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There are few things in cycling that can ruin a ride quite like an ill-fitting or worn-out pair of bib shorts. Good bibs go by unnoticed, doing the job without reward, but wear a bad pair and you’ll know all about it.
If you’re like us, you probably have a bunch of functional jerseys that seem to outlast multiple pairs of bibs. Over time you’ve mixed-and-matched, and now you wear your favourite jerseys with your preferred black bib shorts. We sought to find the ultimate black bib short. The pair you reach for on your weekend jaunt, or when there’s an important event in front.
Yes, many of the bibs tested are expensive, very expensive. But as our testing revealed, they’re also all pretty great. If there’s one thing to know about spending this much on bib shorts, it’s that you’ll likely be blissfully comfortable. Still, we had our favourites, and there’s plenty to consider.
Testing protocol and selection process
Doing a best bib shorts review was always going to be controversial and hugely subjective. And much like saddle selection, bib choice can be extremely personal. Add in the myriad of choices and it’s an almost impossible task to find the true best option. Still, that doesn’t make our findings null and void.
To help narrow it down, we assembled the “best”, or most commonly recommended, all-round road bib shorts from brands that have built a reputation for offering fantastic bib shorts. This was initially just four brands, but Cuore made it five through almost unanimous voting in our private VeloClub Slack channel. And certainly, there are many other deserving brands that may make it into a future round – Gore Bike Wear, Velocio, Pearl Izumi, Attaquer and Q36.5, just to name a few.
In an attempt to make the testing fairer, and more useful, we sought to have a team of testers provide their opinions. However, our team is spread across the world, and sharing bib shorts is, well, gross. And given these are top-tier bib shorts, understandably brands didn’t want to give us piles of samples. And so, we had two testers — myself and Andy van Bergen (Mr Everesting) — do wash-and-wear testing of the five models over a few months, and we each came to our own conclusions (which aligned more-or-less perfectly).
As you’ll read, those conclusions are sometimes based on the most obvious and the most trivial of elements. And I’ll say it again because it’s worth re-iterating: All the bib shorts selected already had reputations for being great. And somewhat surprisingly to us, Andy and I both agreed they were in almost all cases the best we’ve ever used.
Even our least favourite short here is one that could be ridden (mostly) unnoticed and with great comfort. Or to put it another way, if we were on a team looking for team kit, we’d very happily ride in any of these – if only I could say the same about much of the kit I’ve used over the years.
Side note: We’d love to do a women’s version of the test, but at least for now, the findings of this test apply to men only.
Key elements to consider
The chamois is the focal point of any cycling short, and in many cases, the most obvious benefit to spending more. Designed to improve seated comfort, reduce chaffing and mate with the saddle shape, the chamois is easily the most personal element of any short.
I reached out to Ross Wilkinson, a PhD student (examining how lateral dynamics of the bicycle affect centre of mass movement and limb mechanics during sprinting and climbing) in cycling biomechanics at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia to learn more about chamois design. Wilkinson has recently been conducting a study with Specialized into chamois design (see a presentation document here).
While the initial study perhaps created more questions than it answered, it did prove that chamois design and selection can reduce saddle pressure and improve cycling comfort. According to Wilkinson, chamois selection can be as individual as saddle selection. And while Andy and myself each use different saddles but came to the same bib short conclusions, it may not apply for all. Unfortunately, much like finding the right saddle, trial and error remains the best strategy.
Thicker pads are not always best. “In our study we had participants rate the on-saddle comfort of each chamois as well the off-saddle comfort,” said Wilkinson. “I think this is an overlooked aspect of chamois design. Of course on-saddle comfort is the primary focus, but no one wants to be walking around with a mattress strapped to them.”
In the end, total thickness isn’t important, but the density of the foam is. Under load, a thinner but denser pad will be more effective than a softer (often cheaper) thick one that simply bottoms out. For this, I tried to measure the thickest part of the pad using a micrometre (with a pressure thimble) – it’s only an approximate measurement, but it did reveal differences in the shorts test.
