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Dear Frank : Compact Chainsets

Frank Strack
11 May 2015

Frank Strack, arbiter of The Rules, discusses the acceptability of compact chainsets via the medium of farm animals.

Dear Frank compact chainsets

Dear Frank

Rule #47 is clear on triple chainsets, but what do The Rules say about compact chainsets? A ride companion recently questioned my masculinity for sporting a compact and 12-28 cassette on my bike.


Dear Stewart

Ah, Rule #47 – ‘Drink Tripels*, don’t ride triples’ – one of my favorites, and one that I have to say makes me very grateful that I have a team of Keepers supporting me who know how to spell because I could swear there should be an extra ‘p’ in at least one of those words.

The choice between a compact and a standard is all about commitment. Before we go any further, let’s consider the difference between commitment and involvement. In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The answer is that the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

I have had the honour of riding with ex-Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw several times, mostly on his beloved cobbled roads of Flanders and northern France where he can crush us at his whim. In 2013, however, we dragged him out to the Walloonse Ardennen to ride the route of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. His best place in the event was a top 10 finish in 1997; a result that must have caused him serious suffering, given his attempts to talk us out of doing any of the big climbs.

As a pro, he had experienced the suffering first hand that was required to achieve such a result. He had committed his life to events like Liège in which he would have to perform at the highest levels, whereas we were trying to construct an experience that might allow us to taste what it might be like to live the life of a pro. We were the chicken, Johan the pig.

The route of Liège arrives at the base of the Côte de Stockeu climb, hangs a tight 90° right-hander to leap directly into an insufferably steep incline for a few hundred metres before easing off to an almost-sufferably steep incline for several more hundred metres, where it meets a 270° bend and drops right back down to the same point from whence the climb started. As such, the Stockeu is perhaps the most gratuitous climb in cycling – it provides no purpose to the route apart from elevating the suffering. ‘We don’t need to do the climb for me,’ said Museeuw. ‘We can just take a left and ride on.’

Ignoring his suggestion, we headed up the Stockeu and I enjoyed standing on the pedals sandwiched between one of my heroes and his Flemish mechanic, Ronnie. I looked at them and thought 50rpm isn’t a scary thing to these blokes. Johan looked at me and asked if I was riding a compact. ‘What!? NEVER!’ I made sure to sound as offended as I could in Flemish. ‘No, this is a Flemish Compact.’ Ronnie looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re riding a 39?’ I nodded in agreement; in Flanders a 53x42 is standard and a 53x39 is a ‘climbing gear’.

The year previous – when Johan told me I should not eat on rides of less than four hours (sage advice) – I spotted that he was riding a compact. ‘Testing it,’ apparently. When I pressed him on it, he remarked that the 50t wasn’t ‘big enough for climbing’. I haven’t seen him on anything less than a 53 since. In fact, I have seen him tackle some monster rollers in the 53x11, because he says he’s too lazy to shift gear for those sorts of short climbs. Funny kind of lazy, that.

There is no hardman component to blowing out your knees, let’s be clear about that. There is no ‘Rule #5’ that comes as a result of not being able to ride your bike. As Eddy said, ‘Ride your bike lots.’ Just ask yourself whether you’re committed or involved when it comes to choosing your chainset; a 53t is commitment, the 50t is involvement. Also, if you do wind up riding a 50t, don’t go boasting that you are climbing in your Big Ring. It’s only a Big Ring if it has more than 52 teeth. 

Frank Strack is the creator, and curator, of The Rules. For futher illumination see and find a copy of his book The Rules in all good bookshops. You can email your questions for Frank to

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