Living with a Belt Drive: Two Months Out

Alfine-Gates

My Civia Bryant is the 6th belt drive bike I’ve ridden. The others were a Norco Ceres, Dahon Mu XL Sport, Raleigh Alley Way, Trek Soho (test ride only), and a prototype Bryant back in 2009. I rode some of these other bikes for a month or two, but this new bike is the first belt drive model I’ve personally owned and ridden everyday as my primary commuter. It’s been a fun and interesting two months.

By now, the benefits of belt drives are pretty obvious:

  • Silent
  • Clean
  • Maintenance-free
  • Durable (double the life of a typical chain)

And, the limitations are fairly well-known as well:

  • Require a dedicated split-frame
  • Only compatible with fixed gear, single speed, and internal gear hub drivetrains
  • Sensitive to drivetrain alignment and rear triangle stiffness
  • Can make it more difficult to remove the rear wheel (depends upon the bike)

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m a convert to belts, at least on commuter bikes. Besides the obvious advantages listed above, the near silent, direct, and buttery smooth feel of a belt can become quite addictive. In just a couple of months, this has become my new normal and now chain drives feel coarse—and dare I say—even a bit crude by comparison (I’ll catch flak for that).

That said, belt drives are not without their challenges. Set-up is fairly critical and support at the local level can be spotty. It behooves the home mechanic to gain an understanding of how belt drives work and what steps are required to set them up properly. Fortunately, Gates provides excellent support both on their website and via email. For those who don’t do their own maintenance, I’d make sure your local mechanic is well-versed in belt set-up prior to purchasing a belt drive bike.

On my particular bike, I had an issue with the rear pulley (cogs and chainrings on belt drives are called “pulleys”). Mine is a 2010 model, and apparently, there were issues with a small number of alloy pulleys from that time period. As I mentioned, I’d ridden a number of belt bikes, so I knew what to expect, and the drivetrain on my bike was noisier and not as smooth as it should have been. Gates was great and sent out a replacement pulley at no charge, which solved the issue. The silver lining is that troubleshooting the problem taught me a bunch about how to set-up belt drives.

Setting up a belt drive is not all that difficult, but the methods are different than those that are required for a chain drive, so it’ll feel foreign at first. Chains are forgiving in that they flex a fair amount laterally, plus they run on a toothed sprocket, so alignment is not that critical and slippage is not an issue. Belts require relatively precise alignment between the crank and rear hub to keep them running on center, and belt tension needs to be within a specific range to prevent slippage. Belt drives on bikes are no different than automotive belts in this regard.

New belt bikes come from the factory with the front and rear pulleys aligned, so that’s not a concern for the home mechanic. What is important to understand is rear wheel alignment and belt tension.

Belt tension is set by either moving the rear axle, or by moving the bottom bracket via an eccentric. How this is done varies from one bike to another. Belt tension is best checked by using a Gates “KRIKIT” tension meter, a simple operation that literally takes only a second. Gates and the bike manufacturers provide tension specifications for individual bikes, but in general, belts are run at somewhere between 40-60 lbs. Once belt tension is set, it will not need to be adjusted again for quite some time since carbon belts have zero stretch. If a belt does loosen up, it’s because of wear in the other drivetrain parts, not stretch in the belt.

Regardless of whether belt tension is adjusted at the rear axle or at the bottom bracket, rear wheel alignment determines where on the rear pulley the belt rides. What you’re shooting for is as close to the inside flange as possible without actually rubbing on the flange. This provides the most slip-resistant belt line and silent running. Moving the non-drive-side axle forward causes the belt to run closer to the inside flange of the rear pulley, and vice versa. What I do is move the non-drive-side axle rearward until the belt clearly starts moving away from the flange, then creep it slightly forward until the belt almost, but doesn’t quite touch the flange. The final adjustment point may or may not result in the wheel being perfectly aligned within the chainstays.

All of this probably sounds a little complicated and involved, but the reality is that it’s no more difficult than setting up indexing on a chain drivetrain (for example). I’m convinced it’s simply unfamiliarity with the process that makes it seem difficult to those who haven’t done it. At this point, having gone through the steps a few times, I feel as confident working on a belt drive as I do working on a chain drive.

