May You Sit On a Cloud Of Pillows

The chamois: you can’t live on a bike without one. Obviously, the first line of defense against riding discomfort is your saddle, as even a leisurely ride around town on an uncomfortable one will leave you searching out the plushest of sitting surfaces for the next couple of days. After the saddle, the second-most necessary object for comfort-enhancement would have to be Screen shot 2015-03-24 at 10.56.45 AMyour chamois.

I fortunately grew up with parents who both loved cycling. Even though I saw them in their cycling gear all the time, I still thought they looked a little odd when they stopped at coffee shops or stepped into any real life scenario where their “tap shoes” were the cause of sideways glances. Now that I am one and the same with tap-dancing cyclists, I have learned that there is a method behind the madness of a spandex clad life, and even a reason for those sleek looking diapers.

What is a chamois?

Back in the day, around the 1920’s and 30’s, it was commonplace for cyclists to ride fully decked out in wool kits. As riders experienced harsh chafing and awkward bunching, they started experimenting with different materials to aid in riding comfort. What they landed upon was a leather hide from a European goat-antelope species called Chamois. Voila! We have the first comfort-enhancing cycling pad.

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The Chamois. The mountain goat that got us to where we are today.

When these chamois pads dried after some time in the saddle they would crinkle and become really stiff. This was a problem remedied by creating a crème that would be lathered on the leather pad to make it soft and pliable again. This necessary item became coined as “chamois crème,” as keeping your chamois comfy was the original purpose for it. Now we use chamois crème as a lubricant to reduce friction between skin and our now plush synthetic foam pads. As bike culture is steeped in history, we have clung onto “chamois” in reference to the pad in our shorts.

So what’s the difference?

At first glance when you match up men’s chamois and women’s chamois, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. So what is the difference? Well, the men’s chamois is going to be longer for comfort purposes and modesty. Both of the reasons for making chamois longer for men is due to the men’s obvious external anatomy. Thank you clothing designers for keeping men modest. When I was first researching this topic, I was reading about the “modesty” factor for men and I just started laughing girlishly. That being said, I will stifle my laugh and move on.

You, however, are here to learn about what makes a woman’s chamois. The second difference that is worthy of note is the width of a women’s chamois, which is indeed wider than men’s. This should come as no surprise if you’ve kept up on your reading. In my previous blog article on women’s-specific saddles, you learned that women’s sit bones are wider and thus, we have wider saddles and a wider chamois in our shorts to accommodate said saddle.

What is that?

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Top: Men’s Chamois with “love channel” down the middle. Bottom: Women’s Chamois notice the absence of the “love channel.”

One sure fire way to tell the difference between a men’s and women’s chamois is in the structure that appears on the chamois itself. In men’s chamois there is a channel that runs down the center of the pad that relieves pressure for the perineal nerve. Women’s chamois do not have the pressure-relieving channel and instead have a pillow-like replacement.  So, if you are wondering what that “love channel” is down the center of the chamois, it’s safe to say “eh, not for me.”

Now what?

Now that we know the history and the difference between the gender’s chamois, let’s talk foam. You are going to want a chamois featuring 3-D foam with varying layers of foam density; the thickest layer being positioned under your sit bones and the thinnest layer being tapered between the legs and frontal regions. 3-D foam is often times used interchangeably with multi-density foam. Do not be thrown off by this like I was.

Another note-worthy reference to 3-D foam is the anatomical inference that some brands use. Pearl Izumi, for one, uses the 3-D moniker to reference to the chamois’ three-dimensional shape, even when it is not being worn. According to them, the chamois will not be the most comfortable to walk around in because it is shaped for the specific body position of riding a bike. Fun fact: folding these specific shorts or tights will also be difficult due to their shape.

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Pearl Izumi 3-D anatomical foam. Most comfortable in riding position.

So the bottom line is this, go get yourself a good chamois and you will no longer feel the need to carry around a pillow to sit on throughout your day. You know you need cushy for your tushy.