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by Matt Wikstrom
October 17, 2012
There comes a time in every rider’s life when an appreciation for fine, well-fitting shorts outweighs any concern about their cost. Indeed, a great pair of bibshorts can transform your time on the bike from tolerating the ride to indulging in another 10km. Sure, a new set of high-priced shorts won’t improve your legs, but if you’re aching in the saddle from a poor set of shorts, it doesn’t matter how good your legs are. In this review, I compare high-end bibs from Castelli, Assos, Capo, and Rapha.
When it comes to riding shorts, you do get what you pay for, but comfort on the saddle isn’t just a matter of expensive padding (I can’t call it a chamois because all the padding in shorts is now made from synthetic fibers). In case you’ve never worn a pair, bibshorts offer a much better fit than conventional shorts, however the straps create a minor inconvenience when it comes to toileting. If the straps or the rest of the shorts are too loose, then they won’t stay in place and you might as well be riding in your undies (which reminds me, for the benefit of the uninitiated, cycling shorts are meant to be worn without underwear and should be washed after every ride; I’ll spare the readership from describing the consequences, just trust me on this). All told, a good pair of bibs should provide the perfect balance of comfort and support for your legs, butt and groin–“like a glove” sums up the sensation quite well–but sometimes the shortcomings of a set of bibs are not apparent until you’re out on the bike. (At this point, I’d like to invite any women to share their insight on what makes and breaks a pair of bibs, it’s a conversation I’ve never had).
It wasn’t that long ago–let’s say the late 90s–when the upper end of the bibshort market was sparsely populated. In my mind, Assos were the pioneers, but at the turn of the century, the selection started to grow. Now it seems as if all the major cycling apparel manufacturers have a high-end offering. In that time, bibs have evolved to offer a better fit with padding that is more comfortable and longer lasting. At the same time, new age materials have been introduced into the fabric of the shorts to assist muscle compression, cooling and/or UV protection. Four pairs of bibshorts–Assos T F1.Mille_S5, Capo Drago, Rapha Pro Team, and Castelli Free Aero–are compared in this review on the basis of their fit, comfort and performance.
Assos T FI.Mille_S5 Bibshort, RRP $229
These shorts have a great reputation for their fit and performance, especially on long rides. For the last decade or so, I’ve ignored Assos because I found that their fit did not suit me. However, I remained curious, and in the absence of any negative reviews, decided to give the brand another shot.
Very little has changed in the fit of Assos shorts over the last ten years. According to their website, the T FI.Mille_S5 is “ideally suited for more robust riders who prefer a ‘less tight’ feeling”. I guess robust means a larger build because the FI.Mille did not suit my small build and long torso. The straps were too short but since there was plenty of stretch in the fabric I never suffered in the groin. The legs were also a problem for me, they kept slipping during the first 20-30 minutes of the ride then they would stay in place, unless I was wearing warmers, then they’d bunch up in the groin. The waist of these shorts is very high, so with the short straps, lowering the front for a slash was difficult without hunching. Once again, the elasticity of the fabric compensated for the poor fit by allowing me to lift the leg with ease.
The padding in the FI.Mille bibs is very generous and extremely comfortable, no matter how long you spend in the saddle.
The padding of the FI.Mille was sensational, very generous, perhaps even plush, and noticeably thicker than the other shorts reviewed here. Expect a longer drying time for these shorts and to notice a little extra dampness on warm days. Regardless, I found myself appreciating these shorts on long rides for their supreme comfort while I was in the saddle.
Close inspection of the leg elastics reveals small strips of silicone to improve the grip of the elastic but neither did much to hold the legs in place.
Finally, these are the only shorts that I’ve ever worn that made me itch. The problem was localised to the seams, as if there were unfinished fibres protruding from the fabric. The sensation was most noticeable when pulling on the shorts and during the first 30 minutes of a ride then it would subside. It was another irritation that had me fussing with my shorts rather than enjoying my ride.
Understated styling defines the Assos brand, its logos and emblems are either small or integrated into the design of the shorts. The white strip of material in the seam is a reflective tab.
