Shopping for MTB apparel? Choice and features are king

Current trend is stylish, lightweight, and comfortable — but still rugged

Apparel
Over Knees

Longer cuts accommodate knee pads without the dreaded gaper gap.

Longer, lower, slacker. When it comes to choosing new kit, think like you’re shopping for a new bike. Today’s mountain bike apparel is longer — for style and armor. Shorts fit lower — to prevent bunching and slipping on the climbs. And material hangs slacker — for ventilation, comfort and style.

Plus get this: Carbon is entering the clothing mix as well. High-end liner pads offer 6-to-8 hour comfort through carbon yarns, which unlike carbon saddles provide soft and supple contact with the tender bits.

Okay, when it comes to tortured metaphors, we plead guilty. But here’s the deal: Gear has come a long way from the days when jerseys were whatever T-shirt was handy and shorts were burlap-y things that came in any color as long as it was black.

Zoic Colors

The color-choice leader, Zoic’s “maroogundy” vino shorts are its most popular, while green atomic the most head-turning.

Today’s synthetic blends offer a wide range of comfort and style, and you can find retina-tickling hues such as Zoic’s atomic green and “maroogundy” vino to brighten up the trails. Zoic in fact offers 10 or more colors in most of its lines. “We’ve found that the more choices we put out there, the more our customers respond,” Zoic CEO Paul Wyandt told Mtbr.

At Sea Otter we got to see a lot of new stuff coming online. Here’s some features that jumped out at us and we hope will be useful for Mtbr shoppers to keep in mind.

Club Ride Boundary Creek

In 2010, Club Ride was promoting new trends in MTB wear.

Start with Style

Back in 2010, we were riding the Boundary-Fisher Creek loop near Sun Valley, Idaho, when we came across a group of riders taking a lunch break. They were dressed in buttoned shirts and fancy shorts that looked like après-diner resort wear. We rolled our eyes and figured that’d be the last we’d see of these Freds. But the joke was one us. The group turned out to be Club Ride, then just getting rolling. Club Ride promoted several fashion and comfort trends, including lightweight fabrics and de-linking chamois from shorts. Their pitch: You should be able to look as good on a bike as off it. “We were going for cool, soulful, authentic,” recalled founder Mike Herlinger. “It was a risk. But people were hungry for a change.”

Style may not seem like a big deal for everyday riding. But if you’re headed to B.C. or Europe, you want to minimize the luggage factor and still not look like a ride monkey while chilling on the plaza.

“You want a nice, all-around garment where you can hit Moab, go for a 20-mile ride, then take a walk downtown, go to dinner, hang out in the van on Sunday — whatever,” Herlinger explained.

Today, Club Ride offers multiple high-end fabrics in attractive plaid and subtle patterned materials. The trends it backed continue to gather momentum. Most new riding gear can double as casual wear. Separate liners mean no sitting around in a sweaty chamois while still wearing the shorts post-ride.

Holey Wool

Moth perforation = bad.

Carefully Consider Fabric

Old-schoolers once swore by wool for its insulating properties, perspiration wicking, and odor resistance. Until the material snagged or drew small winged campers. Then they swore at it.

Cotton was comfortable till it got wet — then it lost shape and insulation. So in came polyester and nylon synthetics to offer sweat-wicking and comfort. But polyester also got funky and droopy over time.

Today’s sophisticated blends feature a variety of fabrics that wick moisture, fight odor and maintain suppleness without the bulk and stuffiness that usually comes with burly. The trend is toward light and stretchy, but without sacrificing ruggedness. Lightweight also means quick-drying — another plus for the traveler.

Lase Perforation

Laser perforation = good.

Spandex veterans know “light” often means “flimsy,” while “stretchy” translates to “easily snags and tears.” But the new materials, which often retain a small amount of spandex, gives rather than rips and slides rather than snags. Two-way stretch is good. Four-way is best. Just give it the pull test and you can tell the difference.

Zoic’s new Fleetwood fabric uses ripstop, a tough sailcloth material, with 13 percent spandex added for stretch. “It’s light and stretchy, but also tough,” Zoic CEO Paul Wyandt said.

