Triple or Compact Crank? What should I get?

Well, at the shop we hear these questions a lot. 1. ”Should I get a triple or does a compact give me the same lower gearing?” 2. “How many gears will I lose if I go to a compact from the current bike that I am riding?” 3. “I’m a woman, do I need a different gear for me compared to my male friends?” and the all too important: “Will my friends make fun of me if I ride a triple?” I can’t really answer the last question but I can certainly take a stab at the first three! :)

1. With most bikes now coming with either compacts or triples, you have a choice of low gearing with either option. A compact crank comes with a front crank with a 50 tooth large ring and a 34 tooth small ring and a cassette with a range anywhere from an 11 tooth small ring to a 28 tooth large ring (You can also get a cassette with higher gears in the back, like a 12-25 but I’m going to stick with the low gear options for comparrison). A traditional triple will come with a 52 tooth large ring, a 39 tooth middle ring, and a 30 tooth small ring on the front and the same gearing options on the back as a compact. The lower the number of teeth on the front the lower the gearing and the higher the number of teeth on the rear, the lower the gearing (I know this is counter intuitive but it just works out that way.  So, if you got a compact, your lowest gear would be a 34/28 (Small gear in the front divided by the big gear in the back) which comes out to  1.21 gear inches (the lower this nunber, the lower the gear and the easier to pedal) and if you got a triple, your lowest gear would be 30/28 which comes out to 1.07 gear inches. So yes, you do get a slightly lower gear on the triple than you do on the compact. Think of it as one gear lower on the triple than on the compact.

2. Well, whether you will lose gears or not going to a compact depends on what you are riding now. I have a lot of customers who have an older bike with a triple who think that they still need a triple because they use it now. Sometimes this is true. If they have an older bike with a wide range cassette on the rear (with a 27 or 28 tooth large ring) then yes, in general, they should stay with a triple. But what if someone is riding a triple with 12-25 in the back (this gearing was very common on bikes prior to 2008)? The lowest gear this bike would have would be a 30/25, or 1.2 gear inches, with a compact, the lowest gear would be a 34/28 which is 1.21 gear inches which is virtually identical. So they could go with a compact and have virtually the same gearing as they had before. However, the gearing that a person goes with is a very personal matter. It depends on a lot of things: climbing style, overall fitness, knee issues, and muscle differences between men and women.

3. Which brings me to my 3rd point. We sell a lot of triples to women. It’s not that there is an issue with compacts and women but in our 32 years of buisness, we have found that most women like the absolute lowest gearing possible. Yes, there are super women who power up the hills in high gears but in general women prefer to sit in the saddle and spin a high cadence while climbing. This is not just because we like to look around us while we climb and keep up a conversation (but those 2 things are nice!) but also because we develope muscle differently than our male counterparts. Women tend to have more issues climbing in higher gears because we do not generate the leg muscles as fast as men do. I have sold a lot of women a lot of triples at the shop and I have had only one come back to me and say that she wishes she got a compact. I have had many more come back to me and thank me for selling them a triple because they could actually do the death ride this year, they could make it up that nasty hill and even one time, that she finished the climb, and her friend on a compact had to get off and walk.

Overall, it all depends on what you want to do and where you want to climb. We all have differing opinions at the shop, but we all have one thing in common: making sure that you get the best ride out of your bike possible! :)

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2 Responses to Triple or Compact Crank? What should I get?

  1. Sf Biker says:

    Hi Becky, nice blog. I lie in San Francisco at the top of one of its notoriously steep hills. 34T, even combined with a 11-28T cassette, is too little to comfortably climb my 800 meter hill at 45 degree incline. However, I don’t like any designs, components or weight of the currently-available triple crankset bikes from any vendor (Bianchi, Cannondale, Fuji, Trek, etc.). As far as the bike itself, DESIGN is actually the MOST important aspect to me, followed by weight, and third comes climbing ability (followed by shifter type, derailler quality, carbon forks, etc.).

    Some Trek bikes are pretty, but the 2013 models in aluminum alloy are not as nice as the older ones. Why can’t more manufactures hire decent paint artists like Bianchi?

    Anyhow, is it possible to get a compact crankset with 32 or lower as the small chainring? My preference is to get close to a 1:1 ratio between crankset chainring and cassette ring size. For the cassette, I am guessing that Shimano 105 cs-5700 11-28T is the best I can do in the back?

    How do you recommend I o about finding a bike that suits my needs? I want to stay under $1000, or possibly more, if justified.


    • becky says:

      Hi SF Biker,

      You are encoutering a problem that a lot of people have, that you want to stay with a compact but you want/need the lower gears. Depending on the component set up that you have now, you may be able to put a mountain bike rear deraileur and cassette on the back and put up to a 32 tooth on it. This wouldn’t get you quite to 1:1 but it would be a lot better than what you have. And unfortunately, there isn’t really any way to get a smaller ring on the front. It has been tried and its just too big of a jump for the chain to make without falling off.

      As for the designs of the bikes themselves, I think that Trek has done a phenomenal job this year. If you haven’t looked at the new Madone 2.1s, check them out. They have taken all of the technology used in their high end carbon bikes and brought them down to the aluminum version. You now have internal cable routing and a 90mm wide bottom bracket (great for climbing) with the addition of new airfoil technology in frame to make it more aerodynamic. The Madone 2.1 starts at $1299.99 and comes in the option of the triple or compact (which we can put the wider range rear cassette on for you).

      I hope that answers your questions!


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