All told, the FI.Mille bibshorts were something of an acquired taste. The fit seemed to improve after several weeks of riding, as if the fabric were slowly molding to my torso. The legs still feel a little loose and they slip around a bit, so while I found the padding to be extremely comfortable, the fit and itchy fabric undermined what could have been a perfect all-day riding short for me.
For more information, see the Assos website.
Capo Drago Bibshort, RRP $359
The Drago is Capo’s latest cycling kit and represents the top end of company’s clothing line. The bibshorts are made from “Power Lycra” and employ coldblackâ technology to keep the wearer cool in summer. Then there is an “Eyelet Mesh Harness” to stabilise the straps and Carbon Lycra elsewhere to improve moisture transfer and provide antibacterial protection. Clearly, there is a lot going in the fabric of these shorts.
Two things stand out when trying these shorts for the first time: the fabric is very stiff and the cuffs are very, very grippy. The two combine to make the Drago shorts something of a challenge to pull on. There is sticky silicon strip at the end of each leg to stop the fabric from moving around but it is far too effective. I found that the only way to slide my legs into the shorts was to flip the silicone strip over to keep it off my skin. Once everything was in place, the fit was firm (which is intended because of the compression features), but not uncomfortable.
The padding in the Drago shorts is contoured and employs different densities to provide optimal cushioning without an excess of material.
The super-grippy, almost tacky, silicone strip that makes the Drago shorts difficult to slide into. Capo tells me this is intended however.
The straps are perhaps a little longer than average. Strips of elastic lycra arise from the waist and attach to a stiffer fabric over the shoulders, presumably the Eyelet Mesh Harness described on Capo’s website. I can’t see why a stiffer material is required over the shoulders, and while it never really troubled me, it seemed to bunch a little in between my shoulder blades rather than stretching over the top of my torso. The shorts have a high waist however there was plenty of stretch in the straps to allow me to lower them when stepping in front of a urinal or roadside bush.
Here's a look at the Eyelet Mesh Harness that secures the straps, the material is thicker and much firmer than Lycra. Also note the small reflective tabs inserted into the rear seams, though they seem to be placed too high.
Capo continues the market trend towards simple styling for high-end bibshorts.
The Drago shorts have a nice piece of padding that fits well and never moves about. Some of this can be attributed to the Power Lycra, which as I’ve already mentioned, provides a firm fit. Once riding, the silicon strips held fast and pulled on my skin a little; riders that don’t shave their legs might feel like they’re getting their legs waxed. Regardless, the shorts were comfortable for 2-3 hours but I found myself fiddling with their fit, especially around the groin. I was never in pain, but I was relieved to pull these shorts off at the end of each ride. All told, these shorts might be a great fit for tall and lean riders that find other shorts are too loose for their liking.
For more information see the Capo website.
Castelli Free Aero Bibshort, RRP around $180
Castelli introduced their Free Aero bibshort a few years ago after working closely with Cervelo’s Test Team to perfect the design. The Free Aero employ three fabrics, a durable “action micro fabric” for the saddle, a stretchy “energia micro fabric” for the back and sides, and a permeable “breathe micro fabric” for the front. Overall, the Free Aero shorts are quite stretchy, they slide on easily, however they fit closely without ever feeling too tight. Indeed, they provided the perfect middle-ground when compared to the other shorts reviewed here.
The legs fit perfectly, proving that bibshorts do not need tight elastic or grippy materials to keep them in place. Castelli have recently refined the Free Aero bibs by introducing “Giro3 integrated leg grippers”, a wide band of knitted fabric that holds the legs in place. The grippers also lie very flat, making for a smooth skinsuit-like finish. I never had any problems with legs on the previous iteration of the Free Aero bibs; the new leg grippers were just as effective, trouble-free, and very comfortable.
The Progetto X2 Air Seat Pad is a minimal design uses minimal material to provide great comfort that is very durable too.
The straps are quite stretchy and comfortable, however they sit a lot wider than most bibs. Castelli claims the wide-set straps will keep your chest free and prevent overheating. When pulling them on for the first time, they might feel like they’ll slide off, but in three years, I’ve never had that happen. The waist of these shorts is low, so slinging the sausage from the front rather than the side is the obvious choice here.
Castelli eschews elastic and silicone in favour a simple close-fitting knitted fabric to hold the legs in place, and it is both comfortable and effective.