Sourcing can come into play here. Most fabric comes from China or Taiwan, but if you see the word “Italy” you know two things: It’s superior in looks, comfort and construction, and it’s going to cost a little more.

In our experience, Made in Italy is worth the extra coin. Typically these garments are light, durable, and breathe well. Material doesn’t bunch on the thighs or butt, nor does it grab at the knees while pedaling. Its comfort factor is unmatched.

Short Knees

Old-school shorts showed off mountain bikers’ knees, their most attractive physical feature.

Now a word on breathability. Laser technology permits micro-perforation of even heavy material for ventilation. Endura’s latest update of its Singletrack shorts features laser perforation.

Cut Counts

In a word, longer is better. It looks sharp and eliminates the flesh gap between kneepads and shorts. But keep in mind fit — whether you wear slimline AM protection or burly DH armor can make a difference. Again, stretch comes into play. The cut can be stovepipe fashionable and still be armor-friendly if the fabric is accommodating.

Mid Knees

Mid-knee is great for long summer rides.

If you don’t wear armor, you may want to think on the shorter side, either mid or upper kneecap. Especially on day-long XC rides, over-the-knee shorts can get warm no matter how light the fabric. We like how the hiking world is addressing this spec by offering shorts with specified inseams, like pants.

Also check crotch clearance, although it’s not the gotcha it once was. Most shorts these days are cut high enough to avoid saddle snag.

Sizing Matters

It’s the bane of shoppers, especially online. A tall or lanky guy’s 36 waist can be a lot different from a short or stocky rider’s 36. The range from XS to XL keeps shifting and varies wildly from one brand to another. It helps to check the forums on whether a certain brand’s size run on the large or small side. But only a try-on will clinch the deal.

Twin Cam Use

Abit Gear’s twin cam-lock system stays put once set.

Part of sizing has nothing to do with waist. Abit Gear, an innovative Seattle bike clothing startup, has been testing and will soon market butt-spec’d shorts. Founder Justin Vander Pol, who admits to being generously endowed in the stern, figured guys like him deserved more wiggle room. When Abit Gear launches this summer, it will offer “athletic” (roomy) and “standard” sizing.

The other thing driving Vander Pol crazy was elastic hook-and-loop (often referred to as Velcro, although that company hates the reference) waist adjusters. They’re pretty much the de facto standard now. But they tend to lose their snap, snag in the laundry and deteriorate over time.

Abit Gear uses twin cam-locks. In a prototype provided to Mtbr for testing, we’ve grown to really like their fine tuning and security. Unlike other adjusters we’ve tried, the snap-down cams stay put once fastened.

Zoic 2 Phones

Zoic’s Falcon shorts offer phone pockets on both sides.

Zoic’s Falcon shorts attack the problem with a slightly different approach: a fixed-waist belt with a cinch buckle in front. In our initial testing, the setup worked well. There’s no slip and the buckle is easy to lock or disengage.

One other note on the Velcro front: no-snag tags are on the way. Zoic’s update to its popular Ether line features waist adjusters that don’t hook fabrics in the laundry. Socks everywhere are celebrating.

Zoic Sticky

Velcro tabs love to mate with laundry, but newer versions have solved the snag issue.

Check Your Pockets

For a while, mountain bike shorts went overboard on pockets. You could lose cash or a lift pass in your shorts for days. Now the trend is fewer pockets, but with better security.

Zippered pockets offer the latter, but are inconvenient on a couple of fronts. They tend to be on the shallow side, with manufacturers assuming since the zipper will retain any cargo, pockets don’t need to be as deep. We feel this is a mistake. People get lazy, or they forget. And then stuff pops out more easily. Why not offer both? We like how Troy Lee Designs updated its Ruckus shorts with one primary front pocket open and the other zippered.

Phone pockets have the same issue. You don’t want your $800 smart phone ejecting from your shorts, which can easily happen if you forget to zip. Zoic’s Falcon shorts cleverly provide drop-in phone pockets on both sides (for left- and right-handed riders). We love the convenience, and in initial testing haven’t experienced the dreaded pop-out. We’d also like to see mountain bike shorts borrow from Kuhl hiking shorts, which offer two different smart-phone pockets on either side — one angled, one vertical. Neither are zippered, though, presumably because hikers don’t get so rowdy.

