Thursday, September 18, 2008

Big Bib Battle

The vast majority of riders I see in the NYC area wear Pearl Izumi cycling shorts. I've nothing against the brand, but I want this post to make it out there, and hopefully show a few people the light. PI stinks compared to many of the other brands out there. They are like Bose speakers in the audio industry - they sound good to most consumers because they've never heard better, and dominate the big box market due to an aggressive advertising campaign, BUT they are not worthy compared to many alternatives that are far less money - overall, an insult to music. Sorry about that little rant. If you own Blose, again, I'm sorry.:) A buddy of mine who worked at a bike shop for years and is an avid cyclist last year said PI was the 'king of shorts.' Shortly before that comment was heard, I was ignorant too, and probably would've agreed. Even then, I only had sampled one other brand and knew the Hammer bibs were better, but didn't have much to argue with.

So here I offer a review of all the bibs I've ridden with and they've all seen a LOT of miles.

Before I get started, bibs vs shorts. Bibs rule. End of story:) They do cost a bit more than the same level short, but they are worth it. Go out of your way to find good bibs if you ride for more than an hour or two. It's really worth it.

FYI, I will mention the sizes I wear in each bib so here are my stats: 6' tall, 165 pounds, 32" waist in pant sizes although they all fall off unless I use a belt:)

The brands I used extensively this summer were Giordana, Assos, Hammer Nutrition made by Voler, Performance bike, and Gore BikeWear.

Specific models and price estimates with links to sites I have no interest with:

Giordana Forma - $230
Assos Fi.UNO S5 - $165
Voler (hammer) - $50
Performance Ultra - $75
Gore Xenon - $200

I'll start with my least favorite, but still good, bib short.

Performance Ultra Bibs

Description: Performance's top of the line bib, nearly always on sale, is made of a different fabric from the rest of the bunch called Eschler. It's appearance is textured on the outside but looks similar to other lycra on the inside. It's claimed that it transfers moisture better than most, is slightly more aerodynamic, and is also very light but offers good compression. The chamois is made by Cytech and is very soft, but quite thin and less dense compared to all the other bibs I own.

Regarding the fabric, I'll agree with everything other than the aerodynamics as I've no way to test this claim. I find the material to be very comfortable. The 10 panels are held together with flatlock seams, and do a nice job, for the most part, of anatomically fitting the body. However, I do think they have the poorest fit of all the shorts in this review. I think the leg grippers are too tacky making it difficult to position the shorts properly, initially, and the grippers are also tight on my legs but quite tolerable even for all day adventures in the saddle. If you have hairy legs the grippers might cause some pretty painful pulling.

Fit: The fit is not ideal for my body. I own a size medium. I have gaps on both sides of the groin area where I can not get the bibs to match my body. I've noticed over the hours they tend to settle in, but they never become one with my body like all the other bibs I own. I don't think the compression is as good as the other bibs in this review. The material seems to be too stretchy, and this is very noticeable if you take them off and put them back on again the same day (I commute in them from time to time.)

The shoulder straps are not elastic enough. They are way too stretchy, and seem pretty worthless. The reason for a bib strap is to help keep them pulled up nicely against your butt. They don't do this for me. I've noticed when I commute to work in them, when I put them on for the ride home, they are so stretched out they actually hang a bit. None of the other bibs have this problem.

Chamois: The Italian made chamois is very flimsy feeling to the touch. It is narrower than most the other bibs I own, but not too narrow. It has almost no density. It's stretchy though, and conforms nicely. If you are in to a thin pad with low density these bibs may be just what you are looking for. I can't say it's uncomfortable at all, but do notice a stiff seat more than some of the other bibs. The jury is still out on thick vs thin vs dense vs soft pads. I need another year or two:)

Overall, for the price, these are pretty good bibs. My longest ride in them so far is 192 miles and I lived to tell about it. At the time, I was on a Brooks Professional saddle and the two matched up very nicely. I think the Hammer bibs are slightly better and cost a bit less. But, they are worth considering if you like a thin chamois, and they have an unbeatable return policy - if you don't like them after using them, send them back. Easy.

