Compact Cranksets – Rant

Jun 27 2005

Ok, geniuses, time for a quiz: Which of the following will NOT make you a better climber:

a) EPO
b) Losing some weight, tubby
c) A compact crankset
d) Training

If you answered C, congratulations; you are now officially smarter than the entire marketing staff at Excel Sports thinks you are. Compact cranksets do not make you a better climber. In fact, they make you a slower climber. “What?” you shout indignantly, having spent 400 dollars on a 50/34 FSA SL-K with MegaExo BB. “I can now make it up [local climb of moderate difficulty] without stopping every 10 minutes.” Hey, good for you. I hope you keep at this whole “cycling” thing. But the fact is, your speed on a bicycle is determined by only two things:

1) Your gear.
2) How fast you can turn it over.

So let’s say we’re riding uphill and we each have identical bikes (700c wheels with 23mm tires and 25 tooth cassettes) and cadences (60rpm – a good estimate for a steep climb) except that you’ve got your little 34 tooth dink ring and I have my regular sized 39. After a minute of climbing, I’m 26.5 feet ahead of you! After a mile of climbing, you’ll be nearly 700 feet back; you still think you’re a better climber because of that crankset?

“Well,” you say smugly, “to compensate for my lower gear, I’ll pedal faster.” Ok chief, 39×25 with 700×23 tires at 60 rpm sends me 205 feet in a minute. Your 34×25 has to do almost 69 rpm to keep up. And the faster I pedal, the worse it’ll get for you. At 100 rpm, you’ll need to spin over 114 rpm; that’s getting into Lance territory. On flat sections in TTs, big Tex has been known to push 120 rpm, a normally lactic debt bankrolled by his superhuman anaerobic threshold. My guess is, since you’re rocking the compact, it’s an anaerobic threshold you don’t have.

“But what about Tyler’s heroic performance in 2003?” you stammer. Well, #1 is Tyler looks like he’s a blood doper. I still think he’s a nice guy, but the evidence is really stacked against him. Secondly, Tyler had a broken clavicle, making it exceptionally painful to yank up on the bars during climbs. Thus, standing and pounding a manly gear at 70 or so RPM, a riding style dependent upon one’s ability to yank, was infeasible. So Bjarne Riis slapped on the compact and Tyler spun lower gears quickly to a 4th place finish, using hard training, good genes, and possibly, someone else’s red blood cells, to make up for the inefficiency.

“Inefficient? Spinning? Never. Spinning is the key to success. Chris Carmchael told me so.” Oh, get a life. Opinion on “best” cadence is constantly in flux. Eddy Merckx claims to have preferred a 42/21 gearing for the bulk of his TdF climbing, while Bernard Hinault used to pound up the first part of mountain passes in the big ring, in order to demoralize his opponents. Eddie Monnier reports that studies have shown the most efficient cadences to be from 50-60 rpm, well below what even the mashiest of the mashers race on. So don’t get caught up on cadence.

What really pisses me off about compact cranksets is that for about 300 bucks less than pretty much any of them, you can buy a cassette with a 27 or even a 29 tooth cog. Yeah, it adds 150 grams to your bike. Suck it up. If you get a compact, and you like descending at speeds in excess of 38 mph, you’ll need to shell out extra dough on a new cassette anyway, so you can get an 11 tooth cog. Why not just plunk down 40 clams for a 12-27, change cassettes and get it over with? Throw your old cassette on a second pair of wheels and have a back-up for pits and wheel trucks; it will still cost less than the Carbon compact, and a change to normal gearing for crits and TT’s will take you 15 seconds. Try swapping cranksets in anything less than half-an-hour. Oh, and if you’re one of those that whines about the allegedly poor shifting of larger cassettes, see how fast your compact pops from 34 to 50 teeth when there’s heavy pressure on the chain. I think you may be disappointed.

There’s only one dude in the world who I will suffer on a compact: Davis Phinney. Because as the first American riding for an American team win a TdF stage, he’s too awesome for a triple, and because he’s got early-onset Parkinson’s. Remember what Mohammed Ali’s arms were doing when he lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta? Now imagine that happening to your legs. While you’re trying to bike up a mountain. Greg Lemond, fat misanthrope that he is, bailed on cycling when his muscles started to recover slower; despite his prognosis, Phinney still rides, leading bike tours in Europe. I’d gladly put a compact on that guy’s bike any day of the week.

Bottom line: compact won’t make you better at anything (except losing money), and unless you’re Davis Phinney, there are better ways (bigger cassettes, triples if you’re really hurting) to get over hills.

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