Monday, April 7, 2014

Cycling Bibs for Women: 4 Basic Styles

Lately I've been getting lots of questions about women's bib shorts. Are they more comfortable than regular cycling shorts and worth switching to? Having made the switch to bibs a year ago, for me the answer was Yes. As soon as I tried bib shorts it was love at first ride. Instead of an elastic cutting across my belly fat and chafing my skin on long rides, bibs offered a wonderful feel of support and compression. True, the under-the-jersey straps make peeing a more elaborate process for women. But that is a price I am willing to pay for the extra comfort I get out of them on the bike.

So the next question is, which style to chose? There seem to be so many. The funny thing about that is that until recently there were almost none. Cycling shorts and tights would be offered in a bib style for men, but not women. Then a couple of years ago this suddenly started to change, with manufacturers scrambling to come up with women-specific designs and each seeming to arrive at something different. But why the need of a women's specific style in the first place? Let's start by examining the traditional design.

The Classic Bib Design

Unlike elastic-waisted shorts, cycling bibs stay up via suspender-style straps. These straps can be either solid of mesh, narrow or wide, and they can vary in their degree of stretch. The classic cycling bib design (ie most men's bibs) routes the straps straight up and over the shoulders, as shown on the left. For women this can be problematic, as it means the straps are placed directly over the breasts. Depending on the size, shape and orientation of the breasts and nipples, this can result in uncomfortable digging into sensitive tissue - in particular with straps that are on the narrower side and made of a dense, not super-stretchy fabric. Because there is so much variety in this part of a woman's anatomy, it is difficult to come up with bib dimensions that will solve this problem - which is why most manufacturers avoided the issue altogether and stuck with ordinary shorts for their women's lines. Still there there are manufacturers who produce women's bibs in the classic design - for instance, Road Holland. I own a pair of these and find them comfortable enough. The straps are very wide and made of a lightweight, stretchy mesh; worn over a sports bra I can hardly feel them. But again, reactions to this style will differ depending on the specifics of the design and on your anatomy. In particular, women with large breasts and large, sensitive nipples may find the routing of the straps uncomfortable.


The Open Bib Design

Some manufacturers have tried to address the problem of bib strap routing by making them "open" - that is, routed around rather than directly over the breasts. Here the straps sit at the far sides of the torso, close to the armpits, resembling the back of an athletic swimsuit. Personally, I find this style the most comfortable out of the ones available. The bib straps on my Giordana shorts keep clear of my boobs and stay in place remarkably well; I cannot feel them at all when on the bike. However, I know that some women dislike having the straps so close to the armpits and experience chafing at the inner arms. This does not happen to me at all. But whether this style works for you will depend on your anatomy and skin sensitivity.

The Y-Front Bib Design

An alternative style of routing bib straps to avoid the breasts is the Y-front. Here the straps meet at the collarbone and connect to form a single panel that sits between the breasts, then gradually expands at the abdomen to merge with the lower part of the shorts. Assos, with their coy models, is particularly well known for this style and I have a pair of their shorts for review. The Y-strap bib routing is clever and feels comfortable enough to me - with the caveat that the size has to be spot on, or else the strap will either choke or feel too loose. Some versions of this style also feature a clasp - presumably for easier removal of the straps in order to pee. Personally I do not like having a clasp at my sternum and would prefer the version without it. All in all, the y-front style is a little too fussy for me - but preferences will differ.  Those with unusually long or short torsos might have trouble finding a good fit.

The Full-Coverage Bib Design

Yet another way to avoid dealing with boobage issues is with a full coverage style of bibs. Similar to a bathing costume circa the 1920s, this design is basically a combination of shorts and a tank-top. Typically a zipper will run down the middle. Rapha makes their women's bibs in this style and I own a pair of the 3/4 knicker version. In some ways I like this design, in particular I enjoy the extra compression that comes with the full coverage. However there are times when I just don't want all that extra fabric around my torso - when I'd like to wear bibs and not a full body suit. Aside from this, women with large breasts and narrow hips or vise-versa might find it tricky to get a good fit, as the top and bottom proportions are either/or.

