Compact, semi-compact, double, triple, narrow range, wide range – there are a lot of alien terms floating around when we talk about road cycling gearing that can all seem a bit confusing when you first start riding or come to buy a bike.
It’s easy to switch off, and just ride with whatever gearing came on the bike – and you can do that, you’ll probably get on just fine with a standard issue set up. However, making changes can make a big difference for your enjoyment and performance – either transforming your ride if you struggle on hills or making your cycling more efficient.
The gearing is made up of two components – your chainset, which comprises of chainrings and your cranks, and your cassette. The chainset rotates around the bottom bracket whilst the cassette sits on your rear wheel hub. Changing gears on the chainset will make big differences to resistance, whilst the gears on the cassette are for fine tuning to the perfect level.
The more teeth on your chainrings (which make up the chainset) - the more resistance you get. There are three main options though the choice is constantly growing:
Compact: 50 tooth outer ring with 34 tooth inner ring. This is the most popular option at the moment though the semi-compact with 52 tooth outer and 36 inner is also popular.
Standard Double: 53 tooth outer ring with 39 tooth inner ring. This gives you more resistance so is ideal for a strong rider who is confident they can tackle the hills without the lower gear offered by a compact.
Triple: These use three rings and are often fitted to entry-level bikes, sizes vary but a common option would be a 30 tooth on the small ring, 39 in the middle and 50 on the outer. This gives you the same high resistance of the outer as the compact but with an extra small gear on the inside for climbing.
What's right for you?
Most of us will get on quite well with a compact, tweaking the rear cassette for a more racy feel or a climbing specific set-up. However, if you know you find the hills tough and feel you need an extra small gear, a triple with a 30 tooth inner ring could make all the difference, and if you often find yourself wanting an extra gear to push a little bit harder, you might be better shifting up to a standard double. This applies particularly if you plan on riding over flat terrain – it’s all too common for time trial bikes (especially women’s models) to come with a compact chainset, which often isn’t what’s needed.
It's much more common for people to change a cassette than it is to change a chainset. For starters, it's much cheaper and you can make a big difference by altering the sizes of your cogs.
When we talk about teeth on the cassette, the higher the number (and bigger the cog) the easier it is to spin up a hill.
Cassettes can be 9, 10, 11 or 12 speed. The number has grown over time, and will no doubt continue to do so - it refers to the number of sprockets available. More sprockets mean that either a wider spread of gears can be offered, allowing for a very low resistance option, or they can be very close in size making jumps less noticeable.
Narrow vs Wide Range
Cassettes can be a narrow range or wide range. A narrow range cassette will have very small differences between each gear - that means that it's easy to slip between the gears and find the perfect level of resistance. An 11-23 cassette would be considered a narrow range and would be great for a racer who is confident on the climbs, or who plans to compete over a fairly flat course and doesn't want to feel a huge 'clunk' and change in speed when they shift down to a lower resistance.
A wide range cassette, such as an 11-32, provides a much lower gear so if you were going from riding around the flat lands of Cambridge, for a ride in the Alps, you might want to consider getting yourself a new cassette to help you out come the mountains.
What's right for you?
A lot of bikes come with an 11-28 cassette, and this will do the job for most people in most parts of the UK. However, if you want smoother gear changes, and are confident in the strength in your legs, dropping to an 11-25 could be an option. If you feel you need extra low resistance gears for the hills, try an 11-32.
We hope that helps to clear up some of the confusion. Having the right gears is one thing - using them correctly is another. Check out these articles for more info: