The End of the Triple Crank

Shimano DA 7803 crankset
Near Extinction

Perhaps you haven’t noticed but bicycle manufacturers now have model years in emulation of cars, computers, and clothing. So the upgrade and ‘new features’ propaganda is in full swing for the 2016 model year. If you’ve been cycling for a while, you may have noticed a subtle change in road bikes on the showroom floor. I’m not talking about electronic shifting—I’m referring to the disappearance of triple cranksets. Shimano, the largest of the three international component manufacturers, has been gradually yet inexorably phasing out triple road cranks and has just started the same process on its mountain bike chainsets. Shimano used to offer a Dura Ace triple crankset but it vanished in 2008; its second road tier, Ultegra, kept the triple until its revision to eleven-speed two years ago; this year the third tier, 105, dropped the triple. If you want a triple road crankset from Shimano, you now have to drop down to Tiagra, which is also ten- rather than eleven-speed (not that that’s a bad thing, mind you).

Campagnolo has never offered a triple in its top-of-the-line Super Record group but it did have a Record triple for a number of years. Campy ended that at about the same time as Shimano killed the DA triple. Campy continues to sell a triple in its Athena line, which is fourth tier. SRAM has never offered a triple road crank and is going in the opposite direction by instead marketing a single chainring systems (“One ring to rule them all”) for road bikes.

On the mountain bike side Shimano continues to offer an XTR triple but the writing is on the wall: it’s pushing the XTR double and a single-ring chainset to compete with SRAM’s XX single-ring set up. If the demand for triple cranksets is diminishing, it is mostly due to the relentless marketing emphasis on racing. That’s too bad because triple cranks have advantages for the recreational cyclist, whose needs are not the same as the racers’.

Two developments have made it possible to ride a double chainset and get a reasonable range of gears. Compact double chainsets—50-34 or 52-36 combinations instead of the race standard 53-39—allow gear development (i.e. gear-inches) into the mid-30s with older cassettes (historically a 11- or 12-27 cassette). Now with eleven speed cassettes we are seeing wider ranges such as 11-32 that allow even lower gearing but without sacrificing reasonable jumps between gears. A smaller front chainring along with a bigger rear cog means we’re finally seeing road gearing getting down into mountain bike territory and low enough to replicate the gearing you’d get from a triple crank with the previous smaller cassettes: a 34 front/32 rear yields an approximate ratio of 29 gear-inches. That’s just a hair lower than the old triple combination of 30 front/27 rear (= 30 gear-inches) of a Shimano triple system.

Given all this why would you bother with a triple crank? It has more weight than a compact double and in theory more complicated front shifting yet the gear range is no different. For those who live in flatter parts of the world, the gear range provided by triple chainsets (or wide range compact doubles) is completely unnecessary anyway—no one is screaming for super low gears in Indiana for example. But in Northern California wide range gearing makes sense unless you deliberately want to restrict your road riding to less mountainous routes. In just about any part of the Bay Area there are steep and/or long climbs—Mt. Diablo, Hicks Road, Tunitas Creek, Mtn. Charlie to name just a few (and those are just the paved ones). Lots of cyclists use triples on less frightening climbs such as Palomares or Mt. Tam. A few years ago I was chatting with one of the principals of a local bike shop about the disappearance of triple cranks and he made the same comment: riding the local hills and Mt. Diablo just made more sense on a triple.

Even with wide-range compact double set-ups the gearing isn’t always low enough. That might strike some of you as absurd: “You need a gear ratio lower than 30 gear-inches? You must be ready for a wheelchair!” But there are local ascents where an even lower gear is helpful, if not necessary, for survival: Hicks Road in Campbell has a solid mile at 14% as does Gates Road in Napa, and Mix Canyon is over 16%. Even on lesser grades a gear lower than 30 gear-inches will reduce the load on your thighs and allow you to spin a more comfortable gear. Of course if you’re also carrying stuff (or have additional “cargo” around your waist), then the imperative for low gearing is even more urgent.

But it’s not just about range: with a triple you can use a smaller cassette, say a 12-28 rather than an 11-32, and have smaller (and thus smoother) jumps between gears for the same range as a compact double. My ‘sweet spot’ for riding seems to be 76 to 47 gear-inches—I do the majority of my cruising in that range. On a triple these gear ratios are conveniently all in the middle chainring. But on a compact double my preferred range is split down the middle between the big and small chainrings. So I find myself doing a lot of double shifting to stay in that range, say from a 50×23 to 34×17 to get the next ratio. It’s just easier to click up and down the cassette on a 42 or 39 middle chainring. On my triple crank bike the big ring is used primarily for descents and fast flat riding and the granny is used infrequently but it comes in very handy for long, tough ascents (e.g. Hicks). The middle ring is where I do most of my cycling. This division of labor works really well for me and probably does for many other recreational cyclists.

If you have a tandem, then the absence of a triple option is an even more depressing development. Climbing on a tandem is just harder and low gears are not a luxury but a necessity. You need really big gears for the descents and the really low gears for the climbs. There’s nothing more debilitating and demoralizing than having to do a long ascent on a tandem and being over-geared. Roger and I have a 28 granny and a 34 rear cog (= 22 gear-inches) and it’s tolerable for moderate ascents, up to about 8% grade, and plain suffering at anything more challenging (Note: for the record we have ridden the tandem up ascents like the Covadonga in Spain and the Rossfelder Panoramastrasse in Germany that are much longer and steeper.) If you’re doing loaded touring, well, forget about finding a road triple unless you drop down to Tiagra or Athena. (You’re probably better off with a mountain bike triple if you’re really carrying a lot of gear.) So for those markets the loss of the road triple is exasperating.

What I’ve found irritating about the compact double besides having to double-shift frequently is the extreme chain angles it requires. I end up a lot in the big-big and small-small (or near big-big, near small-small) gearing to be in my preferred gears. At those angles even with a well-lubricated chain there is often a lot of noise. In addition depending on how well set up the drivetrain is, the small-small combinations can lead to the chain rubbing on the inside of the big chainring producing even more noise. Annoying!

There are three oft cited negatives of triple cranks: weight, finicky front shifting, and greater Q factor. There is no doubt that a triple crankset is heavier. But the total difference in weight is on the order of 150 to 200 grams at most, i.e. just a half pound—this is essentially a meaningless weight difference. As for finicky front shifting, I’ve found Shimano triple front derailleurs to be quite good and I’ve never had problems with them. It’s possible to drop a chain on any chainset but the compact double with its 50 to 34 jump—seems to be especially prone and I’ve certainly observed that often on group rides. Plus, with the compact double you’re doing a lot more front shifting. A greater Q factor means a wider stance. The virtues of a narrow or wider Q are individual; some fitters claim the narrower Q leads to less loading of the medial side of the knee and hence less likelihood of injury. But the optimal Q depends on the individual’s particular morphology and most of us switch effortlessly between road bikes and mountain bikes, where triples until recently had been the norm, so the argument is academic rather than real.

Face it: we are going to be stuck with whatever is on the showroom floor and that means compact double chainsets and no triples. A look at any brand’s 2016 catalog is going to show a near complete absence of triple crank road bikes. Perhaps that’s good for component manufacturers since it reduces their tooling and development costs. But it’s not necessarily good for recreational cyclists—tolerable maybe but not good.

If you’re interested in triple cranks or want to keep using them in the future, you should pray that Campy and Shimano continue to produce at least some road triple systems even if they are second-rate. There are also several small companies that continue to produce triple cranks, e.g. Sugino, TA, Velo Orange, Compass. But you won’t be able to find a triple front shifter or front derailleur unless you give up indexed shifting (and obviously electronic shifting too since no one makes an electronic shifting system for road triples). It’s always possible to get a third-party triple crank, buy a third-party triple front derailleur (e.g. Interloc), and use bar-end shifters. Personally that’s a big jump because I’ve been using indexed shifting since forever and love it. Where does that leave cyclists like me? Well, praying for one thing—praying that Shimano reverses course at some point and produces the road triple again in their higher end groups. But road cyclists seem to be drinking the compact double Kool Aid without protest and so I suspect we are indeed witnessing the eventual demise of the road triple. My back up plan is to stock up on road triples for when my current parts wear out. I guess that makes me a retrogrouch “survivalist”!