After the initial challenge of troubleshooting my noisy belt, followed by identifying the issue and replacing the offending part, I’ve yet to touch the drive. It’s been absolutely silent and smooth. The best thing is that it requires zero maintenance and I shouldn’t have to do anything more than give it a squirt with the hose for the next few years.

Disclosure: Gates is a sponsor of this website.

44 Responses to “Living with a Belt Drive: Two Months Out”

  • sygyzy says:

    Thanks for posting this. I am (hopefully) picking up my Civia bike tonight with a IGH. My fear is I am naive about belt drives and IGH so I wouldn’t know if something was wrong unless it was blatant. For example. I noticed a hesitation in shifting between two specific gears when i was on the test ride. I’ve read this happens on occasion, heck it happens with derailleur setups fairly often. I would just chalk it up to “oh that’s a fluke,” whereas you might say “looks like a pulley needs adjustment.” I hope to get to that point, with your help.

  • Alan says:

    Hey, ask a question here or drop me a note via the contact button at the top of the page anytime.

    Regarding the hesitation between gears, that’s normal for a new Shimano IGH. It’ll loosen up over time and shift smoother, plus you’ll naturally adapt and learn how much pedal pressure is required to make a smooth shift.

    Alan

    PS – Congrats on your new bike!

  • Aloha Kid says:

    …here’s a belt drive comfort bike from GT :
    http://www.gtbicycles.com/bikes/urban/comfort/2011-windstream-black

  • msrw says:

    I have a couple of bikes with Rohloff hubs and Gates belt drives, and it’s interesting that Rohloff has somewhat different specs for the rear pulley. On Rohloff hubs it’s steel, whereas I think Gates pulleys that come on Shimano IGH’s are aluminum. Rohloff also specifies something they call a “snubber pulley” (or something like that) which rides a couple of mm outside of the lower edge of the belt below the rear pully, and prevents belt slippage.

    At least for Rohloff-specific rear wheel mounting, I find it maybe even a bit easier to remove the rear wheel than it would be on a derailleur-equipped bike.

    I could not agree more that belt drives are addictive. The quietness, responsiveness, total lack of maintenance, durability etc. are really ideal for commuter bikes, utility bikes….well, for any bike that isn’t just for performance riding on the road.

    Another detail that may or may not be specific to the Rohloff hub with a belt, is that there isn’t the “riding through mud” sense of drag that one tends to feel with IGH’s. The drive train drag doesn’t appear to be any different than it is on my derailleur equipped racing bikes.

  • Alan says:

    @msrw

    Thanks for the Rohloff-specific information.

    Regarding the pulley material, I’m pretty sure Gates is now speccing steel pulleys on Shimano hubs. The replacement they sent me is steel…

    Thanks,
    Alan

  • Matt Baron says:

    Hi Alan,

    Do you have any information on how belt drives perform vs chains in snow or rain? I’m curious about this technology but it would need to perform in four new england seasons.

    Matt

  • Doug says:

    I have ridden my Trek Soho for just over a year now. I figure I rode it about 100 days in the last year independent of weather in Montana. Hot summer sun, hail storms, rain, -10F and 6 inches of snow, and of course everything in between. My commute is about 15 miles round trip and covers about 4 miles of dirt roads as well as pavement. I have not needed to do ANY maintenance! That defines a commuter bike, IMHO.

    I have to agree that I love the belt drive IGH combination. After having ridden one I can’t see buying a new bike without one. I think anyone who would give you flak for the “crude” comment is someone who has not yet ridden this elegant setup. Chains are noisy, greasy, maintenance hogs and generally rougher feeling than the belt. The lack of the freewheel “click” when coasting with an IGH is a nice addition as well.

    And I agree that the primary drawback is not the belt, but with the IGH and the internal drum brakes my rear wheel is something I hope to never need to work on roadside!

  • michael says:

    I know that it’s not going to happen, but I would love to see someone design a “breakable” belt to enable retrofitting any bike (I know I can’t afford a new frame, or the costs to have my frame converted to a split frame). But who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll invest in a new frame when I have the means (I ride mostly single-speed and would love to try a belt drive – clean and quiet are my ideal).

