If you are fed up with getting oil on your trousers when commuting to work, then a belt drive bike is for you. Belt drives do not use chains, but a ‘belt’ made from synthetic materials and a dedicated sprocket.
The History of belt drive bikes
Mechanical Belt drives were used as pully systems as far back as 15 BC and started being used in heavy machinery in the 19th century. They were used on bikes at the turn of the century, but the first commercial bicycle with a drive belt was the infamous Bridgestone Picina in 1980. The Bridgestone Picina was a folding bike popular in Japan, but never really sold in the West. Now folding bikes are a huge niche.
In 1984, designer Marks Sanders teamed up with the Gate Corporation to develop a belt drive for bikes in the USA. After moving to different manufacturers, the final product was called ‘STRidA’.
The big breakthrough came in 2007 when Gate Corporation developed their carbon drive system. This system has now been added to thousands of different bike models by some of the top brands like Trek, Raleigh
The Carbon Drive System in action
The Standard bike Chains
First off, let us acknowledge that the bike chain is a thing of beauty. Without it, you could pedal all day and not move a single step forward.
When the chain is in tip-top shape, well-maintained and conditions are ideal, 99% of the power you put into pedaling is pushed to the back wheel, and so the bicycle is propelled forward. These chains actually help you to pedal a lot more efficiently, but there are downsides to this efficiency.
For starters, these are high-maintenance items. You will have to clean them regularly and reapply oil as well or run the risk of the chain starting to rust, getting dry or filthy. Dirt, dryness, and rust can all reduce the overall efficiency of the chain. Exposure to normal weather conditions such as wind and rain can lead to all sorts of issues here.
Too much dirt will gum up the works, and you won’t be able to move much at all. Too much water and it may start to rust. Also, as the chain wears out, there is an increased chance that it will snaps. Doing proper maintenance will help everything run as it should. Unfortunately, it will also mean that you have oil that might be flung off the bike at any time. Think about it this way – if you had that chain in your hand, oiled it up, and then flung it in circles about your head, the oil would fly off thanks to centrifugal force. When the bike is in motion, the effect is basically the same – you could end up with oil on your legs or trousers. It is not ideal, and people believed that there had to be a better way.
A Full Chain Case
A bike with a full chain case is one possible solution. In this case, the chain is completely enclosed in a metal casing that protects it from the elements. This does cut down a lot on maintenance but tends to make the cycle look a bit clunky. It is also slightly heavier and can be difficult to access when needed.
Belt drives offer the most practical solution. A belt made from manmade materials like carbon or polyurethane fiber is used instead of steel links. The belt resembles the kind of belt that you might get in your motor vehicle. They do not need to be oiled at all. The belt has a special sprocket and chainring. The material is very strong and will last well. They do need to be fitted to the actual bike as they cannot be lengthened or shortened. They are not easy to come by but can be found on several different types of bikes. For most users, this tech is ideal for the town rider or commuter where a clean ride the most important aspect.
Why Are Belt Drive Bikes Good For Commuting?
There are several advantages for commuters, and we will go through these one at a time.
Slap it On and Go
A chain drive requires regular lashings of oil so that it stays supple and can do its job properly. You will need to scrape off the old oil, clean it as well as possible and then apply a degreaser before you apply the new oil. It’s a long process.
If you live in a city, where there is a lot of dust and dirt all over, the process needs to be repeated more often.
A belt, on the other hand, seldom needs any maintenance at all. You just watch it for dirt and if it looks grimy, hose it down and wipe it off. Because there is no oil involved here, you won’t get lashings of black, oily grime that can be difficult to remove.
It is Cleaner
No matter how careful you are when applying oil, some of it is bound to drip somewhere that you don’t want it. The other issue with using oil is that it can fly off while the bicycle is being used and stain your clothing. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there is nothing stopping it dripping out when the bike is parked. A belt means no oil and so no accidental splashes, oil flying off, or even oil dripping off. This makes cleanup an absolute breeze and means you never have to worry about leaving a messy stain on the carpets at work or home.
It Lasts Longer
This is something that, at first glance, doesn’t make sense. The belt will generally last twice as long as a standard chain would. The materials used by the beltmakers are very strong. The fact that the cleanup is a lot easier works in its favor as well. Factor in that just neglecting the oiling on the chain a couple of times makes it more vulnerable to dirt buildup and consequently more likely to strain and snap, and you will understand why belts are the better option.
No Bad Wear and Tear
Over time with a standard steel design, the pivots start to erode, and the whole chain begins to stretch out. This can cause damage to the chainring and the sprocket over time if not dealt with properly. The problem is that you won’t know any of this until the chainring or sprocket break.
Belts, on the other hand, will be able to keep going – they won’t stretch and so do not cause extra strain on any other parts.
They Are Quiet
Technically, a more traditional model made from steel will operate quietly as well, but you have to make sure that it is in perfect order and that it is perfectly cared for. There is always bound to be some “Click click” sound that comes up though. A drive is different. There are no moving parts that can clack against one another. It just goes round and round and is silent.
There Are Some Downsides
We like belts, but we do have to give you a balanced view. It is not all good news, or every cyclist would have one of these installed already.
Here are some of the disadvantages:
• Specialized frame: Fitting this is more of a problem because you cannot break it and reassemble it. If the frame can be split, then installation is made possible. Unfortunately, splitting the frame will make the bike a little weaker.
• More expensive: Installing this requires a more specialized bike, and that makes the whole exercise pricier. You may need professional help with this project, and that could add to the price overall. However, considering that you do not need oil, degreaser, etc. here, you are saving on costs to maintain it.
• Derailleurs are not compatible: That means sticking to an option with a single speed or looking for a transmission that has a hub-gear.
