brands of cycling clothing, as well as between lines of the same brand itself. In my experience, however, there are some common themes or trends that you may want to be aware of when shopping for new cycling clothes.

Pro or Race Fit

Typically a line of cycling clothing within a single brand will be labeled as a “Pro” fit or a “Race” fit, using the terms “fit” and “cut” somewhat interchangeably. These are going to be the tightest fitting and most “technical” (e.g., fabric types) stuff this brand will offer you.

  • Tapered to fit your body very snugly
  • Jerseys are typically very short in front to reduce bunching when in the riding position
  • Raglan sleeves, cut over your shoulders to reduce friction-inducing seams
  • Combination of material types to encourage breathability in some places and not in others
  • Usually more expensive

I’m not going to lie, these are my favorite kind of jerseys. They just look the part, and they truly are very functional, believe it or not. Keeping things close and tight really help me feel like I’m slipping through the wind, while also providing breathability in all the right places.

Cyclist wearing pro kit from The Service Course in Girona, Spain, at the top of Mount Diablo

Even having things like higher pockets help keep things from sagging back there and getting caught on my saddle when getting on and off the bike. Zipper garages are also a welcome addition here, so as to avoid a zipper causing undue comfort near your neck or rubbing against your expensive bib shorts.

Usually the more expensive these “kits” are (i.e., a jersey and a set of shorts), the more of these features it will have.

Club or Relaxed Fit

These jerseys are typically much more forgiving in their fit by comparison. Don’t get confused by thinking they’re part of the “club” kit that may be sponsored by the bike shop you’re visiting!

This fit also tends to be a bit cheaper in cost, usually due to applying various cost-savings features, much like you would see in other types of clothing. You’ll notice this in areas like:

  • Leg grippers, i.e., a silicone strip to keep things from riding up, or the lack thereof
  • More traditional polyester material as opposed to spandex, lycra, or other technical fabrics
  • Fit more like a gym t-shirt would fit, but with cycling-specific features like pockets
  • More comfortable in a more upright riding position
  • Lack of other niceties like zipper garages or separate zippered or sweat-proof pockets

My Favorite Brands

While each brand typically has their own style and fit that covers the wide spectrum of sizing, there are some that definitely cater more towards the “racier” fit, while also typically commanding a more premium price tag. There are also other brands that cater more towards a wider, more inclusive audience. A few, non-exhaustive, examples, oversimplified a bit:

Note also that bike shops will regularly get a custom jersey made for their shop, but will be based off of an existing fit profile from the brand that they get the custom order made through.

I definitely plan to write more about some of my favorite brands listed above, but that’s the subject for another discussion, another day. Check out the information and links above and if you have any questions or want to know more, feel free to reach out directly to me via my LinkedIn.

Now get out there and enjoy the ride in your new kit!

Cyclist wearing Pas Normal Studios gear ascending Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona
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