The Rise of the Compact Crank (aka “The Death of the Triple”)

01.jpg In the road bike market, you may have noticed that nearly every manufacturer is offering bikes with compact double crankset, ie road cranks with a 110mm chainring bolt-circle typically mounting a 50 and 34 tooth chainring combination. Bike companies have toted the compact double as the ideal way to gain most of the benefits of a triple crank (namely better low range gearing) while having a better chainline and lower weight. This is mainly true, but before you decide that the compact double crank is right for you, you should understand its real advantages for you as a user as well as the motivations bike companies have for selling it to you.

02.jpgUltegra SL standard double (top) and compact double cranksets. Notice the size difference between the compact double’s rings.

First, let’s back up a few decades to the days when Campagnolo Nuevo Record was the king of component groups. Back then crankset dimensions generally were 144mm bcd (bolt-circle diameter), and typical chainrings were a 52/42 tooth combo. On the other hand, freewheels of that era were usually 6-speed units. A tight ratio for flatland racing and criteriums might be a 13-19 straight block, meaning single tooth jumps between gears, while a touring cluster might be 14-28. Racers would always prefer freewheels that offered the smallest jumps between gears while still offering the lowest gear necessary for a given race course. The small jumps allow racers to stay at their most efficient pedal cadence as much as possible. Non-competition riders would generally prefer wider range clusters, since they wouldn’t have the luxury of a team mechanic setting up their bike specifically each day. Having a broader gear range gives those riders more flexibility for widely varying terrain.

You”ll notice that with a 6-speed freewheel, to have close jumps between the gears (“close ratio”) you must accept a narrow overall range. That’s why the 52/42 chain combination made sense: the ten-tooth jump between the rings creates a useable overlap between the gearing combinations. This would change over time, and when 7-speed became firmly established, most manufacturers moved to a crank with a 130mm bcd (or 135mm for Campagnolo) that allowed a 39 tooth inner chainring (though racers stil preferred a 42 tooth ring). Combined with a 53 outer ring, every rider could take better advantage of the extra cog in the cluster.

cluster%2001.jpgSeen above: Regina America six-speed freewheel 13-19 and a Shimano Dura Ace 11-23 ten-speed cassette.

Later still the industry moved to 8, 9, and today’s 10-speed cassette style cog clusters. A cassette construction, wherein the cog clusters slide onto a ratcheting body integral to the rear hub, also allows an 11-tooth cog, which was not an option with freewheels. Now a racer’s cassette choice might be an 11-23 or 12-25, and a touring rider can have a 12-27 or 13-29 while still having plenty of single-tooth jumps within that range. Thus, even today’s narrowest overall range ten-speed cassette is still significantly broader than a six-speed straight block of 13-19 while still maintaining mainly single-tooth jumps.

Right about the time that nine-speed drivetrains were becoming the standard for road bikes, road bikes enjoyed renewed sales presence, particularly at the high-end. Call it the Lance Effect or whatever, people were willing to shell out cash for high-quality stuff. And it wasn’t just young racers who wanted the good stuff. Shimano and Campagnolo began offering triple cranksets in their top-of-the-line groups to tap into the disposable incomes of touring riders and older riders either new or returning to the sport.

Triple road cranksets were/are structurally akin to the existing double cranks. Usually the third chainring is a 74mm bcd mounting inboard of the other two chainrings. The right triple crankarm is often minimally different than a double with the left being identical; the width of the bottom bracket spindle is greater so that the 74mm innermost ring is far enough away from the from the seat tube to sit properly in the front derailleur’s arc. Triple cranks require special derailleurs and often front shifters. A matching rear derailleur with longer pulley wheel cage accommodates the increased chain slack caused by the wide range between the chainrings. The front derailleur of course needs to deal with the increased swing across three chainrings as well as the innermost ring’s tiny diameter. Depending on the design, component manufacturers might choose to create a modified front integrated shift/brake unit specifically for triple (ex. Shimano Dura Ace). Initially the triple cranks had 52/42/32 chainring set that had almost become a standard combination choice, but eventually a 53/39/30 set became the preference. This combo is exactly a racing double’s 53/39 with an extra chainring (wags will call it a “granny gear”) thrown in.

So, the market had finally reached nirvana: he-man racers got doubles, and a triple crank solved every other problem. Simple, yes? But then on the heels of the new 10-speed drivetrains came the compact double crank featuring 50/34 tooth rings.

Though double cranks with 110mm bcd had existed in the past, they were never really common for road bikes nor did they have the 16-tooth jump between the rings typical of today. An important hurdle to overcome was chainring design that would allow smooth shifting with the chainring size difference, which is greater in the modern compact double than ever before. Sophisticated ramps and pick-up pins (and sometimes compact specific front derailleurs) were necessary to help lift and guide the chain during front upshifts. Shimano had been an industry leader in this technology going back a decade or more, but another company beat them to the punch in marketing similar techniques in a compact double.

Starting about 2002 or so, FSA made huge gains in the OEM market as well as the consumer aftermarket because of their innovative carbon cranksets, attractive pricing, and range of product. At the time of their compact double crank introduction, their modular chainring spider allowed them to easily adapt from existing standard double and triple production.

cluster%2002.jpg Seen here clockwise from top: Dura Ace 12-27 ten-speed, DA 11-23 ten-speed, and Regina America 13-19 six-speed.

Initially the compact double was considered a special application item, a tool for a hillclimb. This concept was cemented by Tyler Hamilton’s success with an early FSA compact crank during the 2003 Tour de France. A compact double had the chainline and narrower pedal stance of a standard double but almost the same low gearing of a triple crank because the compact’s 34 tooth inner ring split the difference between the two smaller rings of a triple. And a compact double could be lighter than either of the other two options. For racers, the compact double crank made great sense if the race was primarily uphill, but the uphill time trialist segment of the market is very narrow indeed, not enough to seize the OEM market. As much as anything else, the ease of marketing and producing complete bikes with compact doubles would be the reason these cranks are everywhere today.

It’s a two-fold reason. Component manufacturers would rather offer compact double cranksets instead of triples. Even if they could produce a triple version of a standard double with minimal changes to tooling (ex: Shimano Dura Ace 7700/7703 nine-speed and 7800/7803 ten-speed double/triple cranksets), the complexity of producing triple shifters and derailleurs to match far outweigh the cost developing the molds or dies for the compact crank. And for companies offering complete bikes, they know that they can often get away with offering road bikes only with compact cranks, particularly in the entry- to mid-level segments. Reduced variation means easier stocking, which leads to better profitability.

