An oily chain isn't the only way to transfer power from your pedals. A belt drive is cleaner, quieter, and needs very little looking after.
The bicycle chain is an engineering marvel, transmitting almost 99% of your pedalling energy to the rear wheel in ideal conditions. But conditions are seldom ideal. A chain that's rusty, dry, dirty, or worn is much less efficient, so good chain care is crucial. Even if you do look after the chain, there's a risk that oil from it will end up on your trousers. If only you could have an efficient drivetrain that was weatherproof, practically maintenance free, and clean! You can. There are two options: one is a bike with a full chaincase; the other is a bike with a belt drive.
Instead of links of steel chain, a belt-drive uses an inseparable toothed-belt made of synthetic materials such as polyurethane and carbon fibre, along with a special 'chainring' and sprocket. Belt drives are rare but are fitted to a variety of bike types, including mountain bikes, tourers and folders. They're arguably best suited to everyday town bikes, where the convenience of a clean, neglect-resistant drivetrain is such a compelling advantage.
• 'Fit and forget.' There's much less maintenance with a belt drive than a chain. A belt doesn't need water-displacing sprays after wet rides, nor regular applications of chain oil to keep it flexible and efficient. Dirt doesn't stick on a dry belt like it does on an oiled chain and it won't turn into a black paste when it's there, so the belt doesn't have to be scraped, brushed and degreased. With a belt drive, you spray or sponge any dirt off occasionally with water.
• Cleanliness. No oil on the drivetrain means no oil on the leg of your trousers either. If it's parked indoors, you don't have to worry about oil or oily water dripping on the floor.
• Lasts longer. A belt will typically do twice as many miles as a chain before needing to be replaced.
• No appreciable wear. Chains 'stretch', becoming longer as the pivots slowly wear away. If you don't replace a chain in time, the sprocket and chainring will also wear and need replacing. Belts stay the same length, don't cause significant wear to the chainring and sprocket, and keep working fine until they break.
• Quieter. Belt drives are almost silent, humming quietly as the belt rotates. Only a well-cared-for singlespeed chain transmission comes close.
• Special frame required. As a belt is a continuous loop that can't be broken, it can only be installed on a bike with a conventional rear triangle (where the chain runs above and below the drive-side chainstay) if the frame splits. So the drive-side chainstay, seatstay or dropout has to be designed with a bolt-together joint. This makes the frame slightly weaker, as well as increasing its cost.
• Can't use derailleurs. Belts are not compatible with derailleurs, so a singlespeed or hub-gear transmission are your only options.
• Lower efficiency. A belt drive is marginally less efficient than a well-cared-for chain, mostly because it has to be kept under more tension. Hub gears are also less efficient. This is a deal-breaker for racing. For commuting, it's not.
• Not fixable. Broken belts can't be repaired at the roadside like chains. You have to instal a new belt, which means splitting the frame (see above).
• More expensive. A bike with a belt drive tends to be around £200 dearer than a comparable bike with a chain. Lower maintenance costs will close this gap over time.
Here are three hybrids with belt drives.
Gazelle CityZen C8
Dutch manufacturer Gazelle is better known for its roadsters with chaincases but this belt-drive model is equally practical. There's only a partial chainguard as the Continental drive belt is as dry as any; the guard stops clothing getting snagged by the chainwheel. Gearing is Shimano's 8-speed Alfine hub, whose range is ample for urban use. Hydraulic discs provide powerful braking in any conditions and are as fit-and-forget as the drivetrain. Full mudguards keep you clean, and a rear pannier rack will carry commuting essentials. Just add lights. Note that because the Dutch are the tallest people in Europe, the size range is skewed upwards and there are no truly small options. There are 'men's' and 'women's' versions, however.
Cyclescheme Price: £674.25*
Available from: gazellebikes.co.uk
Marin Fairfax SC4 Belt
This Marin is unusual for a fitness bike in that it has an 8-speed Shimano Nexus hub gear, a Gates belt drive, and a separable frame. But like most others of its type, it doesn't come with mudguards or a rack; you could add them as part of your Cyclescheme package. Its 32mm Schwalbe Road Cruiser tyres are a good compromise between comfort and speed, while its Shimano M315 hydraulic discs provide all-weather braking that you'll seldom need to tinker with. The belt drive is tensioned not by moving the wheel back in the frame but by rotating the eccentric bottom bracket – a neat solution, given the rear disc brake. It comes in a wide range of sizes.
Cyclescheme Price: £675*
Available from: paligap.cc
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Scott Silence Speed 10
Scott's belt-drive hybrid does come with mudguards. You can't fit a conventional rear rack, but Scott make a bespoke Silence rear rack that fits like the rear mudguard and is partly supported by it. The hub is the same Shimano Alfine as the Gazelle's, while the hydraulic disc brakes are similar to the Marin's. Both make sense on an urban bike, being relatively maintenance free. You can also change gears while stationary and stop as suddenly as the tyre traction allows. Those Continental Sport Contact tyres put plenty of rubber on the road, which is good for grip, as they're 40mm wide. They'll soak up potholes better too, and are unlikely to pinch-puncture. The bike comes in four sizes.
Cyclescheme Price: £749.25*
Available from: scott-sports.com
*=based on minimum savings of 25% inc End of Hire - many save more. Check your personal savings here.