I was also surprised when I heard that other methods can be used to propel electric bikes. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what’s wrong with chain drives. Chains are sturdy, reliable, and have been around for centuries.
Luckily, there’s nothing wrong with chain drives. It’s just that the new kid on the block: belt drives are better at some things. And so, this begs the question: What’s the big deal about ebike belt vs chain drives, and should you consider one under your current circumstances?
Belt drives (as of right now) are five times more durable and require very little maintenance compared to chain drives. Therefore, belt-drive electric bikes are slowly becoming the go-to drive train for E-bike enthusiasts. If you can afford it (and are willing to put up with the risks), belt drives are definitely worth it in the long run.
That said, A belt-drive system is not all sunshine and rainbows (with little teeth). Belts differ very much from chains, and not all of these differences are good; hence, you might want to hold off on purchasing a belt-drive electric bike until you get to the end of this article.
In this article, I’ll be covering important topics such as:
A quick guide on deciding between an ebike belt vs chain drives
Benefits of a belt drive system
Benefits of a chain drive system
So, with all that in tow, let’s get into it.
How to Choose Between an eBike Belt vs Chain Drives?
Here, I’ll go over some of the decision factors that can affect your choice between a belt drive and a chain drive eBike. Understanding the differences between these two drive trains with regards to each of these factors will help you make an educated decision on whether you should give belt drives a try or go back to the traditional setup of the chain drive.
If we are talking strictly upfront costs, the components for a belt drive will cost you more than the price of all the parts in a decent chain drive system. (Almost five times.) For example, a belt will cost you more than $100, while a typical bicycle chain will only cost around $60.
Apart from the belt, you need the front and rear sprockets and an internal gear hub. (Which will pump up the cost to around $1000-$2000.)
Also, since we can’t convert a chain drive system on a regular eBike into a belt drive bike, you have to purchase a new eBike with a frame designed to accommodate belt drives. (Unless you buy premium Riese and Muller E-bikes compatible with chain drives and belt drives.)
So, if you don’t have a budget of around $3000, affording a well-built Gates belt drive eBike will be difficult. But don’t worry, we have some ebikes recommendations here under $1500 and under $2000.
If money isn’t an issue, and you want something that could outlast time itself: a belt drive system (specifically with a premium gates belt) is the better option. Belt drive systems can last around 10,000 to 20,000 miles, while typical chain drive systems will only last 3,000-5,000 miles; hence, you can expect to see around four times as much mileage from a chain drive. (If properly maintained.)
After which, you will have to replace the belt and the sprockets. (Surprisingly, the metal cogs/sprockets wear out faster than the nylon-lined belt.)
So despite a hefty upfront cost, a belt drive system is much more durable and more cost-effective in the long run. Also, since the belt is always straight and fixed under tension, it maintains its initial shape and tautness for a very long time. (Less chance of derailing and losing efficiency.)
Belt drives are ridiculously maintenance-free, and for most casual users (who mainly ride their electric bikes around the city), you won’t need to lube or adjust it once a week. (Maybe scrub it daily, but even that is unnecessary if you don’t do a lot of off-roading.)
The lining material of the belt drives is designed to be clean and maintenance-free, and since they don’t need lubrication, belts do not accumulate a lot of dust. Also, the design of the belt is such that it repels dust and dirt as much as possible.
Belt drives are relatively clean, so you won’t get grease on your hands or all over your clothes whenever you replace them or check the tension. (Which seldom happens.)
When considering the overall riding quality, such as the suspension, noise, efficiency, and gear systems, belt drives aren’t always coming out on top as the superior drivetrain technology.
Suspension: For starters, a belt drive eBike won’t work with full suspension bikes because the rear suspension (when it travels) will try to flex the chainstays and loosen (or tense) the belt. This constant change in belt tension is not ideal since it affects the performance of the belt drive, especially when rolling at high speeds.
