We picked the brain of a women’s cycling comfort expert about how to pick the right cycling chamois, what to look for in bib shorts, and how to avoid pain while cycling
Words: James Raison
Beneath a large umbrella at MAKER Festival at the Tour Down Under dangled several ladies’ chamois. They hung over a modestly sized table, stocked some water bottles and stickers, and a logo I wasn’t familiar with. Meraki. I curiously headed in for chat with owner Sarah Thompson about her interesting choice of decoration. Roughly an hour later I was left astonished. Sarah was a bona fide expert on women’s chamois, and women’s comfort issues in general.
Better yet, she was keen to collaborate, and share her knowledge on everything women needed to know when choosing the right bib shorts, and most suitable chamois for them. So here we go!
MEET THE EXPERT
Sarah’s journey to becoming an expert in women’s chamois began with a decade spent in product training at lululemon athletica. Her job was to learn about technical garment information then train others on how pass that onto customers. It showed her the vast and often hidden research and development that go into product design.
Sarah’s focus turned to cycling apparel when she took up road riding and triathlons. Early on, she was left unsatisfied at the apparel options;
“The gear fit horribly and it looked like crap! So I was better off wearing men’s gear because it looked better and didn’t fit any worse than women’s kit. So then I started to investigate kit because I wanted to solve those problems. I decided to make my own kit, I was going to buy a minimum of 10 and sell the surplus to my friends so I could have the kit that performed when racing. That process involved a lot of research, buying chamois from factories so I could feel and compare. The bigger brands like Nalini and Elastic Interface are big, reputable brands with detailed websites but nothing compares to having them in your hands while you’re looking at the information.”
Sarah didn’t just physically handle chamois during this phase, she tested a lot of them on the bike. Sometimes that led to very uncomfortable results. Frequently using unsuitable chamois gave her the problems that many women struggle with; chafing, saddle sores, friction, heat buildup, and horrible discomfort.
“One ride I stopped after 20 km, before I even got to the hills I was planning to ride. The chamois was so uncomfortable that I considered walking home.”
Self-testing so many chamois, and the ultimate harm that came from them, gave her invaluable experience in understanding the stakes of riding with a bad chamois, or the wrong chamois.
In 2019, Sarah is an encyclopaedia of knowledge on women’s chamois, and women’s apparel in general. She has a rare mix of industry experience, a wealth of self-guided research, and a genuine interest in educating the cycling public. More importantly; her goal is to share her knowledge widely as possible. She wants more woman riding comfortably. So, let’s dive into what she wants women to know about improving their ride experience, and finding the correct chamois.
START WITH A BIKE FIT
Finding your ideal chamois first requires removing every other potential discomfort so you can isolate the pad. The best way to do that is a bike fit.
“Bike fitters are going to give you insights into your anatomy that’s specific to you, aside from just tailoring your bike to be more comfortable. They’ll pick up things like toe numbness that could be the result of saddle height being too high or too low. For me, it was identifying that one leg was slightly shorter than the other, but not so much that an insole could fix it. That got me onto a podiatrist which ended with a $10 insert into one shoe that fixed the issue. I wouldn’t have known, but that issue caused rubbing and wear on one side of my bibs. Everything felt fine from a bike fit perspective so I wouldn’t have known that was a leg-length issue, and that visiting a podiatrist was the fix. I would’ve just though I had to deal with it and trying to balance out muscles with physio treatment.
It’s important to do a bike fit or even choosing a saddle without having your chamois, or a minimal chamois. You need to eliminate the variables as much as possible, which will lead to a better bike fit over all.”
Your bike fit will give you insight into how your position affects the chamois you’ll need:
“Often a chamois will be advertised to suit a certain riding position, like being more upright, and what that suggests higher density or more padding further in the back. But your pelvis tilt could be more forward or back, changing where your weight is distributed. I’ve got a pelvis tilt myself and I ride more forwards in an aggressive position. Because of that pelvis tilt, I’m not putting much weight forward on the front of the chamois. That means that I don’t want extra padding at the front. That’s an anatomy insight that you can get from a bike fit.”
“Separate to that, genitals are so different. A person with physical cushioning in one area won’t want any more in that area. That varies from person to person, and is independent of anatomy, bone structure, and riding position. Knowing about your physical features and being able to communicate that as part of your bike fit is crucial. Being able to articulate that can be challenging enough itself and can be uncomfortable. Some women are uncomfortable talking about their lady bits to anyone, regardless of whether their fitter is a man or a woman.”
FINDING THE BEST CHAMOIS
It’s time to think bibshorts, and chamois more specifically once you’ve dialled your position and adjusted the contact points on your bike. Sarah has defined the crucial elements of a good chamois for the vast majority of women.