Three years ago, this was more disagreeable to me. At the time, cassette ranges for road bikes did not allow the compact double to properly shine. A compact double needs an 11 tooth start cog for most riders in not-so hilly areas, but in the past most cassettes with an 11 were narrow range with a 21 or 23 tooth bottom end. That didn™t really give much more low end than a 12-27 with a standard double. Now that 11-25 or 11-26 are more common, compact doubles are approaching the overall range of triple cranks. And in 2009, Shimano is introducing an 11-28 cassette in its Dura Ace line, bringing the gap down even more.

However, the downside is that the triple crank is being demoted from top of the line offerings. Shimano’s top-of-the-line Dura Ace 7900 next year gains a “DA” branded compact crank but drops the triple offering. Campagnolo has eliminated triple derailleurs branded to match their upper-end component groups. Even more telling, Campagnolo has yet to indicate that they will develop a triple version of their Ultra Torque style cranksets. And though only in the road market for two or three years, SRAM doesn’t even make a triple crankset at any price point.

Who suffers from this? With the newly expanded cassette ranges, compact cranks are more capable than ever, but I happen to wrench in a shop in a hilly area that caters to special niches in the high-end. Sometimes a 34 tooth inner ring just doesn’t offer a low enough gear even with a 28 tooth cog, particularly for touring riders. Not only are my customers looking for triple road cranks, they would like even more range on the cassettes. We’re putting mountainbike derailleurs on road triples for touring riders. I would like to offer both high-quality road triples and ten-speed cassettes with a 34 tooth bottom-end.

When I toured in Japan, my bike had a road triple with 28-tooth chainring and 27-tooth bottom cog. If a ten-speed 11-34 cassette had been available, it would have given me a comparable gearing range on a compact double, but the actual 12-27 cassette on a triple gave me closer ratios. I don’t think that bigger jumps between gears would have been favourable, but the closer pedal stance might have been kinder to my knees on the ride through Honshu, Japan. The hypothetical reduction in weight is meaningless on a touring bike that weighs 65 pounds loaded.

03.jpg Seen here clockwise from top: Ultegra SL compact double crank, Ultegra SL standard double, and Ultegra triple.

Finally, the question: will the compact double completely replace the standard double as well? Not very likely. Racers in most cases will need standard doubles because they’ll need that 53-tooth ring to get a big enough gear. ProTour riders use a 53x11 top gear on flat stages and sometimes 55x11 or bigger for time trials. Cassette hubs can’t fit a cog with less than 11 teeth because of the size of the bearings and axle supporting the cassette body, so there is no way to approximate that kind of gearing with a 50-tooth big ring on a compact. Yes, you could just make a 53+tooth ring with a 110mm bcd to fit the compact crank, but such a ring would likely deflect more under power than would be acceptable without the larger 130mm bcd spider to support it. What about normal amateur racers who don’t need an 11-tooth cog with a 53 ring? A compact double’s 50x11 is very close to a 53x12, even a bit bigger. Arguably though, the standard double is better since the 53 tooth ring yields tighter ratios. For instance, upshifting from the 13-tooth cog into the 12 on a 53 ring is a smaller jump than a 12 to 11 shift on a 50 ring. And the racer’s desire for closer ratios was the reason for developing drivetrains with increasing numbers of cogs on the cluster.

So Campagnolo Record and Shimano Dura Ace will no longer be available in triple. On one hand, the traditionalist in me hates progress. On the other hand, before the turn of the century (as in the 21st) neither of those groups was traditionally available with triples.

So…yeah…um…compact doubles are good? Triples were mechanical abominations for weaklings who didn’t deserve top of the line racing components anyways, right?….

Well, those answers aren’t going to please everyone. But I suppose that as long as someone like Shimano at least offers triple cranks and shifting systems at the Ultegra level, the world will be okay.



69 Comments

Having just rode a triple on test, this post is well-timed. One thing is that with the “close” to your 53 x 39 based gear ratio, it’s gonna take a while to get used to the newness and finding that right gear. I’m experiencing that now riding a SRAM 11 x 26 on my double. Works great, but I’m just not in the right gear (yet). Also, triples just never have gained the acceptance with roadies. Sure you can show up with one . . . and someone’s gonna ask if your bike came with a purse and matching pumps.

@DL Byron—My life would be much easier if my triples came with a purse and matching pumps. Of course, my bikes aren’t multi-thousand-dollar road bikes.

I like my torelli w/its double, but crackly knees tell me to use my triple more often with a load (clothes, lunch, pumps… just kidding) even on a sunny morning like today (it’s my rain bike). I am interested in all this adjustable gearing; helps me understand how the cassette on my touring bike is actually geared. Now off to work with me!

I’m a CAT 2 racer and I’ve got a 53/39 + 11/23 on my race bike and a 50/34 + 11/28 on my non-race bike.  I mostly ride the non-race bike when I go out because of the climbs here in Colorado and because I can still spin at around 35+mph.  However, I’d never use a compact crank in a race when pedalling speeds will reach 40+mph regularly.

@Daphne—Ha, I think you could get a celeste Bianchi with matching pumps and purse and that’d look damn sexy!

See my related post here on [actually riding a triple](http://bikehugger.com/2008/05/true_confessions_i_rode_a_trip.htm).  And, Bill Davidson said, “yeah, just wait until your knees go.” Joking aside choices are good. For example, I’m a huge fan of internally geared drivetrains.

@ Huge—good point and cadence/speed is a def an issue in a crit/sprint. At our local tuesday night world championships, I’m regularly spun out in a 53 x 11.

Wow Mark - that was a brilliant article.  Great history lesson as well!

I just got back from a weekend bike camping trip.  We rode from Auburn through Black Diamond, across the Green River Gorge up into Ravensdale.  It was only 30 miles each way, but with nearly 60lbs of gear, 32mm wide tires and a over 2000ft of climbing (each way), I had to hit the granny gear and the 32t on my 8spd cassette a few times.

Even on a ~20lbs road bike with a triple and a 12-27t cassette, that still seems a bit high gearing for long distance rides with lots of climbing.

