Belt Drives

I believe belt drives are an excellent solution for bicycle drivetrains, and that they’ll continue to grow in popularity over the next few years. The advantages of belts are many, and the downsides few, the most obvious being the need for something other than a derailleur to change gear ratios. As internal gear hubs become more ubiquitous, I believe we’ll also see an increase in the number of bicycles spec’d with belts.

The Los Angeles Times published an article on belt drives yesterday. We’ve also written about belts, and we’ve reviewed two bicycles outfitted with belts that will be available for 2010.

The L.A. Times Article
EcoVelo on the Gates Carbon Drive System
EcoVelo on Five Drivetrains
Civia Bryant Road Test
Raleigh Alley Way Road Test

Which would you prefer on a bike outfitted with a single speed or internal gear hub?

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31 Responses to “Belt Drives”

  • Dan says:

    I’m of the opinion that belt drives have their purpose. Whether or not Joe Average will see that is the point on which the future of the system hangs.

    As it stands, I’m fabricating a custom singlespeed road frame this summer, and the intent is to build it as a belt drive.

  • brian says:

    Dream commuter bike: Carbon Road Frame (drop bar) with internally geared belt drivetrain.

    maybe some day…

  • Rob in Seattle says:

    This year’s Co-Motion Americano Rohloff has a Gates belt drive option:

    http://www.co-motion.com/single_bikes/amerohloff.html

    Yum.

    If only it wasn’t $5,300+.

  • Alan Braggins says:

    Surely the most obvious downside isn’t the need for a hub gear, which is easy to find, but the need for a splittable rear triangle or other non-standard frame, because you can’t split the belt the way you can with a chain.

  • Alan says:

    @Alan Braggins

    What you’re saying only holds true for retrofits; it takes little extra effort on the part of manufacturers to build belt compatible bikes.

    Alan

  • Luke Elrath says:

    It is also useful to consider the precise chainline (beltline) that is required for this system. The tolerance is significantly less for a belt drive setup. This comes into play when considering the current precision deliverable from frame builders both in the US and abroad.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    The question that I’ve yet to see definitively answered is what effect a frame break in the rear triangle has on the stiffness, strength, and longevity of a frame, and whether parts geared towards belt drivetrains are of the quality/price ratio as similar chain-drive parts. For example, while there are lots of high-quality traditional cranksets and freewheels available for a chain driven single speed, is the same true of parts in the belt-drive arena.

  • Jay says:

    I don’t care if they use chains or belts – I just wish bikes had COMPLETELY enclosed chain cases. While I’m willing to cuff my pants, I sure wish I didn’t have to. Anything that can be done to make biking more convenient is something I like, and that means not having to wear special clothes, cuff my pants, OR worry about getting chain crud on my as I try to get my bike down or up my apartment stairs.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    Jay: it’s my understanding that belt drives are inherently a lot cleaner than chain drives due to the fact that there no chain lube is required. That being said the only time my bike is ever really clean is right after it’s been thoroughly cleaned. Even in dry weather dust from the road, break dust, etc all lead to a dirty bike. Quick tip: stay cleaner by always walking or carrying your bike from the non-drive side.

  • Alan says:

    @Jay

    Belts solve all of the issues you’re describing. They require no lubrication so they’re totally clean. I rode a Civia Bryant with a belt and no chainguard for a couple of weeks, and even without the guard, no matter how hard I tried I was unable to catch my pants in the belt. Also, full chaincases aren’t all they’re cracked up to be; if you have to remove a rear wheel—-particularly at the roadside—-they can be a real hassle.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Tal

    Gates owns the belt drive market at this point. They manufacture front and rear sprockets that fit existing cranks and hubs. The selection is limited for now, but expanding as we speak. As the market grows, I’d wager we’ll see other players come in.

    As for stiffness, it’s a non-issue. Travel (come apart) and folding frames have been proven stiff and durable for many decades. The requirements for belt drive frames are arguably even less demanding.

    Alan

  • Andrew says:

    I love the idea of belt drives. While people love to talk about the compromises in mechanical efficiency, it’s rare that the average rider maintains their drivetrain enough to achieve the theoretical brilliance of a chain. Belt drives make it a lot easier for everyone to enjoy their bikes without having to think about the details.

    That said, I personally couldn’t get over the difference in mechanical feel going from a derailleur to an IGH, but I’d say I’m probably more of a speed freak than the average bike commuter. I’d still love to try a belt/IGH combo.

  • David F says:

    Personally I think belt drives are great. Clean, quiet, low maintenance. Sure, the belt will get dirty, but it won’t be oily dirty that you can’t ever hope to wash out of your light coloured trousers. My package from Gates arrives Thursday. :-)

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I’d like to try a belt drive out of curiosity, but I have no problem with traditional chains.

  • Jody says:

    I’ve been riding a Trek Soho for 7 months now 4 days a week, and really like the belt drive. This bike also has internal hub brakes, which are a bit squishier, but once you get used to them they don’t seem to slow you down any slower. Its quiet, clean and, knock on wood, reliable. My only disappointment so far is that its a tad heavy, but you can’t have everything…

  • D'Arcy says:

    I’m not that familiar with belt drives but as a winter commuter in Canada, low maintenance is a nice feature. Road salt and grime can wreak havoc with your chain. I’d rather spend my cycling time riding instead of maintaining.

    I ride to work in normal work type wear so I’d still want some kind of chain / belt guard protection. Also, for good low-maintenance, all-weather cycling, don’t forget Biomega bikes with their drive shafts.

