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Machines for Freedom Key Short: first look review

Part of the shape-inclusive brand’s first foray into MTB kit, are these shorts trail-ready?

What is a hands on review?
Machines For Freedom Key Short
(Image: © Mildred Locke)

Early Verdict

A great looking pair of casual off-road shorts with subtle and tasteful details, ample storage, that allows for a surprising amount of freedom of movement, considering the contoured fit

For

  • Flattering fit, modern casual style
  • Form-fitting but comfortable
  • Five pockets with ample storage space
  • Belt loops
  • Lightweight and low-bulk
  • UPF 50+ protection
  • Subtle reflective detailing

Against

  • Very short and fitted compared to traditional MTB shorts, so may not appeal to everyone
  • Pairing them with knee pads would be a trail fashion faux pas

Machines For Freedom is a brand that has become synonymous with brightly colored road jerseys and an array of female models of all shapes and sizes. Firmly cementing itself as a size- and shape-inclusive brand, MFF says its wares are designed to fit every body and provide the best possible ride experience regardless of what dress size you wear.

Earlier this year it announced that it was moving into the MTB market and launched its first trail-inspired kit. Among the new pieces sits the Key Short — form-fitted but relaxed — designed for all off-road adventures from mountain biking and gravel riding, to hiking and general outdoorsing.

The Key Short comes in two leg lengths — 5.5in and 11in — of which we’re testing the former, and for which my hobbit legs are grateful. So far it’s been subjected to some relaxed gravel rides and a bikepacking trip, and this summer we plan to get a lot more use out of it. That said, we’ll be updating this review later down the road when we’ve had a chance to fully form our opinions, so for now here’s a first look at the MFF Key Short and our early thoughts on how it performs. Does it deserve a spot on our list of the best women's mountain bike shorts?

Design and aesthetics

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Machines For Freedom Key Short

The Key Short has a 5.5in leg length and sits at the mid-to-upper thigh (Image credit: Mildred Locke)
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Machines For Freedom Key Short

The contoured fit is flattering, while the stretch fabric allows for a full range of movement (Image credit: Mildred Locke)

The MFF Key Short very much resembles a pair of gravel shorts or casual hiking shorts rather than traditional mountain bike shorts. They’re not baggy, they sit high on the thigh, and we can’t see them working well with knee pads unless you enjoy going for the roller derby look. That said, they’re superbly made, feel really durable, have a great amount of stretch, and contain many very thoughtful features.

The feature that got me the most excited? Five pockets! Any woman will know that this is a huge deal and almost unheard of for women’s MTB gear (and just clothing in general). We’re often stuck with a couple of side pockets we can barely fit our hands in, while the men’s equivalent model comes with storage galore (I’m looking at you, Rapha).

The MFF Key Short has two scoop pockets at the front, which actually accommodate your hands, two zippered rear pockets large enough to fit a wallet, and then a fifth zippered pocket hidden within the waistband that’s specifically designed to store a phone. Speaking of the waistband, the Key Short also features belt loops, which will have some of us jumping for joy.

The construction of the Key Short does involve a fair amount of seams, all of which are flat-locked to prevent unwanted friction. They’re secured with a zipper, a button and a slide-locking snap closure, which stays put regardless of how many shapes you throw at the trailhead (or in front of the bedroom mirror, who am I to judge?).

Overall we’d describe the style as modern, with tasteful reflective details and understated branding. They come in three colorways — black, yellow and khaki green — of which we’re testing the former. The black color in particular really allows these shorts to blend into your casual wardrobe, making them a solid option for wearing to the pub post-ride, or doubling up as comfortable urban cycling wear.

Performance

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Machines For Freedom Key Short

Five pockets provide ample storage, which is unusual for most women's clothing (Image credit: Mildred Locke)
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Machines For Freedom Key Short

There's a hidden pocket in the waistband specifically for a phone (Image credit: Mildred Locke)

Even on my 156cm frame, the 5.5in Key Short is very short for what I’d normally wear on the trails, sitting at the mid-thigh. I would actually argue that these aren’t all that suitable for the trails, simply because they expose a lot of skin to potential abrasion if a line choice doesn’t go to plan. They’re not designed to be worn with knee pads, but of course you could still slap a pair on if you wish, as long as you don’t mind deviating from the traditional baggy-shorts-over-knee-pads aesthetic that most people are used to. Plus, if you have longer legs than me (which statistically is very likely), then you would one hundred per cent be better off with the longer 11in version.

