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Know Your Road Bike Frame – Traditional vs. Compact; Which is Right for You?

February 2019
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Giant came out with the first mass produced compact road bike frame in 1995.  Ten years later, that bike went from alloy to carbon fiber and road bikes haven’t been the same since.

It is widely touted by those in the know that every compact frame design today owes its roots to the Giant TCR (Total Compact Road).

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Then there’s the traditional, or standard, frame.  The traditional frame has a top tube that runs parallel to the ground (or close to it) and requires small increases in frame size to fit everyone on the proper rig 10+ sizes for each model and gender:

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Interestingly, look at where the lines on the overhead door behind the bikes match up with the hoods and saddle.  Look close enough and you’ll see that the two bikes hoods and saddle are almost identical in height off the ground, though the Specialized’s compact frame looks like the saddle is pegged a little higher than the traditional Trek frame.  Nope.  I set the Trek up to get it as close to the Specialized as is possible.  The only difference is in reach.

To keep both bikes the same as geometry goes, I’d need a shorter stem than what is currently on the Trek – I chose a bit more reach that what should be necessary on the traditional frame.  I did this by feel – and this goes to the differences in geometry.  Even though there’s more reach to the Trek, the Specialized feels like it’s more stretched out.  It’s a paradox I can’t explain.

There are several benefits to the compact frame.  One is weight – less tubing means a lighter frame (the rear and main triangles are both smaller on a compact frame).  Also, and this is a plus for manufacturers, ten frame sizes, all with differences in geometry, are no longer needed – manufacturers can get away with just four to six sizes for each gender.  It’s much easier to fit a rider to a compact frame with a little tweak here and a stem change there.

For example, my Trek 5200 is a 58 cm frame – exactly as it should be for my 6’0″ height and my long legs.  The Venge, on the other hand, is a 56 – a size smaller, with a longer stem (110 mm opposed to a 90 mm on the Trek) was all I needed to get the bike to fit right… and the owner of the shop who sold me both bikes (and who built a custom frame for a world record holder) checked my work.  With the bona fides out of the way, I love the Trek.  It’s a fantastic, comfortable, fast bike.  It doesn’t hold a candle to the comfort of the compact Specialized Venge.

In conclusion, however, I would never claim that one is more comfortable or better than the other – comfort is entirely a personal choice.  For every person I know who loves the compact geometry, I know another who swears by the traditional frame.  In the end, you’ll have to make the decision for yourself.  Or accept this simple equation:  f x t = c Frame x Time equals Comfort.  Spend enough time on either frame and only the most notoriously picky will be able to tell the difference.

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Guess what that makes me.

I’ve got about 39,000 miles on the Trek 5200 and a little more than 18,000 on the Specialized, so I know what I’m “feeling”.  The only trick, when trying to figure out whether you’re a traditional or compact frame person is getting time on each so you can make that significant decision.

The one enormous difference between the two styles that I can offer a decent contribution as to said “feel” is that if you’re a compact frame person, when you ride your first compact frame it’ll feel like your hips have been opened up, even though the setup is almost identical to your standard frame.  Everyone I know who is a convert from a standard to a compact frame describes something similar.

Ride hard, my friends.


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