Hammer Nutrition Bibs by Voler

Description: The Hammer bibs are the cheapest bibs I own, significantly less than the Forma, Gore or Assos bibs, and about 20 dollars less than the Performance. It's hard to fault them for much considering they are far better than most shorts in their price range, and compare favorably to bibs more in the $100+ range. The Voler bibs have 8 panels and a few different kinds of fabric. Stronger lycra makes up most of the body while on the sides the fabric is slightly thinner offering better ventilation. The bib portion has another fancy name, as did the lycra, but I will call it "mesh." There are no silicone or tacky leg grippers present on these bibs. When I first received them I wondered how they would stay in place, but this never turned out to be a concern. They simply do. The chamois is Voler's top of the line model called the Ion SL.

Fit: I wear size medium in the Voler bibs. These shorts fit very nicely on my legs. The fabric feels great to the touch. It feels durable, and like it will last quite a long time. Compression is excellent. The bib straps are not as strong as the more expensive models I own, but are better than the Performance Ultras. The upper mesh breathes very nicely and disappears after putting them on. However, all is not rosy with these $50 bibs. Some people may call my butt skinny, but I have a little excess fabric in the rear and don't have this problem with any of the other bibs I own. It causes discomfort due to friction over the miles, and is even noticeable on shorter rides when I ride my fixed gear and can't shift around much. For this reason alone, the Voler bibs have been relegated to commuting duty, exclusively. They are the only bibs that shift around when I stand up and pedal. I can feel them sliding back and forth as the strokes go up and down.

Chamois: The Ion SL pad, judging by appearance, looks like a great chamois. In practice, though, I think it's the worst of the bunch for my rear end. It has slightly more density than the Performance bib under the sit bones, and is reasonably thick, too. It feels like cheap foam underneath, though, and I don't think it does a whole lot for comfort. The fabric is not as soft as the other bibs I have, and I find it to actually be abrasive due to the fact the rear does not fit me so well. It creates hot spots, especially when riding my fixed gear and pedaling fast. Disappointing.

Summary: The Hammer Voler bibs are definitely worth trying out especially since you can get 15% off your first order if you've never purchased from Hammer before (the referral link is on the top left corner of my blog.) Buy one pair, and if they work, you just found yourself a screaming deal and can get 4 pairs of these for the price of one pair of Giordana Forma bibs. If it weren't for the slightly imperfect fit in the rear I would probably be using these shorts exclusively.

Giordana Forma Bibs

Description: These bibs are the most expensive pair I own at $230 retail. The attention to detail is impeccable. They have only a few panels, very similar to the Assos, and are proof that you don't need a gazillion panels to make a high end short functional and comfortable. The lycra is excellent, but is slightly lighter weight than what I would like. I would compare it to the sides of the Hammer bibs. It's a bit stretchy and not as compressing as the other bibs. The leg grippers are excellent. They are razor thin, quite wide, more than double the other leg grippers, and made of a material that is tacky, yet not sticky like silicone, and simply works. I think these are the best grippers of all the shorts I own. Their jerseys have the same on the sleeves and I think kick butt! The chamois is narrow, and is similar to the Performance bib. The upper portion of these bibs are what really impress me. They offer a fantastic fit with really wide shoulder straps made of a very thin neoprene-like material that do an excellent job dispersing the pressure over a wide area creating a great overall fit which I think reduces fatigue over a prolonged period of time. They dip down very low in the front and have a lot of mesh in the rear offering a cool fit in the summer time. I wish all bibs had this top!

Fit: I wear a size medium in these bibs. These bibs fit me perfectly. They become one with my body, which basically means I don't even notice or feel them after I put them on and start riding. What more can you ask for? Well, it turns out a little bit more. The compression is not as good as my favorites, but if you are used to bad shorts or crummy bibs I think you would find these to be excellent. Assos corrupts. The Forma's have 4 panels. I would consider them stealth in appearance. They don't have the crazy flatlock seams all over the place like the Performance bibs, and obviously don't need them. The bottoms are all black besides some reflective brand labeling and a tab of reflective material sewn in on the sides. I have to comment on the leg gripper material again. It's awesome. All bibs should use this method! No grabby, sticky stuff, no dimples in the legs for hours after use, and no pressure due to the wide band.

Chamois: The chamois is a nice, soft, blue colored slightly narrow chamois with various densities throughout. Under the sit bones it is the thickest, and might even contain a gel-like substance or some sort of memory foam. When I get up and mash up a hill on the fixed gear I feel absolutely no movement. A perfect fit. An excellent chamois. Thicker than the above bibs, but not as thick as the Assos.

