Ok, geniuses, time for a quiz: Which of the following will NOT make you a better climber:
b) Losing some weight, tubby
c) A compact crankset
If you answered C, congratulations; you are now officially smarter than the entire marketing staff at Excel Sports thinks you are. Compact cranksets do not make you a better climber. In fact, they make you a slower climber. “What?” you shout indignantly, having spent 400 dollars on a 50/34 FSA SL-K with MegaExo BB. “I can now make it up [local climb of moderate difficulty] without stopping every 10 minutes.” Hey, good for you. I hope you keep at this whole “cycling” thing. But the fact is, your speed on a bicycle is determined by only two things:
1) Your gear.
2) How fast you can turn it over.
So let’s say we’re riding uphill and we each have identical bikes (700c wheels with 23mm tires and 25 tooth cassettes) and cadences (60rpm – a good estimate for a steep climb) except that you’ve got your little 34 tooth dink ring and I have my regular sized 39. After a minute of climbing, I’m 26.5 feet ahead of you! After a mile of climbing, you’ll be nearly 700 feet back; you still think you’re a better climber because of that crankset?
“Well,” you say smugly, “to compensate for my lower gear, I’ll pedal faster.” Ok chief, 39×25 with 700×23 tires at 60 rpm sends me 205 feet in a minute. Your 34×25 has to do almost 69 rpm to keep up. And the faster I pedal, the worse it’ll get for you. At 100 rpm, you’ll need to spin over 114 rpm; that’s getting into Lance territory. On flat sections in TTs, big Tex has been known to push 120 rpm, a normally lactic debt bankrolled by his superhuman anaerobic threshold. My guess is, since you’re rocking the compact, it’s an anaerobic threshold you don’t have.
“But what about Tyler’s heroic performance in 2003?” you stammer. Well, #1 is Tyler looks like he’s a blood doper. I still think he’s a nice guy, but the evidence is really stacked against him. Secondly, Tyler had a broken clavicle, making it exceptionally painful to yank up on the bars during climbs. Thus, standing and pounding a manly gear at 70 or so RPM, a riding style dependent upon one’s ability to yank, was infeasible. So Bjarne Riis slapped on the compact and Tyler spun lower gears quickly to a 4th place finish, using hard training, good genes, and possibly, someone else’s red blood cells, to make up for the inefficiency.
“Inefficient? Spinning? Never. Spinning is the key to success. Chris Carmchael told me so.” Oh, get a life. Opinion on “best” cadence is constantly in flux. Eddy Merckx claims to have preferred a 42/21 gearing for the bulk of his TdF climbing, while Bernard Hinault used to pound up the first part of mountain passes in the big ring, in order to demoralize his opponents. Eddie Monnier reports that studies have shown the most efficient cadences to be from 50-60 rpm, well below what even the mashiest of the mashers race on. So don’t get caught up on cadence.
What really pisses me off about compact cranksets is that for about 300 bucks less than pretty much any of them, you can buy a cassette with a 27 or even a 29 tooth cog. Yeah, it adds 150 grams to your bike. Suck it up. If you get a compact, and you like descending at speeds in excess of 38 mph, you’ll need to shell out extra dough on a new cassette anyway, so you can get an 11 tooth cog. Why not just plunk down 40 clams for a 12-27, change cassettes and get it over with? Throw your old cassette on a second pair of wheels and have a back-up for pits and wheel trucks; it will still cost less than the Carbon compact, and a change to normal gearing for crits and TT’s will take you 15 seconds. Try swapping cranksets in anything less than half-an-hour. Oh, and if you’re one of those that whines about the allegedly poor shifting of larger cassettes, see how fast your compact pops from 34 to 50 teeth when there’s heavy pressure on the chain. I think you may be disappointed.
There’s only one dude in the world who I will suffer on a compact: Davis Phinney. Because as the first American riding for an American team win a TdF stage, he’s too awesome for a triple, and because he’s got early-onset Parkinson’s. Remember what Mohammed Ali’s arms were doing when he lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta? Now imagine that happening to your legs. While you’re trying to bike up a mountain. Greg Lemond, fat misanthrope that he is, bailed on cycling when his muscles started to recover slower; despite his prognosis, Phinney still rides, leading bike tours in Europe. I’d gladly put a compact on that guy’s bike any day of the week.
