Compact (Sloped) or Traditional (Horizontal) Top Tube? It’s Up To The Rider… A Not So Traditional Take.
Up until I bought my Venge I’ve ridden a road bike with a traditional (level, horizontal) top tube. My Trek 5200 is a fantastic bike and I still thoroughly enjoy riding it and I have both bikes set up identically (same saddle height, same distance from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar) though the drop from the saddle to the bar is 1/2″ greater on the Venge. That explained, even though the Venge has an extra 1/2″ of drop, the Venge is exceptionally more comfortable to ride over a long haul and because of that reality I’ve become an instant fan of the compact frame with a sloped top tube.
To be certain, checking out the forums, many people prefer the traditional top tube but my experience has had me thinking about why I feel such a difference between the two for some time. Now, before I go any further I want to stress that the difference I feel has nothing to do with the fact that the compact frame is newer and I find it vastly sexier – I’ll delve into the sexy aspect later. I’m also going to stay away from silly “corporate profit” conspiracies as well. He who would expect a corporation to run without making a profit is surely dumber than my left butt cheek.
First, there is one difference that makes the Venge a better fit that has nothing to do with the frame: The handlebars on the Venge are of the shallow drop variety where the 5200 has the deeper ergonomic drops. The shallow drops are simply easier to ride in because while the bar is 1/2″ lower, the drop bar is 1/2″ higher. The Venge’s bar also isn’t quite as wide – it matches my shoulder width a lot better. On the other hand, the shifter hoods, Shimano Ultegra, on the 5200 are vastly more ergonomic and comfortable and the wheels on the 5200, while much older, are higher quality and more aerodynamic (deeper “V”) though they’re heavier (about a pound heavier for the set).
Much of what I’ve read of the compact (sloped top tube) frame says that the design, because if different seat stay lengths, is more responsive as far as handling goes. While I still consider myself too much a noob to understand the full ramifications of responsive handling and what that feels like, I can say for certain that contrasting the Venge and the 5200 – and I’ve written about this before, the Venge is so much more responsive in tight cornering contrasting the two simply isn’t fair. The difference is stark, we’re talking about, on a straight up right hand turn (no stop sign), I’m at least 2-3 mph faster on the Venge and I can stick to the right lane all the way through the turn instead of starting from the left lane, hitting the apex, and drifting back into the left lane on the 5200. In fact, I still haven’t been able to find the max speed that will have me drifting into the left lane [Side Note: A cyclist, on this particular corner, can see oncoming traffic so drifting into the oncoming lane can be avoided if traffic is present by simply tapping the brakes].
Now, and this is where the rubber meets the road, as they say: Part of the corning difference is due to the fact that I could buy a smaller frame because of the way the frame is put together. With a traditional frame I need a 58 or 59 cm frame (6″ tall, 34″ inseam). With the compact design I was able to pick up a smaller frame (a 56 cm). This allows for better handling and I can feel it on the road. Now, I could have had a 56 cm traditional frame fit to me, it just would have taken a little bit of effort (and money) to do it. The compact frame, however, had everything I needed out of the box.
There’s another excellent advantage to a bike with a smaller frame: The drop from the saddle to the bar top is a bit greater which allows for a more aggressive (and thereby aerodynamic) riding position on the bike (1/2″ or 1.27 cm in my case and I don’t have the stem on the Venge slammed [as low as possible], I can still swap a spacer or two to increase the drop even more – I’m working on getting comfortable with that right now).
Now, one final note on the sloped top tube that I wanted to look at comes down to vanity. While I wouldn’t categorize my self as old or older, at 43 I’m no spring chicken. My flexibility, for my age, I’d have to guess is average to fair. Most avid cyclists (myself included), whether they’d admit it or not, want to be able to ride a bike with that classic “pro” saddle several inches above the handlebar look… Riding a compact frame makes the saddle height look more pronounced (or awesome). Take a look at two of my road bikes:
Even though the actual drop is 4-3/4″ on the Venge and 4-1/4″ on the 5200, a difference of a half-inch, it’s looks like the post is half a foot higher. Humorously enough, if I take those two bikes and stand them up next to each other the difference would be a lot less stark… The difference is mostly an optical illusion because of the compact frame. So, for vanity’s sake, we can see that the compact frame is the way to go. I don’t think we’re supposed to admit to vanity though so let’s just keep that between us.
In the end, choosing the style of frame that you want to ride is highly personal. Do you want the new compact frame with the sloped top tube or the traditional horizontal top tube? After having ridden both, and taking everything into account, I like the compact frame a little bit more but honestly, it simply comes down to personal preference: Which do you prefer?