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I'm bike shopping for my first road bike, and I've asked for a lot of advice from my father who was a serious cyclist once upon a time. After showing him one prospective bike, he dismissed it with a simple "you don't want a triple" with zero explanation on why.

What are the pros and cons in having a Triple, vs having a Double crankset? Does it differ from road bikes, to mountain bikes?

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See also: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/6727/… –  freiheit Nov 30 '11 at 5:29
    
I'm in an area with lots of hills, and mountains, though like I climbs, so a lot of climbing is in my future. However, my MTB did have a triple, and I rarely felt the need to use the smaller gear, even on very steep inclines. Thanks for all the explanations so far. –  Powder-Monkey Dec 1 '11 at 5:31

12 Answers 12

However, my MTB did have a triple, and I rarely felt the need to use the smaller gear, even on very steep inclines.

Either you are very fit, or your MTB rides aren't that steep...

Anyway, let's consider a typical weight weenie race bike :

chainring 34T / cassette 24T * wheel circumference 2.1m = about 3m per crank revolution

On a MTB you'd get a 32-34T middle chainring and, so the same gearing corresponds roughly to :

chainring 34T / cassette 23T * wheel circumference 2.0m

So, check which number corresponds to the 22-23 teeth cog on your MTB, this should be number 4-5, and go climb the steepest hill you'd ride with your race bike, not using any easier gears than this one. That will give you a good preview on how easy/hard you can expect it to be.

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I ride a triple that gives me a low gear of about 22 gear inches, I don't use it often but when I need it, I can spin past others on a compact. We are a senior cycling group and the triple becomes more important with ages above 70 years.

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I'm 67 years and live in Norway. As an active athlete I feel that the discussion on gearing is too concentrated on max. performance. I'm going to a triple because the majority . in time, of training is at low intensity. The problem is not how to go fast enough but how to maintain a low enough intensity AT ALL TIMES so as not to over train on the hills. Over training is very common on long tours. 118-120 on the flat , 140 - ? uphill.

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Consider climbing a 15% grade when you are on a 60 mile quick spin, versus when you have completed 150 miles of a double century with 20,000 ft of climbing. Or supposing you are on a 1200 brevet? Any rider is going to face some distance hilly ride where it would be advantageous to have lower gears.

An advantage of triples over compacts is that the changing between the gears is easier: you have to move between more gears in the rear on a compact.

By the way I'm just estimating. I'm about to put on a triple for a very hilly double century.

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Whether or not to get a triple really depends on:

  1. Fitness level.
  2. Geography in riding area.
  3. Purpose of buying a bike.

If you aren't (currently) in cycling shape then a triple is a really good idea. If you are buying a bike for recreation and to hoping to improve your fitness, the last thing you'll care about is saving a few grams on a lighter crank with less gearing options. What you will care about is having a bike that will allow you to ride wherever you want to go without having to make the decision of "oh no, here comes that hill that I can't go up because I don't have the right gearing". That said even with a triple there are still bound to be hills that an unfit cyclist won't be able to ride up (I live in Boulder, CO and there are a few climbs that even "fit" cyclists have a hard time going up).

Geography plays a huge part in gearing. Like I said I live in Boulder, CO and primarily use a compact double for training (a compact double has easier gearing than a regular double). I use a regular double for most racing, but have been known to race with a compact. It's pretty common to see cyclists around here using triples as there are some pretty stiff (and long) climbs in the area.

What's your reason for buying a bike? Training for a century? Getting back in shape? Commuting? Getting into cycling and hoping to do some racing?

Honestly, there is no right\wrong answer.

My advice would be to get the bike shop to let you demo a bike with a double for the weekend and do some riding. If you feel like you need more gears, get a triple crank.

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Nobody has mentioned the best thing about a triple. Ease of shifting. I have a double now and the problem with shifting is you always seem to be in the wrong gear. With a triple if you're at 20 mph or more your in the big ring. If your 10 mph or less your in the little ring. All the rest of the time (Which is 70%+) you're in the middle. With a double at a average speed !5 mph to 18 Mph you're reaching up in the little or down in the big. You end up changing the chainring through out the whole ride. Triple is just easier.

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Unless you're a professional cyclist in which case you spend most of your time travelling at 25 mph. This among many other things in cycling are optimized towards high end athletes rather than average joes who are just riding for fun. –  Kibbee Oct 23 '12 at 21:02

I rode a high end 9-speed triple for many years. Although I rarely used the granny gear, when I needed it, I was very glad to have it. My new bike, though, has a compact crankset (double). With a 28 rear cluster, it goes almost as low as the triple, which had a 25. With a ten-speed cluster, you don't lose a lot of gear spacing. So with a 10, I'd go for compact cranks. With a 9, a triple is still a contender.

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As the others have stated, there's nothing wrong with any various drive train types (triple, double, 1x, single, etc). Compact drivetrains and triples are becoming more common because they provide an easier set of options for casual riding. A traditional double for a road bike may be more than most people want for casual riding. For example, if you take a brand of bike and look at their entry road bike it will typically have a triple or compact. The high end bike will often have a traditional double or compact.

