Updated: Nov 15, 2022
Your awkward cycling questions, answered
If you're new to cycling, it can be an intimidating sport. There's just so much stuff! There's the bike itself, then the pedals, the helmet, the shoes... and the bike shorts. For mountain bikers, this is even more intimidating: Are you supposed to wear just regular underwear with baggy shorts, or do you wear them over a pair of bike shorts or bibs?
I had all of these questions when I got started, and over the years, I realized I wasn't the only one who had them. So, I ended up writing a book about it! "Saddle, Sore: Ride Comfortable, Ride Happy" is my full guide to all things awkward and potentially uncomfortable when it comes to cycling, but the basics are relatively simple.
Here are my top tips after riding for 15 years and interviewing dozens of experts and athletes:
+ Invest in your saddle and a good pair of shorts
We spend so much money on our bikes, but I've noticed that we tend to skimp on our clothing and our saddles—but they can make such a big difference to our ride quality! I always remember when Brad Sheehan, co-founder and lead designer at Velocio, told me, "People don't realize that if you find stuff that fits well, that can make cycling a much more comfortable experience." I could not agree more.
Get something that fits well: The chamois should be comfortable and not diaper-like, and I personally love bib shorts because they don't dig into my waist. You may need to try a few different options before finding a pair that fits your body type. For MTB baggies, again, you may have to try on a few pairs to find a length that you like, with a waist that feels comfortable for you. (Tip: When trying on these pieces, make sure you bend at the waist and push your hips back to emulate the position you'll be in on the bike—often, a piece that feels great standing straight up feels completely different once you bend over!)
The same is true of your saddle: You want a saddle that fits your pelvic structure. That will alleviate pressure and keep you safe from numbness and chafing. To find the right size for you, your sit bone width is actually pretty simple to measure—most bike shops have a pad that you sit on that measures the width of your sitbones (which, by the way, are not in any way related to your body weight!).
+ No Underwear
Repeat after me: You do not wear underwear with bike shorts. And by bike shorts, just to be clear, since MTB baggies make this a bit confusing, I mean bike shorts with a chamois. This is because a chamois is there to pad your seat a bit, but its primary function is also to keep the bad bacteria away from your genitals. Underwear traps the bad stuff in there. Underwear also adds friction, which is what the chamois is trying to avoid in the first place! If you're used to wearing underwear with your shorts, it'll be a bit of an adjustment, but trust me, your nether regions will thank you in the long run!
+ Wash your chamois right
In order to ride in clean shorts, you have to make sure you're setting your washing machine up for success. If you ride in muddy conditions, pre-hose down your kit to get most of the mud out. Then, wash your chamois inside out so that the pad gets washed thoroughly. You may want to use the double-rinse cycle too, to make sure all the soap comes out. If you're prone to rashes, make sure you're doing a double rinse, and consider swapping to a sensitive skin dye- and fragrance-free detergent. (You can read my full guide to washing your kit and cyclist laundry right here.)
+ Done riding? Get out of your shorts
I cannot stress this enough, especially as it gets hotter outside! For mountain bikers who wear baggy shorts over bike shorts, in particular, it's so important to get the heck out of our sweaty gear as soon as we're done with our rides! Often, I see people leave the trailhead for the long drive home still in their sweat- and mud-soaked chamois. That's just asking for saddle sores—and potential other un-fun things like urinary tract infections, especially if you're someone who's prone to those. To save your nether regions, just trade your shorts for a maxidress (the easiest solution) or use a towel to make a quick costume change post-ride. You'll feel infinitely better!
+ Treat early, avoid issues later
Unlucky enough to have some chafing or a saddle sore starting to pop up and make itself known? Saddle sores are a lot easier to treat if you catch them early and simply give your body a break. If you notice one starting, take a day off the bike, pull on a maxi skirt and keep that area as dry, clean and cool as possible. You can use an antibiotic ointment if the skin is broken or a topical acne-fighting cream if it hasn't, but generally, it's best to just let it breathe.
Have more questions? Be sure to check out the book: Saddle, Sore: Ride Comfortable, Ride Happy
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website. She also coaches running and cycling, as well as yoga both online and IRL in Collingwood, Ontario.
She’s the author of multiple books and her most recent project, Shred Girls, is a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. She also writes regularly for publications including Bicycling magazine, Outside, Map My Run, and Nylon.
Molly is a little obsessed with getting people—especially women—psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete and cyclist now spends time racing ultra-runs on trails.