The general outfits bike riders wear are often closely tied to their cycling discipline. Even off the bike, it’s easy to determine what bike someone rides judging only by their attire. And looking at riding gear through that lens, it almost seems like some mountain bikers have some sort of allergy to tight clothing. So why do mountain bikers wear baggy clothing?

Loose-fitting gear is worn by mountain bikers primarily for the range of motion it provides. All while additional protective gear can be worn underneath. There’s also no skin chafing even with thicker, abrasion-resistant materials. Tight bib shorts are still worn underneath by some on long rides.

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The classic mountain biker look has been the same for a long time now. // Photo by Axel Brunst

Aerodynamics play a minor role in mountain biking (except for high-speed downhill racing) compared to road cycling. So baggy clothing has little negative effects. Weight, on the other hand, is a major factor to consider when going uphill on big climbs.

That being said, like any fashion, there’re certain trends that come and go. Overly baggy clothing is a thing of the past as the current trend has swung back to tighter riding gear, even in downhill. Not to lycra levels of skin-tightness, but definitely several dials back from the skater look of the early 2000s.

Why mountain bikers wear baggy shorts

Baggy mountain bike shorts provide abrasion protection while at the same time allowing for all the range of motion needed and preventing chafing on the thighs. There’s also room to wear additional shorts with protective inserts for downhill riding or padded bib shorts for long uphill rides.

So, they’re a great compromise between functionality, breathability and fashion.

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With or without knee pads, comfy shorts are a staple for trail riders, endurists, freeriders and downhillers. // Photo by Tim Foster

MTB pants shouldn’t be too loose tho to not catch on the saddle or other parts of the bike while riding. They certainly shouldn’t interfere with normal movements like pedaling and shifting weight. They should also not get in the way when ejecting or falling off the bike in case of a crash. So, they’re not just baggy, but roomy where they need to be and cut a little differently from normal casual shorts or pants.

And let’s not forget the fashion statement: Unusually long and baggy shorts are also popular among mountain bikers because they have a certain cool look, especially as a contrast to the traditional tight-fitting Lycra shorts worn by road cyclists.

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They don’t look like much, but MTB shorts are very different from normal sports apparel. // Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva

What’s the point of mountain bike-specific shorts?

The main purpose of mountain bike shorts is to provide comfort and protection while riding off-road. They have specific features like abrasion resistance, ventilation, padded inserts and zip pockets that make them well-suited to the demands of MTB riding. Their materials, fit and cut are different from normal sports pants.

Mountain bike shorts are typically made from lightweight and breathable, but tough materials that help to keep the rider cool and comfortable even on long climbs and high temperatures. They are also designed with a loose and relaxed fit that allows for a full range of motion while pedaling, which helps to prevent chafing and discomfort.

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High-cut rear, stretch material and abrasion-resistant fabric are only a couple of specifics to MTB shorts.

In addition to their comfort and fit, MTB shorts often have additional features that are useful on and off the bike. Features like multiple front zipped pockets for carrying small items like keys, phones, or energy gels. They may also have padding in the seat area, providing extra comfort on long rides. Some premium shorts also have removable liner shorts with built-in padding, which can provide additional protection against impacts and abrasions.

In short, they strike a very specific balance between breathability, range of motion, comfort, protection, durability, and carrying capacity.

This is why about 75% of mountain bikers choose to wear MTB-specific shorts, according to a poll of over 2.400 riders on singletracks.com. Only 16% wear other athletic, non bike-specific shorts. Even fewer (hopefully) something else. Let’s take a closer look into those majority 3/4 of riders.

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Cross country endurance athletes like mountain bikers tend to wear gear similar to road bikers: Padded bib shorts and lycra tops. // Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

The kind of shorts mountain bikers wear

While cross country riders tend to wear lycra bib shorts only, more gravity-oriented riders often wear longer, looser and more durable shorts specifically designed for mountain bikers. These shorts fit well for the typical body position on a bike: bent knees and upper body leaned forward.

They’re cut higher in the rear to allow for a comfortable and secure fit even with the upper body bent far forward and legs moving. To allow this stretch fabric is used in combination with air vents in the non-stretch fabric to keep additional strain to the body to a minimum.

Mountain bike specific shorts are typically longer than shorts designed for other activities, but the exact length will vary depending on personal preference and the type of riding you do. The more pedaling is involved (Cross Country & All-Mountain), the lighter and better ventilated the short. On the other hand, downhill and enduro riders need all the protection and coverage they can get, even at the cost of weight and airflow.

Finally, MTB shorts are typically longer than shorts designed for other activities because this length provides a number of benefits for off-road riding.

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Downhill riders tend to prefer long pants so there’s no chance they’ll catch on the saddle. // Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Why are mountain bike shorts so long?

MTB shorts are designed to provide ideal coverage and function while in the bent-over riding position. That’s why they seem unusually long when standing upright with knees and torso straight. Downhill and enduro shorts are the longest so they extend and slide over knee pads.

Note, that they are only longer, not oversized. Using an athletic fit, comfort and full reliability is the name of the game. Their length ensures theres no getting hung up on pads, bike frame, saddle or anything else. MTB shorts are part of a long list of protective gear for mountain biking.

Longer shorts also help to prevent chafing and discomfort while riding. The longer length of the shorts helps to keep them from riding up and exposing the skin to friction and irritation. This is especially true when riding rough trails and everything (including riding gear) starts flopping around.

In addition to preventing chafing, longer shorts also provide more protection against impacts and abrasions. When a rider falls or crashes, longer shorts can provide more coverage to protect the skin from scrapes. This is especially important for riders who are riding fast downhills and tackling steep, technical trails where falling is a higher probability.

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The “enduro gap”.
Not only a fashion crime, but also distracting while riding.

And the final reason is for the dreaded “enduro gap“, which is to be avoided at all costs. This is when there’s a gap between shorts and knee pads. The MTB fashion police don’t like seeing that! Apart from that, it also feels weird to have airflow there when knees and maybe even shins are covered in pads only inches below.

How long should mountain bike shorts be?

In general, mountain bike shorts should be long enough to provide full coverage of the thigh up to the knee protector. Only shorts to be worn without knee pads should not reach the knee cap to prevent chafing there. Shorts that are too short may ride up and expose the skin to friction and irritation, which can be uncomfortable on rough trails.

This means that durable downhill and enduro shorts should reach at least to the knee. Lighter all-mountain shorts should ideally be a little shorter. This refers to only to the sleeves as the pant bottoms should fit relatively firmly to not chafe and not get hung up on the saddle while riding, especially downhill.

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The best way to determine the ideal length for your MTB shorts is to try a few different styles and sizes and see what feels comfortable and functional to you. Asking fellow riders (bonus points for similar heights) for their experiences or a salesperson at a bike shop to get their advice is always recommended.


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