The Un-Belt Drive…

10 05 2011

Hebie Chainglider...

The belt drive is the bicycle industry’s latest darling. I can’t blame anyone for that. They look slick and they are so high tech it catches everyone’s attention. The cycling press needs fuel and anything new that can be sold is fodder for that appetite. I haven’t seen a belt drive on a bike yet in the wild. I think they’ll eventually reach the same people that will spend $1.5K on a Rohloff – which is to say a few folks, but not that many. The hold up in my opinion will be the cost and the specialized frame that’s required. Unless you sell a ton of a particular component the cost can’t be reduced beyond a certain point. This is why you can get a car tire for less than the cost of a decent bike tire. It’s why a mid-grade derailleur drivetrain will always cost so little compared to any IGH setup. And it’s why a belt drive will always command a premium over a chain drive – all other things being equal.

The main advantages advanced for the belt drive are:

  • clean
  • low maintenance
  • silent
The main disadvantages most people agree on are:
  • high cost
  • requires special frame
  • requires precise chainline alignment
  • requires precise tension and fairly high tension
There have been some folks who had problems with their belt drives in snowy winter conditions like Doug from MN who went back to his chain drive setup for the winter. I’m not clear on what the service life of a belt and the associated cogs are yet, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if there are some issues initially the belt manufacturers will do their best to resolve them over the next few generations of products.

SRAM 8spd chain on my Pugsley...

My Pugsley sees the worst riding conditions of any of my bikes:

  • beach sand
  • salt water
  • corrosive playa dust at burning man
  • road salt & sand in Canadian winter
  • slush
  • desert sand/dust
So far my $16 SRAM 8spd chain has held up for years with no maintenance beyond 3 or 4 lubrications and adjusting the tension 2 or 3 times. It’s silent in operation. It doesn’t requires any expensive modifications to the frame. When I do need to replace the chain it will cost another $16 and last a bunch more years. The only real downside is the chain isn’t clean to the touch. However, neither is the bike [most of the time] I get around this problem by simply not touching the chain. Like most cyclists I find that  it’s not very hard to keep one’s clothes clean while riding with minimal effort. The other thing to think about is the belt and front cog will be exposed to all the crap your wheels and tires will be exposed to. So in many areas that means they’ll get dirty even if it’s not from chain lube and you won’t want to wear light coloured pants with an unprotected belt.

Norco Corsa ST...

Now you might ask “….wouldn’t it be great if they made something that would let you run a low cost easy to work with chain, but kept your clothes clean?…” Happily they do. In the photo at the top of this post you see a Hebie Chainglider which seals your chain away from dirt and your clothes. A fully enclosed chain is essentially maintenance free – just ride the bike. If you wanted the clean clothes part without sealing off your chain completely you can get a partial chain guard like you see in the photo above. This doesn’t keep the chain perfectly clean, but it does keep you clean and frankly a chain on an IGH will keep turning around for a very very long time before it needs any attention. The nice thing with a partial chain guard is it can be used with a rear derailleur for a very low cost drivetrain.

Chain guard and derailleur...

So is there a slam dunk reason to buy a belt drive bike? For most people I would say no. If you want low maintenance just get an IGH and you are good. If you want to stay clean add a chaincase or chain guard to your ride. A couple applications where I can see the benefit of a belt drive over a chain would be for folks that travel with their bikes that pack/unpack their rides frequently and folding bikes that don’t put the chain on the inside of the fold.

Ultimately I think the lack of market penetration from belt drives won’t be because they aren’t great. It will be because chains just work so well for the cost that they are nearly impossible to displace.


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12 responses

10 05 2011
Sean

Ah yes, the belt drive debate. We’ve had a large handful of customers asking (and one purchase so far) about the technology and much discussion about the merits and drawbacks of belt drives.

I am not yet 100% sold though do see why some customers may want it.

My view is that belt drive is a “north american solution to a north american problem”. The problem? A continued focus on technology and gimmicks. The solution? More technology! Hardly a solution IMO.

The Hebie Chainglider is a cool take on the traditional chaincase can be disassembled without tools to access the chain. Add in a KMC rustbuster chain and you have a driveline that will last at least as long as a belt, perhaps even longer, for less money overall, and is easily serviced with normal tools found all over the planet.

I cannot speak to the merits of belt drive for mountainbiking as that is not my expertise but can for daily use – it works and it delivers what it promises (as far as I can tell). I do not think it will become anything more than it already is – funky new tech for the bike geeks who like shiny things.

Last question – do women want belt drive bikes? Do they care? Do regular bike riders (as apposed to bike geeks like us) care? Methinks not.

10 05 2011
Champs

TLDR: you can’t win.

At the price, I can’t really be sold on any advantages, but some people like the experiment.

It makes sense, but remains unfortunate, that you can only work with fixed belt lengths. Tinkering with your gears is prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re singlespeed. Of course, the chaincase can be rather limiting, too. These aren’t mass-consumer options, but most people (seriously) considering belt aren’t mass consumers, either.