There are other women's cycling bib designs out there, but I find that most are variations on these four. Every season it seems there are more and more manufacturers offering various versions of women's cycling bibs. If you are looking to compare styles and prices, Team Estrogen looks like a good starting point. If you have your own favourite style, brand or model, please share what works for you - as well as what doesn't. Women in all shapes and sizes can and do wear bib shorts. But they are not for everyone; in the end it is all about what suits you personally.

31 comments:

  1. I had tried a pair of bibs that had a zipper around the waist. In theory, I suppose it was supposed to make the restroom stops easier to deal with, but I found myself just getting tangled in the mess (which only frustrated me and caused me not to use the zipper). Additionally, the zipper seemed to create the same, or at least similar, chaffing issues as a waistband on regular shorts. It seems like there is always a slightly different design to try out, but it really is great to have some options when we are all such varying shapes and sizes.

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    1. This was a couple of years ago now, but I think I've tried the same waist-zipper bibs and had a similar reaction. Any kind of clasps, buttons, pockets, zips, cord-ties or similar around the waist would defeat the purpose for me.

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  2. They all look uncomfortable to me! The biggest concern is having to pee. You know, cold weather, holding it for as long as possible to find a suitable place with a washroom, or private enough bush and then frantically trying to take it all off? No thank you.
    The lack of lady bibs may have something to do with statistically smaller bladders in women and how to deal with this issue?
    I also have a peeve about compression, things getting to tight around my neck, chest, body, constricting etc..
    I do understand the issue of having something tight around the waist, but I think I'd get chafing and hives from all of the bib options as well.
    I do not usually wear bike wearing cycling tights either, but if I did, I would get rid of the elastic and come up with some sort of closure with snaps or buttons. This might look a bit dorky. I also have created high waisted pants to wear for cycling especially so there is no digging in the belly.

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  3. Good summary. I wear and like the open bib style and the full-coverage (vest) style. I'm very top-heavy by the way.

    Also - manufacturers have come up with a variety of ways to address the toilet-break quandary. I own bibs with 3 different solutions. Coupled with the 4 styles of top, the result is quite a lot of choice but sometimes difficulty in getting the combination you actually want!

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    1. Which peeing solutions do you mean, and do they work for you? I only know one the Assos, and the Pearl Izumi zipper circa a few years back.

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    2. I need to check out actual item names and post up shortly, but so far I've tried (1) Pearl Izumi's with the top and bottom simply overlapping at the waist in the back, (2) dhb's wriggle-out-of-the-entire-thing design i.e. no attempt to address the problem, (3) Gore's current two-zip system, one on each side at the waist, and at least 2 others I'll have to delve into my memory to retrieve. So far Gore is hands-down my favourite. It takes a bit of practice during pit-stops and I think there's a knack to it but I find it works really well, even in the middle of a sopping wet night ride with frozen fingers. I've got one pair of Gore's summer bib shorts with this design, and two (identical) pairs of their winter/thermal long bib tights.

      With these various Gore items, the design of the tops do vary. The winter longs have straps that pull together with a clasp over the sternum. I was doubtful about that at first but never notice the clasp or the straps while actually wearing/riding, regardless of what type of bra I'm wearing, so that's a thumbs up from me as well. (FYI, I'm a 36E.)

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    3. Going off on a tangent here, but sometimes I feel like the only woman in the universe not obsessed about peeing! I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to go outdoors in my 9 years of cycling. Bib shorts make it more difficult, but it's not a deal breaker. I am not sure all these bells and whistles to solve the peeing problem are worth the effort.

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    4. With the Assos bibs, you can, in theory, undo the clasp, pull the upper portion of the Y-strap off over your head backwards, then slide it down under the back of your jersey and pull the shorts down. Putting it all back on afterward is trickier, as it requires threading the Y-strap up along the back of your jersey, then pulling it back on over your head without getting the straps twisted. It's doable, but takes about the same time as simply removing the jersey, so it's more of a modesty measure than a time-saving measure.