They’re actually very form-fitting for MTB shorts as well, with a contoured hem that snugly hugs the leg, but they’re relaxed and stretchy, so they look flattering and feel comfortable. The 100 per cent polyester fabric is constructed with 4-Way mechanical stretch for maximum flexibility, and this really shows when you put them on and crouch or lunge. The shorts, despite looking very fitted, allow for a great range of movement and conform around the body with ease.

Wearing them in hot weather, we appreciated their thin, lightweight construction, and so far they seem to do a good job of wicking moisture. They also dry pretty quickly when hung out after a sweaty ride, and somehow manage to avoid building up nasty odors after a few days of continual use. This would make them a great option for long bikepacking trips — something we’ll be subjecting them to next week, in fact.

According to Machines For Freedom, the Key Short is water-resistant, and offers 50+ UPF protection. Thus far we’ve not had an opportunity to get them wet, so cannot confirm or deny this just yet, but watch this space, because in true UK summer style, rain is imminent.

After some time spent pedaling, the shorts haven’t shown any signs of riding up the legs or slipping at the waist, with the slide-snap closure doing an excellent job of keeping everything where it should be. It’s a clever solution, in that it’s very easy to fasten and unfasten, but without physically sliding it horizontally, it’s impossible for it to accidentally undo itself. This is especially great for days when you’re feeling bloated, or on your period, and you don’t want to concern yourself with questions like ‘what if they pop open while I’m riding’. It’s just not going to happen, plus the stretch at the waist is pretty forgiving as well.

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Machines For Freedom Key Short

The slide-snap closure is easy to use and secures the shorts in place very well (Image credit: Mildred Locke)
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Machines For Freedom Key Short

Reflective details are small and subtle (Image credit: Mildred Locke)

Early verdict

So far we really like the MFF Key Short as a versatile gravel and bikepacking item that can double up as casual summer shorts for hiking, walking and enjoying a post-work pint. They’re really comfortable to move around in, very stylish with subtle branding and reflective details, and unusually for a pair of women’s shorts, they actually have a plethora of useful, functional pockets. The hidden rear pocket does fit my Samsung Galaxy, however it’s very snug and is very difficult to access while riding, so if you’re the type to take photos on the move like I am, then you might not want to store your phone there.

We will say, though, they are probably too short for most mountain biking. At 5.5in long, they leave a lot of the leg exposed, so depending on your skillset and confidence levels, you might prefer to save them for gravel rides and bikepacking trips instead.

Tech Specs: Machines for Freedom Key Short

  • Materials: 100% Polyester
  • Sizes: 24-38 (size 30 tested) - check MFF's website for sizing guide
  • Colors: Black, Citronelle, Utility Green
  • Price: $108.00
Mildred Locke

Mildred is a Reviews Writer for Cyclingnews who enjoys everything from road cycling to mountain biking, but is a utilitarian cyclist at heart. Determined to do everything on two wheels, she's even moved house by bike, and can regularly be found pedalling around Bristol and its surrounding areas. She’s spent over four years volunteering as a mechanic and workshop coordinator at the Bristol Bike Project, and now sits on its board of directors. Her expertise comes from previously working in a bike shop and learning the ins and outs of the industry, and she's previously written for a variety of cycling publications, including Bikeradar, Cycling Plus, Singletrack, Red Bull, Cycling UK and Total Women's Cycling. At home on slicks and knobblies alike, her ideal ride covers long distances through remote countryside, on mixed terrain that offers a bit of crunch, followed by a gourmet campfire meal and an overnight bivvy beneath the stars.


Rides: Liv Devote, Genesis Equilibrium Disc 20, Triban RC520 Women's Disc, Genesis Flyer, Whyte Victoria, Cotic BFe 26, Clandestine custom bike

Height: 156cm (5'2")

Weight: 75kg

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view.