Join Date: Feb 2007
Location: Mid Willamette Valley, Orygun
Bikes: 86 RockHopper,2008 Specialized Globe. Both upgraded to 9 speeds.
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"...Is a smaller crank (with a slightly smaller chain)...
It depends on just what you mean by smaller crank.
Smaller rings are going gear you down just like if you put larger cogs in the back. If you are already "spinning out" in high gear, a smaller ring will exacerbate the problem.
Smaller (shorter) crank ARMS will give you a different effect, which may or may not be good, depending on how well your legs match your current cranks.
With shorter arms, you lose "torque", but tend to be able to spin at a faster cadence.
If you have arthritic knees, shorter may be better since you don't have as large of a range of motion (less bending) of the knees. If you have very long legs, possibly a longer arm is better for you.