      Generally speaking, I am in the same camp as Janet wrt the peeing business. In my year of wearing bibs, I've had to go on the side of the road exactly once so far. I used the "take your bra off without removing your top" method to pull down the bibs and was able to execute it quickly. Granted, I was only wearing a jersey over them, no jacket.

      A friend of mine joked that, to make peeing super easy for women - even without dismounting! - they should make crotchless bib shorts, to go with slotted saddles. Turns out such a thing actually exists, sort of…

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    5. Agree with Janet for rides < 4 hours. But for rides longer than that, bibs are more comfortable than waisted shorts AND I'm more likely to need at least one pit stop. If there's a proper rest room, then I don't mind the tiny bit of extra time dealing with clothing e.g. taking off jersey and pulling the entire bib shorts down, and then reversing. But roadside stops at nighttime in rural countryside (as most of my long rides are), a good pee-break solution is worth having. YMMV, as they say.

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    6. The March issue of Bicycle Times had a page highlighting two women's bibs with some elaborate bottoms to facilitate peeing. One was velcro and the other zippered, I believe. Kind of the same effect as those pajamas with the button flaps.

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  4. Curious as to whether all bibs you've mentioned are similar fabrics or whether there are variations (also whether there is a range of fabric types available on the market or are they all basically lycra/elastane)? Could it be that one style would be better served by one type of fabric and another style by something different?

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    1. The variations in fabric seem mostly to do with what season they are intended for. Most warm-weather bib shorts I've tried have had soft, lightweight meshy straps, and on the Rapha one-piece the entire top portion is mesh (you can see close-ups of it here). The cold weather versions from the same brands will usually have different (more coverage) bib designs and will use a denser fabric, sometimes even a brushed fleece. The exception to this is Assos, where on both the summer shorts and winter tights the Y-strap is made of a dense elastic band type of material.

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    2. My experience has been the same as V's, across Pearl Izumi, Rapha, Gore, dhb and at least one more brand whose name slips my mind just now...

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  5. 36D girl here… I hate hate regular shorts and have worn men's bib shorts for years. The straps do not pinch too bad. What I don't like are the gaps underneath. When all these new women's styles came out, I was excited. Tried Rapha first, could not get the zipper over my boobs. Tried Assos, the clasp kept coming undone. My friend loves her Castelli bibs, so I may try those next, or the Giordanas you mention. I won't hold my breath, but at least the price is more reasonable!

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    1. I have the Giordana Silverline bib shorts and also their padded winter bib tights; impressed with the cost/quality ratio of both.

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    2. I've not tried Giordana or Castelli, admittedly due to an assumption that they are Italian-designed or -made? My experience with Italian jerseys is that they are cut very narrow and long, whereas my torso is short and rather wide. And I've got boobs. Which I do know Italian women have too but apparently not the ones who cycle...!

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    3. Normally I am reliably a size S in women's cycling attire. However in Italian women's sizes I am usually a Medium in bottoms and often a Large in tops. Considering I have a 34A chest, that last one is especially puzzling. But in any case, in Giordana bibs I am M and they fit me perfectly. Have not tried their jerseys or jackets.

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  6. This nipple chafing thing cuts () across sexes, 'tis why I don't wear them. They're hotter also (for me), harder to do one's biz, more involved when dealing with base layers, straps tend not to be the optimal length for support vs. pulling excessively, it's one other occlusion, etc. I prefer slap on and go, ride as nakeldly as possible; if you gotta ask if they are better all you're going to get is one person's opinion, which so what. Won't know 'til you try them...just like bikes. Hm, I sense a theme.

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  7. Waiting for my earlier comments to appear so bear with me if I repeat myself.... my memory played me false a little so I've pulled out all the bib shorts/tights I currently have, lined them up for two photos, one of their tops (from the front) and one of their bottoms (from the back). The photos with full descriptions are here: https://plus.google.com/photos/100886935701344254455/albums/5999889510091532001?authkey=CIbx5prd9Le3owE

    I put more FYI comments and Verdicts on each short in the description for the photo of the bottoms.

    Hope this is of use to someone, if not GR Jim. ;)

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    1. Don't know, all I saw when I clicked on the link was a bunch of seal pelts. Very disturbing.

