Our Take: Race vs. Compact Cranksets

When it comes to choosing a crankset for the road, it seems like there are a million and one options out there, but the biggest question we get all the time is: what is the difference between a compact and a race crankset, and which one should I ride?

Race cranksets, also known as “standard” cranksets have a 53 tooth big chainring and a 39 tooth inner ring. Until recently, it was the only gearing option for road riders, unless they went with a triple. The chainrings mount on a spider that has a bolt circle diameter (BCD) of 130mm (Shimano, SRAM, FSA) or 135mm (Campagnolo). This combination gives riders a very tall gear, which allows them to go fast, but requires more strength to push so they are usually only used by more experienced riders, or those with very strong legs. Although even for strong riders the 39 tooth inner ring can make climbing very difficult, and few outside of the pro ranks can ride in the 53-11 combination. However, if you ride with a fast group or are looking to “Cat up” for racing, you may find the race crankset to be ideal.

A race crankset from Campagnolo

The compact crankset hit the scene a few years ago, and was immediately embraced by many riders out there. Compact cranksets have a gear combination of a 50 tooth big ring and a 34 tooth inner ring. The chainrings mount to a smaller 110mm BCD spider (for all brands). The compact crankset gives riders the ability to pedal with a higher cadence in an easier gear instead of always grinding away like you would with a race crankset. Compacts are ideal for riders who are more interested in enjoying the ride than going fast (although we have some folks at the office and in our stores who race on compacts…) or that live in very hilly areas. In fact, even some pro’s will ride compacts on very difficult mountain stages. The main drawback of the compact is how easy the gearing is. It’s not unusual for a rider on a compact to spin out his gearing on a downhill, and some riders find the 34T inner ring to actually make climbing more difficult because it forces them to pedal at an excessively high cadence.

A compact crankset from SRAM

A third option, and one that is increasingly being embraced around the office, is the mid-compact. The mid-compact splits the difference between a standard and compact by offering a 52T big ring and a 36T inner ring. The chainrings mount on either a 110mm BCD (Shimano, SRAM, FSA) or a 130/135mm BCD (FSA, Shimano, Campagnolo) spider. The biggest advantage of the mid-compact is that it gives riders a pretty high top gear thanks to the 52T big ring, while the 36T makes climbing much easier by offering a higher cadence than a 39T, but with more resistance than the 34T.

A mid-compact crankset from Shimano

A fourth, but little used, crank combination is the venerable 54/42T chainring combo, aka “The Flemish Compact”. You can still sometimes find this crankset combination, although it’s almost never spec’ed on a bike now except for some time trial bikes. If you’re an exceptionally strong rider who lives in an exceptionally flat area, you may benefit from using Flemish Compact. Otherwise, we’d recommend staying away unless your first name is “Roger” and your last name is “De Vlaeminck”. So, now for the question…if a 54/42T is a Flemish Compact, what is a Flemish Standard?

Roger de V has a good day riding a Flemish Compact

Roger de V has a great day riding a Flemish Compact

UPDATE: When we first posted this article, many of you asked about triple cranksets. The introduction of the compact crankset, 11-speed drivetrains, and mid-cage rear derailleurs has mostly rendered the triple crankset obsolete. Newer mid-cage rear derailleurs like SRAM’s WiFli system, or options from Shimano and Campagnolo, can now handle cassettes with up to a 32T big cog. An 11-32T or 12-32T cassette, when paired with a compact crankset, appears to offer about the same gearing range as a triple with less gearing overlap, less weight, less mechanical complexity, and a lower Q-factor. A few bikes (mostly touring models) are still spec’d with triples, but if you’re looking for a bike with plenty of gearing options, you may want to look at what the cassette range is instead of the crankset.

So which is the right crankset for you? Well…that’s really going to depend on your ability level, the terrain around you, and your experience. It you’re a very strong, very experienced rider, you’ll probably want to use a race crankset. However, for most riders the compact is just fine. While there is always the temptation on a bicycle to go as fast as possible, it’s important to remember that you need to work your way up to things—and that a bigger gear doesn’t necessarily equal bigger speed. Trying to push too big of a gear right off the bat can hurt your knees, lead to muscle imbalances, and just make rides more difficult and less enjoyable than they need to be. Especially for newer riders, or those without a lot of time to ride, proper form is more important than pushing big gears, and the compact is perfect for developing form since you pedal at a higher cadence. Over time, if you feel you are spinning out the compact crankset, you can always upgrade it with 52/36 or 52/38 chainrings to get more top end speed and a more comfortable climbing cadence.

18 Responses to Our Take: Race vs. Compact Cranksets

  1. ernest schulze says:

    I wish you had also discussed the “triple”. For us older riders who still ride thousands of miles annually a triple is indispensable for climbing high mountain passes. I have an FSA triple currently and almost no other Performance road bike comes standard with a triple any more. Too bad, because spinning your cranks is what really makes a longlasting cyclist. Mashing big geras is just stupid and painful in the long run.

    • BT says:

      Hi Ernest, thanks for the comment. For better or for worse, the industry appears to be moving away from triple cranksets. All three component manufacturers now make mid-cage rear derailleurs (like SRAM’s WiFli system) that can handle cassettes with a big cog of up to 30T or 32T. Pairing an 11-32T cassette with a compact crank gives about the same range of gears as a triple, with less gearing overlap, less weight, and without the mechanical complexity of a triple front derailleur and shifter.

