Look Pro: The Flemish Compact

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Everyone knows that the quality of one’s character is measured by the size gear they can push, particularly when going uphill. It is also a well-established fact that no self-respecting Flemish Pro would ever ride a Compact, no matter what condition their knees are in or how ferocious the gradient. Which, by extension, means that Compacts are for sissies. In fact, a true Flandrian would rather lose their national race than ride a Sissy Gear.

The first time we rode with Johan Museeuw, we were shocked to find him aboard one of his carbon/flax race machines – and a compact chainset. Not wanting to offend an Apostle by suggesting he’s riding his son’s bike, I asked him what he thought of it. “I don’t like it. The big ring isn’t big enough for climbing.”

The standard Flemish chainset is – and has been for as long as the Ancients have tracked these details in their sacred scrolls – either a 53T or 52T outer ring paired to a 42T inner ring. On the occasions when the parcours will see them scaling the Koppenberg or Kapelmuur, the Belgians make a concession and dust off their trusty 41T inner ring in order to shorten the gear by a whopping single tooth. In the mountains or over in Wallonia (the land of savages) where they are far from the prying eyes of their proud public, the Flemish hardman may allow his mechanic to bolt on a lowly 39T ring, so long as no one brings it up at the dinner table. (It is worth noting that in Cyclocross it is standard practice to ride a 38T inner ring.)

Museeuw has never been a grimpeur, not when he was a Pro and not now. On Keepers Tour 2013, we had the opportunity to do several more rides with him, one of which was over the roads of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It was customary for him to suggest alternate routes that avoided the steep hills, and so it was that he tried to talk us out of riding the Stockeu. We rode up side-by-side, taking our time. As we alternated between pedaling and doing track stands, he asked if I was riding a compact. I feigned a combination of exasperation and insult at such a question and told him it was a Flemish Compact.

“Oh, a 39? Goed.”

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210 Replies to “Look Pro: The Flemish Compact”

  1. @Roark

    @Barracuda

    One of my favorite riding activities is denigrating my standard crank using friends when I blow past them on an 18% gradient and they are too buggered to finish the ride.

    Just putting it out there, in good humour of course.

    Actually, that’s exactly what happened to me a couple of days ago at the (brutal) Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The night before the ride my friends and I were discussing the compact V standard issue, and I was very pleased to see the hamstrings and the calves of the most fervent advocate of 39T on the verge of muscular failure while I (slowly) overtook him two km to the summit on a 17% ramp…

    Is this the ramp of which you speak? I was very glad I had a 34-30 the day I rode up that beast.

  2. @frank Ok, so those riding TTs use larger chainrings to get a better chain line.  This could give aero benefits as well as reducing friction but I think you’re going to wait a long time before someone comes up with an equation to prove that the kudos of staying on the big ring, with the chain at an unMerckxly angle to ones largest cog, outweighs the penalty of both friction (for everyone) and wear (for those that buy their own chainrings, cassettes and chains).

    Still, my next upgrade for number one is a double chainset.

  3. I roll a 50×34 compact connected to a 11-28 deck, and I’m not ashamed of it. 180mm crank arms complete the setup, and I was Merckxdamn glad I had it on a recent pitiful little ride around Camano Island. The succession of rollers about fucking killed me, but I didn’t abandon. I didn’t cut the route short. I didn’t stop and curl up in a fetal position. I didn’t call a cab or hop a bus.

    My ass was on a bike. While I aspire to be faster and smarter, I simply need to satify myself that for today, I ride. Tomorrow, I might not be able to.

  4. Wasn’t sure where to post this but thought maybe some of the followers might be able to help.  Anyone have any good online dutch language learning resources?  My french is conversational so the matter of survival is now taken care of.  That means to keep the peace in Belgium I need to bring my Dutch up to the same level.  Any tips would be great as its a much less common language to learn than French so its proving hard to find free resources that won’t impinge on the cycling funds.

  5. Inspiration > Motivation > Transformation.  Last night I re-read this article in the Recent & Random Articles section.  My commute (only 20km each way, but a daily devotional) is essentially lumpy.  No big climbs, nor flat, but I do run a Flemish Compact for the nearby canyons.  From the doorstep, I immediately descend 1km, so I start in the big ring (53).  Halfway through the first uphill, I realize I’m still in the big dog.  Recalling this article, I stay there.  I end up riding Sur la Plaque the rest of the way into work, because I discovered I can.

  6. @McTyke

    @Roark

    @Barracuda

    One of my favorite riding activities is denigrating my standard crank using friends when I blow past them on an 18% gradient and they are too buggered to finish the ride.

    Just putting it out there, in good humour of course.

    Actually, that’s exactly what happened to me a couple of days ago at the (brutal) Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The night before the ride my friends and I were discussing the compact V standard issue, and I was very pleased to see the hamstrings and the calves of the most fervent advocate of 39T on the verge of muscular failure while I (slowly) overtook him two km to the summit on a 17% ramp…

    Is this the ramp of which you speak? I was very glad I had a 34-30 the day I rode up that beast.

    jesus fucking christ this fucking pic is the fucking cat’s ass.

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