Why compact cranks can make you weak

A slow growing trend these past few years has been compact cranks…..now they seem to be everywhere.

I’m shocked to see that new Time Trial bikes are being sold with compact cranks.  I mean these TT bikes are made to put the rider in the most Aero position possible, and the rider is about 75% of the non-aerodynamics on the bike.  This is all done so that said rider can now pedal the bike as Fast as possible…. yet, the cranks they are putting on them are for climbing?  Why are they cranking on your chain like this?

It is all done in the name of Marketing and Sales!  When you look over the specs of a fancy new bike, you check many things, frame/fork, manufacturer, components, wheel-set, WEIGHT.  And this is where the compact cranks come in – the total weight of the bike.  By putting on compact cranks, they are able to save about a half pound (220 grams) from a bike with a 39/53 chain rings….marketing at it’s least finest – tricky.  Only later will you find out that the ‘lightest’ TT bike you got may have compact cranks on it – and the makers have done this b/c they know this will be a selling point for many Tri-athletes that are very meticulous about their bike purchase.  Yet, in the long run, it’s not ideal for the rider.

Are compact cranks Good?  Yes!  Are compact cranks Bad? Yes!

Climbing
Climbing

The problem that I have with Compact cranks is that it gives you a bail out gear….and most riders use it – way too much!  So, what happens? in your training you are allowing your body to ‘bail out’ on many climbs and sections that instead you should be pushing 1 larger (harder) gear and challenging your legs more.  It is part of the ‘on the bike strength training’. Don’t believe me? Ever ride single speed? Remember how tough the climbs are? Now guess why they will make you stronger. You will have gained strength through using a single gear to climb.

Guess what happens with compact cranks in the long run.  You bail out more and more, therefore, your legs begin to loose strength, and you are only be able to spin up climbs.  You can look at gear ratios all day, but if you can’t spin that gear, you are off the back of the pack, and always spinning does not strengthen you legs. Only by stressing the muscles AND allowing adequate time for recovery do you strengthen.

This became overly clear to me when I was able to out ride a guy doing 3 gap, yet I also outweighed him by about 40 .lbs (HEY, it was height and Muscle :).  He should have walked away from me!  As I chatted with him I was able to find out that he was indeed on compact cranks and attempted to spin up each climb b/c ‘he didn’t feel he had the leg strength to push a larger gear…..well, I guess by now, because of the compact, he didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I think compact cranks can be good when used properly.  In the off season and base season, there would be nothing wrong with compact cranks and being able to maintain a lower Heart Rate while going over hills.  I myself have stopped on hills to lower my Heart Rate before during base building.

Another excellent reason for compact cranks is if you are going to be doing more climbing than you are used to in a short period of time…. if you are from a much flatter area and are suddenly going to the mountains with a training camp, a compact will give you a bail out gear, just in case.

say you are going to Europe to watch a big stage race – compact cranks will make your rides much more enjoyable and less painful.  Plus, if you are doing multi-day ride in the Mountains, recovery and less fatigue in your legs can be achieved with more spinning up the climbs using compact cranks.

Now if you already have compact cranks on your bike; no need to rush out and replace them.  Actually during the winter, they maybe good to be able to spin the legs.  But especially in the spring and summer months, don’t ‘bail out’ every time the road points upward, and you will see your ability to go up that killer climb in a larger gear after a few weeks!

Want to know how to get stronger on the climbs?! Download my ebook ‘Drop Pounds Gain Watts’

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~Pro Cyclist Tim Henry (former West Viginia, Jittery Joe’s, & rider/director for Team Type 1)

~ Pro-Cyclist Daniel Holt Track National Elite Points Champion & Team Type 1 member

~ADIDAS sponsored Pro Runner Jennifer Feenstra – 2nd place at Canadian national Marathon 2010

~Georgia Chain Gang Jerome Rossetti and Tony Myers used to get into the best shape possible before the 2010 RAAM – Race Across America. They finished in 7days!