Bottom line: compact won’t make you better at anything (except losing money), and unless you’re Davis Phinney, there are better ways (bigger cassettes, triples if you’re really hurting) to get over hills.
thoughts on “Compact Cranksets – Rant”
Cosmo, I disagree with you on this one. I’m a huge fan of the compact crankset.
If I designed bikes, you know how big my little chain ring would be?
Why, perhaps you ask?
Because that’s where my big/small is just a little harder than my small/big.
I don’t understand why bikes need so much gearing overlap for each of the front chain rings. Does anyone ever switch between two gears, decided he needs something in the middle, and then shift over their chain ring, and look for the gearing in between? I think not.
If you think that 24 teeth is too small, then I’d suggest we start making bikes with fewer gears period.
It seems like one of the key issues that never comes up in these heated discussions on compact cracks is that of closer gear ratios.
I don’t ride a compact because I think its going to make me climb faster, but to avoid the 2-3 tooth gaps between gears a 53-39 with 12-27 would give me. I get the same range with a 50-34 and a 11-23 with much less overlap and smaller steps between gears.
Hello Jon, I agree with you, I use a compact for the exact reason(s) you mentioned. I do agree with some of the things Cosmo mentioned as well- to a certain point. There is no guarantee that anyone could spin a consistent r.p.m. and be so many feet ahead of the individual using his/her compact crankset. In theory, that is a nice thought, in reality, I would think that a rider wouldnt be dumb enough to stay in the same gear if he/she was able to shift. (at least I hope not)I do see your point though Cosmo, and your correct, but only if I were doing gear to gear comparisons.
Unless Cosmo is one of the hyperbreed of cyclists who need no help from nobody like the ones he mentioned, maybe he should just shut his piehole and keep breathing to avoid the lactic acid buildup on this “big” man gears. While his hyped up groupies are staking their claims on the little local crits to prove their machisimo, other cyclists are peadling to their own nirvana without the igrnoant rampages. My guess is that he could never rap our a 53 x 11 in a sprint anyway. Last, to make fun of the aliments of a US cycling forefather only illustrates the ignorance of his position.
Cosmo while your posting is admittedly a bit amusing, it’s a bit misguided in my opinion.
Buying a compact crank with two cassettes– 11X23 and 11X26 (which SRAM makes now, and likely Shimano and Campy will soon) will accomplish the exact same thing you say switching out the cassette on your regular crank will do–allow you to quickly switch between climbing and crit gearing–Oh, but with tighter gear ratios and also giving you an even lower low-gear.
I’m a clydesdale sprinter, and with standard gearing the climbers just drop me like a bag of hammers, especially out here in Colorado. However, with a compact, especially after two seasons practicing my pedalling form on a fixie, I can smoothly spin a higher cadence than most, allowing me to keep up on a climb without blowing out my legs.
Guys like you can stick with your 53X39, it’s fine with me, and if it works, it works. However, guys like me will use the compact cranks to keep up with guys like you on the climb, then drop you in the sprint on the other side…
Cosmo,you bring up some interesting points. Having moved from San Diego to Virginia, I’m still looking for hills around where I live for it to matter anyway. My friend in San Diego who owned one of the better bike shops in Los Angeles(a equipment junkie) swears by it. Me, I’m going to keep my 53/39 steel framed Colnago. It’s a tank but its paid for. Now, if I could only lose that 20lbs…..
I really enjoy reading your opinion regarding compacts versus bigger chain rings. I have two bikes (Carbon/Titanium fitted with a compact 53/339T 11/28 and lately a full titanium road bike fitted with Centaur 50/34T 12/25 Cog. Last year my bi-weekly work out negotiating our local trails plus flat roads using the older bike average distance of 40 miles back and forth to where I live. Just like you, whenever I see a rider or riders ahead of me, I always pride myself to chase these guys and out run them. Some of these riders would actually join the race but since I was nearly 1 or 2 miles near my house I would slow down and satisfied with my prowess and accomplishment exited the trail and head for home. This year, I join the local city Velo club and ride with this veterans for a century ride or some 80 miles distance riding negotiating one of the nicest highway here in Santa Clarita to Ventura. Why I call this a nice highway because it consist of miles and miles of flat road an”d climbing hills most are 10 to 15 steep high. You know what happen? I was left behind by 5 miles by the main pack. It was unbelievable but the reason was my 53/39 was so hard and I was so slow to climb even if them and me used the same cadence. During downhill ride, I thought I could catch up with them by pedaling the fastest I could get but to my disappointment my knees beginning to “Cramp”. By the way most of this club members uses “compacts”. 50/39 are most effective if you are riding a short distance and if the road are always flat. But if its a long distance ride consist of hilly route, you will be disappointed. Now I am using my Titanium bike with a 50/34 compact and riding with the club side by side without worrying if these guys would left me behind for nearly 6 months and hoping to the same every week. Happy riding!!
