Belt drive bikes

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is a Canadian outlet for high quality, outdoor gear including products they market under their own label. (I believe Hilary's Mountain Equipment sleeping bag is a MEC product.) Last year they introduced a line of bicycles, which caused some consternation among local bike shops. As a cooperative MEC is subject to less tax than privately-owned businesses and will supposedly have a price advantage.

Whether MEC is a cooperative in spirit, or whether they use the corporate structure to their tax advantage is debateable and of no relevance to this article. I mention it only because my father worked all his life for the co-op movement and had very specific views on matters of governance. (As a matter of similar, irrelevant interest, Ikea is legally a charity.)

Back to bikes. When my son-in-law Andrew was here I could see he was getting antsy, so I suggested a bike ride. Trouble was, he hadn't brought any gear. So off we went on a fast tour of Ottawa bike shops. Walking into MEC, I was struck by their display of bikes, and in particular their single speed bike.

Belt Drive Belt Drive

As you can see in the photo, they have used a belt drive system rather than a chain drive. The belt drive system is made by Gates. What are its advantages? I asked the MEC bike mechanic. Supposedly the belts are quieter and last longer than normal chains. On the other hand, you don't just buy the belt and install it – you need to replace the entire drive train; the bike frame requires a special break (secured by a bolt) to change belts; on a single speed a new belt is needed to alter the gear ratio (since links cannot be removed); there have been problems with drift – if the drive system is not in perfect alignment the belt can fall off (Gates has come up with some sort of guidance system to prevent this).

The belt system is a bit of a novelty, I guess, but I don't think I'll be lining up for one in the near future. If it ain't broke, as they say, don't fix it.

9 comments on “Belt drive bikes”

  1. Patrick wrote:

    Interesting. I'll think some more about this Kern. In the meantime, some info about James Bowthorpe's belt driven round-the-world bike

  2. Chris wrote:

    Interesting – and a bit surprising – that a belt drive is found on a single-speed bike. From my limited reading on the subject of belt drives I assumed that part of their appeal was that the belt drive – coupled with hub gears – does away with the wear and tear associated with a traditional chain moving up and down the sprockets on the cassette, and the deformation which comes with chain deflection.

    I've noticed that chains on single-speed bikes, especially those found on BMX bikes – often make a feature of their chunkiness (because the chain isn't required to change gear it can be thicker and have less lateral movement). So they some times come in colour-coordinated options – presumably such variations in colour aren't possible, or economic, on the narrow chains that are required for derailleur systems.

    So the biggest plus of a belt drive system is that it is less prone to 'stretch' and failure when the rider is miles away from anywhere – specifically miles away from a bike shop where a new chain could be bought. But who does long distance tours on a single-speed bike 😕

  3. Patrick wrote:

    Limited reading (and knowledge) on my part too. In the long run I see belt drive as the way forward for bike design, with automatic enclosed gears (and plastic frames and universal suspension forks but that is another story). The derailleur drive train has too many exposed and clanky components to survive forever but I accept that it works and is the most affordable at present. What we need is a 'Steve Jobs' for the bicycle industry because if cycling is to progress, bicycles need to progress in a fundamental way. I accept that the classic steel bike is a thing of beauty but they have not developed for decades and tend to appeal to traditionalists tinkering with ball bearings, grease and rags. This has to change if cycling is to have a real future. A maintenance free drive train is just one part of it...

    I was interested that James Bowthorpe chose a belt drive / Rohloff system for his circumnavigation trip. A number of commentators didn't give him much hope but he proved them wrong.

  4. Ian wrote:

    This intrepid lass is using a belt drive, Think its on a Santos bike. She's doing some sort of round the world trip via bike and canoe. http://www.sarahouten.com/

  5. Ian wrote:

    More precise link,
    http://www.sarahouten.com/the-mission/boats-and-bike/

  6. Hilary wrote:

    I think Trek do a model called the 'Soho' which is belt driven and aimed at the commuter market. I presume the belt drive eliminates any risk of arriving at work with oily chain marks on your legs.

    Patrick, you're probably right about it being the future of bike design (altho the enclosed oil bath chain cases that have been around for donkey's years seem to offer similar advantages) but I'm sticking firmly with tradition.

    I'm astonished that you remember the make of my sleeping bag Kern, 😀 Dennis wouldn't have a clue! However, Mountain Equipment is a British based firm (altho its probably all made in China now rather than Stalybridge) and not connected with Mountain Equipment Co Op.

  7. Brian Krahmer wrote:

    I bought the Trek Soho Deluxe in June. I have ridden it probably over 1000 miles since. It has the Gates belt drive with a Shimano 8-speed internally geared rear hub. It it nearly silent, can go from gear to 8 to 1 and back again at a full stop, and shifts very smooth. No greasy pants. I love it! I'm thinking of a Rohloff or 11-speed Nexus hub with belt drive conversion for my carbon MTB at some point...

  8. Patrick wrote:

    Brian Krahmer wrote: ... 11-speed Nexus hub with belt drive conversion for my carbon MTB

    shimano-alfine-11

    Shimano Alfine 11-speed hub for belt-drive and disc brake... nice (tempting, but as Kern pointed out: my bike frame requires a special break ... to change fit the belt).

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