Friday Group Ride #483

Friday Group Ride #483

It was a simpler time, one crank option, 53-39 rings, what was known as “standard,” although it isn’t anymore. Coupled with a narrow range cassette, you earned all your vertical feet. You were better and stronger then. We all were.

Then “compact” arrived, 50-36 rings, and very quickly became standard. There was a period of compact-shaming, when stalwarts ridiculed those of us who wanted to work less hard. My experience suggests that most have capitulated by now. They got tired, too.

What I didn’t expect and still don’t really understand is the emergence of mid-compact, 52-36. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The bike industry I know has never been shy about splitting hairs. I don’t know who buys mid-compact cranks, buts someone does. Is it you?

Finally (not really…there is never a finally) we have sub-compact cranks, 46-36. Driven by the challenges of riding gravel bikes in less and less hospitable places, we will undoubtedly see these on road bikes too. People like pedaling their bike to be easier (see: eBikes for all relevant evidence). This can’t be the end of the story either, because while I haven’t talked about cassette ranges, the other trend in bicycle gearing is the movement of gear inches from one end of the bike to the other.

I also don’t want to talk about triples. Please don’t bring up triples. Occasionally I still talk to a rider who misses a triple, and I think, “Yeah, right. It’s complicated, but at least it’s heavy.” If I have offended you, I’m sorry. But not really very much. Neither of us should probably take cranksets so seriously.

This week’s Group Ride asks, what are you riding now? Do you like it? Or do you think some other combination would work better for you? There has to be some sort of shake out, right? We have to settle on something, if only to simplify bikes and hold costs down. Or in the future will we just 3D print whatever you want in every esoteric combination?

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40 comments

  1. Michael

    Gear inches matter, but every bike has a different purpose and so the crankset varies. I still have an old Ron Cooper with a Campy 52-42 and a 13-22. Wish my legs could still get that up the steep stuff. Then a “standard” 53-39, another with a compact crankset, and I wish my gravel bike was a subcompact, but it isn’t. I’ll skip the mountain bike variations! My daughter (with CP and seizures) and I ride a tandem with a triple, and I don’t want to think about climbing on that thing without the granny gear. But that is a specialist application – I would not have it on much of anything else. But why do you think we need to “settle on something”? As long as the spiders have a limited number of options, can’t we work with that?

  2. Ben

    On my long-distance road bike: 46-34 / 11-34 two-by-eleven, because it is what fits my cranks and hub/cassette body and what is offered from the Japanese market leader. Works fine.

    If I could choose more freely it would be 46-30 / 12-32 or 12-27. Sort of a one-by plus granny. Unfortunately the otherwise nice GRX cranks come with a weirdly wider chainline whereas I would prefer a narrower chainline to use the big ring across most of the cassette.

  3. Jim

    50/34 with a 30/12 cassette.
    I did some loaded touring last summer. Not too many hills. It was barely enough and had me reconsidering gearing for this summer’s mountainous tour.

  4. Doug

    52/42/30 triple with 11/28 in back. Wouldn’t buy it today, but the bike’s 10 years old & still feels great. With three kids in grade school, it’ll be a while before I can splurge on something newer. Klein La Reve. Sort of a precursor to today’s gravel bikes with a SPA rear elastomer suspension, carbon fork & stays, aluminum triangle. With Campy shifting & Shimano brakes it actually opens wide enough & has enough clearance to get 30 or maybe 32mm tires in & out without deflating. I run 28s for now, but may go bigger.

  5. Kimball

    Put a 46/30 sub-compact crankset on my all-road bike a couple years ago…for 90% of the population I think its just about perfect. Now if someone would just make a 11-32 cassette that started out 11-13-14-15-16-17- I’d be a happy camper!

  6. Aar

    In the warm months, 52-36 x 11-24 (11-23 when I can find one). When it’s cold out, 50-34 x 11-28. For mountainous summer rides the 11-28 comes out again and my old bike can even do an 11-32 with the recently installed Ultegra rear derailleur but I haven’t gone there yet.

    Yes, I quickly installed an 11-16 on my first real bike that came with a 52-42.

