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?


Standard Cranksets

“Standard” cranksets, also known as “race” 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 standard crankset to be ideal.

Compact Cranksets

The compact crankset hit the scene a while back, and was immediately embraced by many riders. 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.

Mid-Compact Cranksets

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 special 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.

*If you want to install a 36T inner ring on an older 130/135mm BCD crankset, check with the manufacturer for compatibility.

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.

48 thoughts on “Our Take: Race vs. Compact Cranksets

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. IMO Crank arm length is extremely important with each of these options.
      Getting the crank arm length that best suits you is first and foremost. It does make a difference for all ages.

      1. Well said Roger W. While the desired traits of more leverage on longer crank arms are very attractive, there are drawbacks. For example, riders w lower inseams run the risk of the dreaded “toe over” that can have disasterous affects during low speed turns. Longer crank arms put the foot father forward causing interference with the front wheel. Also, crit riders appreciate greater ground clearance from shorter crank arms. Riders in hilly areas nevertheless will appreciate relatively long crank arms on the biggest chain ring they can afford to push.

      2. Actually many of the crank length adages have been debunked in recent years. Turns out it made no difference in performance over quite a range, so go shorter for some of the other benefits mentioned, plus better aerodynamics.

  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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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

    1. 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.

    2. Steve, I just bought a Focus Izalco 3.0 with a 50/34 crankset. I am apprehensive because i don’t pedal at a high rate, rather I have very strong legs (I can squat 600 LBs, I can hip sled so much the machine cant hold the weight) so what bothers me is high cadence or fast pedeling, it wears me out as I am built for push not repetition. Do you believe that even I will benefit from compact cranks on hill rides? Or do you think I will be at high rep cadence leading to fatigue?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. What effect does the length of the crank arms have on the strength required for the different chainrings? Is 172.5 easier to turn than a 175? Thank you

    1. +1 BT. Crank length should be determined by the rider’s leg length and style of bike fit, and the fact that longer cranks provide better leverage (all else being equal) is only an incidental side effect. Your bike’s gearing can be adjusted after you determine your crank length to get the range of gears you want.

      For example, I’m a pretty tall guy (6’8) so I use 200mm cranks. This allows my legs to move through the same range of motion as someone shorter than me on “normal” sized cranks. When I use, say, 175mm cranks, I’m not getting full use of my legs because my knees are not bending as far as they should at the top of my pedal stroke. It’s like putting someone who normally uses 175s on 155s.

      1. Thank you. The answer you provide is very informative and easy to understand. Relating to personal experience also helps me relate to what I need to look for.

  9. Hi Loren,

    Great question. Crank length does make a pretty big difference. The longer the crank arm, the lower the gear since you have more leverage. There are three aspects that determine a bikes “leverage”: the crank, the rim size, and the tire size.
    A common example of how crank length effects gearing is: a crank with 170mm crank arms and 53/39 chainrings is the equivalent gearing as 160mm crank arms with 50/36 chainrings on bikes with the same sized cassette, rim and tire.
    Having said that, crank length should be determined by your bike fit, not your gearing choices. There a lot of theories out there about crank length v. fit, but the conventional wisdom is that using cranks that are too long can be very hard on the knees, and can easily cause injury.
    If you need help figuring out your bike fit, you can contact your local Performance Bicycle store and schedule a Spin Doctor fit session.

    The Performance Bicycle Team

  10. I am older, 52, and bigger, 225 lbs, and it really comes down to opinion.
    Personally, I enjoy staying on the drops, in the saddle and spinning up hills at brisk cadences. It is objectively tougher from a cardiovascular standpoint but pays big dividends with keeping the muscles fresher, lighter and takes pressure of the knees. If you have a flat ride or race, by all means switch out to the bigger chainring, but for hilly rides and longer rides, do your legs a favor, go compact and spin a greater cadence.

  11. have switched from triple to a 34/50. after many years using the 39 middle ring the 34 is to easy & dont seem to have strength for the 50. havent ridden as much the last 2 years due to health problems. should I switch the 34 for a 39 to appease my aging muscle memory

  12. I have a 53/39 that originally came with a 12/23 when I bought my bike (16 years ago). Immediately switched to a 12/28, because I lived in a hilly area. Still ride the same ol’ bike, though have been giving some serious thought to going with a smaller “semi-compact” crankset due to my age 🙂

  13. Hello,

    Does every store offer this service or only some stores ? Is this different from the quick fit by adjusting the saddle and handlebars ?

    Recently purchased another bike from performance bicycle and interested to know more about Spin Doctor Fit Session .