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    2. Nice comparison shots - if you plan to make a blog post about it on your site, I'll link to it in the post here.

      seal pelt bibs... sounds like an Hermes-Assos collabo

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    3. Yeah, as I was typing along, it did occur to me it could merit a blog post...

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  8. So the primary goal of these is to avoid having chafing/itchy/painful elastic digging into your midsection? I'd not heard of these before. What about cycling shorts with a real wide elastic band, like you see on yoga or maternity pants?

    M.

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    1. Some manufacturers have indeed started making cycling shorts with the wide yoga style waist band. The problem with those can be that they roll, particularly in the course of long rides.

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    2. In addition to rolling, there's also the fact that torsos come in all lengths and so do shorts. Many will sit too high or too low on the waist -- and the judgement can vary too according to what kind of riding you do. So eliminating the whole waistband thing is helpful, fit-wise. Of course some women will have issues with torso length with bibs, but I don't hear as many complaints about that - you've got to really be at one extreme or the other for it really to be a deal-breaker.

      Meanwhile, women generally I think have to deal with elastic waistbands in far more garments than men do, especially if you work in a professional environment and have to wear pantyhose 5 days a week. It's a real relief to put bib shorts on to go for a long ride!

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  9. At the price these shorts command they should include the services of a local tailor who knows how to work with lycra.

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    1. You get a coupon for that, like a rebate sticker thingie. Of course as with mail-in rebates, few bother to take advantage of the service; that's how they get you.

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    2. This morning I rode in bib tights stitched by World Sprint Champion Sheila Young. My shorts were made by Carl Pruitt. You've never heard of him. My jersey was Gis Gelati team issue, no makers' logo or tag whatsoever. Previously worn at Milan-SanRemo by Francesco Moser. My shoes were Duegi before they were totally rebuilt by Igor The Cobbler. Igor is at the shoe repair the other side of the wall from the coffeshop where I'm sitting.

      The youngsters on the ride made fun of my old oddball clothing. They are prone to do that. The kids are of course resplendent in polyester and logos. For many of them resplendence in polyester and logos will be the highwater mark of their cycling careers.

      If your clothes don't fit take them to your tailor. You do have a tailor? Most general tailors are very disdainful of stretchy synthetic stuff. Mine hates it, but she will do it for me because we have a relationship. She sees me riding past her storefront and she wants me to look good. If you can't find a good tailor willing to do the job the fetishwear crowd knows how to work lycra.

      Just in the Chicago/Milwaukee/Madison region I can think of five cyclewear makers who are out of business mostly because their clientele wanted to chase gimmicks and features and status via advertised symbols. If you have a fairly normal body and you are not too fussy off the rack clothes are fine. If you're the least bit irregular or just very demanding get something made. If Assos is even remotely in the running for your wallet you can have bespoke.

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    3. "If Assos is even remotely in the running for your wallet you can have bespoke."

      True, and the same goes for "designer label" mass produced street clothes vs custom made clothes. When I lived in Vienna and worked at my last real job, I had several suits made by the tailor who lived down the street. They are beautiful, can be mixed and matched for all occasions, and did not cost any more than suits from the store would.

      To a degree, I can do my own tailoring, so if an article of clothing doesn't fit me I will alter it myself. Cycling clothing is tricky, but thankfully everything I own fits pretty well.

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  10. Your "filigree" address bounced, so I post this here simply fyi. It has nothing to do with the subject of this blog entry, except insofar as it is about a woman urban cyclist.

    While cursing quietly to myself as I waited interminably on hold on a guvmint telephone line, I browsed my way to this site, wholly by accident. I thought it might interest you; it appears to be the blog of a woman urban cyclist from Nairobi, Kenya. It interests me because I cut my longer-distance cycling teeth in and around Nairobi as a teenager, late '60s to mid '70s.

    Things have certainly changed, cycling-wise, since I rode there!

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  11. Nice touch with different hairstyles in your drawings V ;-) I'll chime in on the nipple chafing thing - men have those issues too, albeit perhaps slightly less severe than women. I'ts particularly bad when running, and many serious runners tape their nipples with sports tape.

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