What’s in a good cycling chamois?
You only need to go for a short ride in low-quality or worn-out knicks to know it’s important to get this aspect of cycling apparel right. Saddle sores, chafing, general discomfort… these are just some of the consequences of wearing worn-out, ill-fitting or poorly designed knicks. It can be the difference between loving to ride, and hating it. We spoke with Tristan Wright from Seight Custom Cycling Wear to learn more about this most important part of cycling kit, to understand what makes a good chamois, and to find out why we shouldn’t even be using the word “chamois” any more.
Tristan has spent the past two-and-a-bit years trying to build his company’s reputation as one that makes high-quality cycling apparel. In particular, he’s worked with Italian industry-leaders Elastic Interface and TMF — which, between them, provide chamois for 70% of the pro peloton — to ensure that the chamois in their shorts provide the best support and comfort. There are lots of brands who make great kit, but since Tristan has just gone through this process of discovery, we thought he’d be a great guy to talk to about this topic. And while the Seight story is only young, the story of the cycling chamois certainly isn’t.
History of the chamois
In the 1920s and 30s bike shorts were made of wool, just as the jerseys of the time were. Riders found that the woolen knicks would bunch up making for an uncomfortable ride and so designers started playing around with multi-panel designs and with more technical fibres.
But with these new materials and multi-panel designs came seams, and with seams came extra friction, and with extra friction came greater discomfort. Designers looked for ways to cover up the seams, opting for the leather hide of a European goat-antelope species called a chamois. Chamois leather is soft, it creates less friction than other comparable materials and it is highly absorbent, making it a great option for cycling shorts (and for car-polishing cloths).
Decades later clothing design has come a long way and bike shorts feature padding less for protecting us from seams, and more to create overall comfort. We’ve also done away with chamois leather in favour of more sustainable, more effective synthetic fibres. For this reason, some would argue, we shouldn’t call the cycling pad a “chamois” anymore. In fact, Tristan told us, we Australians might be the only ones that still cling to the word “chamois”.
Laying it on thick
Before heading out on a long ride, many of us go through the routine of applying a good slather of chamois cream to our nether-regions. These days, the ritual is all about reducing friction to the body’s most sensitive areas but the tradition started for quite a different reason.
When cycling chamois were actually made of chamois leather, chamois cream was used to keep the inside of the cycling shorts supple and moist. The chamois leather would dry out over time and, when caked with sweat, the chamois would become as hard as a board — not particularly comfortable if you’re planning a long day in the saddle.
But as Tristan told us, it’s questionable whether chamois cream is even needed any more.
“If you’ve got a properly designed chamois and properly designed short, you only need chamois cream on a really hot day — when you’re going to sweat a lot, which creates extra friction — or when it’s a wet day”, Tristan said. “If you’ve got a properly defined chamois, you shouldn’t, in theory, need chamois cream.”
So what is a properly defined chamois?
What to look for in a chamois
When it comes to buying a new pair of knicks, we all want the same basic thing: to be comfortable on the bike. So what makes a great chamois and, by extension, a great pair of knicks? And what should you be looking for when trying to choose a new pair of knicks?
Most importantly, the chamois should be well-padded and made with multiple densities of foam. Cheaper, “2D” chamois have a flatter, thinner design and rarely provide enough padding for the sit-bones (which take the brunt of the force being applied through the seat). When you’re looking for a new set of knicks, run your fingers over the chamois to feel for multiple thicknesses of foam. Generally speaking, the more layers, the better.
Correct size and positioning
While it’s important to look for a chamois that’s well-padded, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, particularly when you’re considering the length and width of the chamois. You’d think, intuitively, that a wider and longer chamois would be better but as Tristan told us, not so.
“A lot of people have told me that with a bigger chamois they tend to slide around a lot”, he said. “On long rides there’s a lot of friction between the chamois, the lycra and the saddle and they end up getting friction burns or saddle sores.”
So it’s better to have a chamois that’s smaller but more targeted in its design. You should look for padding that covers the sit bones properly. A chamois that has its thickest parts just to one side of the sit bones will be ineffective at best, and extremely uncomfortable at worst.
“There’s a big difference between men’s and women’s chamois”, Tristan reminds us. “We’re obviously proportioned very differently down there compared to girls.”
For a given size, a women’s chamois is going to be slightly wider than a men’s chamois — due to women’s wider sit bones — and a men’s chamois is going to be longer than a women’s — to ensure modesty-protecting coverage at the front.
Tristan’s advice: if you’re a woman, make sure you’re buying knicks with a chamois that’s specifically designed for women.
“Some brands say they’ve got women-specific products but they’re just one size smaller than the men’s but with the same chamois”, he said. “They might change the colour from red to blue but it will still be the same chamois.”
Just as the early chamois designers faced challenges associated with stitching, so stitching can pose a problem in modern knicks. When buying a new set of knicks, be sure to check that the stitching isn’t raised off the surface of the knicks/chamois, and that there aren’t any gaps in the stitching that joins the chamois to the knicks. As Tristan told us: “if the stitching doesn’t join up it will come undone and the chamois will come apart.”
Also ensure that the stitching is even all the way around and that it doesn’t encroach onto the lycra. This will lead to extra stress on the stitching and, eventually, tearing of the shorts.
To ensure you stay comfortable on the bike, it’s important to keep the chamois as dry as possible. A wet chamois — either through sweat or rain — creates extra friction on the skin which, in turn, can lead to saddle sores.
A good quality chamois will be good at drawing away (or “wicking”) moisture from the chamois. When buying new knicks, check out the product tags to see whether the knicks have this feature.
A new pair of knicks might feel great for the first couple of rides but after a few weeks, and after being through the wash a few times, you might notice the foam padding start to get a little flatter. The best chamois foam has “memory”, meaning it “remembers” to keep its shape and doesn’t become compressed through frequent use.
Unfortunately, no bike shop is going to let you test ride a pair of knicks for 1,000km to see if they retain their shape so there’s really no way to tell if the knicks you see in store will serve you well long into the future. That said, the phrase “you get what you pay for” is apt here, and if you want a good set of knicks, with proper foam memory, you should expect to pay at least $100.
Chamois technology has come a long way since the woolen knicks of the early 20th century and that evolution shows no signs of slowing. One of the developments on the horizon is the creation of knicks with no lycra attached to the back of the chamois — that is, with a chamois that’s directly in contact with the saddle.
“The advantage is that you’ve got one less layer between you and the saddle,” Tristan told us. “No matter how hard you try [with existing, lycra-covered chamois] you’ll get rubbing between the various layers. With one less layer you can reduce friction.”
A couple of brands have started working on lycra-less chamois designs but the biggest hurdle is the stitching. The direct contact between chamois and saddle places greater stress on the chamois stitching which can eventually tear holes in the chamois.
But while the chamois designers and manufacturers battle to find a solution to this problem, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how important a good chamois is. It’s all very well to have a flashy set of kit but good looks won’t make it more comfortable to sit on your bike for hours on end.