Castelli is not afraid to make use of its logos. There is a pair of reflective stripes at the rear of each leg.
The Free Aero bibshorts have bright red padding, Castelli’s so-called “Progetto X2 Air Seat Pad” that combines a perforated upper foam layer with lower layers of multi-density foam and viscous inserts to achieve a balance between breathability and robust cushioning. The outcome is minimal padding that works well for racing and mid-distance rides (3-4 hours) that is extremely durable (I replaced my last pair of Free Aero bibs after a couple of years because the fabric was starting to fail rather than the padding) however I found myself looking to other brands when heading out for a long ride.
For more information see the Castelli website.
Rapha Pro Team Bibshort, RRP $250
At the end of 2011, Rapha redesigned their Pro Team bibshort to make it more “technical”. I’m not sure what technical features were lacking from these shorts, but the new iteration boasts a new proprietary Lycra that is treated with coldblackâ technology. Functionally, the new fabric is very firm with very little give. Pulling on the Pro Team bibs was almost as challenging as the Capo Drago shorts and required a bit of fussing and fiddling to fit them into place. Once set though, these bibs proved to be comfortable for short- and mid-length rides, I found the fabric too tight to be comfortable for long rides.
There was no need for leg elastics on these shorts. The fabric of fitted so closely and firmly that there was never any risk of the legs moving. In fact, the elastic seemed a little loose in comparison with the rest of the leg.
Rapha continues its understated styling all the way to the padding. No logos or bright colours, a simple black finish that preserves the modesty of the owner.
The Pro Team bibshorts uses the same Cytech padding as their Classic bibs, and proved to be my favourite amongst the shorts reviewed here. The padding is thicker than Castelli’s and better suited to long rides and while it wasn’t as thick or plush as Assos’, it was very close. Taken together, the Pro Team bibs provide a high level of padding for all-day riding with a performance-oriented fit (which rules out riders that are “robust” and have a large build).
The Pro Team bibs incorporate a few classy touches such as this etching in the leg elastic.
The white "barcodes" on the inside of the leg elastic are used to improve grip but the firm fit of the Pro Team Lycra is powerful enough to keep the legs in place.
Rapha products always seem to have a story to tell and the Pro Team bibs come with this little piece of inspiration:
“Under low clouds we push hard through the shivering wheatfields, our feet shackled to the pedals. Tongues hang, like those of dogs and the gang breathes fast and heavy. My grandfather once told me of Henri Pelissier, a champion rider who quit the Tour in 1924 and whom a journalist once described as a Forcat de la Route–a ‘convict of the road’. From the team car, an order comes like the lash: ‘Raise the tempo at the front’. We cannot give in. We are chained together, destined to race forever.”
Personally, I don’t think bike riding shouldn’t be that grim but the Pro Team bibs have a fit that is in perfect sympathy with this passage of text.
For more information see the Rapha website.
Final thoughts and comments
In preparing this review, I had to contend with the futility of its intention. After all, shorts are a highly personal piece of clothing that is more susceptible to the variations and peculiarities of the human form than any other (see this post at Red Kite Prayer for more discussion). Thus, my opinion of each of the shorts reviewed here may not translate well for some riders, and indeed, any decision to buy any of them should wait until you’ve tried on a pair.
A few things stand out for me after wearing each of these shorts for a few months. First, at the high end, there is really no such thing as poor padding in bibshorts. I’ve tried to highlight some of the fine differences that exist between the models reviewed here, but you can trust that if you’re spending around $200-300 on a pair of bibs, the padding will be excellent. Second, the range of colours and designs available at the high end is somewhat conservative, perhaps even unimaginative. If you’re looking for colour and flair, perhaps you’ll have to get some custom made shorts. Finally, sizing is not consistent between manufacturers; for example, many Italian brands tend to run smaller (eg Castelli). Similarly, there is variation in the length of the legs–some brands like Assos and Rapha, offer regular and long leg lengths–so it is worth trying different sizes and lengths before making your decision.
Shorter than average
Regular or Long
Comfortable but ineffective
All day riding
Longer than average
Uncomfortable and unnecessary
Racing and mid-length rides
Thinner than average
Comfortable and effective
Rapha Pro Team