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Game Changer : FSA Carbon Pro Compact Chainset

FSA Carbon Pro Compact Chainset
James Spender
30 Apr 2015

In the days of old pros rode 52/42 and amateurs had triples. Then FSA got involved...

There’s a scene recounted in Tyler Hamilton’s book The Secret Race in which Bjarne Riis pedals nonchalantly uphill, past the gassing peloton, ‘pushing a gigantic gear’. Of course the implication is that Riis was juiced up to the eyeballs, but nevertheless it says something more about the cyclist’s psyche: the need to show strength. This collective bravado was something that quite possibly staved off compact chainsets until as late as 2004.

‘To use a big chainring showed your competitors you were very strong,’ says FSA’s general manager, Claudio Marra. ‘Probably this was part of the reason compact chainsets were not used before. That and the fact Shimano and Campagnolo had always said 14 teeth was the maximum difference that could exist between chainrings without impairing shifting, not 16 as with a 50/34t compact set-up.’

Not for the first time, then, the progress of cycling technology was being dictated by the professionals and the stalwarts, but FSA engineers remained convinced. They believed there was a place for compact chainsets, despite them initially failing to catch on. ‘We didn’t invent the compact chainset,’ says Marra. ‘Amateurs would create their own gearing and Cannondale produced a compact chainset under its component name, Coda, in the early 1990s, but we were the ones to make it popular. We released the Carbon Pro Compact at the 2004 Tour with Team CSC [latterly Tinkoff-Saxo]. It cost around £330, and within the first year compacts accounted for nearly 80% of our total road chainset sales. Now they are around 90%. This is why we called it the “Compact Revolution”.’

In 2004 FSA produced a curious piece of marketing literature that was indeed called Compact Revolution. It was part advertising, part white paper, part manifesto. In it, FSA names Hamilton as the man to first ‘prove the validity of the compact’ after the company supplied him with one when a crash in the 2002 Tour left him with a fractured clavicle. ‘Armstrong won the Tour but Hamilton was successful, finishing pedalling from a seated position [thanks to his compact] and was able to take on the difficult mountain stages,’ the document said.

For some this would have been compelling enough evidence, but FSA backed it up with a discourse on speed, gear inches and cadence, as well as statements such as ‘the heart’s capability to work at a greater number of heart cycles, in fact, is that which makes it possible to have greater muscle freshness primarily in the gradient’.

Perhaps mirroring the reader’s befuddlement is a note from the copy editor that somehow remains in the Compact Revolution pamphlet: ‘Sorry but I do not understand this technical section’. Yet, little over 10 years on, most people can appreciate the compact chainset’s simple brilliance, even if it took a while for some to be convinced.

‘Shimano and Campagnolo were not so happy!’ says Marra. ‘They had lots of infrastructure invested in double chainsets and triple chainsets, so with compact, they were forced to change their production systems. Of course there are still many double chainsets, but we virtually killed the triple. Like I said, we brought a revolution.’

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