Is the compact chainset dead?

With incredibly broad cassette ranges with larger gears now the norm, we ponder the future of compact chainsets

We've previously questioned whether the 34t inside chainring has had its day, especially after the introduction of 52/36t mid-compact chainsets. But now we're asking if perhaps it is the end for the whole 50/34t set-up.

The introduction of the compact chainset in the mid 2000s was a defining point in the path of road riding. The smaller 50 and 34-tooth chainrings helped open up road cycling to a much wider audience than ever before.

The compact meant riders could keep the look of a ‘proper’ race bike without being restricted by too hard a gear, or having to opt for a triple and its perceived image problems.

Great for climbing, the low 34-tooth inner ring enabled riders to spin efficiently up gradients that would have them grinding on a ‘standard’ 53/39.

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Fast forward to the present and as road cycling has evolved, so too have our gearing options. Shifts in market trends now see manufacturers increasing the typical cassette size fitted from 11-23t to the now typical 11-28t.

The increase in popularity of medium- and long-cage rear derailleurs enables even wider cassettes to be used, with 11-32t the most popular. But most apparent in modern gear trends is the steady integration of the mid-compact 52/36t chainset.

By addressing the weaknesses of both compact and standard chainsets, which fail to offer either a low enough (standard) or high enough (compact) gear ratio, it has gained a growing share of the market.

So is it time to say goodbye to the venerable compact and is the semi-compact/wide cassette king? We’ve brought together some of the industry experts to have their say on the matter.

Rotor’s head of engineering, David Martínez, thinks compact has had its day. “The compact became popular when nine-cog cassettes were the norm. Now, with 11-speed, it became logical for us to take advantage of those extra gears to increase the range.

"From a mechanical point of view, reducing the size of the smallest cassette cog results in lost efficiency. The logical way to widen gearing is through chainring size and the use of a 28-tooth cog.

"With 52/36 and 11-28t, the gear range is increased both up and down the range (compared to 50-34 and 11-25t), while maintaining adequate shifting.

"Plus, a 52/36 chainring combination is still mechanically efficient for the front derailleur.”

The experts say...

Despite being pioneers of single front ring set-ups, SRAM’s road manager Géraldine Bergeron doesn’t see the compact disappearing just yet: “Experience, terrain, fitness, riding style all factor into the gearing selection for an individual.

"In this case trends might not be the right choice. The current dominant commercial specs are a 52/36t chainset and 11-28t cassette or 50/34t and 11-32t. Compact, though losing some volume to 52/36, is not going away.”

Importantly, this seems to be a view shared by Shimano Europe’s Ben Hillsdon, “Road cycling has broadened its appeal in recent years towards Gran Fondos and sportives rather than classic road racing.

"That, combined with manufacturers looking for the widest spec to cover all types of riding, plus more riders understanding the benefits of riding at a higher cadence, has led to the increased popularity of wider cassettes.”

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He summarised with a sentiment echoed by many others, “Whether a compact chainset or a wider-ratio cassette is better depends on many factors such as the route, the physical strength of the rider and the length of the ride. There is no one best solution.”

Our take

Gearing choice, like so many other aspects in cycling, follows trends and patterns. Riders who once would have relied on the compact option are now finding that a mid-compact chainset and a wider-ratio cassette enables better performance.

>>> Are 12-speed gears coming for road bikes?

Some bike brands are dropping compacts from their range but the same can be said for the diminishing sales of 53/39 chainsets.

Most companies are in agreement that compact is still relevant. For a wide spectrum of riders, mountainous environments and long-distance riding, it still makes sense.

Expert views: Is the compact chainset dead?

Yes: Bruce Dalton, Kinesis UK Brand manager

Kinesis CX Race cyclocross bike with a SRAM 1x chainring

Kinesis CX Race cyclocross bike with a SRAM 1x chainring

"At Kinesis we don’t even spec a standard or compact chainset on any of our build kits now. We only spec cyclocross, mid-compact or a 1x builds.

"We see most of our custom builds now moving to wider-range gearing and I think this is due to obvious advantages of the efficiency of spinning over grinding, for many of our riders."

No: Maurizio Bellin, FSA components and former pro

FSA's newly released full groupset. Here with a 'pro' 53/39t chainset

FSA's newly released full groupset

"Compact is not dead — on the contrary, it is still a useful reference point for everybody. From this point of view, for sure semi-compact 52/36 chainsets are getting popular and we think these will become the new standard.

"If there’s any standard that’s dead here, then it’s the 53/39, which now seems to be solely the choice of pro teams."

Richard is digital editor of Cycling Weekly. Joining the team in 2013, Richard became editor of the website in 2014 and coordinates site content and strategy, leading the news team in coverage of the world's biggest races and working with the tech editor to deliver comprehensive buying guides, reviews, and the latest product news.

An occasional racer, Richard spends most of his time preparing for long-distance touring rides these days, or getting out to the Surrey Hills on the weekend on his Specialized Tarmac SL6 (with an obligatory pub stop of course).