In the vein of cutting to the root of closely guarded, seemingly ambiguous preferences, I thought that I’d dig into the seasonal debate of warmers vs. bib tights. Like all things bike, it’s a polarized debate with little room to sway detractors from their soapboxes. However, unlike many of the face-palm-debates of cycling gear, both sides of the fence have rather compelling reasons to stand on. But to come to a winner, we need to get into the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of both warming methods.
Until recently, almost all bib tights pretty much sucked. Sure, there were absolutely some exceptions, but had these been better from the get, this debate wouldn’t even exist. Now I can admit that this is coming off as rather harsh, but let me explain why. You see, the predominant issue with bib tights has always been one of fit, and when you think about it, it’s pretty easy to see why.
Unless you’re perfectly sample sized, there’s a good chance that you’re going to have to compromise on at least one point of the fit. After all, it’s pretty difficult for a manufacturer to determine that a size small should not only fit a particular body shape in the legs and torso, but given that bib tights run from ankle to shoulder, they also have to account for the presumed height of the wearer. And if you’re like myself at 5’10″, 140lb, there’s a good chance that you’re not the “typical” size small in this regard. As a result, there’s almost always going to be some unaccounted for stretching and pulling, which almost always means that the chamois is out of place against the body — no bueno. This isn’t even to mention that bib tights are more prone to having slack behind the knee, which is a common cause of irritation.
In a word: coverage. Bib tights are able to provide more insulated coverage area than warmers — plain and simple. Leg warmers aren’t going to cover your butt, literally, nor are they going to protect your hips, stomach, or back. Why is this an unfair advantage? Well, the glutes are obviously crucial muscles, and for some reason or another, Assos makes the claim that cold wind over your stomach makes you have to pee, so I guess there’s that too?
And to use a couple more words: less bulk. This advantage is certainly more obvious, given that you’re wearing half the material over your legs. On paper, this should allow for more freedom of movement. In the saddle, however, it’s not terribly noticeable.
This is the arguably one of the Euro Pro’s top choices for winter riding, but this isn’t to say that it’s the best choice for you.
As discussed earlier, leg warmers leave the glutes, hips, stomach, and lower back more exposed, but I’ll have more on this later. Typically, you’ll also find that they’re dependent on a single seam that runs the length of the leg up the middle. This can definitely lead to irritation, but if you’re willing to pay a little more for something like the Assos legwarmer_s7, you won’t be bothered in the slightest.
Some will also complain about the pinching that the leg openings can cause close to the “sensitive areas” up high on the leg, but again, spend more and you’ll get more.
Lastly, and this one can actually be a pretty real problem, is gripper contact between the shorts and the warmers. A good part of the time, you’ll find that the shorts’ leg openings will slip on the surface of the leg warmers. Many companies, like Castelli and Assos, have worked through this problem a long time ago. It’s still worth noting, though, that it’s certainly not an uncommon occurrence.
First and foremost on the advantage list is that you get to wear your day-to-day bib shorts. Why is this a good thing? Because you know exactly how the fit and chamois position is going to be throughout your ride. Obviously, this is pretty massive, but just as important; it also means that you won’t have to deal with any fleecy chamois covers. I’m not sure who initially thought that creating more sweat around the crotch area sounded like a good idea, but it’s highly prevalent in bib tight design, and I find it tremendously annoying.
Secondly, warmers afford you more real-time layering opportunities. Too hot? Just peal them off. Expecting rain, but not the cold? Just bring them with you. As you can see, you’re just granted a little more versatility with warmers.
Lastly, let’s talk price. If you’re like me, your shorts are getting a wash after every ride, followed by a hang dry. This puts a pair of shorts out of commission for an entire day after use. And with the same practice in use for bib tights, it means that you’ll need around three to four pairs for winter riding. So common sense dictates that matching a couple pairs of warmers to your existing wardrobe will promise equivalent results at a fraction of the price.
If you really want to know my opinion on the winter method, I’ll tell you — it’s none of the above. As of last year, I started to opt for wearing tights/bib tights with no chamois over my bib shorts. It’s not terribly popular stateside, but honestly, I don’t really understand why — it’s big just about everywhere else. This method checks all of the boxes in the chamois, comfort, warmth, and protection departments, not to mention that it opens a door for cross functional use with other winter activities like Nordic skiing and running. Admittedly, though, double bib straps can take some getting used to, but I’ve found just wearing tights over bib shorts feels just fine. I seriously recommend that you try this method at some point over the winter.
Now for what you shouldn’t mess with: knee warmers. I’m going to take my retailer hat off for a moment and provide you with a genuine opinion — if it’s cold enough for knee warmers, it’s cold enough for full tights or leg warmers. In this vain, the same theory applies to bib knickers. I just don’t get it, but that could just be me.
Bib tights are pretty cool, or warm for that matter, while they can be more of a pain than a pleasure for some body types. Warmers are a pretty safe bet all around. And tights without a chamois are highly underrated but highly effective. It’s your call — just make sure to find what you like and keep riding this winter.