If you’ve been following all the e-bike content we’ve been churning out on InsideEVs, you’re well aware that today’s e-bikes are so much more than bicycles with motors strapped onto them. Consumers are spoiled for choice with the number of options available in the market, and quite frankly, it can be quite dizzying looking at all the spec sheets of all the different bikes from all the different manufacturers out there.
Regardless of configuration, all e-bikes currently available have a propulsion system that transfers the rider’s pedaling efforts to the wheel being driven – digital drives and shaft-driven bikes notwithstanding. As such, chain-driven and belt-driven bikes are currently the norm, with the latter quickly gaining popularity especially thanks to technology from the likes of Gates and Veer. That said, what exactly is the difference between the good old-fashioned chain drive, and today’s cutting-edge belt-driven systems? Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The good old chain
Ever since bicycles became a viable means of mobility, they’ve been driven by a chain. We all know how it works – you pedal along and the chain sends your pedaling force to the back wheel, thereby providing propulsion. In fact, the first chain-driven bicycle was invented all the way back in 1885, and since then, not much has changed when it comes to the way bikes operate. Naturally, technology surrounding bicycles – both electric and otherwise – has revolved around the chain, and so we’re seeing cutting-edge drivetrains that make use of fancy, lightweight chains.
Indeed, in the performance cycling scene, the chain remains at the top of the food chain (pardon the pun). The very best drivetrains from the likes of Shimano and Sram are all driven by chain, and these systems integrate stuff like AI-powered automatic shifting, wireless shifters, and ultra-lightweight gearing mechanisms. With that said, when it comes to e-bikes, a lot of riders can do away with these high-end, performance-focused features. Let’s take a look at why this is the case.
Why some cyclists are riding away from chains
Indeed, when it comes to commuting by bike, especially electric bikes, simplicity is key. Having a chain means that you’ll need to maintain it regularly – anywhere from every week to twice a month. Not doing so causes the chain to rust and eventually seize, causing premature wear on your gears, or worse, snapping and leaving you stranded in the middle of the road.
On top of all that, chains make a certain degree of noise. Now, cyclists who’ve been riding for years have subconsciously learned how to tune that noise away, but for newer cyclists looking for another level of zen, the white noise from a chain clicking and clacking away – no matter how quiet it may be – is undesirable. As such, it’s for want of a more maintenance-free, and not to mention silent, solution that belt drives have entered the picture.
The benefits of belt drives
Belt drives are cool for more reasons than one. As mentioned above, they require virtually zero maintenance, as there are no links for you to lubricate, and as such, no oil and grime for you to clean up after it’s been exposed to the elements. Simply wash it down like you would the rest of your bike, and you’re good to go. On top of that, cutting-edge technology from the likes of Gates – check out its CDX carbon belt drive – means that belt drives are virtually indestructible, provided you don’t deliberately try to damage your drivetrain by sticking a rock or piece of metal between the belt and the gear.
Belt drives have also paved the way for sophisticated advancements in drivetrain technology – things like internal gearing, automatic shifting, and drivetrain-integrated motors all work best when paired with a belt drive. Last but not least, belt drives simply look much cleaner than your good old-fashioned chain. There are no more derailleurs and multi-plated cassettes and chainrings to worry about, and frame designers can maximize the space saved by such a simple drivetrain.
Why some cyclists like to stick to chain drives
With all that being said, there are still some cyclists who prefer to stick to the good old chain. Why is this? Well, for starters, folks who demand a lot from their e-bikes from a performance standpoint may find benefits from sticking to a chain-driven system. For example, electric mountain bikers in need of wide-ratio gearing might not be able to find a suitable belt-driven alternative just yet.
There are also folks who simply enjoy working on their bikes and upgrading components when they see fit. For instance, upgrading derailleurs, sprockets, and chains can be fun, and not to mention therapeutic – akin to building a fancy Lego set, if you will.
Last but not least, there’s the aspect of repair. Once a belt is damaged, chances are you’ll need to ditch it and replace it entirely – not exactly fun if this happens while you’re out on a ride. Granted, the likelihood of this happening is much lower than that of a chain drive. Conversely, chain systems are easy to fix with a multi-tool that can fit in your pocket, and for some cyclists who are mechanically inclined, this offers them added peace of mind.
It all boils down to personal preference
Like most things in life, choosing between a chain-driven or belt-driven e-bike boils down entirely to personal preference. If you’re a utilitarian individual who wants to just hit the road and ride without worrying about too much maintenance, then perhaps you’re best off with a belt-driven e-bike. However, if you’re one who enjoys tinkering, upgrading, mixing and matching parts, and at the same time doesn’t mind regular adjustments and maintenance, then a chain-driven e-bike will surely bring a smile to your face.