Around here, once in a while you hit an 18% hill.  Depending on your bike’s geometry, your size , etc. - standing isn’t always a good option.

Sean:

I spent a good deal of time out of the saddle while climbing the Japanese Alps, but I was pretty satisfied with my gearing choice.  You didn’t mention the size of your granny gear, but I’m guessing that it’s probably a 32, maybe a 30.  For my Japan trip, I used a Tiagra triple with stock 50/39/30 rings and then I swapped the original 30 with a 28. That works because front derailleur was designed to work with a 23 tooth difference, and the rear derailleur’s cage was long enough. 

For loaded touring I am convinced that lowrider front mounts are the way to go.  They get the weight down low, so the bike is more stable.  My touring buddy had a rear rack, and my bike absolutely handled better.

Nuovo Record, sheesh.
What’s wrong with Italian?
Even the long dead King of Components deserves better.

Anyway… thanks for all the other words!

Another advantage of compact doubles over triples is that they’re easier to set up and get acceptable shifting, especially for lower-end components. Plus the trim-click function and cross-chaining on a triple can be confusing for a first-time rider(and I’m being generous -I know a lot of not-first-time riders who still don’t quite get it).

I commute on a 34/48 with 12-25 cassette. Only spin out going down hills. I’m absolutely convinced that compact doubles make sense for everyone but racers.

There are plenty of older chainsets with small BCDs and 52T or larger rings, a 52 on a 110 BCD is not an issue.  Your historical perspective seems a bit focused on racers, find a retro-grouch to talk about randonneuring or touring and you’ll likely find a different perspective on appropriate cycling equipment.

One more thing- Santana makes a 10 speed “mountain” cassette for use on their tandems. Their may be others out there, especially if someone develops 10 speed flat-bar shifters.

Tai:

you know, I kept looking at “neuvo” thinking, “that’s not right.”  Usually I just write “NR” for Nuovo Record, and thus “SR” for Super Record.

I also kept looking at the word “ten” thinking that I’d spelled it wrong.  It still doesn’t look right to me, but that might be the cold medicine talking all along.

Jimmy:

the historical perspective is skewed towards racers because drivetrain development is skewed towards racers.  Integrated shifting, indexed gears, shift pins on chainrings, Hyperglide, etc….the list goes on, and it was all developed and marketed towards racers first.  Of course there are exceptions, but the market is very racer -first/trickle-down later. i’m not saying this is good, but it is reality.

I’ve done touring and I know retro…I speak half-step, Huret, Zeus, Suntour, etc. My shop does full-custom touring bikes all the time. However, the bulk of the market is “performance-oriented” road bikes, and not even Rivendell sells old French derailleurs anymore. Sad but true (well, it’s not really sad about the end of cheap French derailleurs).

Santana does market a ten-speed wide range cassettes, but you pay a LOT for substantially less quality than a Shimano. Word is Shimano isn’t really interested in developing those ten-speed wide-range cassettes. They just don’t feel the market for touring riders is big enough to return the investment, which again is another example how market caters preferentially to racers and wannabes.

Yes, the 52T rings on 110mm bcd cranks did exist, but the tolerances demanded by ten-speed drivetrains make 130mm bcd more desirable for rings that big or bigger.  Maybe if super-duper carbon reinforced rings came became fashionable, there’d be a change to 110mm bcd for ProTour racers, but I don’t see it anytime soon. 

Cyclingnews had a review of a Hampsten Cycles bike with some quotes from Andy Hampsten.  It’s interesting to read his viewpoint on gearing old and new. 

cyclingnews.com

.

Ah, timely article, thanks for the link. Love those fat tires, too! With the articles on the bikes of Paris-Roubaix in all their fat-tired glory, I’m curious to see if any of that will trickle down, too. Specialized seems to have done Ok with their “Roubaix” model and related claims.

I hear ya about “performance-oriented” road bikes, I guess it’s just my wishful thinking that “performance” meant something else, or at least several types of something else. I’ve got my share of lightweight bikes, too.

How much is that Santana cassette? It’s got to be ungodly expensive.  Anyhows, now everybody knows why I’m trying to keep the fleet all 9-speed, or figure out a way to use a 10s shifter with 9s cog spacing(haven’t looked into it much, you?).

Thanks for this site, just found it, not trying to come off as a know-it-all, jsut excited about bikes!

Jimmy Livengood
Seattle, WA

 

Jimmy:

I can’t remember the retail price for the Santana cassette off the top of my head, but i do remember feeling bad about charging it to the customer last time.

the solution to the 9s mtb cassette with the 10s shifter, for my shop, has been the Jtek Shiftmate. it’s a cable-pull adapter that installs at the rear derailleur.  it’s a little more gimmicky than i would prefer, and you absolutely have to trim rear derailleur cable housing right, but it seems to get good service from the customers who use it.  we’ve got at least a dozen (probably more) customers out on it at the moment since about 10 month ago.  once you install one correctly, it’s easy.

If you go back a bit more in history and look outside the racing scene a version of the compact double is easy to find with TA/Stronglight style cranks set up with a 48ish large and a 30ish small ring.  Not a 110BCD compact, but functionally similar in that it offers the gear range of most triples.

Industry motivations for the phasing out of triples granted, the 110BCd makes sense for most riders.  A 50-13 gear at 100rpm will move a 23-622 wheeled bike at 30.1 mph which is more than adequate for most, and the benefits at the low end are obvious. 

I for one think compact doubles are great. The technology is better for commuters and other utilitarian riders than it is for racers… and that’s great. Cars are made that way, why shouldn’t bike be?

Just consider how many of the endless masses of old steel ‘ten-speeds’ can be made into hill-capable, friction shifting, beauties with a compact crank. Squeeze in a modern rear wheel with a 8,9 or 10 speed cassette, pick up a long-cage rear derailleur on it, and your running a capable, inexpensive, reliable, street machine.

I’ve got a compact crank on my 20+ year old Trek road frame and it has helped give it a new lease on life. Utilitarianism rocks!!

Hey Mark…
FYI…Tai Po isn’t Tai Lee…you know I don’t know jack about campy.

Tai Lee

to summarize: there are two reasons for the rise of the compact.

<ol>
<li>marketing and stock</li>
<li>macho behavior</li>
</ol>

A very timely article—it will have me looking for DuraAce triple closeouts while they are still around.  Too bad, though, I’d hae liked the internal cable routing of the 7900 DA line that is coming.