In my experience (read, my opinion) a triple does offer a couple of "cons":

  • Maintenance for a triple is a bit more complicated. Instead of adjusting a front derailleur for two positions you have to adjust for three positions. This is not preventatively more difficult, just with more options there is more to get right for proper shifting.
  • A triple creates more chances at cross chaining. This is where the chain is at an excessive angle which can cause wear. With a triple you can arguable be in any gear on the rear cassette without issue if you are in the middle chainring (although it's still not recommended), you "lose" more of the cassette when you are in the small or large rings. Again, this is just something you learn to deal with but I personally found to be annoying in certain situations (racing and mountain biking).
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+1 for the comment about chain angle. I'm surprised nobody else has mentioned this –  Mac Nov 30 '11 at 22:22
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Chain angle is only an issue if you regularly use "illogical" combinations of front and rear sprockets. Certainly this is done, and occasionally for good reason, but it's far from a common problem for a reasonably competent cyclist. –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 1 '11 at 1:03
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It's a myth that there is more complicated maintenance - do you adjust the rear derailleur for 9 or 10 positions? –  mattnz Oct 22 '12 at 20:38
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+mattnz, the maintenance problem is that triples tend to be more finnicky. In my experience, they require more exact alignment, so they need to be adjusted more frequently. –  amcnabb Oct 22 '12 at 22:34
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I disagree completely about the triple being more complicated. I'm an MTB rider, all my bikes have triple chainrings, but the front derailleur and shifter is the less problematic one. I have to adjust a rear 10 or 15 times before I need to touch the front one. They even survive being ridden completely covered in mud for a couple of hours. The only maintenance I give them is throwing a little water, let dry, add a few drops of oil in the pivots. My average time between adjustments is around 10-12 months. –  Jahaziel Sep 5 '13 at 15:51

Traditionally, pure road bikes don't have a triple crank. It's a cultural thing, like admitting you're not strong enough. There's something macho about it, I think.

That, and weight. When you pay an extra thousand $ so that the bike be a bit lighter, you're not going to want to add unnecessary weight.

But then again, it all depends on the geography where you ride and your physical condition.

Figure out what type of riding you're going to do and get the bike that fits the needs. And if you want a triple crank, don't not get one just because your father told you not to get one. It's you that's going to ride the bike, not him.

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Obviously, the simpler the better, and a triple is a little, er, "crankier" to maintain and use than a double. But on most bikes it will mean that you have both a slightly larger large gear and a significantly smaller small gear, in addition to having closer "jumps" between gears. Exactly how this all will work out depends on the manufacturer's choice of sprockets, of course (or on your choice of after-market replacements).

Though bicycle snobs may turn up their noses at triples, there's very little wrong with them and a lot that's "right". The only two negatives are a slight increase in difficulty shifting the front derailer (minimized with properly adjusted indexed shifters) and the negligible additional weight.

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The idea used to be that a triple was just a double with an extra small, 'granny' ring (i.e. only grandmothers would need to use that one) so there was definitely some snobbery in a triple; that it was designed for those who needed a little more help. So on the club training run, you might be teased for it. (Google for 'triple granny ring' for various forum discussions and banter; don't worry, most of the responses are SFW.)

Practically, what it tends to mean is not necessarily a bigger gear at the top (i.e. big front ring & small back ring) but a much lower gear at the bottom, for the hills. So with the same rear cassette you might compare a 50/34 double for a 50/39/30 triple (although a 50/34 is probably more what is called these days a 'compact'). That range of triple combined with a typical rear cassette of 12-28 would work for most hills.

You also get a lot more options; so you'll get the similar effective ratios in several ways, because the ranges on the big ring overlap more with the middle, and the middle with the little one. Also, the gears are closer together - so you're more likely to find something that works well at the right time.

It is also easier to change on the front ring of a triple, on a compact you'll often need to change down a gear or two on the back when you move on to the bigger front ring, which means the chain is being yanked both ways and strained that bit more. But on the triple, you're not as far away, so you'll often not need to change the back at the same time as shifting the front.

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The positive of a triple crank is a greater range of gears. A triple crank will give you a lower low gear which may be useful for climbing steep hills.

The negative of a triple crank is weight. You have an extra large gear which will likely weigh around 8 or 10 ounces. Since those ounces are on a part of the bike that rotates, they matter.

So if you plan to ride up really steep hills, a triple crank can help. Otherwise you probably don't want it.

As an aside, I recently purchased a bike with a triple crank and wish now that I'd gone with the double crank. I almost never use the lowest gear, so it's just extra weight. Of course I don't climb any steep hills.

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Since those ounces are on a part of the bike that rotates, they matter. Why? Explain it to me with physics. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 30 '11 at 12:49
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At a cadence of 90rpm = 1.5 Hz, a 300g chainring of radius 6.5cm, assuming all the mass is at the radius to get the worst case, has rotational kinetic energy 0.5 * m*r^2 * w^2 = 0.0087J. Compare this to translational kinetic energy for the same chainring at even just 10mph, 3.00 J. I don't think the rotation matters. –  Jefromi Nov 30 '11 at 17:03
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Since a triple has a wider range of gears, the rear derailer needs to be one that can handle it (a "long cage" model) and that will mean a little more weight, and the increased gear range will typically mean a bit longer chain and a bit of extra weight from that, too. But still a negligible weight difference. –  freiheit Nov 30 '11 at 17:45
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@Jefromi -- Yep, the moment of inertia of the chainring is negligible compared to the moment of inertia of the crank, pedals, and rider's feet, not to mention the moment of inertia of the wheels (which turn maybe 4-8x faster and hence count more). And the mass of the ring (let's say 8 oz as user2949 suggested) is around 0.25% of the weight of the bike -- probably not enough to measure a difference in performance in even laboratory conditions. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 30 '11 at 18:42
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The extra weight from a tiny chainring is nothing compared to the extra weight that most riders carry on their body. –  Walter Dec 2 '11 at 12:53

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