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Five Tri Shorts Tested

By Tom Demerly.

tri shorts review

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It’s tough to say where the tri short was actually born. The idea of combining a run short with a bike short and swim suit makes so much sense it was likely more consensus than creativity. Tri shorts are logical and efficient: One garment, swim-bike-run. No changing.

Especially at long distance events where a one piece trisuit may be inconvenient the tri short is the Swiss Army Knife of the triathlete’s wardrobe; it does everything fairly well, doesn’t particularly excel at any one thing.

Early tri shorts morphed for the swim to bike transition by retaining a snug, hydrodynamic fit while changing the size and fabric of the crotch pad so it dried faster. Simple, one layer fleece pads in early tri shorts provided enough friction reduction and padding for short events and dried quickly on the bike. For the bike to run transition the smaller pad was more flexible to run in than a diaper-like bicycle short. Other benefits include compression during the run which many athletes believe improves comfort and even performance.

Tri Short Review
The search for optimal triathlon clothing: The early Nike BRS ensemble included a padded brief that was the fashion statement of the mid 1980's. The first tri shorts (right) were usually seen in garish patterns and short on function and comfort. -The author in the early and mid 1980's.

Early tri shorts also gave the triathlete a separate identity. The short-shorts were mostly sold in garish neon tones and wild patterns that broadcasted the élan of a new sport. The tri short along with trisuits and bright Oakley sunglasses heralded the arrival of “tech” in triathlon wardrobes and the transition from the swim goggle and Speedo days. We had our own sport, our own identity, our own wardrobe.

Tri shorts have advanced with the rest of our sport to include the latest in fabric, compression, aerodynamic and hydrodynamic benefits. New tri shorts provide enhanced compression and flattering fit. Some designs are evolved for longer distances, creating a category within a category for the Iron-distance athlete. Patterns have changed and options have grown. We survey the top of the category with some interesting innovations here.

DeSoto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short
De Soto's Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short shown inside out in the 2nd from right and 4th from right photos. Unique fabric, leg openings and functional pockets make this short a practical solution.

De Soto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short: A Classic Evolved.
Emilio De Soto started his California based triathlon clothing company because he couldn’t find good quality triathlon clothing. Like the tri short, Emilio himself is a triathlon original, innovating clothing designs from his own experience as an elite level triathlete. The current De Soto 4 Pocket Tri Short merges early tri short design with long distance adaptation and advanced fabrics for a modern classic. Perhaps more than any other tri short this version seems to get everything right: Fit, fabric, features.

The De Soto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short starts with a 9” inseam (size medium measured at shortest point of inseam to center of crotch). This inseam splits the difference between bike and run agendas and also looks proportionate on most builds. I’m long torso-ed (short legged) so very long tri shorts make me look like an oompah-loompah. The De Soto Forza inseam length maintains a sporting profile even on stubby legs. Gripper elastic at the leg openings is gone from the Forza tri short in favor or athletes who may not have shaved legs. The wide 2” compression band at the leg opening (called “Compressor” by De Soto) keeps the short from riding up but doesn’t give you snausage legs- it isn’t too snug and it doesn’t pull hair. My legs are shaved and the De Soto legs stay put from water to winners circle.

The entire short uses De Soto Forza Compressor fabric. The robust fabric has powerful girdle-like stretch that is claimed to “support muscles and dampen the vibration due to dynamic flexion and extension”. There are substantial performance claims suggesting that fatigue may be mitigated by compression fit garments. Regardless of the claims, the apparel feels more supportive, sleeker in the water and more precise in fit. The fit is consistent from soaking wet to bone dry.

De Soto uses curved, flat seams that contour anatomical features like the major quadriceps muscles. Called “Curvelinear” seam lines, this orientation makes the shorts feel more supportive and natural. These features combined with the unique fabric means the shorts are snug but not restrictive. The fit feels more precise than any other tri short in our survey. Waist band is a conventional design with a flat drawstring. If there is one place technology could move this short into the 21st century it is at the waist band- and De Soto does that with an interesting refinement of the tri short in the next version in this review- the Tribib.

