I’m revisiting some of my favorite posts from the past, because lots of people who read Bike Noob now might not have seen them years ago. Here’s a post from 2009 that still get lots of page views. What do you ride — a compact double or a triple?
When I bought my bike just a year ago, I was weighing the pros and cons of getting it with a triple chainring, or a compact double. I knew I didn’t want a standard 52 x 39 double ring, but a 50 x 34 seemed to make some sense to me.
Some experienced biker friends recommended a compact double, declaring that I wouldn’t miss the third ring, because most of my riding would be done within the middle gears anyway. And the biking magazines and web sites indicated much the same thing, with the added bonus of smoother shifting.
So when I pulled the trigger and bought the bike, a compact double it was.
After today’s ride, I wish I had gotten the triple.
I turned out at 8 a.m., when the sky was still trying to decide if it would lighten up all the way. Since it was the first day of Daylight Savings Time, it was barely light enough to ride without head and tail lights. At Starbucks, where our bike club kicks off its rides, I had hoped to see several acquaintances who ride at about the same level as I do. Nope. So I figured I would have my work cut out for me trying to keep up with the strong riders in the club. Luckily, they were riding an out-and-back route that lets the rider pick a turnaround spot wherever he or she chooses.
Within three miles from the start, I could see I was in trouble. The peloton was quite far ahead of me, and I was thinking of breaking away on my own and riding a different route. But the ride leader was waiting for me at a corner ahead. We rode together, trying to maintain contact with the main group.
We turned onto Fitzhugh Road, a rural two-lane road that threads its way over rolling hills through small ranches. The hills became more frequent here, and the ride leader had trouble keeping to my plodding pace.
“There’s a guy up ahead who fell off the main pack,” he said. “Let’s catch him!”
For awhile, it seemed like we would. But then, I’d have to struggle up another hill, and when we finally crested it, the other rider’s orange jersey would be farther off in the distance. Finally, the ride leader figured that if we both couldn’t catch the other rider, at least he could, and he pulled away from me. Soon he was out of sight.
I neared the turnaround point, and there was the orange jersey, waiting at an intersection. He was new to the club, and I hadn’t met him before.
“I can’t hang with those guys,” he said. “I’m heading back from here.”
“This is where I’d always planned to turn around,” I answered.
We rode off together. The way back was less tough than the way out, because it was less uphill. But there were still hills aplenty. I was often down in the largest cog of the small chainring, and noticed that orange jersey, who was about 50 yards ahead of me, was pedaling with a faster cadence than I was, no matter if we were climbing hills or riding one of the rare flat stretches (we both coasted the downhills).
Less than three miles from the starting point, we hit the last series of hills. They were among the toughest of the day. Again, I watched him spin frantically as he pulled ahead of me. When we pulled into Starbucks at last, he said he was glad he had triple chainrings, or he would have had to get off and walk his bike up that last hill.
His friend, also a new member of the club, joined us about ten minutes later.
“Man, I wouldn’t have made it up those last two hills without my triple,” he said.
Both sang the praises of their triples. I wondered if I had made the right purchase decision last year. Looking back at the year’s riding, I realized I got stronger during the summer, and was able to handle most of what the terrain threw at me. But I also remembered walking the bike up a few hills, too.
I’ll be riding more, now that the days are longer, and I’ll be building my strength. But I wonder — would I be better off with a triple?
Do you have any opinions, one way or the other?
I love my triple, to be honest. 🙂
I don’t hold any strong opinions either way, other than to say triples come with a price: limits your shifter choices and you have to be careful about tread (“Q-factor”). And depending on your cassette choice a triple allows for significant cross chaining if you’re not careful during shifting.
When I was deciding on the drive train for my latest bike I received some sage advice. I went compact double but it wasn’t the usual 50/39. I got a 48/34. I got a wide range 10 speed (low gear is a 27). This gives me a nearly identical gear ratio range to a triple and 9 speed. Some differences in the high gears but I’m not racing or time-trialing and being a clydesdale I need climbing gears.
Interesting looking back, and also going over the same routes two years later and comparing times. Fairly new to cycling just over two years ago, I bought a road bike. I asked the ‘expert’ at the shop about triple or double and he asked where I would be riding. Mainly local, here in the midlands, I explained. You wont need a triple then, only if you are going to Wales or mountainous country. Bad advice, given without taking into account age and experience (I was 67 at the time). Several times I have had to walk up some steepish hills which I would have managed with more ratios to choose from. I have since changed the cassette to give better ratios and have strengthened up (a bit) so it is less of a problem. I don’t think the extra weight would have mattered for a recreational cyclist like myself, the next bike will have a triple I can assure you!
