Belt Drives

Boy, do I ever hate driving in traffic.

I didn't ride today because I'll be bouldering after work, and until I can figure out a safe way to get to the bouldering gym by bike, I'm resorting to my car on days when I decide to give my upper body a chance at exercise.  That said, traffic sucks.  I'm quite glad I don't have to deal with that everyday.

I've been doing a lot of research on belt drives lately, and it seems like a lot of bikes have adopted the belt, especially in cyclocross and urban commuting.  While a belt still lacks the traditional derailleur system, there are some internally geared hubs that are gaining notoriety.  The Shimano Alfine regularly gets praised amongst the geared belt-driven bike community, and an 11 speed version is now available.  Belts are becoming more commonplace on single speed commuters, and are also slowly starting to enter the fixed gear market as well.  Check out Base Urban's belt driven fixed beauties.  

As far as components go, Gates Carbon Belt Drives are the original purveyors of belt drives for bicycles, but Phil Wood is starting to produce a line of products compatible with the gates carbon drive as well.   The Trek Soho and Trek District have been around with belts for the past few years, and seem to be doing well.  Anyone following EcoVelo (or followed, sadly) knows about the Civia Bryant, and how reliable it is as one of the available geared belt driven bikes out there.

Belts will never replace chains, but belts certainly have a practical application as an option for commuters and city bikes.  And actually, what I'm wondering is why belts aren't on beach cruisers, of all things, quite yet - they'd be the perfect candidate.

Chain Pros
  • Tried and true system
  • Can be replaced without needing to break the frame
  • Easily repaired and replaced
  • Adjustable Length
  • Lots of gear ratios available
  • Compatible with a front derailleur
Chain Cons
  • Requires regular cleaning and maintenance
  • Grease gets everywhere (clothes, hands, small animals...)
  • Stretches over time, which can damage components
  • Can snap while riding 
  • Noisy, squeaky, and rusty if not well maintained
Belt Pros
  • Quiet
  • Easy to clean 
  • Requires no grease
  • Doesn't stretch
  • Supposedly lasts twice as long as a standard chain 
  • Provides the same power as a chain
Belt Con
  • Requires a special frame and components
  • Cannot achieve the same gear ratios as a chain
  • Incompatible with a front derailleur
  • Must be tensioned properly, making rear wheel removal difficult
  • Incorrectly aligned belt can slip
  • Newer system that might have unforseen problems (though they've worked long enough in cars and motorcycles, right?)
  • Still a bit more expensive than a chain system
I see belts as being a great option for those with slightly less bike maintenance knowledge, or people who are just looking for a fun ride without wanting to worry about getting the "cyclist's tattoo."  Belts would be a great idea for kids' bikes, as you're less likely to get an injured finger, and also for recreational bikesSpecifically, I'm thinking of my dad, who enjoys riding, likes having the option of gears, but dislikes getting covered in chain grease and doesn't necessarily clean and maintain his bike as often as his crazy daughter does.  An internally geared belt drive would give him the freedom to ride without needing to worry about a lot of these things.

I guess the biggest problem here is price.  The people that I feel would benefit the most from a belt driven bicycle are the people that generally don't want to spend too much money on a bike that will be ridden occasionally.  City commuters are a different group, but even still, something like a Trek District is still a bit high compared to what options are available on bikes with chains.  There's potential here, but it has a few years to go.  Belts may still be a bit of a novelty, but the success of the District and the increasing usage of belts in cyclocross looks promising. 

It really depends on what you want.  I'm a traditionalist - all of my bikes are double butted cromo, and it took me a while to switch over to indexed shifting.  That said though, I'm in love with the idea of a fixed gear belt driven bikeLiving by the ocean is wreaking some serious havoc on my drivetrain, and I find myself drooling over the Trek District more and more these days...

We'll see what happens with that.

2012 Distance Count: 126 Miles | 202.7 Kilometers

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