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Look Pro: The Flemish Compact

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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  1. @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

  2. No 39 ring here…

  3. @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I’ve got a route from a Brighton ride I did this year that started at the London Eye and avoided the main drags coming out of London.  I’ll pull it out tomorrow and see how it can link over to Box Hill.

  4. @Wold Man

    For those who, like me, can’t do the maths this may help. Anyone using this to justify ownership and use of a compact chainset …it’s still wrong and has no place on a road bike.

    How fitting that the chart only goes down to 38T.

  5. @Chris

    No 39 ring here…

    Yates was the cats cock.

  6. One of my favorite riding activities is denigrating my compact-using friends, then attacking on downhills in my 53×11 (not that this every actually works, but it makes me feel better). It seems like like there are more compacts than standards in my area, very upsetting. It’s good to know there’s still a few people out there stubborn enough to put style before comfort.

  7. @Fins

    One of my favorite riding activities is denigrating my compact-using friends, then attacking on downhills in my 53×11 (not that this every actually works, but it makes me feel better). It seems like like there are more compacts than standards in my area, very upsetting. It’s good to know there’s still a few people out there stupid enough to put style before comfort.

    Fixed your post.

  8. @Fins its 95% tongue in cheek and 5% serious. now please do use a favor and review Rule #5.

  9. I am always totally amazed how many people get all butt hurt when they come here and read an article. I really noticed it with the article by @prowrench

  10. @RedRanger

    I don’t see what you are calling @Fins out for.

  11. @Fins

    One of my favorite riding activities is denigrating my compact-using friends, then attacking on downhills in my 53×11 (not that this every actually works, but it makes me feel better). It seems like like there are more compacts than standards in my area, very upsetting. It’s good to know there’s still a few people out there stubborn enough to put style before comfort.

    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.

  12. @RedRanger

    I am always totally amazed how many people get all butt hurt when they come here and read an article. I really noticed it with the article by @prowrench

    Eh, it’s the nature of the site really.  Frank writes a poetic but fundamentally wrong article, then sits back to watch the fireworks.

    It’s not about being “butt hurt” (you Americans and your funny sayings), it’s more like putting some surely polarising ideas out there and sitting back to watch the fun of everyone going at each other’s throats – in the nicest possible way….

  13. I’m toying with the idea of getting a medium cage derailleur and an 11-32 for a particularly hilly 255km sportive in October. I figure that 9 hours of suffering will be enough without having to spend a couple of them below 50 rpm and whimpering like an abandoned puppy. At least I’ll be able to stick with my 53/39.

  14. @ten B

    I’m toying with the idea of getting a medium cage derailleur and an 11-32 for a particularly hilly 255km sportive in October. I figure that 9 hours of suffering will be enough without having to spend a couple of them below 50 rpm and whimpering like an abandoned puppy. At least I’ll be able to stick with my 53/39.

    11-27 at most and you are never allowed to actually use the 27, that way you’ll only suffer 8 1/2 hours.

    now where’s this ride? Details details….

  15. @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…

  16. @piwakawaka

    @ten B

    I’m toying with the idea of getting a medium cage derailleur and an 11-32 for a particularly hilly 255km sportive in October. I figure that 9 hours of suffering will be enough without having to spend a couple of them below 50 rpm and whimpering like an abandoned puppy. At least I’ll be able to stick with my 53/39.

    11-27 at most and you are never allowed to actually use the 27, that way you’ll only suffer 8 1/2 hours.

    now where’s this ride? Details details….

    It’s in the Brindabella ranges south of Canberra. If you Google Fitz’s Challenge you’ll find it. I did the 205km version last year on my old bike with a compact and 11-25. The last big climb was a one-hour symphony of agony. No real flat sections the entire way either – just rollers. Over 4000m of climbing, all up. This year’s plan is the 255, unless I can convince my VMH to play, in which case I’ll be her domestique for the 105.