I’d agree with the idea that a double should work for most cases outside of loaded touring and mountain rides. I had a lot of trouble dropping the chain on my triple and have since moved to a new bike with a double and never have an issue. I went with the SRAM wiFli setup. The big deal is running a 12-32 in the cassette. Have 34×32 for climbing monster hills is awesome. If your bike can handle the wide gearing, i’d highly recommend an inexpensive cassette upgrade.
I agree with IRideForFries.com, and add that there’s even movement in mountain biking towards double chain rings with large-range cassettes.
Many road derailleurs won’t work with cassettes larger than 28t, but you can replace the derailleur with a longer cage model, or even a mountain bike derailleur, to get the gears you need. That would be cheaper than trying to switch to a triple.
The problem with the contact double for me (and others I speak to) is that for a B rider (or weak A rider) you end up having to shift often from the small (34) ring to the large (50) ring (and back) whereas with a triple you are riding mainly in the middle ring. I regret not having purchased the triple. For a very strong or weaker rider, I would go with a double (standard for strong and compact for weak).
Jeff A says
I seem to be a dissenting opinion. I built my bike up with a 53/39 chainring, but was still not able to make some hills [12-25 cassette]. I swapped out the middle ring for one that allows the addition of a small 30-tooth. Yes, you have to swap the derailleurs [I already had them laying around], and I stole the Ultegra 6510 left shifter from my old steely. I’m much happier now. I don’t use it a lot, but I have bail-out insurance if I need it.
I’ve been tinkering with this issue for a while now since moving back to the Peak district from York, UK.
Riding a classic steel frame, I returned with a 52/42 & 12/26 which although ok for the rolling hills of North Yorkshire was swapped pretty damn quickly for a 50/40 when the local topography reminded me harshly that I’m not as young as I once was. This combination was still too tough for a lot of climbs around here though and too easy for many of the descents.
So, 50/40 became 53/39 – and I still couldn’t climb quickly enough.
Next up to the spanners was an sram 11/28 (pg850 8) which is a good quality cassette & works great with shimano 8 speed drivetrain). This worked a little better, despite the faster spinning on some short steep hills taking me a little while to get used to.
Almost still warm, the tools were out again as a specially purchased stronglight 38 made its way to my door. So now I’m on 53/38 & 11-28 with standard rear derailleur.
But it doesn’t end there… Though I’m getting better at spinning, many of the hills around here are like roller-coasters – repeated serious climbs broken by (too) short false summits and now I’m faced with a dilemma. Agony or Aesthetics?
To go any lower at the front will require a change of bottom bracket and probably a compact chainset (110 bcd) which is potentially going to change the whole look of my beautiful bike. Thing is I really don’t know if that can make it look any worse than the sight of my recent purple faced contortions as I try to reach the summits on it.
Personally, I think the move from triples (30/39/52) to compact doubles (34/50) on road bikes is a farce. There is a lot of boasting that a compact double weighs less, shifts smoother and is less susceptible to chain drops than a triple. I have even heard the very lame argument that the weight you save by having one less chain ring will offset the lower gearing you will lose and that you will never miss the low chainring. HOGWASH!!! I know I will get a lot of people who disagree with me, but the way I see it, the move was one mostly based on profit. Double cranksets are less expensive than triples. If you know how to shift correctly and your front derailleur is adjusted properly, you should not have chain drops on a triple.
Sadly, if you are in the market for a new full-carbon road bike, you cannot get a triple anymore, you will have to settle for a compact double. If you are in this predicament, you are better off changing to a larger cassette. Any Shimano or SRAM cassette will work to replace any other Shimano or SRAM cassette as long as the number of gears is the same. In theory, the largest cassette you can use with a Shimano road rear derailleur is a 28T. However, there are ways to work around this without spending $$ for a new derailleur. I put a 11-32T on my road bike and my LBS worked around the pulley clashing problem by 1) putting in a longer B-adjust screw and 2) taking a link out of my chain to make it tighter. One note of warning is that if you tighten your chain like this and try to go into the largest chainring AND cassette, your drivetrain will cease – though you should NEVER be in this gear combination anyway, regardless!
The other alternative of putting on a triple crankset get prohibitively expensive. Not only is that part expensive in itself, it will necessitate also replacing your left STI shifter.
Doesn’t something like this change the game? you could go single or double and still have massive gearing options.
Bike Noob says
Game-changer is right! Pretty extreme, though. The Shimano Apex addresses the issue as well, although more gradually. https://bikenoob.mystagingwebsite.com/2010/09/30/compact-double-or-triple-you-have-alternatives/