  • David says:

    I just replaced my freewheel cassette and cleaned a teaspoon of grit out of my chain, again. What a dirty PITA and with a daily 15 mile commute, my LBS recommends replacing the chain every 6 months. Even if I do it yearly, it’s too often for my taste.

    I’m saving my pennies and next year, it’s belt drive for me.

  • Paul says:

    Since Civia has announced they’re back to the Avid brakes, I’m back on the (Civia Bryant) belt drive band wagon. I haven’t owned an IGH since the 3-speed I had as a kid. Some(one) have claimed that the belt drive a solution in search of a problem and tender IGHs and nickle-plated chains mitigate chain stretch and corrosion, respectively. Can anybody testify to the effecitiveness of such a combination riding 365 days per year through rain, snow, ice, and salt spray?

  • Derek says:

    A belt drive may solve one of my biggest commuting issues. I have a bike that goes from a bike locker at the train station to my office and then back, 3 to 4 times a week. It rarely goes home with me and I have few options to perform maintenance on it other than squirting some lube on the rusting parts once a week or so. The condition of my chain is appalling after suffering through the Chicago winter and I am sure I have only staved off any real mechanical failures by keeping it as simple of a machine as possible (fixed gear bike w/ aluminum frame).

  • AdamM says:

    Belt drives are an ideal solution for commuting bikes being both clean and quiet. In combination with the newer IGHs (and fenders and chain guards) the end result is a low maintenance and reliable bike perfect for daily use.

    The (lack of) ease of changing gear ratios due to limits in available belt lengths and sprockets and the current high cost of these parts should improve with time and a larger market.

    I wonder about the applicability of belt drives to off road use or the sporting end of road cycling where weight matters. But that shouldn’t restrict their application to the majority of cyclists who do not generally use their bike outside of urban environments.

  • Sean says:

    I think that belt drives are pretty cool, for the simple reason that the technology appears to becoming increasingly adopted by the North American bike industry for commuter/utilitarian uses and that this technology is making commuter bikes cool again.

    However, I also think that this technology is a uniquely North American solution to a North American problem. The problem – most NA bike manufacturers have been focused almost exclusively on sport (speed, weight, technology) and not on utility (durability, longevity, ease of use) for the last 25+ years – so, a belt drive on a utilty bike makes so much sense to the predominently techno-geek-bike-guy in NA.

    A simple, cost effective solution is to simply have a full chaincase on a bike. A chaincase keeps you and your clothing clean (ease of use), keeps the chain/hub sealed away from the elements (durability), and makes the bike work efficiently for longer (ease of use) than a standard bike (non-belt drive and non-chaincase). Well designed chaincases are not that big of a deal to work with (changing a flat) once you are familiar with them.

    I know people like to argue that belts last longer than chains but the jury is still out on the cost-benefit on that. Carbon belt/cogs/rings are hugely more expensive than regualr chains/cogs/rings – at least 3x as much. They require a more precise chainline setup, they require a more precise chain tension, and they require their own components to work – no mixing and matching.

    I dont want to come off as a grumpy old skool guy because i am not, i just think that people need to really look at this technology for what it is and try not to drink too much of the “punch” right away.

  • Giffen says:

    I will preemptively note that the statement “a full chaincase makes it hard to repair a flat” is invalid in a comparison to belt drives, simply because belt drives require a breakable rear triangle, and a breakable rear triangle can be used on chain driven bikes to make changing flats possible without touching the drivetrain.

  • Giffen says:

    Also, I don’t really buy the longevity argument. The cost of a new chain ever year ($10) is negligible. If you have a full chaincase, it’s even less.

  • Alan says:

    @Giffen

    While your arguments make logical sense, I can say that I’ve owned bikes with full chaincases, and I’ve had bikes with belt drives on long-term loan, and I’ll take belts over full chaincases every time.

    Curious, have you owned a bike with a belt drive?

    Alan

  • Giffen says:

    I have not, but I would gladly ride a bike equipped with one. I have nothing against belt drives. However, the advantages over chain drives seem small enough that I simply can’t imagine my investment-averse, old-bike-loving self getting one.

  • Alan says:

    @Giffen

    I certainly understand that. I’m not at all advocating for replacing chain drivetrains on old bikes with belt drives, and on those older bikes, chaincases can be quite effective, particularly if used in conjunction with tough, puncture-resistant tires. My point is that going forward, belts are a viable technology that offer advantages for commuters when combined with modern internal gear hubs. They’re not going to be for everyone, but I think the ease of use and performance advantages are great enough that we’ll see more and more people asking for them, and more companies stepping up to meet the demand.

    Alan

  • Giffen says:

    I understand your point too. I’m curious if they will catch one in the long-term. (Decades in the bike world.) :)

  • David says:

    Alan,
    Gates just posted a link to your belt vs. chain survey on their Facebook page and is asking everyone to vote belt. No big deal, I just thought you should know that your unscientific, but interesting, poll just became a tool of the Gates social media marketing machine despite the fact that it was already strongly in favor of the belt.

  • Alan says:

    @David

    Thanks for the heads up. Like you said, it was an unscientific poll, so I think I’ll just let it ride at this point…

    Alan

  • Todd says:

    I have been using my TI Spot Longboard Belt Drive for over a year now. Once you set it up, that is it. Dirt and mud, no problem. I did run into issues with the rear slider drop out slipping forward but that was because of ti bolts, easy fix. I would say that for a single speed, nothing better. I like that others are joining in, such as Phil Wood, to make other belt drive parts. I have some on order, can’t wait to try them out.

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