The pad in the De Soto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short is lightweight fleece that is flat-lock stitched with flexible thread at its circumference rendering it effectively seamless. It is a basic and proven design. Stretch mesh modesty panels in the front and rear facilitate rapid drying but avoids embarrassment when the finish line photographer uses a powerful strobe.

Unique features on the De Soto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short are the four pockets. Particularly useful for long distance events, these four pockets hold a small coin purse for salt pills during a race, gels or other small items. In an Ironman distance event that means you can load up on gels and energy bars in an aid station and still have a place to stow the empty wrappers. The fabric over the pockets is also compression-stretch so what goes in them stays put and the pockets add almost no drag in the water by staying shut.

The De Soto 4 Pocket Tri Short is $81.95 and sold in several colors including, of course, everyday black. The De Soto Women’s Forza Tri Short has similar features – without pockets.

DeSoto Forza 3 Pocket Tribib
The De Soto 3 Pocket Tribib is a category of its own. Shown inside out in the 2nd and 4th photos from the left. The bib makes for a flattering fit and profile and improves comfort and support.

De Soto Forza 3 Pocket Tribib: Innovation from Adaptation.
Careful readers spotted the one criticism of the De Soto Forza 4 Pocket Tri Short: The waist band. The Forza 3 Pocket Tribib eliminates the entire waist band adding a “brace” or suspender bib section to hold the shorts up and provide a more supportive fit. This design is perfect for athletes who have trouble keeping their shorts up because they are either overweight or very thin. It is also a more flattering look on most athletes since there is nothing “cutting” you at the waist. This short is perfect for events in all but the hottest climates and may even be a viable option in the heat when worn without a top.

One criticism of bib style cycling shorts is difficulty answering the call of nature. The De Soto Forza 3 Pocket Tribib uses a stretchy Carrera Pique front panel to facilitate bathroom breaks by pulling the front of the short down without removing the bibs.

De Soto frequently shows the Forza 3 Pocket Tribib with a Carrera full length Tri Jersey. The Carrera Tri Jersey covers the bib section creating a long, flattering line for men. The function of the Forza 3 Pocket Tribib combined with the Carrera Tri Jersey creates great form even for new athletes looking to lose weight. True to form for De Soto this is brilliantly designed and adapted for real world athletes. De Soto Forza Tribibs are $140. The ladies are missing out on this style as manufacturer’s have yet to develop a convenient solution for women’s bibs.

CEP Compression Tri Shorts
CEP's Compression Tri Short shown inside out in the 2nd from left and 4th from left photos concentrate compression in the leg.

CEP Compression Tri Shorts.
CEP is about performance through compression and understated marketing. If they had a more boastful marketing department their website may read something like this: CEP’s medical grade compression tri shorts are uniquely configured like a fighter pilot’s “G” suit to support the largest muscle groups and facilitate optimal performance during high “G” load foot strike while running. The CEP shorts are unique since they feel like two compression sleeves on each thigh attached to a brief of compression fabric very similar to the De Soto tri shorts.

The legs are free of grippers like the De Soto design and use what feels like higher compression fabric around the thighs. A seam at about whitey-tighty length separates the two levels of compression fabric giving the shorts a unique, secure fit.

The interior features of the CEP Compression Tri Short include a lightweight fleece pad and mesh modesty panels similar to De Soto.

While the feel of these shorts is great through the legs they are tough to don. The inseam measures a slightly longer 9.5 inches (men’s) from center of crotch seam to lower leg. The cut is mid to low waisted, but not Christina Aguilera low. One nick against the waist is the thin, narrow drawstring which has to be pulled quite tight to offset the feeling that the compression legs are pulling your shorts down. A small pocket on the back stays shut in swimming because of a nice flap but isn’t easy to access while running or cycling and is relatively shallow. It’s good for two gel packs. There is a mesh inset just below the waist band in the back so be careful pulling these up.

CEP makes excellent compression socks but is new to the technical tri shorts category and their offering in this category shows their mastery of compression and apprenticeship in technical apparel development.