  17. Here’ a counterpoint.

    Any bike with a rear cassette bearing anything larger than a 26 tooth cog should be either a MTB or a CX bike, not a road bike.

    ….aaaaand, go!

  18. Ah, who am I kidding. I don’t really care.  If it gets you up the hill, what does it matter?

  19. @frank

    @Chris

    No 39 ring here…

    Yates was the cats cock.

    Indeed. I know he got lighter as his career went on but the guy must have laid down huge amounts of V to have survived as a pro cyclist in his chunkier years. An inspiration to the too fat climb like myself.

    There’s so much awesomeness in this photo, the way it shouts speed at you, the chromed surfaces glinting in the sun, the Coke bidon, Addidas shoes, gum sidewalls, lack of V-meter, studded saddle, low set brake levers and some fucking huge blood pipes. Only minor downside is that he should have given his wrench a slap for that rear QR.

  20. @Teocalli

    @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I’ve got a route from a Brighton ride I did this year that started at the London Eye and avoided the main drags coming out of London. I’ll pull it out tomorrow and see how it can link over to Box Hill.

    I know Box Hill was on the Olympic route and has somehow grown a kind of mythical status but if you’ve not ridden it before, be prepared to be underwhelmed. Just saying…

  21. @ten B

    @piwakawaka

    @ten B

    I’m toying with the idea of getting a medium cage derailleur and an 11-32 for a particularly hilly 255km sportive in October. I figure that 9 hours of suffering will be enough without having to spend a couple of them below 50 rpm and whimpering like an abandoned puppy. At least I’ll be able to stick with my 53/39.

    11-27 at most and you are never allowed to actually use the 27, that way you’ll only suffer 8 1/2 hours.

    now where’s this ride? Details details….

    It’s in the Brindabella ranges south of Canberra. If you Google Fitz’s Challenge you’ll find it. I did the 205km version last year on my old bike with a compact and 11-25. The last big climb was a one-hour symphony of agony. No real flat sections the entire way either – just rollers. Over 4000m of climbing, all up. This year’s plan is the 255, unless I can convince my VMH to play, in which case I’ll be her domestique for the 105.

    Looks great enjoy, oh 5k vertical on the website!

  22. @Mike_P

    @Teocalli

    @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I’ve got a route from a Brighton ride I did this year that started at the London Eye and avoided the main drags coming out of London. I’ll pull it out tomorrow and see how it can link over to Box Hill.

    I know Box Hill was on the Olympic route and has somehow grown a kind of mythical status but if you’ve not ridden it before, be prepared to be underwhelmed. Just saying…

    I’m going to ping a note over to Gianni to get a London Cogal page up and running. That’ll also give everyone else a chance to put it in the diary. He needs a date and route so I’ll give him the one I linked to the other day and note that it’ll be subject to refinement. We can then fine tune it between now and October. 

    I’ve created an email address for it, london.cogal@gmail.com

  23. @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    This route http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3114387 is the route I have out of London to Box Hill that avoids the main roads.  We can go westerly post Box Hill to wherever (as long as we avoid the A272 as that is horrible on a bike, busy and narrow main road).  Though is there a need to start in London unless it just happened to be a central point or are there more people that are London based that makes it sensible?

  24. @Teocalli That looks much better than mine, thanks.

    I was thinking of a central London start purely from the point that it works for anyone coming in from out of London and those in London who aren’t close to the route, i.e., me. I’ll be coming into Kings Cross and riding down. The Mall is a good central location and there are plenty of places nearby to grab a pre ride espresso if their travelling gets them here a bit earlier than they’d like.

    It may also make sense to have a second meeting point at, say the bike rental place/coffee shop on Priory lane in Richmond Park for those in South West London or coming in by car and didn’t want to park in the centre. Anyone doing that could get off the train at Clapham on the way back.

  25. @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I can get you to Box Hill no problem – I do it quite often from Tooting. Go down through Carshalton Ponds, Banstead and Kingswood is OK and then to Westhumble and Holmbury St Mary but after that there be dragons…

    …as long as someone else can get us to Havant.

