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At the cafe stop on my local Saturday ride a few of the guys we chatting and one guy asked an other if he was riding a compact drivetrain. The other guy objected loudly and they then joked with other members of the group suggesting they were riding compacts.

Why would the notion of riding a compact drivetrain attract such a response?

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    You think that's bad? Try telling them that you're riding a triple front chainring, and once they stop laughing, tell them your lowest gear is 26/28 Watch then ROFL, and then cause an upset by keeping up for the whole ride! Worked for me !
    – Criggie
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 20:38

10 Answers 10

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While Machismo answers the question asked, the reason why there is that reaction is mainly a lack of understanding about how and why compact cranks exist.

Obviously, you can look at it and say to give us better climbing (easy) gears. But what many people miss is the rear ratio changes.

The race standard for many years was 53/12. That is, the hardest gear, made up of the largest tooth count in the front, and the smallest in the back, was a 53 tooth front chain ring paired with a 12 tooth rear cog.

A few years back, Shimano started making an 11 tooth rear cog. It was originally intended for pro racers and time trialists.

Somebody got out the calculator, and realized that with that 11 tooth rear cog now available, you could decrease the size of the front rings, and get the same gear ratio, or slightly faster. That decreased front ring size allowed better climbing ratios when paired with the large cogs on the cassette, but also maintained the high gear speed racers are used to.

Someone riding a properly setup compact crank, actually is pushing a harder, faster gear than the 53/12 "standard". That said, if you pair a 53 with the 11 tooth, it will be faster yet, but not often do you find the legs to push that combo.

I've included gear inch charts for both, so that you can see for yourself how it works out. If you are not aware, gear inches are a comparison to the effective diameter of a direct drive wheel, when gear advantage is accounted for.

53/12 Gear chart

50/34 Gear Chart

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    Gear inches do not describe the forward motion from a single revolution of the cranks, you're thinking of development. Gear inches are the notional wheel diameter that would give the same gearing on an ordinary.
    – Useless
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 14:19
  • @Useless Development, Rollout, and gear inches all describe the same distance. Development is usually stated in meters, but in this case, the chart is using inches, thus gear inches.
    – zenbike
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 0:49
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    No, gear inches are the diameter of the notional wheel, not the circumference (which would be the same as development). You're off by a factor of π.
    – Useless
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 8:54
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    Ok, I see. You are correct, and I misunderstood the term. The math still works for this purpose, though.
    – zenbike
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 12:30
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Pedalling with compact cranks is supposed to be easier. So people who take great pride in how strong they are and how fast they can go don't like when you're able to do the same with (apparently) less effort. You can compare to being passed by electric bike while climbing, some people just feel the person on the e-bike doesn't "deserve" to be that fast and it hurts their ego.

It's pretty much a "I'm manlier than you" thing, like "I use brute force to be fast, while you needed to have a mechanical advantage". Add to that the fact humans don't like change and it's in our nature to frown upon new things trying to go against old "standards".

The blog Why not tri? has a nice little article about Compact vs Standard.

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    especially funny when any runner could look at the manliest cyclist and call them a wuss for needing wheels instead of sneakers. And then the barefoot runner comes and laughs at them all... Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 23:10
  • Then comes along the guy on the fixie, and wonders what all the gears are about. I would think that using a compact would be more difficult because there just aren't as many gears. I actually saw a bike that only had 1 front chainring, and a bunch of gears on the back. Made a lot of sense to me. I only ever use 3 or so gears most of the time, and I think I could leave the chain on the biggest ring all the time.
    – Kibbee
    Commented Oct 29, 2011 at 1:33
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Machismo.

Compacts came about to alleviate the high gearing of a standard crankset's gearing without inheriting the troubles that come with a triple. Compacts are naturally geared lower than standards. Some people (incorrectly) see lower gearing as a sign of weakness. Some of those same people will serpentine their way up high grade mountain roads because they thought they could push standard gearing but can't. Which gearing you go with is purely a matter of overall strength and riding style. Neither one is the wrong decision in the right situation. I've done races before where in the description it has read "compact gearing highly recommended." That's a fair warning to heed.

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Perhaps it's worth revisiting this question 12 years after it was asked. The compact crankset won. It's a good thing that it won. Actually, I think we should have known at the time that the attitude towards compact cranks was not constructive and likely wrong.

If we didn’t know then, we certainly have no excuse now. The rider in question is now 12 years older. He is or he should be thanking the industry for this development. Alternatively, maybe he is grinding up hills at 50 rpm, cursing his declining fitness and/or the width of modern rims and tires. For consumer-oriented bikes, I think that either compact or sub-compact (52/36) cranksets are defaults. I have the latter1, but I basically never use the 52/11 gear.