Chamois placement can matter as much as design, and it’s an area where many cheaper shorts fall, well, short. You want the bulk of the padding to support your sit bones – something that all bibs tested here did without complaint.
The traditional construction method is to stitch the chamois directly to the short material. However, the likes of Assos and Castelli attempt to separate the two, allowing the chamois to float somewhat independently of the exterior material – although with different approaches. While both of these shorts were extremely comfortable, it’s certainly not a must-have feature, and it does add complications to the design.
Fit, straps and compression
Being a high-end bib short test, all models tested came with claims of muscle compression and materials that won’t leave you without support. The science is murky in this area, and the best amount of compression is certainly subjective. For us, we preferred shorts that disappeared from thought while wearing them, and certainly, none left us feeling like our muscles were flapping about while we spun circles.
With increased material compression, both Andy and I agree that advanced leg gripper designs are becoming less relevant. In fact, the Cuore S1 short foregoes leg grippers all together, and we hardly missed them. In some cases, the leg grippers used can be too tight, and make getting the shorts on or use with warmers more difficult. Additionally, overly complicated leg grippers can raise durability concerns, especially if you’re impatient with getting them into place.
The bib straps turn the shorts into bib shorts. Again, our selection criteria was related to comfort first and foremost, with breathability and holding effectiveness closely tied into that. The trend in high-end bib shorts is for wide and flat fitting straps, often with a firmer material at the back than the front. Each brand tested takes a noticeably different approach, and while all were effective, there were winners.
Modesty and flattery
Ever see the guy at the cafe with the chamois hanging down like a full nappy? Or the guy (normally the same as the nappy dude) that’s .3mm of black material away from being arrested for indecent exposure? Nobody should be that guy, and thankfully, all shorts tested are free from insult. Still, some are better than others.
In addition to comfort, the chamois is also responsible for providing modesty and privacy – something that was considered in our testing. There are many different tactics to this area, with the likes of Assos providing a plush and loose “nest”, to Castelli selecting extreme compression for a Ken-doll-like appearance.
And unless you’re sitting at 4% body fat, you may want to pay attention to the cut of the material, too. For example, some bibs offer high waists for a little flattery, while others seek a low waist to improve breathability and allow easier pee breaks. Unfortunately, the latter can produce a little muffin-top in return.
Style is always subjective, but the trend is for longer shorts and subtle branding. Some, such as Rapha, are available in a choice of lengths, while most come as they are. Length of bib shorts was measured as the distance from the top of the knee (lower number = longer short), while all but the MAAP offer subtle branding.
Finally, the bib with the tightest leg grippers is likely to create a little sausage effect for all but the leanest of riders. Shorts that provide an even compression from gripper to mid-thigh earn our preference for aesthetics and comfort.
Five premium bibs tested and ranked
5. MAAP Pro Bib Short
Australian cycling label, MAAP, recently introduced the Pro bib short to headline its performance-focused range. Offering the most comfortable bib straps on test, MAAP’s four-way stretch material features a unique paper-like feel, a noticeable compressive feeling and a snug leg gripper (which hold warmers like a vise) – all while providing a fairly tight fit.
The material is nicely breathable, but these are the only bibs on test to cover the belly button — a nice touch for hiding winter padding, but it also results in increased material overlap for summer. Similarly, those wide bib straps aren’t the best on hot summer days.
The dual-density chamois is the second thinnest on test and conforms wonderfully when jumping in and out of the saddle, and do so without a lack in seated comfort. However, both Andy and I found the material gets grippy in the wet, which lead to squeaking against the saddle and surprisingly, chafing during prolonged rides in the rain.
It’s also the only bib tested that isn’t available in a full black model — instead MAAP has taken a Calvin Klein-esq branding approach on the leg grippers and bib straps.
This is a very good bib and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it as part of a kit, but it’s not the best standalone black bib here.
