Triple vs. Compact Double — Again!

A distant relative has been going through the same biking metamorphosis that I went through a few years ago. He wants to get a new road bike, to replace the hybrid he’s been riding. But he’s agonizing over the purchase.

The main hangup, apparently, is whether to get a bike with a triple crankset or a compact double crankset.

Two Shimano 105 cranksets: A compact double on the left, a triple on the right.

We’ve looked at this issue before, but it never seems to lose steam. Most veteran bikers will tell you that a compact double, usually a 50-tooth large chainring and a 34-tooth small one — coupled with a cassette that goes from a 12-tooth cog to a 26, or 27, or 28 — will serve just fine. There aren’t many hills that can’t be climbed with that setup.

A compact gives you a little less oomph at the top end, but unless you’re a racer, it shouldn’t matter. I ride a compact double, and I’ve hit speeds of nearly 40 mph (okay, on a downhill — but still) and am able to cruise in the mid-20s.

But there are some hills in my area that I have trouble with — most anything steeper than 16 percent. I know some of the fault lies with me. I need to lose more weight. I need to train harder to conquer those hills. I need to stop aging.

Or, a triple crankset might be just the ticket. Triples often come in 52, 39, and 30-tooth rings. Sometimes the big ring is only a 50. That arrangement is most beneficial in the low ranges, when the 30 is coupled with the 28-tooth cog.

Some high-end bikes come with triple cranksets.

The $3,300 Specialized Roubaix Expert comes in both compact double and triple versions.

One way to look at the issue is to look at your shifting. During a discussion of double vs. triple on Bike Forums, one poster said his goal is to minimize shifts on the front rings.

“When I run out of high gears in the small ring,” he wrote, “shifting to the big ring on a compact usually requires shifting down two or three cogs in the rear to put me in the right gear for the situation. When I run out of low gears in the big ring, similarly, I may need to shift up several gears in the rear when I shift to the small ring.

“A triple gives me the smooth transitions of a regular double and a granny ring for the lower gears I need for the really hard climbs.”

As for me, I’m hanging onto the bike I have for awhile. That means I’ll just have to learn to handle the big hills with my compact double. But if I’m ever in the market for another bike, you can bet I’ll opt for a triple

Oh, and my relative? He lives in Florida, where the biggest climb he has is a freeway overpass. I recommended he get the compact double.


  1. says

    Might want to tell him to hold off a bit. Sram just introduced their Apex group. It combines a compact double crank with a 11-32 cassette. Basically this gives you the crazy low gearing of a triple with the light weight and consistent shifting of a double. Pretty neat idea. Not sure when it will come out on OEM bikes, but it won’t be too long from now.

  2. chrisfit2009 says

    If he’s not likely to be doing many hills, I’d go for the triple. With a larger cog at the front, he’d get better speed on the flats. I think.

  3. mildstallion says

    I never thought of myself as a retrogrouch, but I’ve been riding a “standard” double (53,39) chainring for 17 years. I’ve gotten up some nasty climbs with it. I don’t race, I’m 5’8″ and 175 lbs.

    Why were these chainrings so bad after all those years that compact is now de rigueur?

  4. says

    I started with a triple…and I didn’t like it because it was hard to shift. I only occasionally used the small cog. Then I moved to a standard double (53/39) I loved the speed and really liked the gear spacing. Shifting was much improved. On my current ride I have a compact (50/34) I find I like it o.k. but the gear spacing is pretty big and it seems like a lot of the cassette is unused. I probably need a wider cassette to better utilize the compact crank. If I had it to do over again I would probably go back to the standard double. Just with a lower geared cassette.

  5. says

    As someone who has ridden in Florida (and wants to again very soon), I concur that the steepest hill he will see is the freeway overpass and a few bridges here and there. There are some areas that have some good rollers though.

    That said, I’d go for the compact double or even a standard double. I really don’t think he would need a triple unless he plans to travel and ride. And even then I would probably recommend a stand/double and interchanging cassettes instead of having the triple all the time.

  6. says

    Has a lot to do with what you use the bicycle for, if your just using it as “trainer”, then the compact double looks good but if you use it for “utility” purposes like I do, ie: getting food, larger items, pulling a trailer ect. I’d NEVER want to do it without a “triple”!

