Is it the end for the 34t chainring?

Once favoured by climbers and sportive riders alike, the commonplace 50/34 compact is losing popularity. Marc Abbott finds out why

Ten years ago, word was of a revolutionary new road chainset, derived from the world of mountain biking, that junked the extra bulk associated with a triple chainring set-up yet wouldn’t make knees buckle on steep climbs: the compact 50/34.

Now, though, the 50/34, once the path to Etape du Tour glory, is fast becoming outdated. Those riders wedded strongly to tradition eschew it for the reason that it seems like a cop-out, and those in
the know are already jumping on the mid-compact, 52/36 bandwagon.

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Given that it’s still a standard fitment on many bikes — especially those designed for sportive use — is there still a place for the compact in modern cycling?

Joshua Riddle, PR officer for Campagnolo, explains the advantages: “50-34 chainrings help a rider maintain a higher cadence, not only during climbs but also on the flats.

“If one were to build up this compact crankset along with, let’s say, an 11-25t cassette on the rear wheel, to maintain the same speed, the cadence would generally be higher when compared with the same gearing but incorporating a 53/39 ‘double’ chainset.”

Semi-compact Dura-Ace chainset: not just for pros

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High-cadence economy

The benefit is obvious. “Higher cadence, within reason, tends to fatigue the muscles less than mashing a big gear,” says Riddle, “leaving the athlete fresher after having covered the same ground as the athlete who is pushing harder on a longer gear with a lower cadence.

“Also, it allows less powerful riders to maintain a comfortable cadence without crossing the chain.”

This exposes one of the downfalls of the 53/39 chainset. Riddle continues: “The compact — or 52/36 semi-compact — allows a rider who is comfortable producing a certain power at 105rpm to do so without riding with the chain crossed to the smallest gear on the cassette. This creates less friction and reduces wear and tear on the drivetrain.”

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As Riddle suggests, there is a middle ground. German bike firm Canyon has blazed a trail for the 52/36 chainset — fitting it across its entire range (with the exception of the Endurace) for 2015. It claims that with judicious choice of rear cassette (cheaper than swapping chainrings), you can replicate the ratios of a compact but with added flexibility.

Nick Allen, Canyon UK’s marketing manager, says: “The biggest, 52-tooth ring corresponds roughly with the heaviest gear of a standard 53-tooth ring, which eradicates the traditional compact chainring problem of spinning out on long descents.

“Plus, the lowest gear, in conjunction with an 11-28t cassette, corresponds roughly with the lightest gear of a compact chainset with an 11-27t cassette.

“With a 28 gear on the rear, the distance you cover with one turn of the cranks is 2.75m; with a 34t chainring, you’d need to be in 34-27 to travel the same distance.”

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For many of us, an 11-28 cassette makes a mid-compact chainset the most adaptable set-up, although for the really avid ascenders out there, a close-ratio cassette of 12-25 will emulate this arrangement when used with a 50/34 compact, as well as allow a more consistent cadence when climbing.

Almost all the major bike firms have followed Canyon’s lead, offering mid-compact chainsets. Specialized, for instance, uses a 52/36 on almost all but the lower-level Allez range (which still comes equipped with a 50/34), while Scott’s Foil and Addict platforms run a mixture of mid-compacts and doubles.

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It’s just a matter of time before more follow suit, and we’re looking at 52/36 as a new industry standard.

Our take

If you live at the foot of a mountain that you can’t avoid, you need a compact with a dinner plate-sized cassette. However, with a far wider range of cassette options available now than a decade ago, the sensible option for most riders would seem to be a 52/36 chainset, specified with a cassette to suit your needs. Racing this weekend? Whack on an 11-23t. Holidaying in the Alps? 11-32t is your friend. Either way, do everything you can to maintain a straight chain line.

Yes: Nick Allen – UK marketing manager for Canyon


Canyon’s bikes will now come with a mid-compact as standard

All of Canyon’s new bikes (with the exception of the Endurace range) are now specified with a 52/36 chainset, rather than a 50/34 or 53/39. We tend to get a little too tied to tradition, so thinking outside of the box and trying new formats is refreshing. Plus, by choosing a wide-range cassette, you can almost emulate the gearing of a 50/34 if you need to.

No: Joshua Riddle – PR officer for Campagnolo


Campnolo will continue to make all sizes of chainset, including this standard double. Photo: Simon Scarsbrook

We don’t see the compact disappearing any time soon. There is no reason to take away any of the three chainset options and no reason that any one configuration should totally replace either of the other two. If you live near the Dolomites, you’re probably better off having a 50/34. With our BCD, changing the chainring is quite easy, financially and physically.

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