Summary: Were it not for those darned Assos bibs, these would be my "go to" shorts for long events. They are excellent. A very expensive experiment, but if you have the $, they are worth trying and I highly doubt you will come away disappointed.

Gore Xenon Bibs

Description: These bibs have a lot of seams like the Performance bibs. There ends the similarities. The lycra fabric all around is excellent. It has different degrees of thickness offering a custom fit that seems to really work. The leg grippers are similar to the Assos, and are a stretchy fabric with a bunch of little silicone dots to help hold them in place. The Gore bibs have a very fancy looking chamois - skeletal in appearance, with high density sit bone padding and custom padding all around. The uppers are mostly mesh. The straps are reasonably elastic, and do the job, but seem like they will not last as long as the Forma or Assos bibs. The front is cut very low like the Forma bibs.

Fit: I wear a size medium. The fit of the Xenon is incredible. They were my first 'second skin' experience. The compression from the lycra is tied with the best in the group. It feels like it massages the muscles during long rides. The legs are slightly shorter than the other bibs I own - something I've noticed with the other Gore shorts as well. The Power model shorts I own are almost like tri-shorts. It's getting difficult now to distinguish the high end models from each other since they all seem nearly perfect in fit. The leg grippers work very well, too well, in fact, and you will have dimples on your legs for the rest of the day or night after you wear these for a few hours. They nearly embed themselves in the skin, and upon removal after a long duration, it feels like you are peeling them off the skin. A few times it even hurt. These shorts offer excellent ventilation making them a perfect choice for those hot summer rides.

Chamois: The hyper-designed chamois is very nice. It looks pretty neat, too. It has what i think is a perfect thickness and density in all the right places. Under the sit bones is a gel-like padding which does an excellent job absorbing vibrations and padding the bones from jolting impacts. It is soft and causes no discomfort over long periods of time. It simply disappears which is what everyone should want!

Summary: It's a tough call between these, the Formas, and the Assos. The Xenon's just barely edge out the Formas since they have better compression. The leg grippers could be improved, but, for me, are not a deal breaker. A very nearly perfect bib short and may, over time, become my go to short.

Assos Fi.UNO S5 Bibs

The ferrari of bib shorts. Those who know about Assos are a lucky class of cyclists, or perhaps unlucky, if you view it monetarily. I bought three pairs of these when they were on sale at my local sporting goods shop a few months ago and do not regret the $400 spent one bit. The shorts are simple in appearance, like the Formas, and have only 4 panels. Again, it's proof you don't need a billion panels to make a high end short. The lycra fabric used throughout is very high quality and is exactly what's needed. The material label is sewn on the outside instead of inside like every other bib - smart since it's one less thing to feel and cause friction. The label says there is carbon fiber in the shorts. This alone should make them the best:) It has reflective tabs on both legs in the front and rear. A nice touch. The chamois is big and goes up higher than the other bibs in the front. The rear is mesh and the straps are very elastic and strong.

Fit: The fit of these bibs is perfect. I wear a size LARGE. You will probably need to order one size up with Assos. They offer great compression which, like the Xenon's, massage the leg muscles and reduce fatigue. The leg grippers are similar to the Xenon's, but function far better. They don't rip your skin off and the dimples don't last very long. Again, perfect. The straps are tight. They even make me hunch over a bit when I first put them on. But, when you start riding, it all makes sense and you forget they are even there. The Uno's are Assos, uh, low end model. I fear the high end. Some day, maybe...

Chamois: The Uno's chamois is the thickest of the group. The fabric is very soft. It is dimpled throughout, and has varying densities. The front seems to cup the boys amazingly well. It's like a pocket. The best chamois in the group, and this is why they edge out the Xenon bibs for first place. If you don't like a thick chamois stay very far away from the Assos bibs.

Summary: My current favorite. Everything seems perfect. I can't imagine needing anything else thus one of the reasons I've abstained from their two higher end models. If you ride for more than 2 or 3 hours straight regularly, do yourself a favor, and try these shorts. They really make a difference as far as comfort goes for me over the long haul. The only short I've worn more than once before washing (not recommended:)) that felt exactly the same the second time.

1 comment:

S.H., Boston, Ma. said...

Thanks to the effort you made to post this review I will no longer blindly pick my bibs.
Good luck on your RAAM quest.