  7. scottg

    In the good old days, you rode a 51/48 for racers, a 46 for clubmen,
    Tourists rejoiced with Simplex Tourist rings in 44/28 or 46/30
    Things had decayed from the real old old days, when you rode
    a fixed wheel, variable gears were for people over 45.

    The good old days they’re gone forever, same as it ever was.
    Member, Veteran Cycle Club

  8. Michael

    53-42 x 12-26 on the road, and I don’t think it has changed much since the mid-90s. 46-34 with whatever the heck composes the cassette, is a bit of a struggle when things around here get steep.

  9. Mike Brown

    53-39 w/ 13-29 or 12-30 10sp cassette for all of my riding. Do have a 50-34 set up on one bike but it’s hard for me to get used to it. Look at the gear inches and it makes perfect sense to go to a compact: smaller cassettes and smaller chainrings equal less weight for the same or better gear inches.

  10. Lyford

    Road bike is 50/34 x 11-32, gravel bike is 46/30 x 12-34.
    I’m not big or strong, rarely ride in fast lines, live in hilly country, and the 50×11 gear is almost never used, so thinking about going subcompact on the road bike. I’ve used the 30×34 on the gravel bike quite a bit…..

    The 46/30 set is oval(Absolute Black) and I really like how it feels standing climbing.

  11. Jeff vdD

    On my gravel bike (which doubles as road with a second wheelset), I run:
    – Front 46-30
    – Rear 11-34

    That’s for New England gravel which tends to have a LOT of elevation. While I don’t mind climbing, I’m by no means a climber. The 30f/34r combination allows me to spin a bit and not blow up. (Yes, it’s slow!)

  12. Dave

    I’m still running 53/39 with a 12-30 cassette, but when I was in Spain last year I hit some pitches that made me think I might need some lower gears. Considering a mid-compact for the next bike.

  13. Bear

    I had used “standard” 53/39 for ever and wanted something a bit easier. I couldn’t bring myself to jump all the way to 50/34, it just seemed too big of a change. So I went to 52/36 with an 11/28. It works well, and I prefer it to the 53/39, but I wish I had gone to the 50/34! For my next bike I am dreaming of ETAP AXS 48/35 with 10/32.

  14. Hautacam

    I’ve got a pre-compact Campy “Racing Triple” (!) on my serious road bike. 50-39-30 i think. It has the same q factor as the double it replaced, and it shifts great. Any weight it adds is far exceeded by the midlife ballast i’m carrying. Not saying its better, just that it works fine. There’s an old-school mountain triple on my mtb (46/36/28). There are compacts on my rain/commuter bike (50/34) and my cx bike (34/48?) Plus the obligatory single ring on my singlespeed cx’er.

  15. Dan Murphy

    Kind of an old guy here whose gearing has changed significantly in the last 15 years, and is about to go even lower.

    Currently, my all-road bike (Seven Evergreen SL) has 50/34 with 11/32 on the road wheels and 11/36 on the dirt wheels. I’m looking at a GRX 48/31 crank right now.

    I went compact around 2009 and the first ride told me it was perfect for me.

    Like others, years ago I had 52/42 with a 23 cog on the back. Looking back, I know I wasn’t even close to strong enough for that gearing, but it was cool. No wonder I cramped.

    1. Jay

      I just started riding GRX with that front combo and an 11-34 on the back. My first impression is that it is going to give more options on the low end which is nice to have in my back pocket. I frequently found that I would run out of gears on some of the really big climbs in my area.

  16. Fausto

    Got older and the 50/34 with the 26 in the back became a 29 and now a 32. Thank you Campy for that. You missed the argument that now that we have 12 choices in the back, we need to just have one ring in the front. When did people begin struggling with shifting the front mech? I get it for Cross Racing, but anything else, why not have twice the choice?

  17. Ken

    46 x 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 28, 32, 36, 42, 50. Works fantastic on my 13.5 pound, rim brake road bike and manorexia diet plan. Might be even better with a 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 28, 32, 36, 40, 45 or 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 28, 33, 39, 45, 51 but don’t know how the SRAM etap derailleur works with a Shimano cassette.

