High-waist; seamless leg bands; women's-specific chamois construction
High-rise waistband; flattering cut; seamless leg bands; compressive but not suffocating
Chamois feels a bit overbuilt; only available in black
For someone who's been searching for a high-performance, comfortable, and flattering pair of cycling shorts (vs. bibs), I can confidently say that Machines for Freedom hit the ball out of the park with the Essential Short. They've do everything that bibs do without the bother of tight or compressive straps, and you can pee easy.
“You’re really gonna wear those for the first time on a 100-mile ride?” My boyfriend is used to this type of behavior from me, but in this instance it wasn’t laziness or last minuteness forcing me to embark on an epic ride using a piece of gear that I’d never laid eyes on. This time it was intentional. Why did I want to give the Machines for Freedom Essential Short an out-of-the-bag test during a weekend of big miles through big mountains?
“Yep,” I replied. “It’s a women’s brand.”
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Machines for Freedom: Bibs before shorts
While many consider shorts the entry-level little sibling to bibs, Machines for Freedom produced bib shorts for six years before releasing the Essential Short this spring. This gave the company plenty of time to figure out the best features of bibs and translate them to shorts, which have a host of pluses on their own. “My goal,” says Machines founder Jenn Kriske, “was to redefine the classic cycling short.”
For the past few years, Machines has been listening to the feedback of its constituents, plenty of whom ride well over entry-level mileage, who said they wanted a pair of shorts that had the technical benefits of a high-performance bib, but — and I will insert myself here — didn’t want to deal with how annoying it is to fully disrobe when peeing on the side of the road or in a porta-pottie at a race.
Some will argue that the features of a high-performance bib — compression, a high-waist, non-droopiness — are impossible to achieve in a pair of shorts. The Essential Shorts challenge this assertion and with gravitas. After one 100-mile, 10,000-foot day, and another with half the distance and half the vert (both with a passing afternoon shower and lots of the sweat/dry cycle), the shorts stayed snug and upright.
The Essential Short’s high, yoga-inspired waistband stands in complete contrast to the other shorts that I’ve tested this year. In fact, other shorts on the market right now seem to have the opposite of a high waist, which I guess is cute in pants and jeans, but when my cycling shorts ride low, my jersey is rarely long enough in front to cover up my stomach. Then, I feel like a pre-teen girl trying to show some belly. It’s not really cute, or effective. The high waistband of the Essential Shorts eliminates this issue, but most importantly, gives the snug, holding-it-all-in feeling that bib shorts do.
Even though the primary function of cycling shorts is not fashion, let’s face it: If I am going to be out in the world wearing the equivalent of a second skin, I do want it to look nice on my body. The Essential Short looks very nice. In fact, for a long-torsoed, short-legged woman like myself, I think the high waistband even makes my legs look longer.
More importantly, the cut and seams of the shorts are very flattering. The paneled construction is subtly stylish and also gives the impression of long lines. The leg bands are seamless and stay put with silicone grippers (perhaps my favorite trend in cycling shorts right now!). In some shorts, too-tight leg bands are the source of both discomfort and sausage leg; however, I have noticed a similar phenomenon around the stitching of the chamois. As in, the shorts fit, but pinch in where the chamois is sewn to the short, creating a different type of squeezed-into-casing effect. The Essential Short does not have this problem.
I generally wear a size small in cycling shorts, and the Essential Short was no different. And, this year, Machines for Freedom rolled out even more sizes to their already-inclusive lineup, offering jerseys and shorts in sizes XS to XXX-Large. The Machines for Freedom website has a great size chart and for each product also lists the size that the models are wearing, along with their measurements. These shorts had a pretty standard length and hit me about 6 inches from the knee.
Machines for Freedom chamois
I know that, for many women, the size, shape, and depth of a chamois is important. My preference is that less is better in all of those areas, so I did find the Machines chamois a bit overbuilt for my liking. However, for women who do want more padding in sensitive areas, Machines chamois have ischiatic inserts (those go under your sit bones) and a high density pelvic track (which cradles the vulva).
One feature of the chamois that I did appreciate on my long rides was the soft and breathable fabric. According to Machines, it’s bacteriostatic and reduces heat gain. The material is compressive, moisture-wicking, and silky soft to the touch.
Essential Short Verdict
Cycling shorts should not be considered ‘entry-level’ or ‘low end’ compared to bibs, and Machines for Freedom proves that this is the case with the Essential Short. They stood the test of time and mileage during my weekend of testing, and never once did I wish that I was wearing bibs. The high waist stayed up and snug, the leg hems stayed put but didn’t squeeze, and the material wicked moisture and dried quickly.
All of this, and I did not have to strip to pee. It really is a big deal to not have to take off all of your top layers to pee, especially if, like me, you pee a lot during rides and you get chilled easily when stripping down. I would love to see more brands embracing the comeback of shorts for this reason.
The only question that remains unanswered for me regarding the Essential Short has to do with how they wear over time. I wore them multiple days without washing them, so how will they hold up in the washing machine? Will the material maintain its balance of stretch and snugness? Will the chamois become bunchy?
For now, I’ll just say ‘thank you’ to Machines for Freedom. For the rad shorts, yes, but for also allowing me to prove the doubter in my life wrong. I knew you had my back(side).