  • Alan says:

    @michael

    I’m a little hesitant to recommend any type of belt drive retrofit. I know people have done it with success, but the rear triangle has to be stiff enough to accommodate the belt. The problem is that If the chainstays flex too much, there can be belt slippage. It’s kind of an expensive gamble…

  • Alan says:

    @Matt

    Belt drives are awesome in wet weather. I’ve found they’re even quieter and smoother when wet. And, of course, they don’t rust! I can’t speak to snowy conditions, but I’ve read conflicting reports. A few comments up in this thread, Doug reports no issues in freezing temps and snow, while I’ve had other people complain of snow and ice clogging the rear pulley. I’m sure it just depends upon the specific conditions.

    Gates’ new CenterTrack drivetrain is just coming to market. It provides better debris shedding, and I’ve heard it’s less sensitive to alignment issues. I hope to have one to test out later this summer.

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/09/15/gates-centertrack/

    Alan

  • Aloha Kid says:

    list of belt drive bicycles :
    http://beltbik.es/

  • Aloha Kid says:

    Carbon Drive Compatible Frame Builders :
    http://carbondrivesystems.com/FrameBuilders.pdf

  • Doug Robertson says:

    I can back-up every thing you’ve said Alan. I’m just getting to know my new belt drive bike with a Nexus 8-speed IGH. I’ve used some of the same words to describe it. Buttery smooth, ultra quiet, and responsive. Since mine is a retrofitted Surly, I’ve had the opportunity to compare the belt drive to a chain drive on the same bike with the same IGH hub. The belt is so much nicer for commuting. Also there is a noticeable difference in the responsiveness of the belt compared to the chain.

  • Garth says:

    Thanks for the links, Aloha Kid. The list of bikes is great – so many more choices out there already than I realized!

    Garth-

  • michael says:

    @Alan

    I think I’ll keep with my conventional rides for now – definitely going to keep my eye on the market over the next few years (and my better half would probably be less pleased than I if another bike made its way into our small living space)

  • todd says:

    My internally geared, chain-driven bike has been ridden and parked outside year-round in rainy Portland, almost every day, for nearly 4 years. I have never oiled or cleaned the chain. It still has factory grease on it. This is because it has a 19th-century technology called a FULL CHAINCASE.

    Unlike a belt drive, it poses no hazard to any kind of clothing or children’s fingers. It does not require ultra-stiff (=either very short or very heavy) chainstays, nor a hatch. I have even changed the rear cog a couple times, cheap, removing a link without needing a whole new shebang. Like a belt, it’s silent, smooth, clean and durable. Unlike a belt, it’s cheap and easily replaced anywhere.

    Can somebody enlighten me what positive qualities belts offer that fully encased chains don’t, especially for a utility bike? Besides carbon, which is what bikes crave? What about a carbon fiber chaincase, then?

  • Paul says:

    I’ve been trying to convert a Kona A full suspension mtb to belt-drive for a while.
    I’ve had a variety of problem which I’m slowly rectifying.
    The belt was slipping and ratcheting, so I used a rohloff-specific snubber to hold it in place. But it bent! So I’ve made a new dropout with the snubber mount integrated into it. The belt still tries to ride up the pulley, but now has no-where to go (once I’d replaced the original roller with a proper bearing)
    I now have problems with the belt slipping due to frame-flex, presumably due to the suspension pivots, when under full load. So I’m about to make a new pair of dropouts and convert the hub to 12mm bolt-thru to hopefully stiffen it up. Interesting point about moving the non-drive-side forward Alan, i might try that next.

    When it works, its a silent thing of beauty :-) Belt-drive is the way forward.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ir_bandito/5505132039/in/set-72157625096276410

    Incidentally, I also own chain-driven Alfine-8 and Rohloff hubs. Both would be great with a belt-drive. I am very curious as to why Rohloff are so specific about using the snubber, so far Gates have not been able to provide me with an answer. I have a theory that Rohloff bearings need lower belt tension, but this can cause ratcheting. Ratcheting can cause huge peak torques asd the teeth slip and re-engage, which can be a problem to Rohloffs (which is why a minimum primary drive ratio is specified). So using the snubber allows lower tension AND prevents peak torques.