I’ve never raced, never intend to, but am serious enough to have a powertap.  In the last few years I’ve been through a 50/40/28, 53/39, 50/34, and now I’m using a 53/39/30 triple.  I routinely climb hills where with the 30 inner and a 34 tooth mountain cog, it takes 240+ watts to turn 85rpm, and there are hills where 260 watts will have me going 54 rpm.  I’d be happy with an even lower inner.  A very well known racer acquaintance told me to believe the numbers, and not buy into the ego thing of bigger gearing.  Only the watts count, and the closer to a decent cadence they are, the better off you will be.

I don’t think compacts are the only good answer, though it’s a nice idea, and I was happy with it until I got back to more serious climbing.

TBV

TBV,

Contador was riding a 34 x 27 on that hilly stage of the Giro and interestingly coaches are now saying that cadence is out now as a “doesn’t’ really matter” (post Lance era) It’s all wattage, whether you’re turning 85 or 105.

are you sure the new dura ace won’t have a triple version? My local bikeshop in Belgium told me the 7900 will come this summer and they just don’t know if there won’t be a triple.

Production versions of Dura Ace 7900 will reach the professional teams this summer, no doubt just in time for the Tour de France.  But I wouldn’t expect DA to reach the retail market until at least fall.  That is the general pattern with Shimano.  In other words, I’d be really surprised if your bike shop has DA 7900 to sell this summer.

Officially, there is a media blackout from Shimano until June 1st, meaning that Shimano has no official news releases about DA 7900.  I’m waiting to get some news release from my regional Shimano rep in a few days.

However, one of the worst kept secrets in the industry is that Shimano produces a huge book of production specs for up coming models.  They’ve had this available since February or so for major OEM product managers to place orders for their 2009 complete bikes.  Parts makers generally feed the OEM market first, then the aftermarket. Thus, I expect the aftermarket kits to be fall because bike manufacturers need their units ASAP so that their complete can ship. 

Anyways, I’ve seen all the specs for Shimano, and they have zero mention of triples for 7900 over about 6 pages of detail specs.  Furthermore, I’ve talked to industry insiders, and they’ve heard nothing about triples either.  Just by reading the specs, I can tell you that not a single component is common between 7800 and 7900 even though they are both 10sp.  As a matter of fact, you won’t be able to mix derailleurs or shifters. There is a compact planned (maybe slightly later delivery), and the crankarms are not carbon for either standard or compact.  What I don’t know is what exactly they look like, since the pre-production units keep evolving cosmetically. 

Still, there is nothing to stop Shimano from introducing a 7900 triple version in 2010.  After all, there was a year delay between the introduction of 7800 and its 7803 triple companion.  Yet, what is telling is that Shimano is all gung-ho for compact from the beginning of 7900.  Pre-production plans call for DA 7900 to have a medium cage rear derailleur (to better work with wide-ratio cassettes on compact cranks) and apparently no short cage offering.

Time will tell though. Check back in a few days and I may have some more concrete information.

DL wrote, “Contador was riding a 34 x 27 on that hilly stage of the Giro and interestingly coaches are now saying that cadence is out now as a “doesn’t’ really matter” (post Lance era) It’s all wattage, whether you’re turning 85 or 105.”

I heard today Contador switched to a 34x30 for the time trial.  I’ll take that as a hint.

I’m not concerned about the 85-105 rpm debate—but when it drops down to the 40s or 50s or even 60s at high wattage, like I was getting with the 34 ring on some hills, it just isn’t low enough.  Run the numbers—I think most people can’t turn 280+ watts at 50 rpm for very long without problems. 

For some reason, MTB riders are beyond the ego thing, and will cheerfully run triples with very low gears.  And the makers produce them.  The XTR triple is > $500, and is 44/32/22.  If a 52/36 or 50/34 compact give reasonable shifting, then a 52/36/24 road triple ought to be workable, and would be useful for a lot of people.

Narrow gearing only works for people who can push 3-4 w/kg for a long time, or who live in Kansas.  There aren’t that many of them in reality, but there are a lot of people who have egos that say they ought to, and buy equipment as if they do.

Anyway, I completely believe no DA triple for the 7900, at least for a while.  It is further proof of The Conspiracy.

thanks,
TBV

TBV:

recent custom bikes i’ve had to build up have brought something to my attention that is pertinent to the discussion.  I have discovered that SGS mountain derailleurs don’t work so well on short chainstay bikes.  What happens is that when the derailleur swings forward on big-big combinations, the chainline from the lower pulley to the chainring is really severe beause the cage wants to stay in the same vertical plane as the cog.  it’s just a function of the long cage putting that pulley so close to the chainring.  so in my recent experience, one should avoid cassettes with 34t bottom ends on bikes with chainstays less than 41.0 or 41.5cm.

Explicitly I am saying that compact cranks with 11-34 cassettes are a bad choice for a racing geometry bike.  Even though on paper, a road triple with matching rear derailleur would have crappier chainline than a compact double with a mtb rear derailleur, in practice more ring-cog combinations are useable for the road.  Additionally the triple would have closer ratios.

I suppose you could alleviate the chain problem by going with a smaller big ring (~46 teeth) but a lot of riders won’t like the loss on the top end.

My current favourite crank for touring riders is a Shimano 105 triple 50/39/30 with the stock 30t inner ring swapped for a 28t.  Running that with a 12-27 cassette and triple rear derailleur works great.  It still isn’t as low as I’d like to offer, but I personally hate spec’ing bikes with drivetrains that I don’t have absolute faith in…because experience tells me that the bike with crappy shifting will come back again and again for service.  Modern 10sp systems don’t leave that much room for personal expression.

I favor the 50/34 crank and a 12/25 cog combination. I have another road bike equipped with 53/39 crank but I seldom use it because its not good for a long distance ride. I admit the 53/39 is fast but if your knees are not trained for a hard pedaling on hilly road, the 50/34 will easily beat and out run you. The reason for that is because it is more comfortable and lighter for your knees to cranked the pedals though your cadence is more faster than a 53/39. Your energy is not much spend and you can breath easily while on long ride. A 53/39 if you are not experience to use it can give you serious trouble along the way. I always had a “Cramp knees” before while using this 53/39 bike.