    Even in FL. , if your pulling a trailer with a weeks worth of foodstuff’s, having the “granny” is a real relief for the knee’s, jmho. I live in Colorado Springs and have a couple of BIG HILL’s between the apt. and the store, that 22×32 chainwheel/gear has made it so I can make the hill’s with the load, without it I’d be walking! YMMV.

  7. Ira says

    I just had to make the triple-compact double decision myself, having gone from a Trek 7.1 hybrid (with a triple) to a 1.5 road bike. After agonizing over it, I went with the double for two reasons: It shifts much smoother than the triple and I like the simplicity of having only two rings. Stupid as it sounds, it sometimes took me a second or two to realize where I was on the gearing with my triple; that’s no problem with the double. Yes, I’ve cursed the decision a couple of times while on a steep stretch of hill, but I haven’t had to walk yet and I think I went the right way.

  8. RamonH says

    I won’t go into crankset and cassette comparisons, or comment on the triple vs. double in regards to competitive settings. However, for me having the triple ring is about having a “escape valve”. For example, when doing notoriously hilly rides, I aim to stay on the middle ring, but if I get in trouble, I can always throw it on the small ring and continue to ride without getting off the bike. And yes, I experienced this when doing “Pedal Thru The Pines” last month. Where I live, hills are not much of an issue, but instead the wind is. Again, I aim to stay on the middle ring for the majority of the time. However, it is good to know I can get on the small ring when I encounter a 25-30mph headwind.

  9. amazer98 says

    I’ve been riding a Specialized Roubaix with a triple for the past 3 years. Here in hilly NH, I’ve certainly appreciated the low gearing that a triple set-up gives you, especially up some of the longer slogs.

    However, I have to point out that my Shimano 105 set-up has proven to be a bit finicky. I frequently have to tweak the front derailleur adjustments to keep the gear-changing aligned with my indexed shifting. Sometimes, when I shift from one chainring to another, the shifting action doesn’t put the chain quite right on the new ring, and I have to give it a half-click more, or else back off and try it again. The solution is to re-adjust the derailleur via the hi-low screws or else sometimes tightening the barrel adjuster a bit will solve the problem.

    I’m not sure if the finicky-ness is quite worth it… I think if I were to get a new bike, I’d opt for the simpler and lighter compact double and put a 28 tooth rear cog on it. The SRAM Apex, with the longer rear derailleur cage that can handle a 32 or 34 cog, looks like a clever approach… but it is an entry-level system that looks to be at least a notch below the 105 in terms if quality.

  10. says

    i am 56 now (2010) so i was in the thick of the 1970s bike boom. i put a triple on my bike in 1970, i did not know what i was doing (no one did) until i started calculating my gears mathematicaly. many cyclists told me my 15 speed was the first one they had seen. i started gear freaking before frank berto wrote his excellent gearing articles, my expriments had the same results as frank. i do not try to change anyones mind who think they can live with a compact double, but triples can shift just fine. i currrently have 5 bikes (4 with triples) and a 54 gear combination greenspeed gto recumdent trike, because i lost the ability to balance on 2 wheels. my gto has a gear range of 10.4 ” which john allen recommended to 121.8″. i bought my custom cassette from harris cylclery & the big chainrings (67T) from Highpath Engineering in Wales.

  11. says

    i feel that with triple crankset you can have it all, really low gears (read 22″ or less) & a 108″ top gear. for a diamond frame i personally prefer 108″ but it is of limited utility, you can’t really use anything bigger. i have 3 diamond frames with 108″ top gears, 1 with 104.1″ & 95.5″, you can always coast downhill. i feel it is more difficult to get the gears to operate properly on a crossover from an unfortunate incident that happened 10 years ago. my g/f purchased a terry classic from the shop sheldon worked at & every time she tried to go to to the granny ring the chain would ove rshoot or undershoot. i was trying different combinations of spacers & sheldon was no help. (shldon did help many times.) i finally turned turned the granny ring 180 degrees. that solved the problem. before you take the bike out of the shop have them change the crankset like we did in on the terry. they should do this for free or very little addition cost. the crankset you want is one with 110 mm. & 74 mm. bolt circles. this way you change from compact double to triple for considerably less cost than exchanging cranks, & you will get older when you may neee lowe gears a triple offers. this way keeps your options open.

  12. Chuck says

    I live in suburbs just west of Philadelphia, where it is hilly but not mountainous. I recently purchased a used 2006 Giant OCR3 with a triple. On the advice of a friend I looked for a triple and am happy I did.