  • Dean says:

    Further to the question about beltdrives in winter conditions. I was about to go belt drive for a new all season commuter but then heard stories about problems with snow and ice at certain times causing the belt to come off the pully. So I chnaged my plan to IGH with chain drive. Now reading all these positive comments perhaps I will hold off, the new centertrack design may sove the problem.

    Dean

  • Mel Hughes says:

    Do any of you ride in very hilly areas? I would like to hear any commnents on climbing with just the single front ring. The one thing I love about my chain drive is the gearing for climbing.

    Otherwise, this discussion is certainly illuminating! It certainly piques my interest in new developements with older ideas – belt drives with internal hubs… I do love to fiddle with my bikes, so this may be the wrong direction for me ;^)

  • Micheal Blue says:

    Alan, thanks for the report. It would help to also have a mileage report with it to put it into perspective. I wish the belt drive would be cheaper. For parts that surely cost only few bucks to manufacture to pay such a high premium is nuts. Lower prices would enable more people to buy such bikes, thus still bringing lots of money to the company.

  • Rich says:

    Great list of framebuilders. I would add to the list Royal H in Somerville, Mass.. I saw on their site that they just did a belt driven IGH bike, I think with drop bars. Looking forward to talking to the builder about it tomorrow at the Bike Expo at the Somerville Armory.

    I’ve test-ridden both the Bryant and the Kingfield with belts, and was extremely impressed. I’m holding out for CenterTrack and (possibly) a Nuvinci hub rather than a geared IGH. Then again, the tech is so new i”m sure we’re going to see advances year after year. Such is the curse of relatively early adopters.

  • Christopher Cove says:

    Alan- Thanks for the great site and great article. I am awaiting my Norco Ceres form Joe’s Bike and have a couple of questions. Since your present bike was initially set-up have you had any problems with belt slippage? Also do you notice any problems pushing hard up hills and belt tension/slippage?

  • Doug says:

    @Dean – My winter riding conditions were usually on well packed snow (ie, ice) and light powder. We don’t get a lot of slushy conditions here, so I can’t say about that. However, I had no problems at all throughout the winter. I often found it better riding because the dirt road, when icy, was as good of a surface to my studded tires as the pavement!

    @Mel Hughes – I suppose it depends on what you mean by hilly. I had the same concern. My 8 speed Shimano IGH works for my riding–I could not really use higher or lower gearing, but I do use the full range. I live about 600′ higher than where I work, and that elevation change is largely constant over the 6-7 miles. Riding to work is pretty fast and usually in 7th or 8th gear depending on wind. Riding home is slower and usually in 3rd or 4th, but down to 2nd in strong wind or 1st in deep snow. I have a small down-up hill set each way to cross a creek which would be probably about 4%-5% grade for a short distance (~100 yards each side of the creek), but only occasionally do I need to go to 1st gear for that. So, this IGH is probably not enough for mountain passes or San Francisco, but I was surprised by the range of the 8 speeds.

  • Alan says:

    @Paul

    Very interesting! I think that’s the first rear suspension bike I’ve seen adapted to a belt. I’m assuming the swingarm pivots at the bottom bracket, otherwise the belt tension would change as the rear axle moves.

    Have you been in contact with anyone at Gates about the conversion?

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Christopher

    “Since your present bike was initially set-up have you had any problems with belt slippage? Also do you notice any problems pushing hard up hills and belt tension/slippage?”

    Hi Christopher,

    I’ve never had a belt slip on any bike I’ve ridden. Mostly where I’ve read about belt slippage is on the mountain bike forums. This makes sense considering the higher forces encountered while riding off road. That said, there are some top SS Cross riders using belt drives successfully.

    My take is that belt slippage is highly unlikely to be an issue on belt-specific commuter bikes that are set-up properly.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Blutarsky says:

    I was wondering why someone doesn’t try an Elevated Chainstay design for a belt drive bike?