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27 thoughts on “Why compact cranks can make you weak”

  1. This is bad information, and misinformation. Compact cranks are easier to spin, and will subsequently allow a rider to ride for longer periods of time. I burn up faster on a standard crank, and if you look at Sheldon Brown’s gear ratio calculator, you will see that the difference between a compact crank and a standard crank is only about 1.5mph. I think your information is unfounded, and you should do more research before you start making opinions and giving out information on things you obviously know nothing about. Don’t be jealous because a guy weighing 40lbs more than you is outriding you, are you going to go to the race committee and complain because he is riding a compact crank? Weiner…

  2. Dave,
    I agree compact cranks are easier to spin, in fact that is part of my point, many people spin too much to ever gain any leg strength.

    PS. It was me that out-weighted him by 40lbs & I was ahead of him on every climb.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Very good article indeed. From my personal experience. Compact crankset does tend make your legs lazier and weaker. It is because I tend to use the easier gear for climbing until I exhaust all the gears available. In contrast when I use standard chain ring I haven’t got a choice and have to push hard and as a result my legs got much stronger. It is a matter of practise. I use 39/53 and 12-25 for training and race on 12-27 as it gives me ‘bail out’ if needed. I do lot of hill climbs anyway. As a conclusion, I achieve better time and able to keep up with the big boys.

  4. Sorry, but this is rubbish! For a start, whether or not you are running a compact crank is only one determinant of your gearing. A 50/36 with an 11-23 cassette gives you for all practical purposes exactly the same gearing as the ubiquitous 53/39 + 12-25 (including the same range on each chainring), and a 50/34 + 11-23 provides the same total range of gears (if not the same ranges on each chainring) as a 53/39 + 12-27. So you could equally well say “12-25 cassettes make you weak” or “12-27 cassettes make you weak”. The ONLY advantage of a 53/39 chainset over a 50/36 is if you need to use a 39 11 highest gear.

    Secondly, the argument that lower gearing makes you weaker (not that a compact needs to mean lower gearing) is very dubious. You should be able to get your HR just as high by spinning a lower gear on a hill as mashing a larger one if you are doing it properly.

  5. Typo in the above – should have been “The ONLY advantage of a 53/39 chainset over a 50/36 is if you need to use a 53 11 highest gear”.

  6. Neil you bring up an excellent point that a 12-27 cassette ‘can’ make you weak. It’s not the gearing that I am attempting to point out, but the way that it is used – too many people continually ‘bail out’ on climbs, thus they do not create on the bike leg strength.

    Secondly: I can also spin a lower gear on flat ground and get a high HR. A high HR & spinning will make you more efficient, but do not create stronger legs (or a StrongerCyclist).

  7. Watching the UK Eurosport coverage of the Tour of Lombardy this year, while Nibali was storming up the Ghisallo Magnus Backstedt was making the point that the gearing the pros use these days is so much lower than 10 or 20 years ago (I think Nibali had something like a 39/ 27 or 28 lowest gear). He was saying that the riders were just as strong, but in a different way. I wonder if it has something to do with the stiffness of the frames these days – it seems to me that it is easier to crank around a higher gear at a low cadence if there is some “give” in the frame, while if the frame is solid that tends to encourage a lower gear and higher cadence. Just a theory. Anyway, it’s just a pet peeve of mine that people always assume that a compact = lower gearing. My preferred gearing is a 50/36 with 11-23 cassette, which has all of the advantages of a 53/39 12-25 but allows closer spaced gears in the middle of the cassette. Also, if I DO need lower gearing for serious mountains, then it’s actually cheaper these days to swap the 36 chainring for a 34 than to buy a wider range cassette. Lighter too.

