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Should you go for a standard, a compact, a semi-compact, or something entirely different?

The chainset, called a crankset in some parts of the world, is the name given to the chainrings and the crank arms that turn them. Different chainsets make a big difference to the character of your bike and the way it feels when you ride.

Check out our Beginner’s Guide: Understanding Gears here.

Most road bikes come with a double chainset, meaning that you have two chainrings. The larger chainring gives you bigger, harder to turn gears that move you further per pedal revolution – so it's suitable for higher speeds – while the smaller chainring gives you gears that are easier to turn but move you a shorter distance per pedal revolution – so it's suitable for lower speeds, including riding uphill.

However, some bikes come with a triple chainset, meaning that you have three chainrings, and others use a single chainring matched to a wide-range cassette (the group of sprockets that sit at the centre of the back wheel).

Let’s go through the main road systems in turn.

Standard chainset

A standard chainset (a bit of a strange term these days) has a 53-tooth (or 52-tooth) outer chainring and a 39-tooth inner chainring. This used to be the default option for road bikes and it’s the choice of most racers in the majority of circumstances. Sometimes, though, pros will switch to larger chainrings for time trials or flat races like Paris-Roubaix.

campagnolo-chorus-standard.jpg

campagnolo-chorus-standard.jpg

The big three groupset manufacturers, Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM, offer standard chainsets in their higher level road groupsets aimed at pro riders and other racers/serious enthusiasts, but not in their lower end groupsets aimed at more casual riders.

Example bike Tifosi SS26

Compact chainset​

A compact chainset has a 50-tooth outer chainring and a 34-tooth inner chainring. This means that the gears are lower (easier to turn, but they’ll progress you a shorter distance per pedal revolution) than you get with a standard chainset (above) with the same cassette.

For more details on that, see How much difference does a new chainset make? (below).

Compact chainsets have become massively popular because they allow you to keep moving up steep hills, albeit sometimes quite slowly, and many people prefer to turn smaller gears at a higher cadence (the number of pedal revolutions per minute) because it puts less stress on the knees.

sramrival22crankset-compact.jpg

sramrival22crankset-compact.jpg

The flip side is that you might run out of gears on very fast descents. In other words, you won’t be able to turn the pedals fast enough to make any difference to your speed above a certain point.

Reflecting their popularity, the three largest groupset manufacturers offer compact chainsets across all of their road groupsets.

Example bike Wilier GTR Team Disc Endurance

Semi-compact chainset

A semi-compact chainset, sometimes called mid-compact or faux pro, has a 52-tooth outer chainring and a 36-tooth inner chainring.

This means that the biggest gears aren’t quite as big as those of a standard chainset but they’re not far off, and they’re larger than those of a compact.

The small gears aren’t quite as small as those of a compact chainset, but they’re smaller and easier to turn than those of a standard chainset.

Canyon Ultimate CF SLX - crank.jpgSemi-compact chainsets have become popular over the past few years because they offer something for most types of terrain. Many of the road bikes we review here at road.cc are now fitted with these.

The big three manufacturers offer semi-compact chainsets on all but entry-level road groupsets.

Example bike Giant TCR Advanced Pro 0

Sub-compact

Want lower gears? A sub-compact chainset is a double with rings smaller than the compact's 50/34 pairing. Usually they're 48/32 or 46/30, dropping the whole gear range a few percent to make those grinding climbs that little bit less painful.

FSA SL-K Adventure Chainset 2017.jpg

FSA SL-K Adventure Chainset 2017.jpg

The gravel/adventure bike movement has been the main driver of sub-compact chainsets. Fat tyres and dirt tracks demand lower gears, especially if you’re carrying anything extra, like clothes and so on for an overnight stay.  

But we think they have a place for general riding too. As soon as you hit seriously hilly terrain, there's going to come a moment when you need the lowest gear you can get. You might have blown up, you might have hit a 20% grade or steeper. Options like FSA's Adventure series cranks, Sugino's OS cranks, or the Praxis Works 48/32 cranks give you a slightly lower gear range for those situations.

Example bike: Specialized Diverge Comp (the 2017 version gets a sub-compact chainset)

Triple chainset

A triple chainset is one with three chainrings. Shimano offers triple chainsets for its three cheaper road bike groupsets – Claris, Sora and Tiagra. In each case the chainrings are 50, 39, and 30-tooth. Campagnolo offers only Athena in a triple (52, 39 and 30-tooth chainrings) while SRAM doesn’t offer triple chainsets for its road groupsets, although it does for its Via 27 and 24 trekking ranges.