    It would eleminate many problems. Might not be stiff enough?

  • Mark A says:

    @Alan

    With the “offending part”, how does the problem manifest itself? You mention noise, but is this creaking or something else?

    I’ve had some problems with creaking on my Bryant, but when I’d previously heard about problems with the rear pulleys it had been that some people had broken them, not that they had noise issues.

    Regarding your alignment procedure – doesn’t this mean you also have to re-align your rear brake caliper afterwards?

  • Alan says:

    @Mark A

    Hi Mark,

    The belt was making a low ratcheting/rumbling sound, not unlike a dry chain, but lower pitched.

    Yes, the caliper should be loosened to align the belt, then re-aligned.

    Now that the belt issues are resolved, the only reason I’ll need to remove the rear wheel is for a flat or to service the hub. Because I run puncture resistant tires, I’ve been averaging about one flat per year, so that’s not really an issue. Shimano is recommending Alfine hubs be serviced once every couple of years (or 5,000 miles), so that’s not an issue either. Considering how infrequently I’ll need to remove the rear wheel, I’m not concerned about occasionally needing to align the caliper.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • msrw says:

    If I may, responses to a few comments…..

    Why a belt drive has advantages over a full chain case:
    I have had two bikes with full chain cases, and two bikes with belt drives. The belt drive is a much less complicated, higher-quality solution. Less rattling; fewer parts to break. I found the chain cases somewhat fussy. If the chain wasn’t adjusted to just the right level of tension, chain on case rattling was extreme. The belt seems to eliminate all sorts of complexities and works better.

    Rationale for snubber pulley on Rohloff:
    Gates doesn’t indicate ANY difference in belt tension for Rohloff hubs over other IGH’s. Neither does Rohloff as far as I’m aware. The snubber pulley would, however, allow belt tension to be a bit lower, since there’s a means to prevent tension related belt skipping.

    Use of belt drive in hilly areas:
    I live in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The belt drive works perfectly under the extreme loads of climbing, say, a 12 degree slope. Rohloffs have the gear range of a 27 speed mountain bike derailleur triple drive train. The gear range of 7 and 8 speed IGHs is somewhat less.

    Rear pulleys in steel:
    Alan, I’m glad to hear that Gates has made this change. I had heard that the failure rate of the aluminum rear pulley was unreasonably high.

  • joe says:

    I’ve had my Raleigh Alley Way since early March. Outside of it’s massive weight (40+ lb) I’m loving it. The 1 downside to the “silent” belt drive is I’m now obsessed with the minor creaks and rattles I never heard on my chain drive bikes. I’ve only had 1 belt tension issue so far, when the eccentric bb on the bike loosened. Adjusting the Raleigh bb is kind of a pain. It doesn’t seem to be compatible with any standard pin tools.

  • Alan says:

    @joe

    “The 1 downside to the “silent” belt drive is I’m now obsessed with the minor creaks and rattles I never heard on my chain drive bikes.”

    I noticed the same thing. Aw, the curse of being obsessive… :-)

  • Doug says:

    @alan, @joe

    “The 1 downside to the “silent” belt drive is I’m now obsessed with the minor creaks and rattles I never heard on my chain drive bikes.”

    I have had to tighten my front brake cable so the quick-disconnect for my hub brake does not rattle on the dirt road portion of my ride. I never would have heard that minor rattle with the chain slap that would have been happening on the same road!

  • Alan says:

    @msrw

    “I found the chain cases somewhat fussy.”

    I thought I was the only one. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only had plastic chaincases, but they’ve all rattled, came loose, etc. I’ll have to try a proper metal chaincase on a heavy duty Dutch bike someday.

    Alan

  • todd says:

    The plastic chaincases can be noisy if the chain is loose, yes. Mine is vinyl stretched taut over a light metal frame. No noise, light.

  • Alan says:

    @Blutarsky

    “I was wondering why someone doesn’t try an Elevated Chainstay design for a belt drive bike It would eleminate many problems. Might not be stiff enough?”