  8. While I am still a beginner, I agree with the post for the most part. When I got back to biking a few months ago, I started with a mountain bike with a triple crankset and trained with that bike for a month. The next month, I switched to a road bike that that had a standard, double crankset (52/39). The first week was a killer, but the weeks after made me stronger and much faster. On a 20-mile run that has a solid mix of rolling hills, long, steep climbs and descents, and a few long straights, I averaged around 1 hr 30 mins on the mountain bike. On the road bike, I have been averaging around 1 hr 15 mins. I continually get faster and when I do get another road bike, it will be another standard, double with a few different cassettes.

  9. I have been riding for 5 years, while my own bike is a 53/39, I have also ridden a 50/34 while testing a bike, and I agree that I didn’t feel the need to exert much power on the compact, and it became more of a leisure ride. On a standard I’m exerting simply raw power on short steep climbs or long gentle climbs. I only use the 39 when I cannot sprint up a long steep climb and I have to pace myself. That’s why I’ll never ride compact. Having said that though, I cannot generalize that all compact crank cyclists are weak. I have ridden with compact crank cyclists who are very strong, although they are rare. Most compact crank cyclists cannot keep up with the big boys when we turn up the heat, but some odd ones can. Another disadvantage of compact crank is on descent. While you normally don’t pedal too fast on a descent, if the big boys are cranking it up, I have seen compact crank folks who just keep pedaling on a downhill and still can’t keep up. Besides, the province where I live is quite flat overall, no need for a compact.

  10. I’ve been an active cyclist for over 30 years. For most road riding a standard 42/52 or 39/52 evolved over the past 100 years of cycling as the best overall chain wheel sizes. For touring, or for out of shape or significantly overweight cyclists, a compact 34/50 will certainly make hills “easier.”. However, easier will also equal slower climbing, as rate of climb is simply power. If you do work slower, you do so at lower power. To climb the same hill, you do the same total amount of work either way. It’s the power level, or speed that changes. Your choice: climb easier and slower for longer time, or harder and faster quicker.

  11. @DAH + others

    I was wondering about this comment. An argument I hear a lot is that contrary to what seems intuitive, somebody with a compact crank may go up the hill as fast/faster because they can maintain a higher cadence and are therefore more efficient. More efficient means they get up the hill faster for the same energy burnt (so the argument goes). The chap pushing the big ring in many cases (me for example) lowers his cadence when on a steep climb (cos he reaches his bottom gear then has to get out the saddle and use some serious power [hence the author’s comment about losing strength if you get dependent on having lower gears])… the chap with the lower gears, spins faster and goes up at the same speed for less energy used. Not sure what the truth is? I actually have a standard crank set (53/39: 12/25). I quite enjoy using out of the saddle power (takes the strain off the knees), but sometimes wonder about switching to a compact in order to maintain a higher peddle rate on the v. steep hills (may actually make me faster or enable me to have more left at the end of long hilly rides?). As a comment to the author, I get the point, I do pass plenty of people with a granny gear on the hills, but I also get passed by some high spinners too (on the really steep stuff when I’m close to doing the postman)… depends how the gears are used of course – but I get the point that human nature may lead you to take the easy road if it’s open to you, when really you could be push a bit harder and get stronger.

  12. @Andrew – you get it exactly! Consistently using an easier gear will not make you stronger. I specifically spell this out in the 4 things for Stronger Cycling ebook. There is a time to Mash a gear & a time to spin the gears! :)

  13. What a silly article. If you really are a personal trainer, I cringe thinking of your poor clients. Gearing (and training) is very rider specific…

    I wonder if all of those DNFs on your results might be because you don’t have the leg speed to keep up with speed changes in fast races?

  14. I agree John, training and periodization is very specific – I spell that all out in my ebooks. I have never given any a client a ‘cookie cutter’ training plan.

    As for leg speed – I have 2 GA State medals in track.

    As for any DNF’s in my years of racing Pro1,2, I got several top 10’s but I often sacrificed myself for my up and coming team-mates – guys like John Murphy (2 years w/ BMC Pro, now Kenda), Phil Gaimon (team Mt Kenda), David Guttenplan, Tim Henry (West VA & TT1 Devo).

