Photo courtesy of Gates.
By Jeremy Towsey-French
Cyclists have had a love/ hate relationship with chains since the first chain-driven bicycle rolled off the line in 1874. Simple in their design, inexpensive to replace and easy to diagnose, chains are also dirty, heavy and not particularly robust in the urban setting. Frequent hard-acceleration, varying pedal pressure, track stands and a myriad of automotive-grade grime are all part of the daily grind that can cripple a chain. Quite simply, city bikes take a lot of abuse from the road, yet need to perform reliably. Enter the belt drive.
Made out of polyurethane, carbon belt drives don’t require lube, making them a cleaner option. They are also lighter, quieter and more durable than a chain. Gates invented the automotive V-belt in 1917 and subsequently has the industry know-how to ensure that bicycle belt drive technology is more than a flash in the pan.
According to Gates spokesperson, Paul Tolme, “Paired with today’s wide-range internally geared hubs, belt drives have produced a super low-maintenance commuter bike.” Portland’s Joe Bike takes advantage of Gates’ carbon-reinforced belt on the shop’s premiere front box utility bike, the Shuttlebug, where the belt’s increased durability boosts rider confidence.
While the advantages are many, there are challenges, too. Belt drives only work on bikes with internally-geared, fixed gear and single-speed hubs, as they cannot be used with derailleurs.A belt drive requires an opening in the frame, often positioned where the chainstay and seatstays meet at the chain-side dropout, so if you’ve already got a bike you love, upgrading might not be an option. You cannot take apart a belt, so installation is a bit trickier and you will need the right size of belt for your frame. Also, paired with an internal hub, a new belt-driven bicycle is likely to cost more than a freehub and derailleur-powered bike.
Fortunately, the rewards to urban cyclists are worth any added upfront expense. Riders can expect their bicycle’s drivetrain to have a long, trouble-free life. They offer smoother operation with less friction. And, if you get a pant leg or skirt caught in your belt drive, you are more likely to get it back intact and grease-free.
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