Plain black shorts went out of style for me somewhere between 1992 and 1995. I can’t recall the specific season, but by the time Miguel Indurain stood on the winner’s dais on the Champs Elysees in 1995, I had weeded every last pair of plain black shorts from my cycling wardrobe. By that Sunday in late July, all of my shorts were bibs and had sublimated panels in them.
I didn’t wake up one day with a grudge against black shorts. I was simply following my nose. I was by no means hip, but in my effort to emulate the fastest guys I rode with, among the many lessons I filed away, one note I took to myself was that fast guys have so many old pairs of sublimated team shorts that they have no black shorts in their wardrobe. To me, it was like being so rich that your daily driver was a Porsche 928.
And so I tossed anything that didn’t make a bolder statement than who manufactured the shorts. I tossed everything without bibs. Once, when a friend who didn’t race asked me why all my shorts advertised for someone, even companies that weren’t current sponsors of my team, I responded, “If they were ever willing to support cycling, even if for only a year, I’m still willing to support them today.”
It’s an answer in which I still believe.
For more than 10 years, there was only one pair of bibs that were exempt from this rule. As you can guess, they were the single pair of Assos bibs I owned. (Well, to be honest, I also had a pair of Assos bib knickers that I would press into service during bumper seasons, but because I never wore them during the same time of year, it wasn’t like I had two sets of black shorts in rotation at the same time.)
For more than 10 years I didn’t think anyone other than Assos was making a pair of bibs so noteworthy as to merit consideration if they lacked a sublimated panel bearing the name of a team. Perhaps it had something to do with my desire to be a part of a community, that to be part of a team meant I knew the secret handshake. Part of it certainly was related to my racing; fast guys are on teams and I was still trying to prove I was fast.
At some point comfort and fit became an acceptable alternative to the cool unity of the team bibs, kinda like the Snuggie for the cycling set.
When I got word that SmartWool was producing merino wool bib shorts just before Interbike, I was very curious and asked to review a pair right away. My first question concerned fit and support. I wanted to know if they’d offer the support and fit I’ve come to expect from other bibs. Those of you who have experience with wool shorts of yesteryear will recall that most of them had so much stretch that you couldn’t really claim they offered support for much of anything, not your junk or your muscles.
The Flagstaff bibs are literally what I’ve been waiting to see someone release ever since wool jerseys began making a comeback in current product lines, rather than just second-hand stores. The fit is terrific, with proportions between the caboose and upper thighs matched well to the shape of the avid—not PRO—cyclist. Further, they don’t stretch out over the course of the ride the way my merino jerseys do. As it turns out, getting home with a garment three inches longer than when I left isn’t my favorite.
To achieve the fit and support they do, SmartWool did cheat a bit. Wool only makes up 39 percent of the short fabric; 45 percent is nylon and 16 percent is elastic. In the bib, wool comprises 96 percent of the weave while the final four percent is elastic. But the story doesn’t end there; the weave used in the short is designed so that only wool touches your skin except for the grippers. Modern look outside, old-school feel inside.
These bibs receive other updates as compared to the old-style wool shorts. They feature an eight-panel design and flatlock seems for a form-following and less binding fit. Silicon gripper elastic keeps the cuff in place and if you’re the sort who doesn’t like the feel of gripper elastic against your skin and perfers to fold it up, the elastic features the SmartWool logo oriented upside down so others can get clued in to your choice.
The pad comes from high-end manufacturer Cytech and features—what else?—a merino cover. I’ve become a big fan of Cytech pads; they are to four-hour comfort what butter is to French cooking.
Perhaps my favorite feature of the shorts is how they have proven to be just a tad warmer than my other bibs. I’ve worn them on several recent morning when temperatures have dipped low enough in the early morning for me to summon all manner of thermal gear. Those black bibs pair perfectly with black leg warmers and a thermal jacket to which the matching bibs wore out years ago.
Available in four sizes, S-XL. Suggested retail is $150.