  15. The only draw-back to compact cranks is to be found in a reduction of mechanical efficiency due to the smaller radius the chain describes on the “compact” gears.

    The author’s assertion regarding the development of leg strength is not scientifically grounded.

  16. please some explanation needed here from experienced pro not philosophical…
    i have normal crank and 28/11 cogs cassette….
    i went the other day for a training with big boys they could do the hill twice while i finished it once,,,
    what i say is that for someone like me struggling going up hill i keep shifting till i get the most comfy gear to finish the hill and the same thing if i have compact crank i would still shift till i get the comfy gear,,,,
    BUT going in a sprint with a full energy in myself the bike goes real fast!!
    am i right with the hill shifting as i see it logical ?!!

  17. Several variables. Mainly the ‘big boys’ probably have many more miles (and maybe years) on the bike than you do. This just creates Stronger Cyclists.
    However, what I would suggest – when you are training, shift to your comfortable gear, then shift 1 cog smaller (harder) and use that gear to gain strength.
    After a month or two, you will find that the 1 gear harder is a smaller cog than it would be today, thus you are getting stronger!

  18. Carrying a back pack with 10lbs or some other weight will also make you stronger. I use a compact and when I did my best climbing 30 years ago I used a 30 or 32 on the back, or maybe it was a 28 or 30. The point is people were telling me that all that extra weight was going to do me in. Still, when the “strong” cyclist went against me in a 7+ mile hill climb guess who usually won – the guy who was mashing for that entire distance or the guy who was spinning at times (as well as up shifting to stand) to rest?

    So, while I agree with you, Stephen, that the compact may be making me lazy in training on some of the normal, shorter hills, at a rider weight from 130-145, I’ve always struggled on those hills with the bigger guys who can simple put out a massive amount of power for a short amount of time because they are natural exposed to carrying around all that weight. I see this significantly on training rides where they are relaxing on the flats and rollers while my speech is getting less and less. On the long hill at around a mile they may still beat me, but they’re generally very quiet. If they’re doing some kind of steady wattage workout they fall back. I’m also over twice their age, so maybe I’m breathing a tad harder for that reason as well :-) but I’ve ALWAYS been at a disadvantage on the flats due to my weight.

    My point is I think you’re right about not bailing out too much in training (and believe me, in our short, 2k foot per 27 mile training rides, when we’re headed up hill at 25 mph, and I’m drafting, I just don’t get out of my large ring – don’t need to – unless I’m up front, in which case I’ll get worn out so they can drop me after the crest!), but mashing at all times with a macho-like attitude will also do you in just as quickly. And, for comparison, I’ve never been able to do Lance’s drug-induced 100 rpm up a mountain, I’m just talking about being able to do the 70s and 80s at times and to sit on some of the steep sections, keeping efficient weight on the back tire where it belongs. Climbing is also very personal as too how much you stand or sit. Certainly save the macho stuff for training, but as you’ve alluded to, it’s not for a race with long climbs! In those situations “feeling the burn” could burn you.

  19. This article is absolute rubbish. What you describe is a symptom of people being lazy, not using compact cranks. Someone using a standard can just bail out to the their easiest gear when they could ride up in a harder gear, someone’s mindset doesn’t change because their crankset is different. You’ve got a guy using 39/25 up a hill and a guy spinning a sensible cadence (mashing will kill your knees long term, always spin 80rpm+) using 34/20 who is riding the most difficult gear? Compact isn’t making him so weak now.