If anything, with tires getting bigger (which increases effective gearing) and roads getting rougher, I think there is a case for road bikes manufacturers to consider offering sub-compact road cranks, e.g. the 48/31 gearing offered on Shimano GRX cranks, or smaller than that, or the equivalents for SRAM and the newer Campagnolo gearing. Not all cyclists have the fitness to push standard compacts, modern tire sizes, and 11-30 cassettes or their equivalents. It is a good thing to offer more options to make the sport accessible to people of different ages and abilities. Some will say that it worked for Eddy Merckx. My favorite rejoiner these days is that Henri Desgrange said that real men ride fixed gears2.

Alternatively, people should consider gravel bikes. The more road-like ones especially can be fitted with road wheels and tires. The greater number of mounting points can also be a plus. The geometries of endurance road and road-like gravel bikes are similar. And for that matter, commenters like Path Less Pedaled have argued that there should be chainrings smaller than 46/30, which I think is the minimum Shimano offers (SRAM has 43/30 chainrings, but they start with 10t cogs).

This wasn't clearly known at the time, but there is one technical point against smaller chainrings. It's now known that drivetrain friction increases, ignoring chainline, with smaller chainrings and smaller cogs. However, for most consumers, the differences are ignorable - going from sub-compact to compact cranks is probably 1W or less difference on a 250W input. This is quite a high power for most amateurs. Some time trialists put gears even bigger than 53/39 on their bikes to a) reduce drivetrain friction and b) optimize their chainline, so that their most commonly used gears are in the center of the cassette. They aren't actually pushing 56/11s. They do not have the strength. On the parts of the course where you could push a 56/11, it would be better to conserve energy there and expend it on, say, the climbs.


Footnote 1: In my defense, that size was on sale and the retailer didn't have a 50/34 crank in my desired size (165mm).

2: this is a paraphrase. The translated quote from a L’Equipe interview is:

I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45 … Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft; as for me, give me a fixed gear!

Thus, I feel like the paraphrase is accurate.

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  • Compact is more accepted these days for sure, since the classic 53/39 isn't even offered on some current groupset tiers, modern 105 and Ultegra don't have these, afaik. While there might still be machismoisms around compact, not riding compact is as stupid as using the wrong type of running shoes (like race shoes without dampening and totally suffering from it). For example, I consider myself a fit hobby cyclist and I have a 53/39 bike but no way I would ever want to ride a long climb. 200-250W watts on a steep climb for 15+ minutes at 60 RPM is just ineffecient riding and torture, imo. :)
    – DoNuT
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 17:20
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    @DoNuT let's just say that calling others stupid isn't winning any point for team compact
    – ojs
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 18:03
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    @ojs Let's put us normals in perspective here: I have a friend who's a decent cat 3 road racer who recently went to Spain. He did a climb there in about 27 minutes. The Strava KOM is owned by a pro - at 11 minutes and 24+ mph/40 kph. Pros go up cat 1 climbs faster than good amateur racers do flat TTs. If pros like that don't need bigger than a 53/11 and often actually race on a compact, it's downright risible machismo to even suggest non-racers can make effective use of a 53 over a 50. You can't spin out the 50, so... Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 22:57
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    To ojs's point: I am not calling people stupid, but the rationale was incorrect, and I think it's fair to say that the person in the original question behaved stupidly. He deserves some limited amount of mockery. Of course, probably a lot of us have behaved like this. I used to make fun of plastic bikes. Now I have a plastic bike.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 0:38
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    @ojs What does that matter? No one posting here is strong enough to effectively use those extra three teeth. If you don't run out of gears on a compact in a sprint, you're not strong enough to actually use the 53. I've never seen anyone who was fast enough to race actually publicly laughing at anyone's bike. For any reason, not just gearing. Ever. Poseurs do that. From what I've seen, it's insecure not-as-fast-as-they'd-like-you-to-believe fools who spout off with, "HA HA! You have to ride a compact because you're not strong enough to ride a 53." It also smacks of childish bullying. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 10:01
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I think that compact (lower gears) supposedly would imply the person isn't strong enough to spin higher gears, or actually needs that low gears to be able to climb properly.

In any case, I think most people doesn't even know there is a difference on crank chainring sizes, not to mention they could very well prefer one over another.

I for one ride internal gear hub, and I have one 46t and one 39t chainring. When I feel fit and wanting to speed up, I install the 46t. When I am more lazy, or more feel more tired for a longer period, I install back the 39t.

This scorn stuff, or "weakness" stuff, is all inside people's head, I would say.

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I have no experience with the egos of aspiring cyclists, but I can note a (small) technical difference

A sprocket with a lower tooth count will require the chain to bend more sharply as it engages with the teeth. The effect is complicated to describe, but it may be thought of qualitatively as the end of each successive link meshing onto the sprocket whipping around and causing an oscillation in the slack side of the chain. This effect dissipates the majority of drivetrain energy lost through the chain.