The shorts are sold in sizes designated by Roman numerals making fit a bit cryptic. I usually take a Medium in tri shorts and found “IV” was the best size for me in the CEP shorts. The shorts are $149.95 and also available in a women’s-specific style. If your main concern is leg/thigh compression you’ll be interested in the CEP Tri Shorts.

2XU Compression Tri Short
The 2XU Compression Tri Short, shown inside out on the two right photos, uses an impressive pad that is oriented for sitting in the triathlon position.

2XU Compression Tri Short: A Subtle Symphony of Bells and Whistles.

I love 2XU’s approach to product development and marketing of their highly technical features and benefits. It is clothing as equipment. The new Men’s Compression Tri Short (model MT1758B) uses nice pattern, technology and design to set itself apart from the others in the super-tri short category.

This short is sold as a compression tri short but the compression feel is less than either De Soto or CEP. If you want a little compression these are a viable choice, feeling more like a Lycra bike short than a compression short. A 9” inseam is moderate for the run and long enough for long rides.

The pad in the 2XU Compression Tri Short is perforated open cell foam laminated between layers of fabric. 2XU calls this the “LD Long Distance Ultra Dry Chamois”. It breaths well and is quite flexible. It may hold a more water than fleece designs initially but the more plush feeling is worth it over a long day at 70.3 or 140.6 distance. The pad is also oriented farther forward for riding in the triathlon position, a credible detail from 2XU.

The waist band on the 2XU Compression Tri Short is flat and relatively wide and does away with drawstrings for a great fit that extends over the entire short. If you don’t like higher compression options this short is a strong candidate for you.

The technology story continues with “2XU Ice X” Xylitol embedded yarn throughout the fabric. This fabric draws heat away from the body and is infra-red resistant for a claimed 5.4 degree Fahrenheit temperature reduction. The fabric does feel cool and light.

At $129.95 the combination of fit, fabric and pad make this a great long distance tri short. Even with the more substantial pad the short is still very run-able. Along with De Soto this is one of my favorites, and likely to become a favorite of the ladies as well with a female specific version with gender specific fit geometry and pad.

Louis Garneau Elite Lazer Tech Tri Short
The Louis Garneau Elite Lazer Tech Tri Short, shown inside out in the two right photos, has comfortable fit and great features for any distance. This was my favorite short in the category.

Louis Garneau Elite Lazer Tech Tri Short: The Category Killer.
We have a winner. Louis Garneau’s Lazer Tech Tri Shorts are a top pick in the super-tri short category. The superb fit, lightweight fabric, freedom of movement and best pad in category sell for a reasonable $129.95. The only nick is the lack of a more modest color, in either men’s or women’s versions, such as all black. It is worth calling out that the women’s version uses a gender-specific chamois pad and different orientation of fabric panels as well as female specific fit.

The heart of this short is the Louis Garneau Tri Elite Crabyon gender specific pad. Both the men’s and women’s pad use a thin layer of foam and is seamless and stretchy. The Crabyon fabric outer seems to dry more quickly, perhaps because of its lighter weight. Crabyon is an anti-microbial fabric for accelerated wound healing that comes from the medical industry. This pad is also reasonably generous making it an ideal long distance tri short. There is no front to back center seam on this short, meaning you sit on more pad and less seam than the others.

There is a small, vertical gel pocket on the Louis Garneau Lazer Tech Tri Short that seems to work well both on the bike and while running. It’s smack dab in the center of your bike so you do have to reach. The short is long-ish at 10.5” inseam but doesn’t “feel” long due to the nice fit at the wide leg openings.

Garneau shows masterful use of fabrics on the Elite Lazer Tech starting with the luxurious leg and waist designs. No drawstrings, no rubber grippers. The shorts feel fantastic on. An “action panel” at the hip provides freedom of motion. The waist band is another best in class design feature. It is a 2.5” wide doubled fabric waist band that provides subtle support, no slip and doesn’t dig in. If you try on several try shorts and then these you’ll carry them to the register. They are even better in the real world on the bike and running. The Louis Garneau Lazer Tech Tri Shorts are less expensive than some in our test and feel the best, especially while running- giving up no comfort on the bike. These are a clear cut winner from sprint to Ironman distance.

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