    “Having said that, crank length should be determined by your bike fit, not your gearing choices. There a lot of theories out there about crank length v. fit, but the conventional wisdom is that using cranks that are too long can be very hard on the knees, and can easily cause injury.
    If you need help figuring out your bike fit, you can contact your local Performance Bicycle store and schedule a Spin Doctor fit session.

    The Performance Bicycle Team”

  14. So much to learn for us newbies. I’m thinking a compact would be the crankset I need as I live in Denver and do some climbing but am still building my cadence.

    Thanks for the information and comments.

  15. If I Assemble A Bike And my Groupset Is Shimano 105 5800 gS And my Chain ring is 52, 36 This is mid compact cranksets Right And im pair him a cassete of 11-28 Is this is fast or not What is Best for me If i assemble a bike What is the right Cranksets and cassete for me

    1. If you live in a hilly area, get a cassette w a larger big gear, say a 30 or 32. You’ll sacrifice fine tuning cadence for greater range of gearing. If you live in flatter area keep the set up you have. If you ride crits or have 52 cm or smaller frame size, consider getting shorter crank arms and using compact chain rings.

  16. I have 52-39 and 28-12 casette, can’t imagine having anything less than 28, it would make impossible to climb hills, they can be pretty steep where I live, but also can’t imagine having “compact” because that would be very very slow on flat and ridiculous downhill, can’t see much point in it..

    1. V8POWERAGE, I am with you. All this seems pretty silly. If you have smaller chain rings you’d just use smaller cogs, and be right where you were, so whats the difference? My compact setup has a 50/11 top gear which is a little less than my old 53/12. I don’t get all this higher cadence stuff on a compact crank, just use a larger rear cog on the ‘race’ crank? But I think a 50/34 chainrings causes you to use smaller cogs, then it would seem like you are putting more stress into the chain and rear cog teeth if putting out the same power.

    1. It depends on your chainstay length – look up “bike chain length calculator”. You’ll also need a long cage derailleur for an 11-32 cassette; search for “rear derailleur capacity” for your rear mech model to find out more.

    2. What year and make derailleur? My short cage 2012 dura ace handles a 30 (so I can climb with 34 – 30! A dream !) but that’s the limit. Theoretically the new dura ace 2017 is rated for 30 cassette but may handle a 32

  17. All else being equal, if you have smaller chain ring as on a compact crank vs. race crank, to get the same gearing, you’d use a smaller rear cogs. So wouldn’t this have more longitudinal stress on the chain and the teeth on the rear cogs, and the rear axle?

    When I bought my first serious bike I think it was 52/42 on the front, and 13/28 on the rear (only 6 cogs!) I wanted to put on a 12 but the dealer said not to, as the 12’s would have more chain wear. Now these compact setup have 11’s. Anyway I frequently spun out on that bike.

  18. Another comment I’d like to make about compact cranks, now since I have been riding one for several weeks. I find the chain ring ratio of a 53/39 = 1.36 is a smaller jump than 50/34 1.47. an 8.2% difference . So now on the same grade changes when I shift the front chain rings I have to change the rear at the same time. With the old 53/39 I often didn’t have to.

  19. Having just read this article, I find it very interesting that nobody has discussed another quite simple option. I started with a compact and easily swapped the 50 outer ring to a 52t ring. So now I have a 52 -34. When in the flats of Miami I use and 11-23. When I go to the mountains I use a 12-30.
    I have never had a problem Shifting the front derailleur. It’s a Wonderful option and I’m surprised more people don’t use it.

  20. I can’t understand how people need compact cranksets with new road bikes weighting a mere 7kg, they’re feather light, I had old steel bike that was 12kg and I had 52/39 crankset and I was just starting with bikes so didn’t have that strong legs yet.

      1. Check out YouTube video GCN Compact vs. Standard. Then ask yourself why Alberto contador will ride up the hardest climbs in a 34-32

  21. “some riders find the 34T inner ring to actually make climbing more difficult because it forces them to pedal at an excessively high cadence.”

    This makes zero sense…. just go to a higher gear if your cadence is too high on a climb… hell go on your 50t if youre that powerful.

  22. After 30 years of riding I do not miss the 53/39
    Now on a 50/34 & last year a 52/36

    It is just easier as we age & our knees like it better too 🙂

    I spin more especially since I live in the tall mountains & can be climbing for an hour or two

  23. Beginner Question:
    I have the 2013 Fuji SST 3.0 LE 50/34. Is it possible to simply put on the the SRAM WiFli 11-32t to help me on the hills? I’d rather spin on the hills rather than mashing. Is it an easy addition (SRAM Hills Kit) and I wouldn’t have to change any other parts on the bike? Yeah, I really don’t much about bikes. Lol


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