In 1993 I was training for a 3,400-mile ride from Seattle to the Virginia shore, and the shorts I was using were killing me. Saddle sores and chafing from wrinkled fabric and saw-toothed seams were a daily occurrence. So I purchased two pairs of shorts from Pearl Izumi, which I’d heard were the most comfortable on the market. The crotch agony ceased as if by magic. We averaged 140 miles per day for the transcontinental and I didn’t have one saddle sore or a single bit of chafing. It was a miracle.
In subsequent years I continued to ride Pearl shorts exclusively. The best feature: their smooth, leather-like liner (“chamois”). With a liberal application of chamois cream, the material got slippery like the real thing. This reduced friction and virtually eliminated irritation. The material dried slowly, a drawback on tours, but it wore like iron. A pair of shorts routinely lasted five years.
The Pearl Izumi 3D bib shorts I’ve been wearing are different. They still feature the company’s dependable, durable, moisture-wicking Microsensor fabric. The suspenders are mesh, plenty wide and long enough not to saw through your shoulders when you’re in an aero position. However, the smooth chamois is gone. Pearl has replaced it with a patterned, “ergonomic” chamois that’s supposed to reduce pressure on sensitive tissue while padding the sit bones.
I was skeptical at first. Only a small portion of a chamois pad actually touches the saddle. But many modern pads are huge, over-engineered monstrosities. Designers must think that consumers equate surface area with comfort.
Pearl has fallen victim to this fallacious thinking. The 3D chamois has two fat pads positioned high toward the rear. They don’t touch the saddle when you’re in a normal riding position. Instead they protrude like you’re wearing a diaper. I can’t figure out what the designers were thinking. They might work for a recumbent rider, but they have no apparent utility for riding a conventional bike. It makes me wonder: Does anyone try on products like these before they market them?
The 3D chamois continues this fat pad down into the crotch area in the form of a long squiggle (for lack of a better word). One look and I figured that this raised piece of material would only irritate my crotch. That didn’t happen, perhaps due to applications of Chamois BUTT’r and Aquaphor, although I still question its usefulness. In fact, the chamois in Pearl’s more expensive ($160) 3D Pro shorts dispenses with the additional padding.
Still, the over-designed chamois didn’t irritate me, even on rides of six to eight hours. But I also own a pair of Pearl’s Pro bib shorts and feel more comfortable with the smoother pad where I contact the saddle.
Durability seems excellent although time will tell if the 3D bibs give me five years. I usually toss them in the washer using cold water and hang them to dry. On trips I’ve also washed them in a motel sink, wrung them out in a towel and dried them on my bike’s top tube. They’re ready to ride in a few hours. The seam stitching shows no signs of failure despite twisting forces from the towel.
A word on sizing: Original Pearl shorts were “European” sized, meaning that this 5-foot-10, 160-pound rider needed size XL. Then Pearl changed their sizing. The bib shorts in this test were size L and they fit fine, although slightly loose across the hips. The Pro bibs I mentioned are M, and they’re comfortable even though significantly tighter.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.