• Slightly less efficient: This depends on how well you perform your maintenance. A chain will perform better if it is well=cared for. It is also worth noting that hub-gears won’t work as efficiently. This is not an issue when commuting but would be an issue if you want to race.
• Replacement only: If it gives way while you are out and about, it could be a problem. With a chain, you would just quickly swap things out. With the belt, on the other hand, you would need a new one and to get it on would mean that you would have to split the frame. It is a pain to do.
• You will pay more upfront: If you buy a bike sporting this feature, figure on paying at least a couple of hundred extra dollars. Weigh it up against lower maintenance costs, though.
Best Belt Drive Bikes to Buy
Okay, now that we understand what the advantages and disadvantages with this kind of bike are, let’s start going through the best three options using this tech on the market today.
Vilano Diverse 4.0 Urban Performance Hybrid Road Bike, Belt Drive 8 Speed Shimano Alfine
- Performance Hybrid Road Bike with Belt Drive & Shimano 8 Speed Alfine internally geared hub
- 6061 Aluminum Performance Hybrid Frame and Fork
- Hydraulic Disc Brakes for Great Stopping Power
- Upright Handlebar for Comfort
- Super simple, no drivetrain tuning required
This belt drive bike by Vilano is one of the few that actually looks good! It also comes with a good spec including Shimano breaks, hydraulic disc brakes and not too heavy at 41 lbs.
The bike is to assemble, though the instructions are a little vague.
Montague Allston 11 Speed Belt Drive Folding Bike
- DirectConnect folding system connects front and the rear frame in one click
- Frame Size : 19" For riders 5'3" to 5'10" / 21" for riders 5'11" to 6'4"
- The Allston is great for commuting, touring, all weather riding, and unpaved surfaces
- This bikes comes with the NEW 4 in 1 RackStand: a Cargo Rack, Mud Guard, KickStand and Work Stand.
The Montague Alluston comes in at the high end of belt drive bikes at just under $2000 – but you are getting a bike of quality. Montague specializes in folding bikes as we mentioned before, so this bikes offers great commuter functionality. The bike has a Gates carbon belt drive along with a Shimano Alfine gear hub, both the best in class. This bike can be folded up in under 10 seconds with no tools required.
Brilliant Bicycles L-Train Gates Carbon Belt Drive 7-Speed Commuter Bike
- The new reliable and low maintenance way to get from brooklyn to manhattan, or wherever life is taking you.
- Handmade lightweight yet comfortable double butted chromoly frame/fork
- Features the ultra-quiet, grease and rust-free gates carbon belt drive together with a 7-speed Shimano Nexus internal hub
- Includes a cartridge sealed bearing front hub and FSA headset, along with Shimano v-brakes
- Arrives 95% assembled (fully adjusted) with easy to use tools in the box for a quick and easy final assembly
This is a beautiful looking bike from a good company. The bike has a Gate carbon drive belt drive with a Shimano Nexus drivetrain and only weighs 27lbs.
Like most bikes, it will not be delivered fully assembled, but there is very little to really do before you can ride this belt driven bike.
Marin Fairfax SC4 Belt
This is a fitness bike that is not typical of its type. That is because it has a Nexus hub gear from Shimano, for a total of eight speeds, along with a belt drive from Gates and a frame that can be separated. What it does not come standard with is a rack or mudguards, but you can choose to have these added as an optional extra.
It features Road Cruiser tires by Schwalbe which, at 32 mm, provide the perfect balance between speed and comfort.
The M315 hydraulic discs from Shimano make it possible to brake in all types of weather and are nice and low maintenance.
You must tension the drive by rotating the bottom bracket. This bracket has been created especially with this in mind, and it is a far handier alternative to having to move the wheel, especially when you take the break at the back into account.
This model is available in several different sizes.
Scott Silence Speed 10
This is a hybrid that does feature mudguards and a custom rack on the back. This model is special in that you are not able to fit a standard rack on the back. However, you won’t need to worry about sturdiness with this rack because it is also supported by the mudguard. Like the Gazelle, the hub-gear used is the Alfine model by Shimano. The brakes, on the other hand, are hydraulic discs like the Marin’s.
In both cases, these are very low maintenance options, just what you want if you need your bike to work hard in a city environment.
You are able to shift gears while the bicycle is stationary, and stopping is fairly easy. With 40mm Sports Contact tires from Continental, there is plenty of traction to make sure that you don’t have to worry about slipping all over the road. The tires make short work of potholes and are less like to puncture if the rubber is pinched. There are four different sizes to choose from.
Gazelle CityZen C8
Gazelle is a manufacturer based in the Netherlands and has made a name for itself by building roadsters that have chain cases. They drew on some of their experience in this area by creating a belt-drive model that is partially covered up. This is to prevent fabric from getting caught in the drive itself.
They have installed the Alfine Gear Hub from Shimano. This has eight speeds which will be plenty for even the most enthusiastic urban users.
The brakes feature hydraulic discs so that you can stop dead whenever you need to. These are breaks that will not let you down and are also low-maintenance.
The mudguards are full to ensure that you do not get dirty at all and you get a pannier rack on the back to carry all your stuff on.
You do have to add your own lights, which is something that the company could have done better on. It also pays to note that you should check the sizes if you are smaller than average. These are built for those who are a little taller and so might not be suitable for everyone.
These kinds of bikes are not for everyone. If you are looking for the ultimate in speed and customizability, these are not for you. They probably won’t do as well if your budget is really limited up front. That said, there are savings down the line in terms of maintenance. If, on the other hand, you want to be able to climb on and ride, with barely a second thought to maintenance, or can’t stand the idea of all the grime associated with oil, these are going to be highly suitable for you. Considering that the average commuter wants to be able to get from point A to point B as cleanly as possible, these are a good choice. You won’t be breaking any land-speed records in them, but do you really need to?