Fortunately, modern eBikes (such as the Riese and Muller Delite) use belt tensioners to prevent the belt from slacking, making it possible to utilize full suspension on belt drive bikes. Unfortunately, these eBikes are more expensive and would take a while until full suspension belt drives become more commonplace.
Noise: Fortunately, one good aspect that attracts many bikers to belt drives is quiet operation. Unlike a chain drivetrain, which makes that familiar “tik tik” noise when the links snap into the cogs, belt drives are consistently silent: they snap into the sprockets without making a peep, and you also won’t hear anything while it’s shifting gears. (Since they utilize internally geared hub systems.)
Efficiency: Efficiency is a mixed bag right now, with eBike enthusiasts and regular cyclists having different opinions on which drivetrain is the most efficient. Unfortunately, it is not so clear-cut as factors such as the condition of the drive system, the terrain, and the assistance provided by the electrical motor all come into play.
Chains are more efficient since they are somewhat flexible and transfer power to the cogs with less effort. However, when you factor in an electric motor, the efficiency losses from a belt drive are negligible; hence, in terms of pedaling efficiency in the case of an electric bike, I’d say it’s a draw.
Gear System: Belt drives, (since they run on a straight line under tension) cannot work with derailleurs; hence, you need an internal gear hub or Pinion gearbox to generate the most efficient output from your pedaling effort. As I mentioned previously, internal gear hubs are expensive, and they can be difficult to repair or replace.
In terms of weight, belts are usually lighter than chains, and a belt drive system with a fixed speed will be lighter than a single-speed chain drive.
That said, belt drives with an internally geared hub are considerably heavier than a usual chain drive with a derailleur and cassette; hence, a belt drive eBike will be heavier than its chain drive cousin.
When it comes to the electric motor options, a chain drive system will have the choice between a front wheel hub, rear wheel hub, or mid-drives. In most cases, it is better to go with a rear hub or mid-drive because the front wheel hub can be a bit unstable when steering or rolling at high speeds, especially when you have a front hub on a hardtail eBike. (Front fork suspension only.)
In the case of belt drives with an internal gear hub, you are mostly limited to mid-drives because a rear hub motor can’t compete with the internal gear hub, and a front hub motor is not the most reliable due to the reasons mentioned above. So if you despise mid-drives (owing to the lack of throttle, difficulty changing gears, and making repairs), you’ll have to settle for a fixed-speed belt drive or resort to a front hub motor.
Belt drives and chains perform quite well on paved roads and asphalt, but in off-road conditions — where the drivetrain will encounter lots of dust, dirt, and mud — belt drives are the better option thanks to their ability to repel dust and water. Meanwhile, chain drives will roll out the red carpet for dust and grime. So overall, belt drives are much more resilient and better suited for off-roading.
That said, don’t forget to carry a spare belt because you can’t fix it up like a regular bicycle chain.
Benefits of a Belt Drive System
Although belt drive bikes only started gaining traction only recently, belts have been used to transfer rotational power as early as the 1800s. This same belt technology was refined and added to motorcycles, car engines, and eventually, bicycles.
The belt used in e-bikes and regular bicycles are constructed from a synthetic polymer, reinforced with carbon fiber cords/kevlar, and the inside of the teeth are lined with nylon material. The belts are sturdy and designed to withstand harsh conditions for very long periods. (As I mentioned, almost five times as more as bicycle chains.)
The belts transfer power between two cogs/sprockets from the pedals to the rear wheel/internal gear hub. Although belt drives aren’t considered the one true savior of ebike drivetrains (at least not yet), there are several advantages that belt drive systems offer over a regular bike chain.
As mentioned previously, belt drive systems require very little maintenance (almost none under the right conditions), the belts don’t need to be lubricated, and they don’t have to be adjusted regularly. In most cases, it’s a “set it up and forget about it” situation.