While a phone pocket is a necessity for off-the-bike, we’re wary of riding with a phone. A friend showed us the “after” from a crash at Whistler. Apparently a phone profile that models thigh curvature greatly reduces functionality. Our rule is to stow the phone in our pack while riding. Most packs offer phone pockets with quick access.

TLD Under Armor

Troy Lee Designs’ padded shorts are great for bike park and flow trails.

Removable Liners

Virtually all shorts used to come with attached liners. “And most of them were crap,” recalled Herlinger, adding that it was a big reason Club Ride decided to offer liner-optional shorts. “I had a whole drawer full of liners I cut out of shorts.” Fortunately, today liner-optional is the standard.

For a while, thicker was assumed to be better with chamois pads. But those fat pads tended to slip around on the saddle. Plus they lead to the hated diaper effect off the bike. Now liners are getting better — and thinner. Instead of a uniform surface, look for sectioned padding with pressure-point optimization. Also check out stitching for overlap and flatness. The old zig-zag “alligator tooth” stitching, which often failed under all-day duress, has been replaced by double and even quadruple overlap stitching.

With rider consciousness of injury on the rise due to more flow and DH options in available trails, we’re hoping for an upswing in armored liners. Our go-to for some time has been TLD’s 7605 liner, which features light but sturdy hard-shell protectors around the hips, thighs, and tailbone.

Chamois Guide

Zoic offers this handy guide to aid in choosing the right chamois for your needs.

We’ve involuntarily crash-tested these things a few times with safe results. We’d like to see more padding in the crotch for those long climbs, but supplementing the 7605s with a thin liner works okay. Manufacturers are now rating liners, offering different thicknesses and configurations for brief 1-2 hour jaunts versus rowdy or all-day riding.

That brings us to carbon. Apparently thin strands of carbon reduce abrasion, inhibit bacterial growth, and keep their form over long periods of sustained stress. Carbon pads typically are rated for 6 to 8 hours in the saddle. And we all know carbon is just plain sexier. But just like with frames and wheels, carbon construction costs a little more.

The Price Should Be Right

No mistake about it — sticker shock is on the rise. You can still find shorts in the $60 range, but don’t expect high performance. For quality these days, $80 to $100 isn’t uncommon, and that’s without a liner. You get what you pay for. It’s buyer beware when you buy your wear.

For further information and to see what’s on offer from the apparel makers mentioned in this article, please visit: zoic.com, clubrideapparel.com, troyleedesigns.com, abitgear.com, and endurasport.com.


Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)


About the author: Paul Andrews

Dividing his time between Seattle and Santa Cruz, career journalist Paul Andrews has more than a quarter century of mountain biking under his belt, which he wishes had a few less notches.


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  • SeventeenSeventySix says:

    “You get what you pay for”. Umm, no, you don’t. The cycling tax is just as obnoxious in clothing as it is everywhere else. To each their own, but for $65 I can buy a top-shelf 8-panel lycra short or liner and a trek short (which has the same material and features outlined in the article). $100 for a shell short with no liner? Nope.

    • myke says:

      im not sure what you are talking about. i have owned pretty every major brand shell and they are NOT the same. you get what you pay for. Bibs and liners are the most important and what you need to spend the most on.

  • babyblue says:

    I think generally if you stick to a name brand, rather than get the cheapest random thing on amazon, you’ll be alright. Recently got Club Ride shorts for $35 from Sierra trading post and they’re great

  • AC says:

    If they’re past your knees are they still shorts?

  • abe says:

    EBAY gear: purchased biking shorts from china ebay….. great fit, with elastic panels so the shorts don’t get caught up on the seat, removable padding, NYLON stitching , have had them over 1yr and still as good as new. Less expensive does not mean garbage.

    1st i purchase one pair to check them out then purchase 4 more for the long haul.. $16 ea.

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