So what do you need to know when choosing the ideal chamois?
Bigger is not always better, and often it’s worse. Kind of like adding padding to a seat; thickness is not going to be your friend. Especially when you’ve got squishy body bits on top of more padding on top of a padded seats. It’s a recipe for disaster because there’s too much bulk. Bulk creates heat, sweat, and also friction. The less thickness you can get away with the better.
Density is key. You want to look for higher density rather than thickness; so a chamois with more mass for its volume. It’ll give you the protection you’re looking for without the thickness. In saying that, dense chamois can sometimes be stiff. Stiffness is not going to move with you, which can create friction. So you want the chamois to be dense but the bib short material to have have 4-way stretch. It should fits snugly against your body and moves with you and be like one single piece.
Beware multi-densities. Often chamois will be designed with multiple zones of density for different postures, or longer distance rides. Your bone structure could lead to sitting right on the ledge between two different densities. You don’t have to avoid these chamois necessarily, but you need to be aware of how they’ll interact with your physiology.
Your bib fit is crucial. Your bibshorts should be super tight so the chamois is right up against your body. That eliminates friction, and also lets the chamois do its job. The wicking and breathable materials that are in a chamois keep your skin cool and dry by pulling sweat away from your skin and dispersing it into the padding to evaporate. Good quality shorts with 4-way stretch fabric will help the chamois move with your body and stay in contact where it should be.
Avoid texture. You definitely want to avoid texture in chamois. Some chamois have a texture designed to channel sweat through it and evaporate quicker but against the skin that texture can feel like razor blades.
Be aware of chemicals. There can be chemicals that appear in all elements of the chamois. The fabrics can have dyes to give colour and there can be foam or gel inserts with chemicals in them. You need to know the factory that’s making the chamois because the big names in the industry will go out of their way to have external partners ( like OEKO-TEX) do chemical testing to guarantee it’s non-toxic. Chamois chemicals are cause major issues because they’re against sensitive skin that’s heating up all the time. In extreme cases the problem goes far beyond irritation to allergic reactions and burns. Exposure to chemicals in the materials, or even those used in the processing or packaging, have been associated with carcinogenic and neurological effects. Big brands will advertise their chemical test results as a selling point so look out for that.
Check the stitching. You can find yourself sitting on - and rubbing against - stitching depending on where your sit bones are. Stitching isn’t just around the edge of the chamois but it can be inside, attaching different parts of the chamois together, especially multi-density chamois. You might end up sitting right on top of the stitching. So I’d aim to avoid those chamois with stitching inside them. Another thing to watch for is stitching that can be rubbing further down your leg where the outer edge of the chamois is stitched into the shorts. Try and find something with a flat stitch, they tend to be much nicer on your skin.
It’s not always about price. Not all low-end kit has crap chamois, some of their fabric designs are cheaper so they can invest more in a chamois. At the same time, not all expensive kit has great chamois. There’s still some secrecy with brands trying to hide where their chamois are from but we’re starting to see more brands attach manufacturer tags to draw attention to who they’re using. Use those tags and labels to do your research on whether it’s the right chamois for you.
Choose a suitable chamois for your ride. Not all rides need the same chamois, or a chamois at all. If you’re not going over 20 km then don’t use a chamois. Cycling kit isn’t necessary for all commutes or a latte lap. It can prevent you from building up any tolerance to chamois issues.For rides where you do need a chamois, It’s good to have a variety of options for different types of ride whether you’re doing a flat beach lap or a hills loop. It’s good to know what the differences are, and why you’d choose one chamois over another for different activities.
At time of writing in January 2019, Sarah’s counting down to the launch of her own brand’s first full release. Her plan for the brand is bigger than just selling kit. Sarah wants to change how the industry communicates with its customers;
“I’m going to have as much information up-front about my gear as possible. Not just to learn more about my apparel, but so people can apply that knowledge when making decisions about apparel in general. A goal of mine is to get all of the bigger brands sharing information so it gets easier for everyone. So if I can see that shift then I know I’ve been successful.”
Naturally chamois choice was made very carefully;
“I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of chamois that Meraki will be using because it’s a personal favourite for me, and it’s one that will work for a large variety of women. For example; it has a wide single-density area at the back to suit all sizes of sit bones. I’m also looking at letting people choose what chamois they want to put in. Factories are happy to make those changes, all that’s needed is for the customer to be willing to wait a bit longer. If there’s more options to build the demand for individual orders then I think it’ll become more commonplace.”
The work is only just starting for Sarah, who has set herself an indefinite task that merges product creation and industry change. After multiple lengthy chats during the Tour Down Under we certainly wouldn’t bet against Sarah.
“It’s a goal of mine to keep learning and developing. There’s no point where I’ve got it right and I can stop learning.”