Shimano Tiagra triple.jpeg

Shimano Tiagra triple.jpeg

You do get some very small gears with a triple chainset, but there’s a lot of duplication (different chainring/sprocket combinations giving the same, or virtually the same, gears) and most people find a double chainset with a wide-range cassette ample and more convenient to use.

That said, a triple can be a good idea, especially for something like a touring bike where you need those very small gears to climb while carrying a heavy load.

Swapping from a double to a triple, or the reverse, is quite an expensive process because you need to change other groupset components too.

Example bike: Cannondale Touring 2 adventure bike

Single chainset

Bikes with single chainrings are nothing new, of course – there are millions of them out there – but most aren’t particularly performance-orientated. Recently, though, SRAM has introduced single chainring versions of three of its road groupsets – Force, Rival and Apex – with wide-range cassettes.

sram rival 1 first ride7

sram rival 1 first ride7

SRAM says that these 1x (pronounced ‘one by’) groupsets are simpler because there’s no front mech or front shifter, there’s no chance of the chain rubbing on a non-existent front mech, and they’re quieter on rough surfaces.

SRAM also says that the interface between the chain and chainring is better because their specially designed chainrings have tall, square teeth edges that engage the chain earlier, and the traditional sharp and narrow tooth profile helps manage a deflected chain.

sram rival 1 first ride9

sram rival 1 first ride9

When we reviewed the SRAM Rival 1 groupset we said that it was simple and durable. It’s not a system that will appeal to everyone, but for a variety of applications such as gravel, adventure and cyclocross, it makes a lot of sense.

The 1x chainsets are available with a variety of different sized chainrings to suit the riding you do.

Example bike The Light Blue Robinson Rival 1x

How much difference does a new chainset make?

Say you have a typical 700c wheel fitted with a 25mm tyre, and you’re using an 11-28-tooth cassette. That’s a fairly common setup.

Specialized Diverge Comp Carbon - Turn Zayante BB30 Chainset.jpg

Specialized Diverge Comp Carbon - Turn Zayante BB30 Chainset.jpg

If you have a standard chainset, your smallest gear (39-tooth inner chainring x 28-tooth largest sprocket) is 36.7in. If that doesn’t mean much to you, check out our Beginner’s Guide: Understanding Gears for an explanation. Put another way, if you pedal at 80rpm, you’ll move at 8.7mph.

If you have a compact chainset, your smallest gear (34 x 28) is 32in, so quite a bit smaller than that of a standard chainset. That means it’s much easier to turn the cranks. If you pedal at 80rpm, you’ll move at 7.6mph, so quite a bit slower than when pedalling in the smallest gear of a standard chainset at the same cadence.

If you have a semi-compact chainset, your smallest gear (36 x 28) is 33.9in. If you pedal at 80rpm, you’ll move at 8.1mph.

At the other end of the speed scale, say the maximum cadence you can hold for a short period of time is 120rpm. If you pedal a standard chainset in your biggest gear (53 x 11), you’ll be able to pedal up to 45.4mph at this cadence.

Look 796 - chainset (1).jpg

Look 796 - chainset (1).jpg

Do the same thing with a compact chainset (50 x 11) and you’ll get to 42.8mph, and with a semi-compact (52 x 11) you’ll get to 44.5mph.

In short, a compact chainset will give you some small gears for keeping moving up steep hills while a standard chainset will allow you to keep the pressure on for longer on fast descents.

A semi-compact gives you some small gears, but not as small as a compact, and some big gears, but not as big as a standard chainset.

Changing chainrings

What if you feel the chainset you’re currently using isn't right for you and the riding you do?

Swapping chainrings is relatively straightforward in many cases (you'll need Allen keys, perhaps a Torx wrench or a chainring nut wrench tool), but you need to make sure you get new chainrings that are compatible with your chainset. Chainrings come with different bolt circle diameters (BCDs) and bolt spacings (higher level Shimano and Campagnolo chainsets come with unequal bolt spacings).

Shimano 11spd chainring.png

Shimano 11spd chainring.png

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings. You can take a 53-tooth outer chainring off a modern Shimano 105 chainset, for example, and replace it with a 50-tooth chainring because both chainrings use the same bolt circle diameter (BCD). This is also true of Dura-Ace, Ultegra and Tiagra.

