For as long as I’ve been a cyclist, I’ve been gearing obsessed. Because speed is a function of gearing and cadence, and I liked speed, each of those numbers was as important to me as the number of miles I rode, at least at first. My priorities have shifted since then, but I’m still obsessed with speed and the most efficient means to attain it, which means I’m still preoccupied with gearing.
My first serious road bike featured a triple with half-step gearing. For those unfamiliar with half-step gearing, this was a setup used in touring where a fairly widely spaced freewheel (say a 13-28) would be paired with a crank with 50/45/30 chainrings. Done right it resulted in a drivetrain with almost no redundant gearing and by making sequential shifts between the freewheel cogs and chainrings, riders could make smaller steps in gearing than if they used more traditional selections. It was perfect for nerd like me.
I haven’t ridden half-step gearing since I sold that bike; I can’t say I miss it. I’ve remained fascinated with gearing choice though and have tended to err on the side of lower gears for long climbs. I continued to use triples off and on; I had an FSA carbon fiber triple on one of my bikes as recently as 2007. To me, the beauty of using a triple was matching the widely spaced chainrings with a narrowly spaced cassette. Stateside, I’d run a 10-speed 12-23, while in Europe I’d run a 12-25. Sure there were issues with chainline, Q, shifting and weight, but there’s a price to be paid for a drivetrain that spanned from roughly 30 gear inches to 120.
FSA is to be credited with the invention (if we can call it that) of the compact crank. They also get credit for offering the first carbon fiber crank that was stiff enough to be ridden by racers. The combination of smaller chainrings and carbon fiber meant that cranks, which often weighed a full kilogram weigh less than 700g; some less than 600g. They were as stiff as many of the old-style aluminum cranks and the 50/34 chainring combination moved the chain down the cassette, no matter how strong a rider you were.
In truth, the compact has all but eliminated the need for a triple. It weighs less, offers greater stiffness, improved chainline, lower Q and better shifting than even the best triple. Plus, when paired with some of the more mountain-oriented cassettes such as the 11-26, you get nearly all the low end found with the old triples plus more high end.
Then there’s the fact that this K-Force Light crank set enjoys a stunning white finish with graphics you can read at 30 paces, rather than only 30 inches. My 175mm crankset weighed in at 613 grams, which is a bit more than advertised, but they are still lighter than many options on the market. Flex? I’ve ridden exactly one crankset in my life in which I could feel the crank arms twist when out of the saddle and the only reason I could detect that was because I was also riding a bike equipped with the Dura-Ace 7800 crank concurrently. There may be stiffer cranks out there than this, but I’ve found nothing to criticize here.
Pricing on these is all over the place thanks to the Interwebs. While it’s no good for bike shops, the fact that you can install these with only two tools means that purchasing them online can save you perhaps as much as $200.
I still run into a great many cyclists who look upon compact cranks with the same disdain they reserve for helmet mirrors and neon-yellow windbreakers. In some riders’ eyes, it’s just not PRO. My view evolved when Tyler Hamilton rode one through the 2003 Tour de France, launching an epic breakaway to Bayonne and climbing the cruelly steep Col de Bagargui in a 36×25. It occurred to me that if your average PRO can pull the peloton along at nearly 40 miles per hour in a 53×12, then maybe I didn’t need a high gear bigger than I could do an interval in.
Honestly, I can’t do an interval in a 50×12. By shrinking the chainrings a bit, I get more usable gears out of my cassette and in my experience, selecting equipment to suit your needs is always PRO.