Forgive me asking newbie/dumb-ass questions. I have a compact crankset 50/34 and an 11-25 cassette (both came with my bike). The other day, I wanted it to be harder to pedal. Does this mean I might be better served by a standard 53/39 or something else?
Well, if you’re in the 50/11 and you want it to be ‘harder’ to pedal, try shifting down a gear and spin. It is always better to spin, and most of the time it will produce exactly the same result as mashing plus a bit. When you spin, you’ll be able to accelerate faster and the lactic acid won’t build up at nearly the same rate. Most juniors ride with a 46/15 or lower yet are still capable of keeping up with blokes on 55/11 or someting or other. But, granted, we do it because we can’t go to a higher gear and eventually we get used to it.
Some people, though, insist on mashing. And that’s alright. Most older folks i ride with can’t turn very small gears, and if they do they jump up and down like it was christmas. Fitting the bike with a 53/39 will enable you to mash more. However, the question is: since you are relatively new to the sport, will you be able to tell the difference between a 50 big ring and a 53? Some newbies (and i’m not referring directly to you) seem to stick the chain onto the big ring and the 11 tooth cassette and keep it there.
If you change to a 53, you’ll just continue mashing that big gear, thinking “i need a bigger chainring”. And then you’ll end up using something like a 61 tooth chainring, at which point you will accelerate like a 2 ton electric car and have a cadence of something like 30 rpm (i hope you don’t mind the similie). Which brings me back to my first point – learn to spin!
Unless, of course, you ride in a group full of Cat 1 or A grade riders that regulary do averages of 4.564 x 10^4 kilometers per hour. If that is the case, forget everything I’ve said and get that 53 tooth chainring.
With a compact chain set there is less duplications of gears than with a triple, a compact is slightly lighter. You lose a little of the high gears, but with some compacts you need a special front derailleur. I prefer the compact option as it is simple and works very well and the gears are well grouped with out the duplications or big jumps between them.
“Well, #1 is Tyler looks like he’s a blood doper.”
How is that relevant? Have there been no dopers using 53×39?
If compacts are so much slower, why did Tour winner Juan Jose Cobo use one on the Angrilu stage?
It seems that if pro cyclists deem compacts to be worthy, then they should certainly be appropriate for non-professionals.
As others have noted, it’s still possible to swap out cassettes even with a compact crankset. I’ll take the tighter gear ratios and you can keep thinking your “standard” makes you faster.
There are two reasons to use a compact crank.
1) to slyly get a lower low while still looking “cool”. This is pretentious and makes an excellent target for a righteous rant. (Me? I just put a black steel 30T on my Racing-T. You can only see it if you look close!-) !-) !-)
2) to get around the dirty secret of cross-over gearing. A 10 is only giving you two more usable gears than an 8, with fussier tolerances and wimpier cogs and chains. A compact can double that, but at the cost of a honking clunky shift right in the middle of things. Really you would be better off with a road triple and a tight 8 in back. Or with a 1×11, although SRAM seems to have found a way to make that both expensive and silly. Then again, that’s probably a double plus with the “never a triple” deep thinkers.
Cute rant, but compact cranks have taken over in a big way, and for good reason… they’re better for the broad swath of ‘mere mortal’ recreational riders, as opposed to wannabe racers/poseurs.
But if you STILL hate compact in 2022 Cosmo, don’t fret, there’s a good chance it will fall by the wayside over the next few years… but it’ll be replaced by some combo of subcompact/‘Supercompact’ and 1x, NOT 53/39.