    That would be my guess…

  • Matthew says:

    Hey Alan,
    Thanks for this useful post.
    A question from an equally obsessive person.
    I’ve noticed some noises in my Civia Bryant Alfine. One is rattling from the tension adjustment knob on the Versa shifter. A second more troubling noise has been a persistent clicking each time I crank while climbing.
    I have been weary to adjust anything because it has been running so well otherwise. Upon initial set-up my LBS had some trouble trying to keep the belt aligned on the front cog. It seemed to want to walk off about 3/16″ or so toward the seat tube. Since then, alignment has been good which makes me hesitant to touch the rear wheel.
    Any suggestions on how to quiet these noises mentioned in the oh so quiet world of the belt drive train? Should I be concerned about the clicking? Is it a EBB problem?

  • joe says:

    Matthew, there are a number of causes for clicking when placing load on the pedals. Most have nothing to do with belt drive and also occur on chain drive bikes. I order of ease of checking/fixing:

    1 – Make sure the front cog bolts are tight (chainring on conventional drive bikes).

    2 – Make sure pedals are tight on crank arms. Sometimes applying plumbers teflon tape to the threads can help.

    3 – The bottom bracket cups may need tightening, teflon tape can help here also.

  • Nicholas says:

    About the rear triangle flex issue. There was a post on the twentynineinces blog, where the author had retrofitted a flexy frame with a belt drive and ran a cheap internally geared hub, to see if they could make the belt drive slip or fail. It worked fine, without slipping for him, so I’d be willing to bet that the system is a little more tolerant than it’s often made out to be. I think that as the technology matures and Gates makes more improvements like center track, the system will be even less fussy. That said, I would still be hesitant to retrofit a flexy frame, just because it’s still a gamble.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Matthew,

    I agree with Joe; your click is most likely coming from the front pulley bolts, the pedals, or the bottom bracket. I’d troubleshoot those areas first before doing anything with your rear wheel. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s one of your pedals. Keep in mind that it can be pretty difficult to track down clicks like that.

    Best of luck!
    Alan

  • Matthew says:

    Thanks guys for your tips. This is my first new bike since I was a kid (7?). Prior to this, my bikes were all commuter beaters that I maintained to a decent level. The learning curve for me is huge with the disk brakes and obviously the belt drive. Thanks for being an advocate! Keep your observations coming, they’re greatly appreciated. Will try your business card trick with the disk brakes soon once I muster up the courage. : )

  • Mark says:

    I thought it was about time I stopped winging the whole belt tension thing and set out to buy the appropriate belt tension tester – the Gates Krikit TL7901 (this is the part number Civia mention on their site) but it appears that while this part is listed on lots of sites, all of them also say “not currently available”.

    Does anyone here have the skinny on how you actually acquire one of these things?

  • Alan says:

    @Mark

    It looks as if Universal has them in stock:

    http://www.universalcycles.com/shopping/product_details.php?id=33831

    or you can probably get one directly from Gates:

    Gates Carbon Drive – Colorado
    801 Brickyard Circle
    Golden CO 80403
    303-278-3955
    carbondrive@gates.com

  • Paul says:

    Alan, yes, its a Kona A. the suspension linkage means I can split the frame to get th ebelt in, and the pivot is concentric about the BB. It also has sliding dropouts as its designed for sisngle-speed use.
    Kona have converted a Cowan DS (similar, but more “harcore” frame) that was seen at Sea Otter last year i think, Spot have also made one and Orange made a prototype full-sus belt bike a few years ago that is now owned by the guy who runs my local bike shop in Hexham.

    Yes, I’ve been in touch with Gates a lot. they’ve been really good at helping me out, suggesting ideas to overcome the alignment problems I’ve been suffering.

    My long term plan is if i can make it work on a mountain bike that’ll get ridden through a Northumberland winter, I know it’ll work on the hybrid/utility bikes I’m designing.

    @Blutarsky, the problem with an E-stay bike is the tension in the belt would put huge beending stresses in the stay. It COULD work, but i guess its easier to split a conventional frame.

  • Gorby says:

    Hi @Joe,

    Trying to decide between a Raleigh Alley Way and a Norco Ceres…what were your considerations in choosing the Alley Way.

    Cheers
    Gorby

 
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