Cycling Bib Shorts for Women: An Overview of Styles
So the next question is, which style to chose? There seem to be so many. And the funny thing about that complaint, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.