The chamois is All-Mighty. We sit on them, we wear them for hours, they protect us in all disciplines of cycling and in a most lady-like fashion we let out torrential squeakers in them. That’s a tall order for what was once the skin of a European mountain goat sewed into black, itchy wool shorts.
The chamois, pronounced ‘sha-mwa’, is affectionately known as the ‘shammy’ in North America. It’s a French word and is named after the chamois goat-antelope animal (Rupricapra rupricapra) found in the Pyrénées, a mountainous region of southern France. Its hide is very smooth, absorbent, and doesn’t scratch which made it a sought-after leather.
Around 1709 the chamois leather was almost used exclusively by the glove making industry in southwest France. When tanned in local cod oil of nearby Biarritz, on the shore of the Atlantic coast, it was discovered that the leather had unprecedented absorbency. As such, they were fashioned into soft white gloves designed for carriage footmen who cleaned and polished carriages. Eventually, with the introduction of the car in the early 1900’s, the chamois continued to be used as a cleaning, buffing, and polishing material. Other uses for the chamois over the years include fuel filters, grips for field hockey and golf, polishing cloths for jewels and shoes, orthopedics, and general household cleaning.
In due course, the chamois was stitched into a pair of wool shorts. Riders used chamois cream to keep the leather supple but this is not to be confused with today’s ‘Butt Cream’ which serves as more of a conditioner for a woman’s hooha to prevent saddle sores and other uncomfortableness. In 1986 DuPont invented Coolmax, and a new breed of synthetic leathers was developed. With new materials, better stitching and engineering the riding short has become more comfortable, quicker drying, and more absorbent thanks to a multi-density proprietary foam. Despite these developments it is still challenging for women to find the perfect fitting chamois.
The chamois main purpose is to provide support and protection in a riders ‘sensitive’ areas and to reduce chaffing by transferring moisture away from the body. The chamois also supports the ischial tuberosity, aka the sit bones. Typically, a woman’s chamois is built to accommodate the female undercarriage where the pubic arch is shallow and broad and the sit bones are placed higher than that of a man’s (Fig. 1). A women’s chamois should also be designed to protect our soft tissue while absorbing moisture and guard
from fungal growth and smell with anti-bacterial materials.
While science has caught up with comfort, style, and fit, changes have also been made to accommodate the different types of cycling. For example, with an upright position a commuter’s chamois should offer more protection toward the back of the chamois. (Figure 2). As opposed to a track cyclist who would need protection closer to the front of the saddle to adjust for a forward and aggressive body position. Mountain bikers are unique as the chamois needs to offer a variety of protection according to the discipline. I used to wear a thick regular shammy which felt much like a mattress between my legs. Well maybe not quite that bad but you get the picture. Today though I find more comfort wearing a very thin commuter chamois for when I downhill or dirt jump as 90% of the time I am out of the saddle. For a XC ride I turn to a more built up chamois as I know I’m going to sit down more.
Finding bike specific chamois is, luckily, becoming easier as more manufacturers design and create women’s cycling clothing. I buy my mountain bike gear in one local mountain bike shop and my road gear in another local shop that caters more to the road crowd. Different chamois, different shops.
Choose your armour wisely. And remember not to wear underwear under a chamois – it defeats the purpose of anti-chaffing.
Cécile is a freelance action and portrait photographer living in North Vancouver, BC. Honing her skills from riding all sorts of bikes, her photographs are a fusion of Fine Art and Action to create vivid, exciting and engaging images. Her work has been featured in exhibitions, and has been published in national magazines. For more of Cécile’s work please visit www.cecilegambin.com