The [Zipp Vuma](http://www.zipp.com/Products/Cranks/tabid/82/CategoryID/6/List/1/Level/1/ProductID/132/Default.aspx?SortField=ISBN,ProductName) uses a 110mm bolt cirlce for both its 53-39 and 50-34 chainring set ups. They seem to have worked out the deflection issues. Granted expensive, but it seems like a good trend. If it can trickle down to more affordable cranks it would help the mere mortal who doesn’t have a bike mechanic on call 24/7 with the ability to switch back and forth without having to switch out the entire crank.

I race (Cat 4, looking to upgrade to 3 this season.) I am currently running the 53-39 set up, but am thinking of trying a compact because I want to spin a bit more on the hills, especially in training.

Our coach has us doing a lot of work in specific heart rate zones, but wants us to always be spinning above 95. Gearing is particually an issue in heart rate/wattage zone training which requires sitting in various HR/wattage zones to effectivly train the different “slow twitch” “fast twitch” muscle groups.

On climbs with the standard 53-39 that means a low cadence in order to stay in an “endurance zone”. 

For whatever its worth, it does not seem to be the accepted wisdom that lower cadence is “back in fashion” post Lance. Our coaches keep us in the 95+ range, with lots of trianing in the 100 to 120 rpm range.  The science of spinning is well documented. Higher cadence helps to enlists the “slow twitch” longer lasting endurance muscles, while lower cadence, bigger efforts, enlist the “fast twitch” glycogen burning muscles, which don’t last as long.

I’m curious if any other racers have thoughts on this?  Do any of you train on a compact cranks to help with cadence?  And if so, do any of you race your compact cranks, or only use them for training?

nyc:

I suspect that Zipp choose to develop just one mould for both standard and compact.  My prediction is not a lot of pro teams will be using those Zipp cranks, but a fair number of affluent individuals will.  And that market segment is pretty hot for compact.  So Zipp went were the money is.

As for defelection, I’d say that Zipp compromised for the sake of production costs.  I doubt that they put as much into shifting development as Shimano or Campy.  A friend of mine was telling me how in the early Nineties he saw Shimano’s lab for mtb chainring testing.  It had an array of 14 naval gun cameras set to fire away hundreds of times per second to precisely analyze the path of the chain. 

Seeing the new 7900 DA, Shimano obviously thinks more stiffness in the chainring is a good thing.

I doubt the 4-arm spider will influence the road crank market, but the 30mm spindle may.  But that’s connected with frame design as well.  It’s just another topic that I’d love to write about if I had more time.

 

 

I currently am riding a Dura-Ace 9-speed double 53x39, and I would like to put on a compact 48x34 of decent quality - say, comparable to Ultegra or better, preferably in Octalink or ISIS rather than square taper.  What is available?

Just found this article.
It was an interesting read.

I myself was struggling with 53/39 and a 12-23 8 gears casette for long, but after a year following the Tour de France route in the Alpes/Pyrenees for the next year I put on a 11-28 casette, which was just about enough.

Now as I’m building a new bike, I think it’s time for a compact.

I’d prefer a 12/23 casette for close ratio, but surely will miss the 25.  But I’d miss the 18 as well, I spend quite a lot of time in that. (53x19)

There’s another issue too. For a close casette with a compact 50/34, shifting to easier than 50/19 is to drop to 34/14, 4 or 5 cogs depending on 12-23 or 12-25.

I wonder if it’ll be just as easy and fast to do both ways as in was with normal crankset?

I’ll know soon enough.

There is a simple solution to this.  Just run 9 speed instead of 10 speed.  You will then have access to all mountain cassettes with the gearing range you desire.

True, but only if you choose Tiagra or Sora STI, or some Shimano shifter that is no longer in production.  And it’s not really a practical option if you are buying a production bike off the floor.  Overall, the market is moving away from triples, and it will be interesting to see what will happen in the next 3 years. 

Working for a custom builder who does a lot of touring bikes, I’m really keen to see what the Ultegra for 2010 (or 2011 at the latest) will look like.  If no triple option, that could be the nail in the coffin.

Incredibly comprehensive and great article, Mark! One of the major bike magazines definitely could use your talents.

There’s only two nits I’d like to pick:

> “A compact double needs an 11 tooth start cog for most riders in not-so hilly areas…”

Really? A recreational rider *must* have the 11-tooth cog, ‘cuz going from a 53t ring to a 50t is just such a huge drop? 12 isn’t enough with a ‘pact? Really now?

Y’know, Eddy Merckx won an absolute ton of races with a top gear of 53x13. And 50x12 is a bigger than that.

At 100 rpm, 50x12 gives you close to 32mph. I see damn few recreational riders who can maintain that pace for any length of time. Even drafting, it’s tough.

Let’s face it, rec riders don’t really *need* an 11 (want is a different thing) unless the big ring is smaller than a 50. It’s useful to them really only on significant downhills, and even there, weight and/or a nice aero tuck can compensate (or just being able to actually SPIN, a lost art, it seems).

Racers and triathletes, sure, give them the 50x11 (or better yet 53x11), but everyone else is just engaging in ‘wannabe’ gearing for the most part.

...


> (in the comments) “Yes, the 52T rings on 110mm bcd cranks did exist, but the tolerances demanded by ten-speed drivetrains make 130mm bcd more desirable for rings that big or bigger.”

Sure, all else being equal. But even today, in the era of ten-speed drivetrains, that sure isn’t stopping component makers like FSA, Sugino, and TA from continuing to produce 52t rings for compact cranks.

There are definitely ppl out there running setups like 52/36 on compact with few or no complaints. Sometimes we can let ‘the perfect’ be the enemy of the good.

Other than that, remarkable article. Thank you for sharing it.

...

 

 

I wanted to say thanks for writing this very informative article.  I’m shopping for my first road bike, and this really helped explain the differences between the triple and the compact double.  Additionally, thanks to everyone that added comments, there’s some really good information in here.

Not sure why MarkV is hating on the use of bigger ‘rings on a compact.

After all, wasn’t Tyler Hamilton’s famous ‘compact’ Tour de France ride done with 52/36?

Didn’t seem to be a problem.

But I’d agree that monster-gearing like a 55T outer isn’t a good idea w/a compact. Also fairly pointless, since the inner ring would then have to be at least a 39T, i.e. no advantage over a standard double.