  18. Paolo

    Triple with a 39 for the rain/winter bike.
    Still on 53/39 with 11 in the back for training bikes, you need it when things get hot going downhill.
    CX racing with a 38 single ring.
    Still think MTB should have a double up front, the single ring is not enough of a range.

  19. Lyford

    “There was a period of compact-shaming, when stalwarts ridiculed those of us who wanted to work less hard.”

    Nerd note: We all know the common meaning, but by strict definition it takes exactly the same amount of work to raise X mass Y vertical feet up the same slope in any gear. Lower gearing just lets you do the task with less power.

    As I get older and kinder, I admire the folks with poor power-to-weight ratios who have the tenacity to spin up long climbs at walking speed while stronger riders go zooming past. That’s a different kind of strength.

  20. Neil Winkelmann

    52/36 on my road bike. 50/34 on my gravel/winter/commuter. Each works well for my use. 11-30 on the roadie, usually 11-32 on the gravel bike. Switch it for a lighter DA cassette for “racing” that only goes to 30. Had to walk one short stretch at DK200, but it was OK. Would likely actually have been quicker overall with the heavier steel Ultegra 11-32, but you know? Ego.

    I’d gladly trade the 11 for another mid range gear to reduce gaps. A 50×12 on the gravel bike is more than enough. Ditto 52×12 on the road bike.

    I don’t like the big jump at the front on either bike, but I’m used to it, and modern shifting is so good that simultaneous front/rear double shifts are super-easy and 100% reliable. (Except if you’re on eTap, obviously)

  21. TominAlbany

    53×39 front. 12-25 rear. It’s too much but, most of my riding right now is flatter and my 54 years can still handle it. When I go up, it tends to be slow. I’m finally in the market for a new ride and will likely go compact.

    I have no idea what’s on my mtn bike. It was bought in ’01 and it has a triple. I just bought a CX bike last fall. No clue what gearing it has but, likely, it’s standard CX gearing…

    I remember looking down my nose at compact when I was back in my 30s. I get it now. I was an a-hole.

  22. Dave

    52×38 and 11/28 on the road bike.
    50×34 and 11/27 on the cross/commuter/gravel bike.

    On the road bike, I started off with 53×42 and 12/23 in the flat Midwest, but living where I do now, I love the 52×38 and the 11/28 cassette.

  23. Stephen Barner

    I bit the bullet awhile back and installed a 34 x 50 compact on one of my bikes. Having cut my teeth on 42 x 52, I never really got used to it. Heck, 39 x 52 still feels like a big jump. With a 10 tooth difference, you make a lot of shifts in the front instead of the back when you want to make a bigger change, and there’s all the consideration you take into account of what’s happening ahead, and what ring you’re going to want to be in. The bike with the compact had a cassette that maxed out at 26t, so I thought it could make it a better climbing rig.
    After a year, I got tired of thinking how much I hated every chainring change becoming a double-shift, pulled the thing off, and put a 39 x 52 back on it. I now ride that bike a lot more.
    I never figured out why going to 11 or 12 cogs in the back, so you can get an 11-tooth cog that you don’t need is cool, but adding an aluminum chanring and some bolts in the front isn’t. I can pick up a triple with 30 x 42 x 52 rings for a small fraction of the cost of a decent 11 or 12 cog cassette and have my old performance gearing and a low-enough granny, too, even with a 26 in the back. The weight gain is negligable, as is any difference in shifting speed, and with no additional moving parts beyond a chainring, I get a nice range of gearing. There wre not many people who climb more than I do. Just my commute gives me over 2k ft, which includes a couple of 17% pulls. I find 39 x 28 or 30 x 26 plenty low enough.

  24. Pk

    I was going to a bike camp in Poland in 1994 and the director told me if I needed a 28 in the rear then I probably shouldn’t bother coming. 53/39 and 12-25 is enough for the mountains, he said.

  25. Jon

    Road bike – 52/36 2×11 (came with the bike, would’ve been happy with 50/34 as my previous road bike used that) with 12-28 (cobbled from 11-28 and 12-25 to get the 16T cog) for flat/rollers or 11-34 for mountains
    CX/Gravel bike – Currently 40T 1×10 (but also have a 46/30 subcompact) with 11-36
    Fixed gear – 46/17

    Spin to win!