  20. I agree with Spinner above. This article is rubbish! The article is simplistic and just plan wrong in places.
    To be a good cyclist you have to be able to do both – spinning is extremely important for numerous reasons:
    1. It gives you knees and back a break. Mashing (<75'ish rpm) is extremely hard on these parts. There are a lot of over 25 y.o. cyclists out there these days and if you want to be doing this when your 85 y.o. pain free, you have to be sensible.
    2. Spinning gives to a GREAT aerobic workout. Power is generated not completely by shear muscular strength but additionally by the increased revolutions. With easier gearing the aerobic system can contribute a lot to power output.
    3. Accelerations are made faster if you "spin up" rather than mash your way forward.
    Depending on what kind of riding or racing you are doing, a compact may be the right equipment. Around here we do a lot of time trials that have hills. In fact, we do hill climb TT's. If you can train your spin (and most people have to) then you have options over a hard 30 or 60 minute course. Change it up between mashing and exhausting muscular strength and spinning off the aerobic system. Fitness level, terrain, distance, and physical limiters like bad knees all play into whether a compact crank is what you need.
    The point I am trying to make is that these are TWO DIFFERENT SKILLS/CAPACITIES! Mashing and spinning should NEVER be done to the exclusion of the other. Put together (turning over a very hard gear with lighting speed) it is awesome to watch and the goal of training. The folks at the track have honed this art with cadences that START around 150!. If you can race track you'll be deadly anywhere else (for example, Larry Nolan US National Masters Champion and an penultimate trackie!).
    Standing on climbs: yes, you have to be able to stand for some distance but you can't a hill like that. Your heart rate will go through the roof and physiology will exert itself and slow you down. Strength is needed at times and most people benefit from using their weight to help them through the steep parts.
    Contrary to what the author states in his piece, if you spin your heart rate will go UP not DOWN! Recovery is NOT faster if you spin. Recovery is faster if you are FIT! I If you think you are a spinner or say "I can do that" then spend the next 2 weeks – assuming you ride more than one day a week – only spinning at 100-105 rpm. You will be exhausted if you are not used to riding with that leg speed.
    I race criteriums and time trials. I have also raced the track.
    Don't continue riding with gearing that puts you at low cadences for long periods of time. Weight train – yes. Build strength – yes. Get a compact to vary your options on steep hills. Variability in options for how you ride challenging situations (racing or just getting up a hill fast with your buddies) is the key to avoiding injury.
    As for the author of this "article" – what's up with the cleavage shot Dude?! Really!?!? What a jerk…..

  21. Spinner: “mashing will kill your knees long term” – this is actually incorrect & here is why I say that. The joints have no muscles, only tendons which are attached to the muscles above and below the joint. Mashing works your muscles, but if you do not properly stretch (whether that is massage, foam roll, and/or stretch) those muscles will tighten over time & be the cause pain, not the joint itself.
    However, you bring up a solid point – a lazy mindset. Thanks!

  22. Psychlist you stated: “if you spin your heart rate will go UP not DOWN!” This is NOT what I was attempting to say… apologies, but I’m a cyclist, not an English major. I was saying that in the off season it would be good to have compact gears. B/c if I (being more of a sprinter build) can stay seated on climbs my HR will stay lower. Yes, I brought some of my personal experience to the article which may not be suited to all riders.

    I also don’t see where you came to this conclusion: “Don’t continue riding with gearing that puts you at low cadences for long periods of time.”
    this article states: “Are compact cranks Good? Yes! Are compact cranks Bad? Yes!
    The problem that I have with Compact cranks is that it gives you a bail out gear and most riders use it – way too much!”
    THIS was the point of the article, most riders use the bail out gears way too much.

  23. I moved to the Pyrenees 6 months ago from the UK. I bought among other bikes my fixed wheel bike. The other guys here think I’m nuts. I’ve done a few minor colls on it which related to directly to me using higher gears for climbing on my compact bike. I’m 51 and man I fly up the hills now compared to just a few months ago. I’ve ridden since the 70’s…before low gears existed. I discovered the compact and I love it however I’ve slowed down on the hills big time. Thought it was my age but forcing the fixy along has made my muscles bigger,my core stronger and me faster than I have been in 15 years.
    I’d say Stephen is spot on

  24. Maybe a bail out if you always drop to the smallest gear, but that’s pretty rare (depending on where you ride). Being able to stay in the big ring over smaller climbs seems like a definite plus to me.

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