If you’ve been a road cyclist for long enough, you’re familiar with cycling bib shorts and their features. Form-fitting Lycra lets you keep pedaling without interference; the chamois worn next to your bare butt and genitals increases riding comfort; and having bib straps over the shoulders means no elastic band digging into your waist.
Ah yes. That last bit. Despite their benefits, shoulder straps are precisely the reason why I held off on buying my first pair of bib shorts for so long.
My problem with bib shorts is that they conveniently ignore the fact that us humans need to take bathroom breaks. For male cyclists, the business of urinating while wearing bib shorts is…awkward, but doable. You cannot, however, say the same for female cyclists. Or, indeed, for male cyclists who need to take a dump, like Tom Dumoulin infamously did while leading Stage 16 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia.
In my book, Dumoulin has to win some sort of an award for dropping his bib shorts THAT quickly. I mean, c’mon, just think about it. The straps on most bib shorts are kept captive by the jersey you’re wearing, so to take a bathroom break, you need to shed your jersey first before you slip off your bib shorts’ straps…and only then can you drop tail and relieve your turbulent bowels.
I don’t care what anybody else thinks; to me, it’s a goddamn design flaw.
If I was in Dumoulin’s shoes, I’d probably just shit my chamois right then and there.
This is exactly why I’ve followed, with increasing interest, how cycling apparel makers have attempted to dovetail the classic cycling bib short with women’s bathroom breaks. And I’ve done so for many years now. Marrying commode convenience with all the traditional benefits of bib shorts should qualify as a bit of a design/engineering challenge, don’t you think?
So far, clothing companies have tackled this objective in a few general ways.
Many companies still resort to a disconnecting “break” somewhere in the bib shorts to facilitate dropping the tail for bathroom breaks. This is sort of an old strategy by now, just with new spins on the implementation. Rapha, for example, uses a magnetic clasp for connecting and disconnecting.
This design’s limitations are obvious from the photo above. Not all riders will have the dexterity needed to reach around and undo this clasp, even more so if you’ve spent many hours on the saddle bent over on a road bike. Furthermore, if your clasp requires some sort of hook going into a loop…God help you having to undo this blind if you really, really can’t fight that feeling anymore.
(Yes, that’s a 1980s song reference. I am old.)
Other manufacturers opt to use a zipper to somehow facilitate the dropping of the tail for bathroom breaks. The most basic ones of these use a short length zipper on the small of the back to cinch things up while riding, yet loosening just enough for pit stops.
More creative designs, like the Endura FS260 shorts shown above, relocate the zipper and lengthen it so that it effectively divides the shorts in half along the IT band on the rider’s thigh, then running across the rear panel. The thinking here is that the zipper will be long enough to cleanly peel the bibs’ chamois from the rider’s buttocks when undone, therefore easing toilet use. Think of how you undo a bum flap with buttons to put on a onesie on a baby – same principle. If it works well, this is pretty clever.
The downsides to this type of solution are inherent to the use of zippers: there is always the chance that they can go bad and malfunction; the zipper itself can get scratchy and uncomfortable across the skin depending on how the shorts fit; and some implementations of the zipper concept seem to be just plain bad.
THE HALTER TOP
Giro has had its halter-top design for its women’s bib shorts since 2016. Putting them on is a matter of looping the straps over your head, like a halter dress, and save for the waist down, the back of these bib shorts is free of material.
Naively, I first thought that you’d have to pull the top strap over your head to drop the tail for a bathroom break, and feed it through the front of your jersey, but I realize that’s more of a faff than it should be. Apparently, in practice, there is enough stretch in the mesh. Combined with zero material at the back, all you need to do is pull down at the rear…without having to fiddle around with your jersey. Relief!
THE EXTRA STRETCH
The prevalent design direction these days is to simply engineer the shorts in such a way that they’re held up by very elastic bib straps. Answering the call of nature would then be as simple as pulling down any old pair of shorts or undies, but from the back – effectively a retro-evolution of Giro’s halter top. I find this design simple yet elegant, and is the most “traditionalist” approach while still doing away with having to remove a jersey.
Like Giro’s halter top design, the challenge I see here is to engineer the straps in such a way that they have their functional extra stretch while not being a strain on a rider’s shoulders or neck. Certainly, there are ways of pulling it off, but the implementation would divide the truly good shorts from the not-so-great examples.
MORE WOMEN-FRIENDLY BIB SHORTS = BETTER INCLUSIVITY
Even if you think I’m just a little bit creepy giving women’s bib short designs this level of thought for so long, by this point you probably get the picture. If you’ve worn bib shorts for any amount of time, you’d have to be seriously impressed with these developments. The way I see it, if road cycling wants to see more mainstream adoption, it’s going to have to attract more women into the fold. While traditionally the sport has glorified the virtues of suffering and pain, I’d argue that shouldn’t have to apply to peeing and pooping.
The wardrobe has to evolve to support this push into greater inclusivity, and I’m really quite jealous that more and more companies have given this subject its fair share of design and engineering attention. And we should rightly talk about this more often, and get the solutions that work for this purpose out in the open. If it means a better riding experience overall, it’d mean more female cyclists sticking to the sport.
Heck, I secretly hope that some of these innovations make their way to men’s bib shorts, too – so that we don’t have to display the same clothing-shedding ninja skills Dumoulin did when he had to immediately answer his call of nature.