The magnitude of the effect is nonlinear (roughly proportional to the square of angle of articulation) so the difference is negligible at the chainring, but there is a non-negligible difference between 11T and 12T on the rear. It's something like 0.4% higher theoretical drivetrain efficiency for the 12T.

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Yep, a combination of maschisimo and most importantly a sad case of "It's not what the pros do". Yes, you'll never see a pro racer on a compact, and rarely one on aluminum wheels at that, but somehow a lot of guys love to hate it. Despite the fact that as the gearing post about mentions, you're rarely even in gears that make a difference in all but an out and out sprint. Funny thing though, show up to a group ride and someone may laugh at a compact, yet show up with cyclocross gearing (like a 46/38) and suddenly you're he-man?

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    FYI, you will in fact see pros (good climbers at that) riding compact gearing, depending on the race.
    – Ealhmund
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 10:15
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    These days, the pros still use bigger chainrings on regular stages. However, they do not hesitate to go for large sprockets. And in the mountains the do not hesitate to go for smaller chainrings. "A typical gear set up for a mountain stage of the Tour de France these days would be 36 x 32, with the option to go even lower should the climbs necessitate." welovecycling.com/wide/2023/07/01/… road.cc/content/feature/… Commented Feb 9 at 14:42
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Insecurity and attitude. As witnessed in answers to this question, the very presence of a compact crank leads to lectures about how pro racers can ever use regular crank and ranting about how regular crank users "serpentine their way up high grade mountain roads because they thought they could push standard gearing but can't." This gets old pretty fast.

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    Is there a standard gearing actually?
    – gaurwraith
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 20:20
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    In road bikes, "standard" refers to 130mm or 135mm bolt circle and usually 52/39 tooth chainrings. "Compact" refers to 110mm bolt circle and smaller chainrings, usually 50/34 or 50/36. The difference isn't as big as people would think.
    – ojs
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 20:35
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    53/39, actually, but otherwise, correct. :-)
    – zenbike
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 18:13
  • True. I confused with the other "standard", 52/42. By the way, any idea why 53?
    – ojs
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 18:17
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At least for me, the small 10T and 12T sprockets wear much faster than the adjacent 16T and others. I need to figure out where to get and how to replace them separately as changing the otherwise perfectly good cassette often gets expensive. Maybe because it is E bike.

Choice permitting, I would buy a larger chainring so that my "fast" sprockets could also be larger. In my commuting that is rather flat, I mostly use only the first 4 smallest sprockets anyway.

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  • With an e-bike you do not have to be as selective at choosing the right gear. Normally, one does not really spend that much in the lowest gear to have it the most worn. Anyway, I struggle to see the relation to the compact cranks, the less with the actual question abut them. You can certainly have 12T with a traditional 53-39. Commented Feb 9 at 14:33
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Why would the notion of riding a compact drivetrain attract such a response?

Why would one want a 300 horsepower car engine? The reason is the same. Bigger is better (except for bike weight smaller is better -- but the drinking bottle doesn't count for weight as it's removable, and for tires narrower is better). My gearing is higher than yours.

Want to generate some more laughs? Test these:

  • Put a dynamo hub to your front wheel. Its resistance is smaller than the difference of rolling resistance for good tires vs mediocre ones.
  • Put a kickstand on your bike
  • Use mudguards
  • Put a pannier rack on your bike
  • Use a seatpost or seatpost clamp with two bolts -- oh the horror, the added weight of the second bolt!
  • Carry a lock with you
  • Carry a messenger bag with you
  • Suggest that bicycle weight should be measured with a full drinking bottle attached if one uses such a bottle
  • Suggest that you don't need to carry a drinking bottle with you as it's unnecessary weight
  • Use a cycling cap instead of a helmet
  • Use 28mm thickness tires as opposed to 23mm
  • Start patching your tubes instead of throwing away the punctured ones
  • Suggest that a pump is better than a CO2 inflator
  • Suggest that one kilogram of lost weight in the bike is worth 100 EUR instead of 1000 EUR
  • Use a wheel with 36 spokes
  • Suggest that wheels can be built yourself instead of being bought as ready-built wheels
  • Mix and match components from various groupsets

If the rear cassette is a wide-range one, there is not much reason for a compact gearing on the crankset. For example, I weigh >100 kg, my bike weighs >15 kg, I had a 5-year break from cycling and my smallest chainring is 38T which I find small enough even though I'm not as fit as I used to be. The reason this works for me is that the cassette is 11-30T.

Most of the time, the chainring used is the largest one anyway. It is obsession over minute details to argue what is the best size for the rarely-used small ring. If it gets you to the top of the steep hill and if it gets you home when the large ring breaks, it's fine.

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