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Cycling wear has its origins in function, but the tight-fitting shorts and tops are becoming more fashionable for any activity or just to relax in, and at least appear part of the exercise craze.

While proving useful over the decades in cycling, contour-hugging Lycra shorts and tops have apparently also shown themselves as comfortable clothing that can show off a fit figure.That comfort is primarily designed for the cyclist who wants freedom of movement. Whether riding the open road or bushwhacking on a mountain bike, the tight fit and just-above-the-knee length reduces resistance from the wind and foliage, and prevents chafing.

The need for the shorts' built-in padded crotch is obvious - after spending a few hours on a hard narrow bicycle seat,

But for those seriously considering a pair of cycling pants or shorts some other factors should be taken into consideration, says Joyce Brown of Wasatch Touring.

The padding in the seat comes in either chamois or a synthetic material. And although the soft leather costs more, both materials wear the same, Brown said.

Also, the weight and construction of the stretchy Lycra material makes a difference in terms of fit and movement. Eight-ounce Lycra shorts constructed of multipanels, or several sections sewn together, are recommended.

The shorts are primarily black, but many have bright neon color designs and panels.

For those who don't like a tight fit or don't want to be associated with the serious cycling crowd, baggy shorts with a padded crotch are also available.

Brown said the baggy cycling shorts are becoming more popular because of their versatility. "You can ride your bike down to The Pub and and walk in without looking like a jock," she said.

As for cycling tops, the strange-looking jerseys with pockets on the tail only appeal to racing teams. The most common top is a simple T-shirt. But Brown said women like Lycra tops or sport tanks that have the fit and support of a bra but can be worn alone.

What type of shoes to buy depends on how serious a cycler you are. A sturdy pair of running or cross-training shoes will do. But special cycling shoes with extra stiff soles (for mountain biking) or a cleat that clips into the pedal (for road bikes) and made of breathable material are available.

One item of cycling wear that probably will never become a fashion statement - although it is the most critical in terms of safety - is the helmet.

Helmets come in two forms: hard shells with a durable plastic outer shell or lighter soft shells with removable nylon covering. In terms of protection, both hard and soft shell are equally effective.

But Brown said to make sure any helmet has been tested and stamped with Snell approval.