Price: US$245 / AU$365 / £200
Leg length (from top of knee): 55mm
Thickest part of the chamois: 2.81mm
Good: Slim feeling fit, comfortable bib straps, great in cooler weather with warmers.
Bad: Fairly warm from wide bib straps and high waist, material squeaks and chafes when wet, not subtle in branding.
4. Castelli Free Aero Race 4
The placing between fourth and second place was a tough decision. In this case, it’s Castelli’s Free Aero Race 4, as used by Team Ineos, and the lightest and most thickly padded on test that was let down by the most minor of details.
With both “Aero” and “Race” in the name, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these are extremely compressive in their nature. Putting them on for the first time is met with a struggle, with a tight fit around the hips and a leg gripper that could stick to a window. That compressive fit also leads to a short that’s most likely going to flatten and smooth you into a ken doll. If you’re on the edge of sizing, go up in these.
Measured to be the thickest on test, the chamois is incredibly supportive in feel without feeling obtrusive out of the saddle. It’s also one of two on test that’s not entirely affixed to the lycra material — instead, the bulk of the pad is loosely attached with elastic tethers between a sandwich of material (which is affixed). It’s a design that allows some subtle movement as you pedal.
However, both Andy and I agree the stringy ribbed mesh bib straps are a little too minimal, leading to noticeable bunching up where others straps went unnoticed. Add in the silicon leg grippers which leave an imprint on your skin well beyond the ride, and big red Castelli logos on the back of the legs, and the Castellis are just a shy away from being the perfect black bib short.
Price: US$199 / AU$TBC / £150
Thickest part of the chamois: 5.35mm
Leg length: 34mm
Good: Wonderfully breathable, aero, and with a skin-like fit. Impressive chamois with a soft feel. Generous leg length.
Bad: Bib straps are a little too minimal, tight-fitting waist is hard to pee with, large Castelli logos, long washing tags need to be cut.
3. Cuore Gold X1
Cuore is typically a custom-wear-only company, but the brand’s new top-tier bib, the Gold X1, is also available for retail purchase (black only). Both Andy and I have had extensive experience with Cuore’s regular Silver and Gold-level bibs with custom kits, and they’ve always impressed (which is why we often use them for our custom CyclingTips kits), so it made sense to sneak these into the test when our VeloClub readers suggested as much.
The Gold X1 is unlike the other four bibs on test, and takes a remarkably simple and minimal approach – if there’s a bib short that lives by the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle, this is it. The X1 offers no leg gripper, few changes in the material selected, and equally, almost no branding.
What you get is the easiest bib to put on, and one that offers a silky soft feel with generous stretch that quickly becomes forgotten. However, that soft feel does mean the compression is the lightest on test. Made of a subtly lighter material than the rest of the shorts, the bib straps are wide and flat, while the webbed layout at the back ensures they stay put. Though those straps do come unusually high up the shoulders, bordering onto the neck.
The Cuore chamois is fairly thick and soft, but is perfectly comfortable and doesn’t hinder when out of the saddle. On the outside, the short’s panels are stitched to a central point on the front face of the chamois, a polarising style choice but one that performs well.
The lack of a traditional leg gripper may prove a deal-breaker for some, and certainly doesn’t help to lock warmers in place. And while I didn’t suffer such issues, Andy did note some slight creeping mid-ride. More importantly, though, that lack of a leg gripper relies entirely on the health of the laser cut compression band, and it won’t improve with age.
Price: US$275 / AU$285 / £265
Thickest part of the chamois: 3.83mm
Leg length: 78mm
Good: A bib you truly forget you’re wearing, generously padded chamois, breezy material.
Bad: Lack of leg grippers not for all (especially those with skinny thighs), front panel stitching attracts attention, bib straps sit high.
2. Rapha Pro Team II bib shorts
Featuring a simple, traditional design with countless finely-considered details, the Rapha Pro Team II bib is impressively good. As Rapha’s premium race short, it offers a compressive fit that’s somewhat of the goldilocks in feel between the Castelli and Cuore. While true to size, it is a short that’s not as generously stretchy as some others, and so you may need to size up if you’re on the cusp.