  26. Sonya K Jackson

    ME!
    I made my own 52×36 years ago. my first compact was great for climbing but I would spin out so easily. And I wanted to spin on the flats in a 34 12 but kept finding myself in the 11. FSA had the rings I needed for my Carbon Lord cranks. Problem solved.

  27. Chuck

    I still try to ride my 90s #steelisreal race bike once a week. It still has “standard” 53/39 chainrings but my younger self 12-21 cassette (8-speed!) is now 12-26. Even with those smaller gears (which aren’t that small by today’s standards), whenever I ride it, I’m reminded of “the good old days.” And that you dance with whoever you brought to the prom. At least on moderately rolling rides, I still somehow manage to get up and over.

    My “modern” CF steed is 50/34 (for several years it was actually 50/36 because I wanted the ability to stay in the small ring on the flats but do enough rides with steep, double-digit grade that I succumbed to a 34 (that plus … just older). And a whopping 11-30 cassette! But even with 34×30 as my smallest gear, I can’t always spin when the road tilts up enough.

  28. Weiwen

    My main bike had 53/39 gearing for a number of years. Living out on the East Coast, there were a bunch of climbs where I really needed the 29t cog on my 13/29 Campy 10s cassette. I did switch back to a 12/25 in the Midwest.

    I updated the groupset, and I went with a 52/36 with an 11-30 Shimano cassette. I feel like I never use the 11t, and that the steps between the last 4 cogs are a bit too big (21-24-27-30). I think I’d rather have a 12-30 cassette with those chainrings. I could have gone with a 50/34.

    I have a 50/34 crank with an 11-34 cassette on my gravel bike. Right now, I don’t feel over-geared, but I’d consider swapping the crankset for a 48/31 GRX.

  29. Marshall Ellis

    I ride on 53-39, with either a 12-23 or 12-25 on the rear. I started racing in the mid-80’s, so I rode 52-42 or 53-42 and a 13-18 straight block 6-speed New Winner freewheel. Got older, so the the 39 was a better choice. I live in rolling hills, and it’s more than adequate. I have no trouble holding onto the local hard men, even though I’m 61. Occasionally I find myself pondering going to something like 50-36, but this only happens on the rare occasions when I ride somewhere with sustained topography. When I want to feel like an old school badass, I whip out my 1990 9-speed steel Tommasini, which has 53-39 and 12-21 on the rear. It confuses the geeks on the all black bikes with the black decals.

  30. Harald

    I started with 53-39 and 11-32 on my first race bike, but I disliked the the large steps between the gears especially in the high range, so I got me a 13-27 cassette in the back.
    On my Raleigh from the 80s I run 52-42 and 13-23.
    For this year I built me a new race bike (with a 30 year old steel frame) with some strange gearing 46-28 front and 11-25 rear, giving me a bigger high gear than using 53-13 and also a pretty low gearing to go up some mountain passes in the Alps.
    I’m looking forward riding it!

  31. chuckster

    Love the 52/36 with 11/28 on the road bike for hilly terrain and some racing – It literally checks every box I need. 50/54 and 11/32 on the cross bike (uh… gravel now I guess) and contemplating a little lower gearing still for exploring “off piste” more and more and some gnarly steep long dirt climbs where the 34×32 comes up a little short. But overall really nice to have a low climbing gear and still some reasonably tall gearing for tailwinds and rides that stick mostly to pavement.

  32. Mark

    Old days (touring & brevets): 48-44-24 x 6-sp 14–28.
    A few years ago (brevets, light touring & gravel): 50-39-24 x 11-sp 14-28 (Ultegra juvenile cassette) & 14–32 Miche (rubbish: the 32 cog bent) & 14-32 (combined two Ultegra cassettes). My fastest brevets on this; better than a 50–34 x 11-32.
    Nowadays (brevets, light touring & gravel): 42-34 (WickWerks c/rings on Ultegra cranks) x 11-sp 11-32 most of the time; 11-40 when contemplating touring in mountains or on gravel.

    The triple with close ratios was my favorite. But the 42-34 is great.

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