I’ll hate on compact for being compact. Us bigger dudes that roll gears, cannot find the right gear on compact. Maybe after 15 years of muscle conditioning we would not constantly shift to find the equivalent to a 53 x 17. Give me a 39 x 27 and if I can’t climb something, time to switch sports.  It’s like folding bikes claiming their geometry is exactly the same as a road bike. Uhm, no it’s not and compact is not equivalent in some combination. That being said, sure it works for some cyclists and significantly better than a triple on a road bike.

“I just can’t find the right gear on a compact” is just a very odd argument. More like, “I can’t do basic math” and/or “I love tradition and just don’t want to try something new”.

Here’s a tip: 50x16 is almost exactly the same gear as a 53x17 (the 50x16 is about 0.2% harder, i.e. unnoticeable in real-world riding).

There, you’re done. Don’t thank me, your gratitude is enough.

Hey “math major” some of us are “Mr or Mrs. Millimeters” that can detect slight differences and changes. On paper sure, but on the bike nope. Not the same. As I said above, ride a compact if you want cool and much better than triples.

Face it Byron, you CAN’T tell a diff of 0.2% between two gears. You just can’t. You’re talking around 1/10th of a tooth on the chainring, 1/25th of a tooth on the cog.

Do a double-blind test, and get back to me. Either that, or go talk to Shimano and Campy and request your ‘16.96 tooth’ cog, LOL.

There are a lot of problems with biking gear and equipment, but this just isn’t one of ‘em. There are other reasons to dislike compacts, if that’s what you’re looking for.

 

 

You’re overlooking crank weight, crank arms, the flywheel effect, and crossover chain tension. That all goes into what we’re feeling. As I said above, ride compacts all you want. It’s just not my thing.

The 11T start cog for compact cranks has as much to do with 12T second position and 13T third position cogs as it does with the overall top end gear of 50x11.  The 11T start makes the 12T and 13T more usable (especially from the small chain ring), which can make the difference between settling into a groove or constantly switching up and down the the chainrings.

And as for me “hating bigger rings on 110bcd”.....go back and read what I wrote again. I didn’t say you couldn’t make a 53T+ 110bcd ring, I said the market isn’t going to go that way.

While I wrote this a year and a half ago originally, chainring stiffness is definitely an issue for manufacturers today.  Just look at the chainrings on the new DA 7900 and Ultegra 6700.  Those rings are hollow not for lightness, but for stiffness.  Sure Tyler Hamilton used a 52/36 chainring, but FSA certainly did not have chainring design nailed at the time. Those early FSA rings sucked for shifting.  Granted, most of that had to do with ramp and pin design, but the big 3 component manufacturers are more concerned about integrating whole systems for optimal performance.  Stiffness is definitely an issue for them. Sure TA, Sugino, and others might make 52T or bigger rings for 110bcd.  But they don’t make shifters and derailleurs, the rest of the “system”.

I dunno Byron… if you’re going to go into such minutae as crank weight as an explanation of what you’re allegedly feeling, then you really don’t know if what you’re feeling is due to it being a compact, or it being of a crank weight you don’t particularly dig.

And crossover chain-tension? Really? Even though a 50x16 is gonna be only one cog over from your 53x17? Mmm… okay.

But, if we’re this sensitive, maybe it’s not any of these things. Maybe it’s the phase of the moon. Or your biorhythm. Mankind may never know. ;)

But hey, ride what you like. We all do in the end.

 

 

Both Mark and me have said we think Compact is great and it’s just not our thing for a variety of reasons. I also LOVE the new DA, while everyone else in media and bloggerland hates on it. That’s how it goes and what makes it interesting.

Wow, lengthy explanation, and in my opinion really well written! I am in the process of buying a bike, and when the store owner asked if I wanted compact or standard crankset I had hardly any idea what to answer… Now I am still not sure, but that much wiser in the matter :)

“I didn’t say you couldn’t make a 53T+ 110bcd ring, I said the market isn’t going to go that way.

While I wrote this a year and a half ago originally, chainring stiffness is definitely an issue for manufacturers today.

.. .the big 3 component manufacturers are more concerned about integrating whole systems for optimal performance. Stiffness is definitely an issue for them. Sure TA, Sugino, and others might make 52T or bigger rings for 110bcd. But they don’t make shifters and derailleurs, the rest of the “system”.”

And yet, if you look at SRAM’s 2010 lineup, sure enough, compact cranks are offered in 52/36, for Rival, Force, AND their top-of-the-line Red.

And of course, SRAM is one of the big 3, who does make the shifters and derailleurs, aka the rest of the “system”. So much for the market ‘not going that way’, eh?

“The 11T start cog for compact cranks has as much to do with 12T second position and 13T third position cogs as it does with the overall top end gear of 50x11. The 11T start makes the 12T and 13T more usable (especially from the small chain ring), which can make the difference between settling into a groove or constantly switching up and down the the chainrings.”

I dunno Mark… lots of ppl report that they can’t use their two smallest cogs from the small chainring with a compact, because the chain hits the outer ring, due to the large difference in chainring sizes (50/34).  For a few, it’s even the three smallest cogs.

Instead of trying to gear for the cross-chain region here, it’s probably better when possible to gear in such a way that all your main flatland gears live on the big ring, so that you only have to hit the small ring for significant hills and fierce winds.

...


...ok, so I am totally confused.  Do I get a road
bike w/ a double crank or a compact double
crank?  My brand new triple fsa carbon will not go into
the big ring until at least 5 times of trying.  Bummer.
I ahve to almost stop pedaling and then it will jump.
The mechanic says i need shimano b/c of
deflection.  Am i the inept rider or is the mechanic
biased?

Surf

there are a lot of very subtle things that could be affecting the front shifting. front derailleurs, especially on triples, can be voodoo.  but as a general rule, you get the best results if the shifter, chain, front derailleur, and crank (or at least the chainrings) are all of the same manufacturer, model, and year.  9 and 10sp shimano front derailleurs can be fairly specific to the chainring combinations (eg 52/42/30 vs 53/39/30). 

perhaps there is a way to adjust the front derailleur /shifter to make shifting better without replacing the crank/chainrings, but it is usually easier to tune a homogenous system.