Rapha’s dual-density chamois is impressively comfortable, too, despite measuring as the thinnest on test (when compressed). The chamois is also claimed to be size specific to each size of short – certainly not a common feature.
The traditional closed-back mesh panel bib strap layout means everything is kept in place regardless of how you ride. The silicon-printed leg gripper is also done just right, and grips without strangling. Rapha is one of the few to offer multiple leg lengths, and the tested regular length sits at a relatively short 85mm above the knee – certainly pick the long version if that’s your style.
Speaking of style, Rapha manages to get its logo onto these black-on-black shorts without screaming for attention, and so it’ll match with any jersey you desire. Add in Rapha’s crash clothing repair policy and these are a solid choice.
Price: US$270 / AU$340 / £195
Thickest part of the chamois: 2.61mm
Leg length: 85mm
Good: Snug but true sizing, comfortable compression, a great short for racing and training, subtle logos, nicely breathable, simple design done extremely well.
Bad: Not as stretchy, and therefore, not as forgiving in fit as others. A little chamois bunching in the undercarriage.
1. Assos Equippe RS S9
With marketing materials that read like a Tesla brochure, it’s no wonder that so many people dismiss Assos – and its high prices – as an option. However, the Swiss company that lays claim to creating the lycra cycling short, has also long been considered the benchmark for black bib shorts. And from our testing, the relatively new S9-series continues that legacy with unbeatable comfort.
Where the Rapha Pro Team II has taken a familiar design and refined it to near-perfection, Assos has ripped up, stepped on and burnt the book. And despite its high price, the tested Equippe RS S9 is actually only Assos’ second most expensive short on offer – with the RSR offering an even lighter and more compressive construction.
However, when it comes to all-day comfort, the RS S9 is the pick of the range, and it offers an impressively thin, silk-like material feel that somehow retains a supportive hold. In this bunch it offers a similar feel to the Cuore, with noticeably less compression than the likes of the Castelli and Rapha.
The crisscrossing bib straps are like nothing else tested — they sit off the lower back (when standing), and are affixed directly to the top of the chamois. It’s a clever refinement from Assos, and means you’re not simply relying on the lycra material to stabilise the chamois.
As the second thickest on test, that chamois floats freely of the exterior material, and is only connected at the front and rear. Upfront you’re treated to a lightly padded, stretchy and breathable area that feels like well-worn undies – it’s certainly an odd experience coming from every other cycling short. It’s wonderfully comfortable, but will likely have you feeling like you’re dressed for a Shakespeare performance.
With a low-slung and stretchy front panel, the S9 RS is one of the easiest for pee breaks. However, that low-slung fit offers minimal flattery, and will likely have you showing skin (off the bike) if worn with a short jersey – it also gives little to tuck normal-length base layers into.
The leg grippers are kept minimal for easy wearing, but they do what they need to. The leg length is likely too short for those who like long bibs.
Price: US$249 / AU$370 / £175
Thickest part of the chamois: 4.38mm
Leg length: 72mm
Good: Amazingly comfortable and the pair you’d want for all-day rides, impressive and unique details which make a noticeable difference, a design that’s a sum of all parts.
Bad: Low front cut can leave mid-section exposed when off the bike, the unexpected undies-like bulge at the front lacks modesty, plastic logo buttons look cheap, short leg length.
|Dave Rome||Andy van Bergen|
|Height:||170cm (5′ 7″)||180cm (5′ 11″)|
|Weight:||70kg (154lbs)||72kg (159lbs)|
|Waist:||76cm (30in)||76cm (30in)|
|Inseam length:||81cm (32in)||85cm (33in)|
|Preferred saddle:||Specialized Phenom, 155mm||Specialized Power or Romin, 143mm|
|Short size tested:||Small||Medium|
What did we miss? Are there any shorts you feel worthy of Assos’ podium spot?