That being said, if you want to prevent the belts and sprockets from wearing out sooner, I recommend scrubbing it at least once a week so that fine dust particles/caked mud won’t stick to the belt and damage the cogs. Also, you can apply silicone lube onto the teeth as it helps reduce friction, but like greased-up chains, it could attract a lot of dust.
Belt drives have a significantly improved lifespan when compared to chains. While you may need to replace a chain every 3000 miles, you will only need to replace the belt drive system (including the front and rear sprockets) every 10,000 miles.
During that entire time, the belts run smoothly and maintain the same tension and straight driveline without slacking. Also, in most cases, the alloy chainrings/sprockets wear out sooner than the belt itself.
One of the primary reasons belt-drive motorcycles and e-bikes have been praised is because of their quiet operation. Compared to a chain-drive system, a belt-drive is practically dead-silent. You won’t hear the teeth snapping onto the cogs, and you definitely won’t hear the gears shifting. (Although that’s because a belt drive is either fixed or includes a derailleur-free internal gear hub.)
Since a chain-drive system has a metal-to-metal contact, it’s always noisy. Belts, on the other hand, are built from a composite material that resembles carbon fiber or plastic; hence, it makes less noise when pressing into the metal cogs/sprockets.
A belt is lighter than a bicycle chain, and most single-speed belt-driven bikes are significantly lighter than a chain-driven counterpart. Also, when riding with a belt drive eBike, you don’t need to carry extra tools such as chain breaker, lubricant, etc.
In the case of belt drives, you only need to carry a spare belt along with the usual tools to replace the broken one.
Unlike chains, belts do not rust, and there is no need to apply a layer of lubrication. Belts are built from a polymer and reinforced with nylon and carbon fiber to ensure they maintain tension for longer periods and during extreme temperatures, dust, debris, and UV rays.
Also, Gates belts include a patented design that allows dust and dirt to fall off when the teeth meet the cogs. On top of that, the polymer material of the belt does not attract dust or dirt (Although mud may stick to it.)
Extremely Low Probability of Derailing
Belt drives seldom fall out from their drive train, especially since they are loaded under tension and have guides/tensioners to protect them from derailing. Besides, belt drives always run perfectly straight since they don’t use derailleurs to switch gears. Theoretically, the only instance that a belt drive would derail is if you crash your bike and deform the chainstays or rear dropouts. (Causing it to slacken and fall out of the sprockets/guides.)
Benefits of a Chain Drive
Now, here are some reasons why you would still want to side with chain drives for your electric bikes
Unlike a belt drive bicycle, chain drives are easy to manufacture (since it’s mostly metal chain links). Thereby, the bicycle chain, cassette, derailleur, and chainrings are significantly cheaper than an entire belt drive system, even when you won’t factor in the premium price tag of an internal gear hub.
On top of that, belt drive bicycles need a special frame with a split in the frame’s rear triangle (to make it easy to slide in the belt during installation). Therefore, you’re looking at a less common bicycle frame for belt-driven electric bicycles, driving up the initial cost even higher.
Easy to Repair/Replace
If a chain snaps, you replace the broken chain using spare links or even shorten the chain and get home safely, but if a belt snaps, you’re stranded. (Unless you have a hub drive or carry a spare belt with you at all times.)
However, if something serious breaks, such as the sprockets or internal gear hub, you’ll have to go through a lot of trouble depending on where you’re at since many small bike shops do not include parts or the expertise to repair/replace belt-driven systems.
Belt drives are generally much more durable and don’t require too much monitoring. However, like carbon fiber bike frames, they are expensive to manufacture and haven’t attained mainstream status. That said, if you are willing to put up with the risks, which include the additional cost, mid-drives, and the off-chance of breaking a belt in two, a belt-driven system is definitively worth it in the long run.
Andrew Strider is an electric bike enthusiast. He currently owns 5 electric bikes and is an active member of his local electric bike club where he is able to test many other models/brands a few times a month.
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