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Bike Clothing 101

Wear what works for you. But within that simple statement, there's a lot of complexity. Temperature. Length of the ride. Changing weather. Scratchy bushes hitting your legs. (Winter clothes are discussed on another page.)

You'll notice that, for certain types of riding, the fanatic bikers tend to dress the same. Over the years, they've discovered what works. Road bikers wear tight lycra. Downhillers often favor longer sleeves and over-the-knee shorts.

The principles are:
  - Dress for temperature (layers!)
  - Avoid cotton
  - Allow free movement
  - Reduce chaffing and saddle pressure
When it comes to mountain biking, cotton is your enemy. When cotton fibers get wet, they chafe like sandpaper as your legs move. You can get away with cotton briefs or panties for a few rides. But as you go further and get sweatier, you'll want underwear that's less likely to scrape away the skin where your butt and upper thighs meet the saddle. Underwear can be combined with a chamois (as in the inside-out photo at left), to be worn under baggy bike shorts. (Most stretch shorts have their own chamois and are designed to be worn without underwear.)

When you're first starting out, it's reasonable to wear regular underwear and your favorite hiking shorts until you decide biking will be a regular hobby.

Mountain bike underwear with a chamois (inside out, and we're looking at the butt).

Bike shorts...
Lycra shorts, as used by road riders or mountain bike racers, have the chamois built into the shorts. Most riders wear nothing under these shorts. If you want additional underwear, use something that vents well and won't chafe. Stretch shorts may be slightly cooler than an underwear-baggie shorts combo. But the main advantage is reduced wind resistance when riding fast.

Stretch shorts typically end on the lower thigh. If they go all the way to the ankle, they're called tights. Some tights contain a chamois and are worn alone (no shorts). Other thights have no chamois and can be worn either under or over.

"Lycra" or "Spandex" bike shorts. Most race team kits use form-fitting shorts like these.

Many mountain bikers like loose shorts. The advantages are pockets and casual appearance. So you can throw your car keys and wallet into the shorts, drive to the bike trail and ride, then stop for a burger without looking like a roadie.

Disadvantages of loose shorts (compared to stretch shorts) are that they may catch on the seat or snag brush while you're riding. If you're adding tights to baggie shorts, they usually go between your underwear/chamois and the baggies.

Bike shorts have only side pockets; nothing behind.

Some shorts are designed with special fabric so they won't tear -- and so you're less likely to get scraped through the shorts when you go down. Some bike pants even have stiff armor built into them. A big disadvantage of armored shorts (and knee and elbow pads too) is that you can't lose heat as you climb the hill on a warm day.

But as a new rider, you should just start with whatever shorts feel good to ride in. Then start adding bike-specific clothing when you've decided what type of riding you like best. Don't wear cutoff Levis for your bike shorts -- once you start riding long and hard enough to get sweaty, they'll rub your thighs raw.

Armored shorts for downhill racing.

Yes, it's OK to start out with a t-shirt or golf shirt. But after a while, you'll want to upgrade to a bike-specific top. For road riding (or fast mountain biking) it reduces wind resistance. The fabrics are made to wick sweat away, providing a larger area for evaporation and better cooling.

And most of us like bike jerseys with pockets. You can stash keys, cell phone, bike tools and spare tube, even a water bottle. race team jersey from 2005.


Most new riders start out with bare hands. It's cooler, and it allows a better sense of the shifters and brake levers. But these riders will, soon enough, start wearing gloves. Here's why.

Gloves protect your palms from blisters on long bumpy rides. They keep branches from drawing blood from your knuckles. And when you fall and catch yourself with your hand, they allow you to keep the skin on your palm.

If you can't pay for bike-specific gloves, a pair of soft thin hardware-store gloves will do.

Start out with flat pedals and a pair of comfortable broken-in walking or running shoes. Use wool blend socks (not cotton).

Many riders continue to favor flat pedals but buy bike-specific shoes. These shoes handle the pressure of the pedal better. And they're much better than cleated shoes (see below) for walking on rocks or steep slopes when you must get off your bike.

"Flats" let you get off the pedal quickly, and let you scramble on steep slopes more confidently when you can't ride.

Cross-country riders, racers, and road riders eventually graduate to specially-built shoes that are designed to lock onto the pedal. These shoes are light but have a very stiff sole. A cleat screws onto the bottom, locking onto the pedal so you can actually pull the pedal up as well as push down.

It's a bit tricky learning to get unlocked from the pedal quickly when things go wrong. So clipless pedals should definitely wait until you're skilled.

A clipless pedal system.