A timely discussion, even if I am over a year late. I am currently trying to figure out how to get a little relief for my 48 year old knees and heart. I am a rec rider, covering about 100 miles per week, climbing as much as possible through the Santa Cruz mountains. My knees ache a bit after 60 plus mile rides (too much basketball in my past), especially after 5000 ft. of climbing. More so, though, I notice that I don’t recover as quickly as I used to and after a few days of riding I feel wiped. I also notice, as I am climbing those long 5-6 mile steep inclines that I am looking for a bit more ease; I am used to my 12-25 set up on my old bike, but I definitely find myself wanting another gear or two to lower my heart rate and get me up those climbs with a little something left. My ten year old Chorus components, although still mostly solid, are giving me a few issues, which is also forcing some change. I was thinking about getting a 29 in the rear (I guess that is the jump you must take on the 10 speed set up?)  and leaving it at that, or should I go with a compact leaving the 12/25 as it is. It’s so hard to predict, based on the cold, hard (written) facts, which would offer enough relief. I am also giving some thought about replacing the entire set-up altogether and moving into the new 11 speed, so I have new components to swap out if I can actually figure out how to buy a new frame in the next year or two - no one spoke to the 11 speed and how that factors into the equation. I like the challenge and the push of my standard set up, but want something easier without comprimising the challenge and the overall feel that is cycling. After writing this, I realize the only way to know for sure to ride them all (somehow) and determine from there - do you have a few bikes I can borrow? Anything on the 11 would be appreciated. Thanks for your time.

Paul—it’s an ongoing discussion as you can see. I’m running 12 x 27 on DA and 11 x 26 on SRAM and when I turned 40 decided that was OK. I’m not a fan of compact because of the way I ride, but that’s not saying it doesn’t work or won’t work for you. Hit up your local bike shop for a test ride or one of you riding buddies.

I did love your previous comment about switching sports if you couldn’t climb a hill with a 39/27; don’t know if appeals more to my ego or my sense of cycling, Could you elaborate more about the way you ride - might be insightful in comparison. Thanks for the feedback, and I realize now that I will have to try them all to see if they work for me or not. Thanks again.

Scroll up through the comments and see where I write about being a Roleur type ride—meaning, big ring flat lands. Giving up on the sport, means bike racing. Touring—who cares get the most comfortable gearing you can. When that happens for me, it’s going for 18 mph average to 15 an then 12.

I am obviously not a racer, but do love the overall feel of my standard set-up and of cycling in general. Thanks for all the feedback, it’s been educational. Now I have to get out there and try the different combinations. Thanks again.

Yup, you have the right idea Paul, go out and try some different things and see what works for *you*.

After all, ratios are ratios, and it doesn’t much matter if your new low gear is a 39x29 or a 34x25… it’s pretty much the same thing, and it sounds like your knees, heart and lungs will thank you.

Interesting note on 11-speed… I hear they’re going to be coming out with a 12-29 cassette for it soon. That might be exactly what you’re looking for, that said, I’m not sure I’d spend the $$$ to switch to 11-spd if the only thing I was after was a lower low gear.

I am just about to change my group set and am considering compact. I have read what has been written which is all great and very informative…. I currently run 53/39 with a 12/25 rear cluster and have found that even on flats or downhills, I dont use the 53/12 combination while on a longer/harder climb I could do with a little more help at the other end! I intend to get the Ultegra 6700 which by all accounts is very good and from what I can work out, if I go 50/34, I could get a rear of 12/25, 12/27 or 11/27 (among others). The 11 would appear to give me more top end than I have now (which I dont use) while obviously the 27 would give me the most help going uphill ..... hence it appears that for what I need/want the 12/27 would be the best option. So the questions I have are:
1. Is what I have just said logical?
2.Are there any problems with a rear that has such a big spread?
3.Has anyone had any trouble with shifting from the 34 to the 50?
...... Happy to hear any opinions!

Well, a 39 with an 11 X 26 can do that too . . .

It depends on how much low gear you need.  You could get a a 12-27 (I’m assuming you have 9sp or earlier 10sp) to lower the gear a little over your 12-25.  If you need a significantly lower gear, then the compact crank works great.

One of the options for Ultegra 6700 is an 11-28 cassette.  This combined with the compact crank is as low (and wide) of a gear range as the derailleurs are designed to accept. Conversely, 6700 might not have a 12-27 cassette option, but 6600 cassettes in that particular range are still available (as are 5600 and 7900).  Among the Shimano groups, only 7900 and 6700 are designed to accommodate 11-28 cassettes with compact cranks.  All SRAM groups accommodate that as well.

The parameter involved is the rear derailleur’s “capacity”, which can be thought of as the derailleur’s ability to handle the change in chain slack between the big-big and small-small combos.  It is described as such:

capacity C >/=  (n(big ring) - n(small ring)) + (n(big cog) - n(small cog))

where n is the tooth count. 

So long as the cassette and chainring combo doesn’t exceed the rear derailleur capacity, you should fine.  Otherwise, the big-big combo will be dangerously tight and/or the small/small combo will have the chain hanging loosely below the chainstay.

In the old days, many touring riders would simply accept the a loose chain preventing them from using the small/small combo.  I see this often on bikes with older TA cranks that frequently had very small inner rings combined with contemporary rear derailleurs which had relatively small capacities compared to modern derailleurs.

Finally, the newer compact cranks have vastly improved chainring designs compared to the 1st gen modern compact road cranks (the old TA pre-date by decades but they suck for shifting).  The newer stuff is great, really. As a mechanic, I hated the 1st-gen compact cranks because the customers brought them back again and again with shifting issues.  The newer ones don’t come back with problems.  Just keep in mind that because of the nature of the compact crank, you will likely be shifting the front derailleur more often than on a standard double. And any front derailleur shift, no matter how smooth, disrupts your rhythm somewhat.  Some people find this more of a negative than others.

