I’ll cut to right to the chase; you seem like a busy man. Should I buy a belt drive bike?
A belt versus a chain. Good question. At least I assume belt versus chain. Maybe you could be looking at a shaft drive? I don’t know. Maybe I should stop looking at Honda CX500s on Craigslist.
My friend, the humble chain is an amazing device. It’s lightweight. It’s field repairable. It’s hugely efficient. It can be lengthened or shortened to different gearing combos. It’s surprisingly happy getting pushed around from gear to gear with the arcane derailleur mechanisms. And for something with so many moving parts, and so many fasteners, a chain is super cheap.
Those are some of the many reason the chain is still the dominant system to transfer the power of our legs to the contact patch of our rear tires. But they are not without fault. They wear out in a few thousand miles. They break. They need regular cleaning and lubrication. They get dirty and nasty and stain your favorite chinos.
But belts. Belts have a long history of transferring power as well. Pop open the hood of your car. Look around inside. Depending on the age of your automobile, you might have a buncha belts to run lots of things like your AC, and the thing that makes enough power to keep your portable Internet device charged up. Or you might have a single serpentine belt that runs around a buncha different pulleys to run the whole mess of stuff, including the gadget that allows you to steer your car without the forearms of Popeye.
But better yet, go to a “Bike Nite” at your local watering hole, and wander around the parked motorcycles. You won’t look sketchy at all, and no one will accost you for eyeballing their precious iron horse (is that a term anyone uses any more? I just remember seeing that magazine at the newsstand as a kid and being both attracted and repulsed at the same time).
If your local bikers are not a buncha lame-os on metric cruisers, you’re bound to see some belts there, as both primary and secondary drives. Rarely both though. Why? I don’t know. I want a CX500, remember? The shaft-driven choice of the London motorcycle courier.
What does all this have to do with your choice of a belt on a bicycle? Maybe I’m saying a belt is also a proven way to transfer power. And the belt has advantages as well. It’s clean. Quiet. Needs no lubrication. Lasts a damn long time.
Drawbacks? Expensive. Limited cog sizes. Gotta run a single speed or an internally geared hub. Needs a way to separate the rear triangle to install. Can be mishandled and weakened. No way to repair, in the field or at home. Different belts needed for different gear combos. Requires high tension to prevent slipping. Can get noisy when dry and dusty, although can be cured with a quick water bottle rinse. Everything is about compromise, my man. Everything.
It is up to you to decide what is most important about your cycling experience. Maybe you’d never fix your own chain and want to keep your Brooks Brothers slacks looking good. That belt drive is looking pretty darn good for you. Maybe you only wear dark blue Dickies and have managed to fix a broken chain with two rocks and a bad attitude. Why mess with success? Keep that chain drive!
All I know for sure is you shouldn’t spend a lot of time obsessing over it. The worst thing you can do is compromise time you could have spent riding obsessing over drivetrain choices or ’80s shaft drive motorcycles on the Internet.
Beardo’s no Luddite; in fact, he just got dial-up and has his own email address: email@example.com. He loves bikes and movie references. Ask him anything, ANYTHING, and he’ll answer you. Be forewarned.
This Q&A originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #36. Support your favorite independent cycling magazine and order a subscription today. Beardo is counting on you.Tweet Print