    I’ll do a map to there and post it when the cogal page is up. Maybe we should start south of the river to avoid having a bunch trying to ride through the city – something like Waterloo, Clapham Junction or Battersea Park ?

  26. @ChrisO

    @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I can get you to Box Hill no problem – I do it quite often from Tooting. Go down through Carshalton Ponds, Banstead and Kingswood is OK and then to Westhumble and Holmbury St Mary but after that there be dragons…

    …as long as someone else can get us to Havant.

    I’ll do a map to there and post it when the cogal page is up. Maybe we should start south of the river to avoid having a bunch trying to ride through the city – something like Waterloo, Clapham Junction or Battersea Park ?

    The bit from Box Hill to Havant will be the interesting bit of navigation. Not having a fancy navigation device, I think I’ll have to go old school and have a bit of paper taped to the top tub with key points against miles down range.

    I’m going to ride out from central London so I’ll start it there, @teocalli’s route or straight down King’s Road to Putney bridge at that time of a Sunday morning  won’t be too much of a bother but it would make sense to have an rendezvous point.

  27. @Chris Here you go mate, run yourself up one of these – handy instructions here

  28. @Chris

    @ChrisO

    @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I can get you to Box Hill no problem – I do it quite often from Tooting. Go down through Carshalton Ponds, Banstead and Kingswood is OK and then to Westhumble and Holmbury St Mary but after that there be dragons…

    …as long as someone else can get us to Havant.

    I’ll do a map to there and post it when the cogal page is up. Maybe we should start south of the river to avoid having a bunch trying to ride through the city – something like Waterloo, Clapham Junction or Battersea Park ?

    The bit from Box Hill to Havant will be the interesting bit of navigation. Not having a fancy navigation device, I think I’ll have to go old school and have a bit of paper taped to the top tub with key points against miles down range.

    I’m going to ride out from central London so I’ll start it there, @teocalli’s route or straight down King’s Road to Putney bridge at that time of a Sunday morning won’t be too much of a bother but it would make sense to have an rendezvous point.

    I probably should whisper this in very small print but I have a gps on the bike.  Ok, Ok I’ll go and wash my mouth out with soap but I live in the “beyond there be dragons” part and you can spend weeks trying to find your way out of some of the back roads.  There that’s my excuse.  Happy to fit in with wherever as I can get dropped up on the edge of London or get a train up to Waterloo.

  29. @ChrisO

    @Chris Here you go mate, run yourself up one of these – handy instructions here

    Nice tape job.

    Next you’ll tell me that you’ve grown a beard and will be doing the Cogal on your new recumbent whilst wearing spd sandals. We’re starting in the East End and heading towards Ipswich.

  30. @Teocalli

    I probably should whisper this in very small print but I have a gps on the bike so I’m quite happy to take all responsibility for getting us hideously lost.

    You’ve got to love a volunteer. Thanks.

  31. @Mike_P

    @Teocalli

    @Chris

    @Teocalli I’m open to suggestions, my brother in law rides down to Havant or Hayling Island from London via Box Hill each year and I’ve got his route notes somewhere but haven’t had a chance to map them out.

    I’ve got a route from a Brighton ride I did this year that started at the London Eye and avoided the main drags coming out of London. I’ll pull it out tomorrow and see how it can link over to Box Hill.

    I know Box Hill was on the Olympic route and has somehow grown a kind of mythical status but if you’ve not ridden it before, be prepared to be underwhelmed. Just saying…

    Yeah I agree re Box Hill.  Great view at the top but as I think it was Magnus Backstedt who said something like “Hill? That’s just a speed bump”.  Leith Hill is more of a challenge and coming home up to Hindhead but even those are hardly the Lake District.

  32. @Chris

    @Teocalli

    I probably should whisper this in very small print but I have a gps on the bike so I’m quite happy to take all responsibility for getting us hideously lost.