    The bike has Sora derailleurs 3 x 8 (i.e. 24 gears) and Sora shifters. Even though the gears are not 105s (or even Tiagras), they have worked flawlessly over several hundred miles. I handle all my hills with ease now. Getting a triple was without a doubt the right move for me.

  13. pietro says

    Double 8 years ago, compact from 2008 and 2009….triple crankset in 2011.
    When you love biking and hate suffering in hilly places….just go for the triple !

  14. Tommy G says

    Interesting post and feedback. I am in for a change soon, as I’m moving from a triple (52/42/30 and 12-25 cassette) to a compact double (50/34 and 11/28 cassette), and have had very limited time on the new setup. My riding is mostly flat and fast with some hills, but nothing that required the triple-granny, at least locally. I ride for speed and smoothness, generally solo time-trial type loops against my own PRs – and very occasionally in a small group/paceline. When traveling, I usually take my touring bike (Surly Long Haul Trucker) which of course has a triple geared such that I can ride up the interior walls of my home! Since the new roadie (Scott CR1 Pro) was bought with “upping my game” on the flat roads of western Tennessee, I am hoping I made the right decision. Either way, I am sure I’ll adapt. :-)

  15. Jan says

    Last week I’ve sold my old Trek SL 1000 with a triple 52/42/30 and 11-28 cassette, in the Netherlands with the highest hill of 320 meters :-) I’ve rarely used the 30 and with the smoother shifting I think the double or compact would be much better.
    This year in France however for climbing the Alpe d’Huez’ or the Mont Ventoux I’ve really appreciated the 30-28 gear. This week I will buy my new bike (Focus Izalco Pro) and for sure I will select the triple. Selecting double, compact or triple is I guess always a kind of a compromise depending on circumstances, currently even in the Vuelta some professionals are using a triple to climb the 21%.. slopes.

  16. Dig says

    I’ve read about this issue and discussed it with fellow bikers a lot. And I can’t come to any other conclusion other than this is a simple matter of pure ego. We men are alas still boys.

    Unless you’re a pro there is no reason not to get a triple. The weight is a non-argument, and if you don’t want the third ring don’t use it. On anything with a 105 or above they shift just fine. But it’s worth having it on the bike just in case. there’s no reason not to. Get over-yourselves, stop wanting to impress your friends with your looking pro-bike and get something that works for you :)

  17. Tommy G says

    Yep, well as it turns out the joke’s on me. My spanking new carbon fiber beauty arrived from the manufacturer with a full sized Ultegra double on it!! Wooohooo! It was somewhat of a surprise, okay maybe a shock, at first – as I ordered the bike sight-unseen (and spec unchecked, apparently) due to it being the last one in the country for that year-model (CR1-Pro, 2011) in my size. 500 miles later, I have upped my speed significantly across the board, and have smashed every PR on each and every recorded section of my training rides. I just finished a Century last weekend in which I bested my 5-year old PR by two miles an hour over 100 miles. It definitely “works for me” and is the finest, most comfortable (and best looking!) bicycle I’ve ever owned. And yeah, I”ll miss the hell out of a triple if I ever take this rig to the mountains.

    • Austin says

      Tommy G, wondering what you attribute your improved PR’s too? New and better bike, harder training, different gears? I noticed that your triple had 52/42/(& 30 you never used) and I assume your new standard has 53/39. Do you find you spin a higher cadence with your 39t compared to 42t?

  18. Austin says

    Last thanksgiving I bought my first road bike in 20 yr (trek madone 5.2) it was on sale at my LBS with a triple crankset. The owner said it would be great for me and I loved it. Now a year and 4000 miles later I’ve been thinking seriously about swapping the triple out for a compact double. It’s not a cheap proposition so I wanted to be sure it was worth it. I live in Portland OR and we have real hills so the 30 granny comes in handy at times, also I live on a hill at 1000 ft and ride down to 200 ft for flat loops. That’s a lot of elevation gain in a typical weeks training! I went back to my LBS and test rode a new madone with a compact dbl. on a ten mile loop with flats, rollers and a 12% climb. Then I rode the same loop on my triple. Here are my observations: Being new to the compact it took a little getting use to the large jump from the 34t to the 50t. Desided to stay in the 50 most of the time and go to the 34 when the grade got steeper. I had no problem with the 12% climb in the 34/28 gears, so that issues was resolved! On false flats and rollers I found that I would start getting chain noise as I stayed in the 50 up front and worked my way up the bigger cogs in back, even after trimming I thought I got rub on the front derailer. Back at the shop the mech showed me it wasn’t rubbing it just gets a little noisy when cross chained. Overall I liked it and thought it would be fairly easy to make the switch! Then I took my triple out on the same loop… Much to my surprise I fell in love with my bike again, the biggest benefit to the triple was NOT the low gears, it was the middle 39t chainring! It gave me great versatility and seemed to have this large “sweet spot” for the flats, rollers etc. It’s no wonder the 39/53 has been the standard for most of cycling. That would be my choice if I could get it up my hills, but until then I’ll save money and keep my triple with the magic 39t ring! The biggest casualty is to my ego as for some reason I had bought into the “triples are not cool” think… I’ll get over it.

