by Stan Purdum
As I pulled a pair of bike shorts out of my drawer yesterday while getting dressed to ride, I noticed that the pad had folded over within the outside layer of the chamois, so that there was a double thickness under the left sit-bone side and no thickness at all under the right sit-bone side. By shaking the shorts a couple times, I was able to get the pad to unfold and return to its proper position, and it stayed that way while wearing the shorts for my ride. But from experience with other shorts, I knew this was a sign that this pair was in its final days.
I’ve owned — and worn out — many pairs of bike shorts over the years. I had some where the chamois wore out before the spandex and vice versa. I own some now where the two halves of the chamois are separate pads, each encased within its own outer layer. In the pair I wore yesterday, however, the pad is a single unit. I’m guessing that the pad had originally been glued to the spandex with the outer-covering layer of the chamois then sewn over it.
I had an earlier pair constructed similarly, and they were fine for a long time, but eventually the glue failed. The shake-method kept them going through a few more wearings and washings, but in time, the pad curled up inside the covering layer and no amount of shaking could untangle it. Wearing them in that state would be like sitting in the saddle with a tennis ball under one’s perineal area — painful even to contemplate!
Most bike shorts aren’t cheap, as you know, and the failure of that earlier pair, along with some from other bike clothiers that eventually wore out in different ways, caused me to wonder how long bike shorts should last and whether some brands last longer than others.
As a step toward finding out, I started keeping track of when I purchased each new pair so I could see how long they served before I needed to replace them. I typically own seven or eight pairs at a time, usually an assortment of brands. Most would probably be considered “middle of the line” models from the various manufacturers, and none of them are bibs. I don a clean pair for each ride, and I often ride three or four times a week. After each ride, I hang up the shorts to allow them to air dry. I wash all the shorts together in the gentle cycle of our washing machine using regular detergent, and then hang them up to drip dry. I don’t wash them again until I’ve worn the whole lot.
By that schedule, it means each pair gets worn and washed about 26 times per year. The pair with the now folding pad is the oldest of my present batch of shorts, and they are from Canari. I currently have a couple of newer pairs also from Canari, as well as some from Pearl Izumi, Specialized and Sponeed, with the newest of those purchased earlier this year, and I have the start date from them all recorded, so I’ll eventually have some idea if some outlive others.
I purchased those now-failing shorts in March 2015, and they will probably be serviceable (using the shake technique) for a few more rides. So the useful life of that pair appears to be over five years, which given all flexing and stretching they have to do when I wear them on the bike, and the constant friction on them from the saddle, seems like a reasonable lifespan.
But maybe not, if one pair from my previous batch is any measure. Back then, I wasn’t keeping track of when I purchased each pair, but the brand name on them was Trek, which means they are from before the time when Trek started using the Bontrager label on its apparel line. (Trek purchased Bontrager in 1995; I don’t know when they renamed their shorts.) My best guess is that I bought those shorts in 2008. In any case, that’s the pair I had on in 2013 when I crashed and broke my collarbone. The crash sent me sliding on my hip across the pavement, and that caused the crotch seam of the shorts to part — though the chamois stayed in place and protected my dignity — and a hole about the size of quarter opened up on the left rear panel of the pants.
It took surgery, complete with two metal plates and several screws, to repair my collarbone but only a needle and thread to fix the shorts. I stitched up the crotch seam and sewed a patch cut from an old stretch sock into the hole on the rear panel. And I got two more years out of those shorts.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.