What is a Belt-Drive Bicycle? Pros + Cons of Belt Bikes

They require less maintenance, last longer, and are more durable than chained bikes, and there’s little difference in terms of performance.

Yet despite this, the belt-driven bicycle remains a real rarity in the cycling world. Here, we’ll explain exactly what they are and how they work, examine their benefits and drawbacks, and discuss why they haven’t ever become a new cycling craze.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at the most commonly asked questions about Belt-Drive Bikes, to give you a better understanding of them:

What Are Belt Drive Bikes?

Belt drive bikes are bicycles which use a toothed belt made of synthetic materials like polyurethane or carbon fibre, as opposed to the more traditional drivetrain system with a steel chain.

How do Belt Drive Bikes Work?

A bike chain transmits almost 99 per cent of pedal power to your rear wheel, so if you’re replacing it for a belt drive, you need to know just what a big decision you’re making.

Belt drive bikes operate in the same way as a typical chain – the crank drives the belt and turns the rear wheel.

Though, belts can’t shift between cogs like a chain can, so they need an internal hub gearing system in that regard.

Belt Drives v Chains

Belt drives are manufactured from carbon fibre, which means they’re lightweight, durable, rust-proof and has up to twice as long a lifespan as a chain given it wears much slower.

Plus, not only does a carbon belt drive bike not need oiling or lubricating like chains do, but this means you’ll wont risk getting covered in the stuff, either. Indeed, belt drives require relatively low upkeep – just a splash of water every so often should keep it running smoothly.

They also make far less noise than chains do, which is always a bonus.

Belt-Driven Bicycles: Pros + Cons

Belt Bike Benefits

  • No grease marks or rust
  • More durable – can last up twice as long as a chain
  • Cleaner – dirt won’t stick to it like it does to an oiled chain, so no lubricant required
  • No risk of spilling oil or dirty water on you or the floor
  • Compared to a chain bicycle, belt drive bikes are lighter and quieter
  • Also compatible with fitness and stationary bikes

Belt Bike Disadvantages

  • Require specific ‘split frames’ to install the belt – can’t take it apart and re-install like you can with a normal chain
  • Can’t be used with derailleurs – only work with bikes with internal-gear, fixed-gear and single-speed hubs
  • More costly – tend to cost about £200 more than a bike with a chain
  • Not particularly common away from Europe
  • Limited selection of bike lengths – must accommodate bike frame design
  • Less flexible than chains – more likely to cause excessive friction

Do Belt Drive Bikes Have Gears?

Yes, if your belt drive bike has an internal gear hub or fixed gear hub. If it’s a single-speed belt drive, then obviously you’re stuck with one ‘gear’ in that sense.

Located inside the rear hub, many good hub gear bikes will likely provide a good range of about eight to 12 different gears for riders to shift between.

Some belt drive bikes also possess a bracket-mounted gearbox, many of which will work with two sets of maintenance-free gears, much like the transmission in you car.

How Can a Belt Driven Bike Change Gear?

Obviously, you can’t shift between gears on belt drive bike like you do between cogs on a bike chain. This is where the internal gear hub comes in:

What is an Internal Gear Hub?

The internal gear hub is the system used to change a bike’s gear ratio through ‘planetary’ or ‘epicyclic’ gears (two gears mounted in such a way that one’s centre revolves around the other’s) secured within the rear hub.

For instance, a basic three-speed hub gear bike has a single ‘sun’ gear attached to the middle of it, with three of four identical ‘planet’ gears merging with and revolving around it, while surrounded by a ‘gear ring’.

As the planet gears revolve, attached to a ‘planet cage’, the gear ring will revolve four times for every three revolutions of the planet cage. So it’s essentially an ‘internal gears bicycle’, if you like.

Interestingly, with an internal gear hub, you can even shift gears while stationary, because you don’t need to be pedalling to change gears with them.

Are Belt Bikes Good for Commuting?

Yes. In fact, belt drive bikes make a great urban bicycle and are probably best suited to commuters, owing to their cleanliness, higher durability and lower maintenance more than anything.

Nobody wants to arrive at work drenched in oil and dirt, or be late because you needed to lubricate; with a belt bike, these two predicaments and many more go out of the window altogether.

It’s somewhat a mystery, not least given their ease of use, longer shelf life and low upkeep. A belt-driven bike, commuter or otherwise, could easily be perfect for you, too.

Perhaps their extra cost compared to typical bike chains goes some way to explaining that, though. And in truth, they may be slightly too ‘niche’ to ever become a mainstream craze in the cycling world, given they can’t work in tandem with traditional gearing systems and their necessitating of a split frame to install.

And while belt drive bikes rose to prominence in Japan back in 1980 with the Picnica folding belt drive bike, they only really became common knowledge in the US, for instance, in the late 2000s, with the modern Carbon Drive system.

Also, though they remain popular with commuters and more recreational cycling, chain drives are still more energy-efficient at these lower power inputs, and they run at a lower tension than belt drives.

Why Don’t More Bikes Use Belt Drive?

One of the main reasons is they’re not compatible with all bikes, of course.

Yes, they’ll work with bikes with internal-gear, fixed-gear and single-speed hubs, but not with derailleurs. Plus, they need ‘split frames’ to be installed; you can’t take it apart and re-install like you can with a normal chain, so perhaps they lack versatility in that sense, too.

Where to Buy a Belt Bike?

In the UK + Europe

They can be hard to find, for sure, but in our guide (LINK HERE) you can find an in-depth guide to the best belt bikes in the UK and across the continent.

There are a few other specialist manufacturers that make them, including:

In the US

If you’re based across the Atlantic and don’t want to pay for shipping costs, whether it’s internal gear hub bikes for sale, a commuter belt-drive hybrid bike, hybrid bikes with internal hub gears or many more, your best bets lie with US-based provides such as Cannondale, Marin or belt drive pioneers Gates.

GUIDE: Best Belt-Driven Bicycles

Matthew Chandler