Double or Triple crankset for a Road Bike? (Or maybe Compact!)

Before going further, we should explain that a "double" crankset refers to one with two chainrings on the front, representing a mid and high gear range option. A "triple" crankset has  three chainrings, the extra chainring being a very small one on the inside that gives you a considerably lower gear range than available with the double. In general, a bikes have either 7, 8, 9 or even 10 sprockets in the back which, matched to a "double" crankset will have 14, 16, 18 or 20 gears, and a "triple" will have 21, 24, 27 or even 30 gears.  It's not the number of gears that's important in the double vs triple equation though, rather it's the range of gearing each offers.

Things to consider-

  • If you climb in lower gears, you’re not necessarily going to go slower up the hill. In fact, the opposite may occur, as the lower gearing of a triple might be more optimal for your own physique. Not everybody was built with massive muscles, and in many cases, higher RPMs at lower gears may be more in sync with your body than big massive gears that you might barely be able to turn.

  • A bike with a triple usually has about the same high-end (your go-fast gears) range as a double. So in general you’re not giving up anything at the high end but rather adding on at the lower end (meaning that you’re getting new gears to make it easier to go uphill while keeping the high gears that allow you to go fast downhill).

  • Way-cool high-end bikes are now available with triple cranks right off the showroom floor! It’s no longer the case that the only way to get a super-high-performance frame and wheelset was on a bike with a double crankset. The market has dramatically changed, and there are now as many options with triples as there are with doubles…and if the bike you want isn’t available with a triple, chances are we can install one on it.

  • Triple-equipped bikes are not just for wimps!!! Even hot-shot riders come across incredibly-steep hills that make him/her think (although rarely aloud) "It sure would be nice to have a lower gear right now!" In our area, this is most likely to happen on Redwood Gulch, Alba Road or perhaps that steep part of Tunitas Creek. And if that’s not enough, we can toss in some high-sierra passes, such as Sonora or Ebbetts.
  • You may not ride places you need a triple right now, but may dream of someday doing a cycling adventure that just might test the limits of how steep & far you can climb!  Having that triple on your bike can be a reminder of cycling's potential... wouldn't it be so cool to take off on a trip someday to the "real" mountains?  The sort of place some would think you'd need a winch (or block & tackle) to climb?  That inside chainring might be just the ticket.

And besides, just how comfortable do you feel calling every mountain bike rider a wimp? Virtually 100% of them have triple cranks, and they USE the lower gears all the time! In fact, it’s probably the widespread success of triple-equipped mountain bikes that’s helped fuel demand for the wider range gears on road bikes.

So why wouldn’t everybody get a triple-equipped bike?

  • Many people (particularly men) have this macho-thing about being strong enough to climb a hill without the help of so-called granny gears (a semi-derisive phrase for triple cranksets). There’s not much you can do about this type of attitude…the only "cure" is a pair of busted knees, and that "cure" usually ends the cyclists' riding career.

  • There remain a number of cyclists that believe tradition is more important than progress, and since early, classic road bikes didn’t have triples 30 years ago, they still shouldn’t now. This is frequently the same type of person who feels that "steel is real" (meaning that any other material, be it aluminum, titanium or carbon-fiber, just isn’t what a bicycle is supposed to be made out of) and probably doesn’t wear a helmet.

  • And there are truthfully some people so strong that they don’t need a triple crankset, or for inexplicable reasons just don’t have a whole lot of trouble climbing in very tall gears at very high speeds. Alas, there are few of us so afflicted.

  • Finally, there are slight trade-offs in terms of weight (figure an extra half-pound or so of weight) and shifting performance. Not much decline in performance, but the longer chain makes for a bit more work for the rear derailleur, and on the front, shifting between the inside and middle chainrings isn’t quite as precise as the shifting on a double. Not bad, in fact, pretty darned good, but not quite as good.  If you're racing, these trade-offs aren't required since, if you had to gear down that low, you wouldn't be competitive anyway.
  • You might live someplace where the toughest climb is an overpass.  Florida, for example, is probably not a place where one needs a triple!

    Check here for an overview of the various different rides on our website (many of which just might have you wanting a triple crankset!)

COMPACT CRANK- THE NEW KID IN TOWN! (The best of both worlds?)

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, along comes the "Compact" crank. A new way (actually it's been around for some time, but forgotten) to get lower gears without a triple. Instead of the classic 53/39 front chainrings, you have a 50/36 (sometimes 50/34) combination that gets you quite a bit lower gears, while giving up a very small amount from the high end... all using standard double-compatible shifters & derailleurs. A high-quality compact setup is actually lighter weight than a standard double! The downside? You don't get as low a gear as a triple will offer, and you lose just a bit off your high end (the gears you'd be drafting trucks downhill in, but nothing you'd ever miss in day-to-day riding).

So if you don't need a super-low gear, but do need a bit more help than the standard racing-style gearing offers on many bikes, this may be just the ticket. And, for '06, it's offered as a stock option on many Trek models (it's also what I ride myself). --Mike--

Last updated 07/15/05