    You’ve got to love a volunteer. Thanks.

    Ha ha – love it.

  33. @Teocalli

    @Chris

    @Teocalli

    I probably should whisper this in very small print but I have a gps on the bike so I’m quite happy to take all responsibility for getting us hideously lost.

    You’ve got to love a volunteer. Thanks.

    Ha ha – love it.

    Best be sticking that GPS in your pocket.  Either the first or second weekend of October and I’ll be there.

  34. @Chris

    @ChrisO

    @Chris Here you go mate, run yourself up one of these – handy instructions here

    Nice tape job.

    Next you’ll tell me that you’ve grown a beard and will be doing the Cogal on your new recumbent whilst wearing spd sandals. We’re starting in the East End and heading towards Ipswich.

    You’d be surprised. I’ve had my fair share of rice pudding, peaches and malt loaf.

    They may have beards but some of those guys – and girls – are harder than any roadie will ever be.

  35. @ChrisO You could always give it a bash on this

  36. @Mike_P

    @ChrisO You could always give it a bash on this

    Tsk – Rule #31 ??

  37. Dragging us back to things Belgian, reports are saying that Tom Boonen may need surgery on a saddle sore.  That’s got to be bad, for a true hardman like Tommeke to need to go under the knife.

    C’mon Tom, the Classics need you!!

  38. @Chris + the other UK Velominati. I’m in Brighton and should be able to make it up to London this. Happy to go with whatever route you lot can come up with.

    I actually started looking at a potential cogal route from Brighton heading up to Boxhill via Ashdown Forest in the past as there are some good roads but got no further.

    I’ll send an email. Cheers

  39. @motor city I’ve done the Hell of Ashdown the last couple of years as an early season wake up call for the Keepers Tour. It’s a great ride across lovely country side. This year’s was properly Rule #9 with horizontal driven snow on the high ground. It wasn’t lying on the ground but it sure as hell stung.

  40. @Chris I remember you mentioning that earlier in the year, it sounded brutal.

    I’m on the mailing list thing for entry for 2014 I think its late October for registration. I’d like to do that, then PUNCHEUR is a few weeks later then a day on the cobbles.

  41. @wiscot

    @Buck Rogers

    @wiscot

    Ahhh, fuck it, time to confess. I ride a 50/36 with an 11-23 at the back. I live in a very lumpy part of SE WI and I hit the big 50 next month. All you young whippersnappers can ride all the 53-42s you damn well like, but I get around quite nicely thank you on my set up. (eg, 92 kms last night. Two bottles, no food, 29kmh/hr average over lumpy terrain) I hate having a big cassette at the back and the 36 looks better than a 34.

    I grew up in the age of 52-42 being standard and a 12 straight-through at the back. Try getting up some steep hills on 42-18 and then tell be about how shitty compacts are. Been there, done that, not going back. While I’m at it, I sport an EPMS. Why? Because I came of age in an era of wool and then shitty acrylic jerseys. I have images burnt in my brain of riders with so much shit in their saggy back pockets that you couldn’t see the saddle. For me, it’s emergency gear in the EPMS, wallet and cell in the middle pocket, gels in the right pocket, solid food in the left. Other than that, I do my very best to obey the rules, but sometimes age and experience trumps the written word!

    Jesus Man!!! What do you think this is? An AA meeting??? Keep that shit to yourself and obey the Masturbation Principle!

    Sorry fellas . . . slinking off with head hung in abject shame. (In my defence, there did seem to be a few confessions being posted and I must have gotten carried away.

    A little pent up emotion isn’t good for the soul, Hill repeats are in order.

  42. @frank just keeping it real ;-)

  43. @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.

  44. @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.

  45. 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.

  46. Third sprocket back. Look at THAT big ring.

  47. Apparently Tony Martin is running a 58 on his TT today.

  48. 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.

  49. @Rob Try Radio Lingua Network,

    http:/ / radiolingqua.com/shows/other-lanuages/

  50. 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.

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