Cycling shorts are worth it if you plan to do a lot of riding.
If you can get over the social hurdle of walking around in tight bicycle shorts, the advantages of these skin-tight pants are plentiful. There's a reason every major competitive cyclist across all cycling disciplines wears cycling shorts. The cycling short and its inner pad, called a chamois, protects the rider from the jarring vibration from normal road and off-road conditions. Wearing these shorts can greatly improve your cycling comfort. Showing off your powerful thighs can be considered icing on the cake.
History of Cycling Shorts
The chamois was invented in the 1930s, when most cycling clothing was made from wool. Almost all cycling shorts had uncomfortable seams that caused friction and saddle sores, so a piece of leather from an antelope called a chamois was placed in the area of contact inside cycling shorts. The name of the antelope stuck, and today's modern chamois retain the leather's name, despite being made from a host of (usually) synthetic materials. A good chamois is padded with foam or gel to relieve the soreness of long days in the saddle.
Cycling Short Materials
Cycling shorts are usually made from quick-drying synthetic materials such as Lycra, spandex, nylon and polyester. Multiple panels provide alternate levels of stretch and compression where it's needed. More expensive cycling shorts have better flat seams to reduce chafing, a higher quality chamois and more durable materials. Cycling shorts are also available in wool, although the area in contact with the saddle is usually made from a synthetic material for better durability. Because of the anatomical fit of cycling shorts, it's better not to wear underwear between the chamois and your body.
Advantages of Cycling Shorts
Cycling shorts protect your most sensitive regions from the pain of long contact with a bicycle seat. The rubbing action of your inner thighs against the bicycle seat is offset by the smooth face of the cycling short, and a generously padded chamois will protect your nether regions from painful vibration and impact-related soreness. A good chamois will be padded along your sit bones at the base of the hips, so that pressure is distributed off of the sensitive tissues between your legs. Cycling shorts are also close-fitting to maximize aerodynamics, and give a full range of motion to the rider thanks to four-way stretch materials. Finally, the mild compression provided by a tight-fitting pair of cycling shorts can increase blood flow to the legs, aiding in muscular function to provide a bit more sustained power.
What to Look For in a Chamois
To ensure you're getting the full benefit of a chamois, you'll want it to have all the characteristics that give you advantages while cycling. Gender-specific chamois are important to provide protection where it's needed, since hip width is different between men and women. A close, but not constricting, fit is good for providing light compression to the thighs. Finally, a 3-D anatomical chamois will provide more protection than a cheaper 2-D chamois, and will be better suited to relieve your sit bones of uncomfortable pressure. If your chamois rubs uncomfortably, some chamois butter can help lubricate your inner thighs against chafing.