This didn’t used to be the case. If you had a compact chainset with a 110mm BCD, you couldn’t fit larger Shimano chainrings with a 130mm BCD and SRAM, for example, still offers chainsets in both 130 BCD and 110 BCD options so the chainrings aren’t interchangeable.

The point is that you need to be careful to buy replacement chainrings that work with your chainset.

Don’t forget that if you change chainring size, you should adjust the position of your front derailleur accordingly, and alter the chain length too.

Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.

65 comments

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I have Ultegra 50/34 x 11 on my bike. Can I stick on a 52/36 Dura Ace crank? Or do I need to mess around with derailleurs and a new chain etc?

 

Feel like 52/34 would be my perfect chainset. Not sure if that can be made to work though.

 

 

Avatar
Shamblesuk [167 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
unconstituted wrote:

I have Ultegra 50/34 x 11 on my bike. Can I stick on a 52/36 Dura Ace crank? Or do I need to mess around with derailleurs and a new chain etc?

 

Feel like 52/34 would be my perfect chainset. Not sure if that can be made to work though.

 

 

 

Straight swap, assuming everything else like spindle diameter is the same . Are they the same era (ie not swapping 6800 for Dura Ace 7800/7900)?

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Shamblesuk wrote:
unconstituted wrote:

I have Ultegra 50/34 x 11 on my bike. Can I stick on a 52/36 Dura Ace crank? Or do I need to mess around with derailleurs and a new chain etc?

 

Feel like 52/34 would be my perfect chainset. Not sure if that can be made to work though.

 

 

 

Straight swap, assuming everything else like spindle diameter is the same . Are they the same era (ie not swapping 6800 for Dura Ace 7800/7900)?

 

Yeah it would be Ultegra 6800 to Dura Ace 9000. Straight swap sounds fantastic. Wouldn't have to take it to the bike shop then, confident I could handle that cheeky

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bendertherobot [1481 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

You do need to mess around. The 52 is larger than the 50. So the clearance at the front mech will be wrong. Mech needs raising and may need re-indexing. Chain should be ok. 

 

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
bendertherobot wrote:

You do need to mess around. The 52 is larger than the 50. So the clearance at the front mech will be wrong. Mech needs raising and may need re-indexing. Chain should be ok. 

 

 

Shame. Ruined my morning. smiley

 

That doesn't sound worse than a day's worth of Youtube and fiddling though. 

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ibr17xvii [255 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Would I notice a massive difference on a 53/39 & a 11/28 on the rear as opposed to 50/34 & 11/30 that I have now?

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fukawitribe [2050 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
unconstituted wrote:
bendertherobot wrote:

You do need to mess around. The 52 is larger than the 50. So the clearance at the front mech will be wrong. Mech needs raising and may need re-indexing. Chain should be ok. 

 

 

Shame. Ruined my morning. smiley

 

That doesn't sound worse than a day's worth of Youtube and fiddling though. 

It's definitely no more than that and a useful thing to know., plenty of  videos out there too (GCNs youtube channel have some decent stuff but there are others of course).

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ea03ChN-7Vg

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TypeVertigo [421 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
unconstituted wrote:

I have Ultegra 50/34 x 11 on my bike. Can I stick on a 52/36 Dura Ace crank? Or do I need to mess around with derailleurs and a new chain etc?

 

Feel like 52/34 would be my perfect chainset. Not sure if that can be made to work though.

 

 

Most of Shimano's double front derailleurs are meant to work with chainrings with a maximum difference of 16 teeth. 52/34 is just outside that at 18T difference. You might be able to get it to work, but it won't be ideal.

Mid-compact 52/36 and and compact 50/34 cranks are right at that limit. If you cross-chain in the small-small combination with these chainrings, you can find the chain can foul the inside of the big chainring.

Triple front derailleurs have greater capacity for variance in chainring teeth (22-24T or so) but will need a relevant shifter. With the most recent gruppos, Ultegra and 105 gave up support for triples, leaving only Tiagra 4700 to soldier on as the highest level Shimano gruppo with triples.

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fukawitribe [2050 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
ibr17xvii wrote:

Would I notice a massive difference on a 53/39 & a 11/28 on the rear as opposed to 50/34 & 11/30 that I have now?

At the top end it's doubtful, at the other it may depend on how nasty and/or long climbs you do - I can think of a number of real climbs, and endless sims (e.g. Stelvio), that I really wouldn't fancy doing on a 39/28 but that's up to your ability and geography to a large degree.