So I just turned fifty this year and have a twenty year old Univega I rode last year a few times to Coronado here in San Diego.  I have a few good hills to go up, and once I hit the island strip I have cross winds from the bay and the ocean.  On the way home from this forty mile ride is a pretty steady up hill climb and the last hill usually kills me.  I want a bike that will ease the pain of the hills, the pain of my lower back, and possibly help as my hands seem to go numb quite a bit.  By my house I have an REI that sells some kind of touring bike, a Performance Bikes, and a Trek store.  I have my eye on the Madone 4.5 at the trek store maybe the women’s but that is not important. I have no intention to race, I just want to be able to do this Coronado run (as it is really pretty) without feeling beat up when I get back).  I believe it comes in a compact and a triple.  I am leaning toward getting the triple but the 18 year old kid salesman thinks the compact is better.  I am thinking more gears is better.  My Univega barely made it into some gears up the hill climbs.  Most people seem happy with most of the Treks, and many 4.5 owners commented that they kept upgrading for lower level Treks.  I want this to be my last bike of this kind.  Though I wonder if a mountain bike might suit my needs as well if it can deal with the roads and the wind and is pretty quick. 

What you recommend?

Get the road bike with the compact and a gear spread to climb a tree. The problem with triples is they just never worked well for road bikes and why we had compacts now. You don’t want the MTB if you’re doing all that climbing.

Teri, it’s hard to know exactly what to recommend, since you don’t state what your current low gear is on your Univega, or how long/steep the climb is and what your current fitness level is like.

That said, the Trek Madone 4.5 you mention comes in two options, a compact with a 34/27 low gear, and a triple with a 30/27 low gear (though, interestingly, the women’s version of the same bike only comes in triple, according to Trek’s website).

I personally would prefer the compact, as it’s simpler and lighter than a triple, and has a lower Q-factor (Q-factor is the space between the pedals, which determines how wide your stance is when pedaling). And the compact’s 34/27 low gear is pretty darn low.

That said, if you’re going for the women’s model, getting them to swap in a compact crank would likely be extra $$$, and the triple will give you an even slightly lower low gear still than the compact.

So basically, as with any trade-off situation, it’s your call.

I have a Campy Veloce rear derailleur and Mirage front, with a FSA Gossamar crank.  It’s a 50/34 compact up front, with 12/25 at the back.  I find the lack on an 11 on the back troublesome when pedaling with the wind, or on sustained downhills.  It’s relatively flat where I live, so climbing is less of a concern… there are no mountains to speak of, but some hills, nothing very steep (>10%). 

So, I have two questions.  I’ve only been road cycling for two years, but I have a high fitness level thanks to years of running and cross country skiing.  If I learn to spin better will I get over the fact I don’t have an 11 on the back? 
Two, if no to the first question, is switching to an 11/25 viable?  I think the answer is yes, Campy appears to have 11/25, 11/23, 12/25, 13/26, and 13/20 available in the Veloce groupset.

Thanks, and great article by the way.

“Campy appears to have 11/25, 11/23, 12/25, 13/26, and 13/20 available in the Veloce groupset.”
Oops, meant 13/29—typo.

If you’re spun on on the flats, better cadence won’t help that as much as it would climbing.

I say get the 11-25 unless you never use the 25t cog on your current cassette, in which case the 11-23 would be viable.  Still, the 11-25 is a safe bet.

I would like to join this discussion and ask for advice. I am almost 70 years of age, only ride for recreation and am a terrible hill climber. Until recently I was riding a Trek 5200. It was stolen last weekend, therefore the request for advice. Six years ago, while on a trip to the Moab area of Utah I was unable to climb many of the hills. The local bike shop replaced my entire drive train, except the Ultegra shift levers with Deore XT. This mountain bike triple worked flawlessly on my Trek road bike and I never felt like I was missing any essential high gears.
Here is my question: I will be purchasing a replacement road bike, should I get a Compact Crank or a mountain bike triple crankset? Note: I tend to keep bicycles for ten years or more; in ten years I will be eighty years of age.

Question:
I’m considering changing my crank (Kuota K-03), I don’t find it stiff enough and the shifting is irregular at times, not to mention a grinding feeling when I pedal hard or climb. 
Anyway, my dilemma is wether to choose a 39/53 like the one I use or to get a 34/50 compact with all the advantages I have learned above reading the most informative discussions since Mark’s original article 2 yrs ago.
I have a Rival drivetrain with a 10 spd 11-23 Ultegra cassette.  I train mainly on flats and I don’t race but I like to maintain high speeds keeping the same ratios except when I get the wind in front, where I will frequently change my gear from 14 or 15-53 to 13-39 trying to maintain a decent speed with a highest tolerable cadence.  My worry is that with a compact crank, I will probably be struggling to find the appropriate ratio with the 34 chainring while fighting the wind on a flat and keeping a high speed.  And I doubt my front derailleur will permit the 11-34 ratio.
Any usefull advice or answers?

I don’t see why your ft der wouldn’t work with an 11-34, though i won’t be able to test that exact combination for another couple weeks.  since you’re using rival, you could definitely get an 11-32 cassette if you get one of the new “Apex” long cage rear derailleurs.  when i get the chance, i’ll put an X7 10sp rr der with my Red bike, just to see how it’ll work with the 12-36 10sp cassette.

Mark, Do the Shimano Ultegra FC-6650 cranksets shift as good as the newer FC -6750 cranksets?  Have the customer complaints been any different between the two versions?  I am putting together an old Trek 720 and like the aesthetics of the 6650 better than the 6750 cranksets.  What about the new 105 series FC -5750 cranksets?

@ nycbiker,

I race cat 5 in NYC CRCA and I use a triple compact 50/39/30 with 12-25.  I spend 80% on the 39 up front.  I am debating on whether to get standard or compact double since I am already used to the 39 ring.  Going up Alpine by 9W in NJ, I am usually on 39 and 25.

For over ten years, my light road bike was set up as a 24/36/48 triple, with either a 12-23, 12-27, or 11-32, depending on the type of riding I was doing (and my fitness level at the time). Usually the granny was just insurance on local rides, but it got regular use on mountainous centuries or credit card touring.

The crankset was a Cook Bros E2, on a Campy 102mm (!) bottom bracket, giving me a Q-factor of 150mm!.  I say “was” because just last week, the non-drive side crank broke at the pedal eye.

I’m looking for a replacement and can’t find a triple with a comparable Q. The lowest Q triple I could find was a Sugino XD-2, at 160mm. I’m bowlegged, so that extra 10mm is noticeable to me.

So now I’m even considering a compact double, mainly due to Q, sadly enough. I sure do miss the low Q triples.

I commute on my road bike and have to go up a mile long 10% grade hill a few times a week with a heavy backpack on. I love my granny gear! :P

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