I never chose compact cranks … they chose me. Or rather, when I bought my road bike, it just happened to have compact cranks*. (for clumsy explanation, see below)

Which was a lucky thing, because I reckon they’re great. One of the simplest laws of cycling is that heavy people struggle on hills. As I weigh 100kg, which is about 40kg more than your average King of the Mountain, I’d say the extra gearing provided by compact cranks has, for me, been the difference between suffering in the hills and, well, suffering horribly in the hills.

But the curious thing is that so many people have such a strong negative opinion about them. I’ve never understood why. I think a lot of this is because they’re a recent phenomenon, that's been embraced by novices. From what I’ve learnt, compact cranks only came into broader knowledge when Tyler Hamilton used them to stay competitive in 2003’s Tour de France after busting his collarbone and being unable to get out of the saddle. Lots of racers come with them now ... but I don't think the high-end ones do... 

So, many riders seem to view them as unacceptable. It’s funny, we spend thousands on buying a bike a teensy bit lighter, aerodynamic water bottles … but adding a bit more gearing to that bike, well, that’s cheating. Or soft. Or both. The number of times I’ve heard of people being told in a bike shop (usually by some skinny twentysomething), “naah, you don’t need those gears around Sydney.”

Well, maybe YOU don’t, buster, but they’re working just fine for me.

I’ve been meaning to start this discussion for a while but was jarred into action by this post by Will:



Especially the response (when talk turned to gearing), by Mikesbytes:

“39-25 is perfectly adequate for RNP. There is no need what so ever to change the gearing.” 

That’s a fair few intensifiers, Mikesbytes! Perfectly adequate. No need what so ever. I cycle the RNP with that ratio, and so should everyone. Now drop and give me 20! :-)

I’d say increased gearing may well help Will, and since he’s on a 53/39 set-up, a compact could be the way to go. There’s no shame in it if that’s your decision, Will! I'd suggest you join compact cranks anonymous ... but sadly there's no hiding those tiny rings.

Yes, it always helps to train more, lose weight, get fitter etc. But if that’s not happening and you want to ride the many hilly roads of our undulating city, but find yourself dying horribly, grinding up at a pitiful RPM while flailing around out of the saddle, then taking several minutes to get your breath back once you’ve mercifully reached the top, I’d recommend you take another look at the cheating, soft option – buying some bigger gears.


Some of the advantages, as I see them (I’m not a doctor but I can Google):

1 Higher cadence means more economic cycling, less lactic build-up during the ride and quicker recovery.

2 Kinder on the knees, especially if, again, you’re not a lean youngster.

3. Easier to stay in the saddle on ascents, for energy conservation.

4. If  the thought of say West Head or the RNP or the Three Gorges fills you with dread, but you find them easier to do with kinder gearing, you’ll probably do those rides more. And you’ll lose weight, get stronger, build your fitness and all the other things that people say you need to do to climb hills better. 

5. You can still attack hills on bigger ratios with a compact. You don’t HAVE to use, say, 34-28 just because you have it. But my guess is, if you’re suffering, you will. And you’ll love it.


Disadvantages, as put by skinny kids and some of my silly friends

1 The pros don’t use them. (OK, look in the mirror – is that Andy Schleck looking back at you?)

2 But I LIKE grinding my way up hills (“Enjoy your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone” said the Sunscreen song)

3 You’ll be fine on regular cranks if you just lose weight, train and HTFU (see 4, above)

4 You lose top speed (What happens to you more often – falling out the back of a peloton cos your gears aren’t big enough, or being dropped going up a hill? Besides, if you’re worried about that, change your cassette -  50/11 is a bigger ratio than 53/12)


But ultimately, it’s not what gear you use to get up a hill, it’s HOW you get up the hill. If having kinder gearing helps you get up a hill FASTER and easier, well, that’s what counts, surely? Not what gear you did it in

So that’s my take on the situation. I’d be interested to know what others think.


*For those wondering what this is about, my attempt at explaining. The crankset is that set of big toothed rings and levers that the pedals are attached to. Traditionally, racing bikes come with two rings – a big one with 53 teeth, and a smaller one with 39 teeth, ie 53/39. More recently, “compact cranks” with 50/34 teeth have been developed, to create smaller ratios; your legs will spin faster at the same speed as someone using a 53/39 with an equivalent set of cogs on the back wheel. Of course, many bikes have three chain rings, but this isn’t popular on a racing bike due to weight, an increased Q factor (you can google that yourself!) ... and it makes you look even more soft than a compact crank. 


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That's actually an interesting point, if 180's are the right length for you, then it may be difficult to get exactly the crank set you desire
Heehee. Note how the price is so much lower on the ones with the HTFU gearing!
commission to my isle of man # 2 account
Although I do recall when Schleck dropped his chain, allowing that cheating beef-eating Spaniard to get the jump on him, there were those that blamed his FSA drive train ...
Yeh, that was an interesting race.  For us mortals that comes down to not getting the best seat at the coffee shop

getting the best seat ...

speak for yourself

Bingo, exactly what your after, but LOL, 30 quid more for compact over standard.

Worth every devalued quid!


"...30 quid more for compact over standard"

That's because the compact comes with a basket and streamers. JUST KIDDING!

Seriously, one of the "issues" I read in a review of compact vs HTFU cranksets was that when not climbing you tend to spend a lot more time crossed up, especially in the (ultra) small ring, i.e. if you're rolling along in say 39/15 on HTFU, you're going to be 34/13 or 50/19 in a compact to push the equivalent inches. Of course there are a lot of people who spend far too much time crossed up regardless of their crank size, but that's a separate issue.

I've never used a compact myself, because our hills generally aren't big (long or steep) enough to have me struggling enough to spend the $900, but if they were it's the first thing I'd give a go. Remember if you plan on changing between compact and HTFU cranks to have a separate chain for each, as they length will differ due to the fact you've got a smaller diameter up front, and you'll also need to reposition your front derailleur - which means it's probably just easier to stick with a compact if you need it!


I've never used a compact myself, because our hills generally aren't big (long or steep) enough to have me struggling enough to spend the $900,


Remind me never to shop at your LBS! Should easily be less than a third of that ....




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