As for cheap solutions, everybody loses at least one trouser band over the course of a year… rarely at a good time.

10 05 2011
Vik

@Sean – part of the problem and the main reason I posted this info is that a lot of NA cyclists have never seen/used a good chain case and most have not used a chain on an IGH.

So when someone tells you what a belt will do for you it sounds great and you don’t realize you can get the same benefits without the cost and a highly specialized frame.

To answer your last question – most folks want a low cost low hassle bike they don’t have to think about. Unfortunately only a single speed offers that combination of benefits at the moment and in a lot of places people need gears.

10 05 2011
Vik

“As for cheap solutions, everybody loses at least one trouser band over the course of a year… rarely at a good time.”

I ride in capris a lot. If I’m in full pants I can either roll up the right leg a bit or tuck it into my sock on that side.

BTW – I don’t lose mine my GF steals them!….=-)~

10 05 2011
Anthony

I think — in theory — the belt is a great idea for entry-level commuters and city bikes, especially that are likely to be sold to first-time (or first-time since they were a kid) riders.

My experience when I worked at a shop is that a lot of these first-time riders take a bike home and just ride it. They are often coming from the paradigm of a car where you don’t do anything to it outside of service once or twice a year.

These are bikes that may be stored on the back of the RV all summer or maybe outside in the garden shed.

Maybe they put air in the tires, but even that isn’t a guarantee. (Often they ride until they end up pinch-flatting then come in wondering what happened.) But they certainly don’t clean or maintain the drivetrain.

If the belt was zero-maintenance it would be a great idea. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard they are finicky so they don’t meet this need yet. BUT, I think the mass demand could be there if they can meet that potential.

10 05 2011
thelazyrando

@Anthony – there is no difference between a chain drive and belt drive in the scenario you describe other than cost. A belt needs a IGH to be practical in terms of gearing. You can ride a rusty chain on an IGH for a long time. I think the belt will need an expert mechanic at a bike shop to check/adjust it while anyone at home can squirt oil on a chain. Ultimately in the application you talk about would that kind of cyclist ever spend an extra $100-$300 on the same bike to get a belt drive? If not you’ll never get any demand and the price won’t come down.

I think we could also replace belt drive in your example with IGH. IGHs have been around a long long time and would have the same benefits for the riders you talk about, but they’ll never caught on because they are more expensive than a derailleur and despite their benefits that’s enough of a deterrent to keep most people from using them.

10 05 2011
louis

FWIW, I see belt drives every day here in Silicon Valley (yes.. gadget central) on the multi-modal bike/train commute. None are aftermarket setups, they’re mostly on some of the stylish Trek commuter models that are in the shops now (Soho?). Belt drive might just be a fashion/gadget-fetish thing at this point, but I can’t be too judgmental towards people who are choosing to ditch their cars in favor of bikes and trains.

One place belt drives genuinely interest me is on folding bikes. The no-grease option there could be valuable on my commute.

10 05 2011
thelazyrando

Louis – I wouldn’t make fun of anyone who bought a belt drive bike. I like new gadgets as much as the next guy.

10 05 2011
Doug@MnBicycleCommuter

I’m not a big risk taker or a shiny new gadget kind of guy. Normally, I’m a late adopter, or non-adopter of new technology. But I have a belt drive bike. I use it for commuting with a 8-sp IGH. It runs buttery-smooth and ultra-quiet. Like nothing I’ve ever owned. You have to ride one to believe it.

10 05 2011
Anthony

Hey Vik,

Agreed that current belts are fussy and definitely not zero maintenance. No question.

But, I think the possibility that the system *could* be maintenance-free is what makes it interesting. An internal hub with a belt drive that worked well (ie. never needed to be lubricated, cleaned, adjusted) would be a great commuter/entry-level setup, especially if costs came down as belts became more commonplace.

If you had a bike that basically had to come into the shop once a year (or two years) for IGH overhaul and belt inspection/replacement I think you’d have something that would be good for people. Single ring up front, as long as you keep air in the tires you’re probably good.

I’ve seen derailleur bikes come in because it of drivetrain skipping, and it often turns out the person was riding in one or a few gears the whole time, only in the back and never shifting front rings. Either ignoring the chain or possibly lubing a dirty one.

In one case a bike a few months old needed a new chain and cassette, although he was lucky that it was his 11T he had been using constantly and we were able to scrounge a replacement one off the bench.

I can see where this would really help people. That’s why I don’t agree that it’s just expensive tech or a gimmick, I think there is a long-term mass-market appeal if they get it right.

Regards,
Anthony

11 05 2011
thelazyrando

@Doug – could you give us some comparison between your chain drive IGH bike and your belt drive IGH bike? What are the practical differences?

11 05 2011
thelazyrando

@Anhtony – at the present if you equipped a chain drive bike with an IGH and full chaincase it wouldn’t even need annual maintenance for a typical commuter and only annual maintenance for a higher mileage rider.

The lube doesn’t get contaminated so it stays clean and stays in place making chain wear very minimal.

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