    • In my early ’60’s and riding just for the fun of it in a mountainous area, have been using a 44/32/22 with a 12-25 8-speed some years now.

  2. You can of course pair a “race” crankset with a cassette that doesn’t go down to 11- I run a 53/39 with a 12-28. Definitely not a racer, but gives me more than enough for the hills around where I live.
    As for triples? At the “performance” end there’s no need for a triple with a 10 or 11 speed cassette. You should easily be able to get all the range you need with that.

    • BT says:

      Thanks for commenting, Al. There are a lot of things that go into finding the best gearing for any rider, but looking at different cassette options is definitely one of them. We even have a guy here at the office who rides a 53/39 paired with a 14-28 cassette. Glad you found the combo that works best for you.

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  5. Steve says:

    As an older (56yrs) hammering power guy, 200lbs+, I’ve always ridden with a 53/39, 11-23 combination. While researching a new bike purchase last fall, I thought long and hard about keeping my standard, “flat road, criterium” power set up, or go compact. Well, I took the plunge to a 50/34, 11-25, and I never felt better about riding. I haven’t lost a single mph in the fast group rides, but I what I gained is a fresher set of legs after those 50-75 milers. I recently did our local hilly century(Climb to the Clouds), which I never could have done without my compact set-up. Some of the sections were between 9-15%, and there were many sections 4-6%.
    In the past I’ve skipped this ride, but with the compact crank, its opened up a whole new chapter of cycling…

    Exercise Physiologist
    Masters 55+ racer

    • BT says:

      Thanks for your comment Steve. There’s a lot of gearing combinations out there, and we’re glad you found the one that works for you. Compact cranks definitely have more than enough oomph for most cyclists out there. Enjoy the bike and ride safe.

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  8. HL says:

    As older riders on a tandem, I want the range afforded by a triple. Ours is currently sporting a 54/38/28 with an 11-36 rear. That gives us a 54/11 top end, and 28/36 bottom for climbing, a ratio of 631%. I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the front derailleur altogether, but the Rohloff tandem hub only has a 528% range. It may only seem like a little difference, but that last little bit makes all the difference in the world to us.

  9. jt says:

    This article is full of misleading information.

    For example, it is not true that 53×39 was “Until recently, it was the only gearing option for road riders”

    You can a huge range of rings on them – from a minimum of 38 on many, but to big ones like 56 or even more. I’ve had inner rings between 38 and 44 and big rings between 48 and 53 on standard cranks myself.

    You also right that “few outside of the pro ranks can ride in the 53-11 combination.”

    This true but misleading. It’s misleading because no one is forced to have a smallest cog of 11. It’s easy to find cassettes with a 12 or 13 smallest cog, and they exist even with 14 and 15 smallest cogs (though those are hard to find).

    Just because Performance only sells certain combinations of gears doesn’t make it right to write as if other combinations don’t exist.

  10. Vince says:

    I switched from a triple to a compact without much loss of climbing ability on a mountain pass. With the triple, I was always adjusting the front deraileur and had problems with correct chain line. Kept the long cage rear deraileur and can go with a larger gears. Also I bought several different size chainrings and swap them out as needed. For triathletes, which I am one, the compact crankset is a great addition as we don’t usually have the power on big climbs that I pure cyclist would have, and this has brought more people into the sport.

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  12. Andy says:

    The way I think about it, the differences between any 2 or more gearing setups lie in the high and low ends of the gearing. If you’re riding at, say, 20mph on a 53t ring, and you’re in whatever cog in the back that gives you a comfortable cadence, switching to a 50t ring only means that you’ll be riding about one cog higher in the back at the same speed and cadence. It makes no difference for most riding. But say you’re climbing a hill on your 39t ring and your largest cog. If you can keep up a comfortable cadence, great, but if not you should have a smaller chainring and/or larger cassette.

    “some riders find the 34T inner ring to actually make climbing more difficult because it forces them to pedal at an excessively high cadence” No it doesn’t. The compact gives you a lower low gear when compared to race gearing. As with any gearing setup, if your cadence is too high, you upshift.

    The differences in the high ends of race and compact cranksets are fairly small. Most non-racers would not benefit from the extra 6% of high-end gear offered on a race setup (at that point you’re doing well over 40, so just tuck and coast), and would benefit significantly from the extra 13% of low-end climbing gear offered by the compact.

    • BT says:

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for commenting. I think the thing to remember with gearing– as with most things on a bike– is that a lot of it comes down to personal preference and how you like the bike to feel. Looking at gearing and development charts is great and they can be an excellent guide for choosing the right combinations, but it’s no substitute for setting up the bike to suite how you like it to ride.
      The article author, and some other folks we know, simply don’t like the feel of the compact crank for every day riding, since in their subjective experience they feel like the 34T inner ring is too light of a gear, and they don’t like climbing at those higher cadences. On paper that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but everyone is different.
      We agree with you though that for most everyday riders a 50/34T compact is just fine, and has very little loss of power and speed over a race crankset.

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