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Kinda off-topic but would it make a noticeable difference if I also went from a 172.5mm crank to 175mm on the new 52/36? Would I have to change my seat height to accomodate?

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mrmo [2096 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes
Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

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Mr Turning [124 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes
mrmo wrote:
Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

Take exception all you want, that is the case. It doesn't say 'most', it says 'many' and that is true.

Plus, there's the following paragraph that makes the same point that you've tried to add as a correction! 

Fail!

 

Avatar
Mat Brett [660 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

mrmo wrote:

Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

 

What exactly is your issue with this statement, mrmo? It looks entirely correct to me. In fact, there's no question about it.

 

Avatar
mrmo [2096 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes
Mat Brett wrote:
mrmo wrote:
Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

 

What exactly is your issue with this statement, mrmo? It looks entirely correct to me. In fact, there's no question about it.

 

"In many", it isn't many cases, for most 53/39 chainsets  you can't fit compact chainrings. If you had said in some or in a few cases, or something else fine, but many suggests a lot, which isn't the case.

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bumble [22 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

my road bike now has a 30/39 (a triple, with the largest ring removed).

i was at the back of the queue when God was handing out the suplesse, and i can spin my tallest gear along (ok, down) at 50+kph, snot even *that* spinny. I'm not recommending it for everyone, or criticising anyone elses choice, but it's an effective option that i'm pleased with.

re crank length: it's about bloody time they were made in lengths that actually made a difference. 165 is not really all that short, and must be very uncomfortable for anyone shorter than 5'8".

 

 

 

 

 

Avatar
Simmo72 [672 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
mrmo wrote:
Mat Brett wrote:
mrmo wrote:
Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

 

What exactly is your issue with this statement, mrmo? It looks entirely correct to me. In fact, there's no question about it.

 

"In many", it isn't many cases, for most 53/39 chainsets  you can't fit compact chainrings. If you had said in some or in a few cases, or something else fine, but many suggests a lot, which isn't the case.

 As a 53/39 campagnolo chainset user of older models I get what you are saying but in the grand scheme of life the universe and everything I and almost every other human being on the planet would suggest you divert your keyboard energy at something else.  
 

Avatar
Mat Brett [660 posts] 1 year ago
9 likes

mrmo wrote:

Mat Brett wrote:

mrmo wrote:

Quote:

In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings.

I would take exception to this point, historically MOST chainsets will not let you do this. Shimanos and campagnolos old standards of 130 and 135mm prevent an inner ring of less than 38 or 39 respectivly. Yes some of the newer chainsets have been designed to allow almost anything but that is a very recent thing.

 

 

 

What exactly is your issue with this statement, mrmo? It looks entirely correct to me. In fact, there's no question about it.

 

"In many", it isn't many cases, for most 53/39 chainsets  you can't fit compact chainrings. If you had said in some or in a few cases, or something else fine, but many suggests a lot, which isn't the case.

Haha! 'Most' doesn't come into it. No one said 'most' apart from you!

To say "In many cases you can turn a standard chainset into a compact chainset simply by swapping the chainrings" is  100% correct. It does actually apply to the majority of Shimano's current groupsets (Dura-Ace, Ultegra, 105, Tiagra), for example, the majority of Campagnolo's current groupsets (Super Record, Record, Chorus), FSA K-Force Light, SL-K Light, Gossamer Pro ABS…

I even used the word 'modern'! "You can take a 53-tooth outer chainring off a modern Shimano 105 chainset, for example, and replace it with a 50-tooth chainring."

And I even explained, "This didn’t used to be the case. If you had a compact chainset with a 110mm BCD, you couldn’t fit larger Shimano chainrings with a 130mm BCD."

I also cautioned that, "You need to make sure you get new chainrings that are compatible with your chainset. Chainrings come with different bolt circle diameters (BCDs) and bolt spacings."

If that lot wasn't enough to explain it to you, you're on your own!

Thanks for taking part though.

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vonhelmet [847 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
bumble wrote:

re crank length: it's about bloody time they were made in lengths that actually made a difference. 165 is not really all that short, and must be very uncomfortable for anyone shorter than 5'8".

Eh?  I'm not even 5'8" and I have eeny weeny toy legs and I use 170mm cranks on two bikes and 172.5mm cranks on the commuter.  No problems here...