  19. Aaron says

    The issue is not whether you will make it up a huge hill or not; it’s will you spend most of your riding time using a part of your cassette that doesn’t have huge jumps between teeth. If I go with a triple then I can run an 11-23 and have tight gear shifts where you’re not spun out after one shift that jumps 3-4 teeth in back. Your options for having small gear changes for each shift on the cassette are better with a triple. Fewer 2-4 tooth jumps in back = smoother pedaling at a more ideal cadence. I’m setting up a new (to me) carbon road rig and running a triple in front and 11 or 12 – 23 for a cassette. I’ll be doing some 100 mile gravel races and will need to go slow too.

  20. says

    I’ve got a Triple on my Trek (52/39/30) and an old Cannondale with a 52/42 RX100 compact and I actually like the compact for ease of use. It’s absolutely harder to climb with but I’ve only ever touched the granny gear once. On the other hand, it’s a lot simpler. I don’t have to worry about crossing the chain with the compact, I can hit all but the highest gear with the small ring and all but the lowest gear with the big ring… The triple is much more convoluted. Now, that being said, I’m faster and less taxed with the triple so it’s just a matter of getting used to it (new bike).

  21. Old(er) Big(ger) Guy says

    Situation: 59 year old aggressive racer/rider weighs 180 pounds and likes the mountains. Enjoy the heck of fast packs speeding down the canyons so need biggest gear possible for that end. Ride in 25 mph packs frequently on the flats. Climb all the time, but at my age and size the longer 16%+ grades can take their toll. Heading to Italy to climb the classics (Mortiolo, Zoncolon, Giau, etc.) where I read that 20%+ grades are common. Currently ride a 38 front 28 rear and feel I may need a bit more gear. Compact double or triple, that’s the question. I’ve read many posts where people say they run a 30 on the back of Shimano DA/Ultegra even though it says you can’t. OK gents and ladies, pontificate for me!

  22. Denis Pelletier says

    I retired in 2008 at age 56.I bought an Obea Onix road bike with a compact crank. We have a lot of vicious short hills in the Cuyahoga Valley Nation Parks. I loved doing those hills. Five months later,I blew a meniscus while climbing. It wasn’t an issue of strength but the hills found a weakness that I had in my knee. I had to have surgery. It took a year before I could get back to biking. I got rid of my Orbea and bought a Trek 4.7 Triple. It is the best thing I’ve ever done! It gets to a point in all of our lives, when you have to be realistic about how well you can perform. My testosterone level is still high but reality has taken over!

  23. matt says

    I switched from a 48/34 compact double and a 14-25 cassette to a 48/36/26 touring type triple and a 12-25 cassette on the back. I’m generally happy and spend almost all of my time on the middle ring. It’s strange because I used to spend almost all of my time on the 48 tooth ring on the compact double but I don’t feel the need to use the 48 tooth big ring on the triple very often. The 36 middle seems a tad short on the top end but I’m comfortable cruising at about 17 mph on the middle ring and the 14 tooth cog on the rear, I can climb almost anything on the middle and only shift to the small ring for very steep and long climbs. Only tweak I’m considering is going to a 38 tooth middle so I can stay more in the middle of the cassette and spend less time on the 14 and 13 tooth cassette cogs (I never use the 12). Shifting between rings on the triple is a lot less cumbersome than shifting between rings on the compact double.