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
bumble wrote:

 

re crank length: it's about bloody time they were made in lengths that actually made a difference. 165 is not really all that short, and must be very uncomfortable for anyone shorter than 5'8".

 

Went an ordered the 52/36 in 175mm. 2.5mm longer than my current crank. I have a 31inch inseam and a bit of Googling seemed to suggest that 170mm would have been the best. Was a good price on the 175 though so thought I'd try it. Hopefully won't regret it..

 

 

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Kenbuterol [11 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I have a fsa k-force light bb386 with 53/39. I have an alpine trip coming up and fancy something spinnier. Can I change the inrng for a 36 and cassette for a 12-27 (currently 11-25 chorus 11s) and make it run smoothlyish? Trying to get a cheap option, don't mind the practical aspect. 

Avatar
bumble [22 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes
vonhelmet wrote:

Eh?  I'm not even 5'8" and I have eeny weeny toy legs and I use 170mm cranks on two bikes and 172.5mm cranks on the commuter.  No problems here...

 

out of curiousity, have you tried *properly* short cranks? eg 140mm?

 

(they're not as weird as you might think - and i've got silly long legs)

 

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stevie63 [81 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

Well I would like to join this conversation and throw another type into the mix. I run a cyclocross Ultegra Chainset on my road bike with its 36/46 rings. The 10 tooth jump as opposed to a 16 tooth jump on a compact or semi compact makes front changes so much faster and means when going from the big ring to the little you don't have such a big jump in cadence (and by shifting the rear a couple of gears you can remove this entirely. I do not miss the change in top speed as 46-11 at 120 rpm gives you 40 mph which is more than I need.

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Butty [220 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes

Since when was 53/39 the standard set that was used on road bikes as default?

I thought it was 52/42 or am I showing my age 

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vonhelmet [847 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
bumble wrote:
vonhelmet wrote:

Eh?  I'm not even 5'8" and I have eeny weeny toy legs and I use 170mm cranks on two bikes and 172.5mm cranks on the commuter.  No problems here...

 

out of curiousity, have you tried *properly* short cranks? eg 140mm?

 

(they're not as weird as you might think - and i've got silly long legs)

 

I've not, but I'm not uncomfortable on the cranks I'm using at the moment, and I'm not keen to spend money to fix a problem I don't appear to have!

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mike the bike [980 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Butty wrote:

Since when was 53/39 the standard set that was used on road bikes as default?

I thought it was 52/42 or am I showing my age 

 

You certainly are showing your age Butty, as am I.  But it's good to find I'm not the only member who considers the 53/39 to be a modern upstart.

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stealfwayne [128 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

This article could have been a couple of days earlier, for me. My Sabbath just went into the menders, receiving a new semi compact set up. 11 speed (whoopp whoop !) 12 - 30. That should cover me into my 60's when I guess i'll be swaping (knee caps, hahhaha) and my chanset out for a triple and maybe a hidden electric motor.

 

 

 

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crazy-legs [946 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I've always used 39/53 but recently used a hire bike (a Canyon Ultimate) out in Spain whcih came with a 36/52. I'm not a huge fan of low gears on the road, in fact I absolutely hate compact chainsets but I was surprised how good the semi-compact was. Only used the lowest gear (36-28) once though and that was on a steep gravel road climb so it seemed a bit of a waste of that end of the gearing, especially on such a light bike.

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Boss Hogg [107 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
ibr17xvii wrote:

Would I notice a massive difference on a 53/39 & a 11/28 on the rear as opposed to 50/34 & 11/30 that I have now?

 

From personal experience, the difference between 34x30 and 39x28 is indeed massive. It'll definitivelly contribute to building stronger lengs  3

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Boss Hogg [107 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
unconstituted wrote:

I have Ultegra 50/34 x 11 on my bike. Can I stick on a 52/36 Dura Ace crank? Or do I need to mess around with derailleurs and a new chain etc?

 

Feel like 52/34 would be my perfect chainset. Not sure if that can be made to work though.

 

 

 

Switching from 52 to 53 requires two extra links of chain, if you do it properly (= according to Shimano's dealer's manual). So, from 50 to 52 should require at least as much extra chain length.

Avatar
Boss Hogg [107 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
Butty wrote:

Since when was 53/39 the standard set that was used on road bikes as default?

I thought it was 52/42 or am I showing my age 

A 42 inner chainring is probably sufficient if you live in Holland or have the legs of the Incredible Hulk 

 

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