  24. Frank says

    This is an excellent and informative thread. My story; I recently converted my mt bike to a double. I never used the big ring since I only ride trails in the mountains of N.C. and do not use it on the road at all. The double gives me all the speed I need for the limited flats and downhill steeps. I removed my large ring and added a bash guard. I loved the shifting and simplicity. For mt bikes, around here at least, this is becoming standard practice. Best (almost free) upgrade I ever made on my mt bike.
    So, based on this experience, I started thinking about converting my road bike to a compact double, but road and mt bikes are different animals. After reading this thread I realized that my triple is the perfect set up for the hilly terrain in this area. The 52 ring gives me speed for downhills and flats. The 42 ring is my favorite for rollers and relaxing on long flats or windy days. With this ring I can use the almost the full range of my cassette. My 30 tooth ring is rarely used, but for those 90 degree days on a long climb it is well worth having. I bonked in a big way a couple years ago and had a 4 mile uphill grind with a modest 3-4 percent grade. It felt like a 17 percent on that 93 degree day..Believe me I was thankful to have that baby ring. I will put up with the finicky shifting on occasion and keep my triple. Yeah a triple’s not cool, but I’m 60 so who cares. I’m just happy to still be out spinning. I ride the lower end model of a wonderful 2005 Specialized Roubaix Carbon. It’s all the road bike I need. I love this bike! I think I will spend some money since I’m in the mood. A new seat and that Mavic wheel set are long overdue.

  25. Aitor says

    I ride a 2006 Giant SCR 1 with a triple Shimano 105 chainset (replacing the factory FSA) 50-39-30 and 12-25 on the back. I need the 30T ring very occasionally – e.g. up a steep hill when carrying a load. I’m 40 now; when in my 20’s I was happier with a 53/39 double and 12-28 on the back.

    My problem is that shifting is more slightly more fiddly than with a double, and recently (not sure what caused this) it’s started “automatically” shifting to the small chainring from the middle if I’m also in a low gear (i.e. big cog) at the back. This is really annoying. I’ve played around with gear cable tension and with hi-lo positions to no avail. It’s possible it’s my chain – replaced fairly recently, but snapped. I replaced the link but it’s possible I’m missing a link so it could be one link shorter. However I have no problems when in top gear, when chain tension should be highest.

  26. says

    I live in the Yorkshire dales sedbergh and my training is all hills and I wouldn’t swap my triple for anything , if you know you can climb most hills then you will ride them therefore getting stronger ,I also do time trials on the same bike and never run out of gears. don’t think its cool to have a compact because its not cool when your walking in road shoes MIKE 2 /2 /13.

  27. Jaco says

    Jamis Quest road bike w/triple 30/42/52 9 speed. I rarely use the 30 but when I needed to it was priceless. Example: Riding up a steep dirt road for several miles. Couldn’t have made it without it. I do wonder if pedals are wider (Q factor) on a triple. Also, since there is some gear duplication, e.g., 42×27 equates to about 30×19 I wonder if one is better for reducing wear or chain crossover.

  28. Dave Singer says

    I’m reading this because I too am agonizing over the same issue while deciding on a new bike. Has it all been marketing to sell us new stuff or is there sometimes merit to change?? The most compelling argument so far has been that with a double and a ten speed cassette the chain width is narrower and your not toting all that around constantly thereby making you more efficient overall. It’s a good theory but there are some pretty big hills in Northern California. Recently I have been riding an old steel frame Ron Cooper with a six speed cassette and changed the small chain ring from a 42 to a 41. So what couldn’t be an improvement. Did a ride last weekend 22 mi with 2000′ elevation gain. Grinding out the hills seated I started to feel it a bit in the knees. Perhaps the “shame” of a triple is better than blowing out a knee. Maybe I need someone to lend me a nice new bike with a compact for a week that I can put a few hundred miles on doing some hill climbs. If the knees complain a triple it is.

    Thanks everyone for your input on this subject that obviously will never die

  29. says

    Thank you for this very interesting thread.

    Fool that I am, I went and damaged the pedal thread on my right crank arm of a 105 compact. If it can’t be saved there is not a lot of price differential between a crank arm and a chain set so I will get a chain set.

    And so as not to feel that I am just wasting money, I want to get something better than I have.

    I like the increased stiffness of Ultregra cranks that I have on another bike and there is a triple available. I mash so I like the idea of having a bigger top gear. I live in a flat area so I am not sure I will be using the 30 all that much but, my question is, will my front shifter (105) be able to shift between the the three cogs? Can I just remove the granny/30?

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