Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bicycles with belt drives excite commuters

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11.23.08:

Bikes are breaking the chain
Ease of use could help industry's popularity surge

If you've ever been riding down the street and had your pants cuff ripped asunder, there may be a revolution at hand. Trek Bicycle is part of a movement to bury the finger-pinching, pants-munching, rust-prone sprocket and chain, and usher in an era of belt-driven bikes that might have the inventors of the self-propelled transportation Schwinning in their graves.

Wisconsin-based Trek is introducing two models this holiday season that are chainless, instead using technology most often found in things like motorcycles and snowmobiles. While some smaller custom bike makers have used them before, Trek is the first to use the technology for mass-produced bicycles.

"People are really finding bicycles to be a very simple solution to some very complex problems that they face every day," said Eric Bjorling, Trek's lifestyle brand manager. "Anything we can do in our design to really help them and help them live that lifestyle is probably better for both the consumers and us."

Bjorling said the new belts are a low-maintenance solution to a chain, which has roughly 3,000 parts including all the links and connectors. Aside from the whisper-quiet ride, the lighter and longer-lasting carbon-fiber composite belts won't rust, can't be cut, won't stretch or slip and won't leave grease marks around your ankles. A guard over the belt-drive and the construction of the system makes getting your pants stuck unlikely, Bjorling said.(Read more.)
The appeal of bicycle commuting should continue to attract new riders in 2009, regardless of the fluctuating trends of gas prices. Among other things--such as new bicycle commuting books--there will likely be a flurry of technical tweaks as the bicycle industry appeals to the novice bicyclist. One very exciting possibility is the belt drive.

Trek Bicycles is the first major bicycle brand to introduce a chainless, belt driven bike. The chain has been a proven feature of bicycle propulsion for more than 130 years, with some modest issues with lubrication and replacement. Chains aren't going away anytime soon. But the new belt drive is an appealing upgrade. Trek's carbon fiber composite belt is reinforced to prevent stretch, and is supposedly lighter, quieter, and require no lubrication and minimal maintenance.

This belt drive development is another exciting indication that the bicycle industry is starting to wake up to the profit potential of the commuting market. For the past two decades, bicycle makers' R&D efforts targeted the competitive cyclist market, leading to such marvels as 10 speed cassettes and carbon fiber cranksets. Technological advances that offered absolutely nothing to the commuting bicyclist. Maybe the industry is finally starting to come around.

Image: Trek Bicycles.
Visit: TrekDistrict.com Blog
Visit: Say Goodbye To Greasy Chains, Ride A Belt Drive, cbs4denver.com
Visit: Trek belt drive bicycle on CNN, Cyclelicious
Visit: Trek Introducing Belt Drive in January, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News
Visit: Building a better bike, WKOW-TV
Visit: Are Carbon Belt Drives the Future?, BikeRadar.com
Visit: An alternative to the bike chain: The carbon belt, Examiner.com
Visit: Bike retailers warm to the commuting market, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Bikes made for commuting are hot!, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


dr2chase said...

I'm sorry, but if the bike in the picture is the one they are talking about, this is just a gimmick. The not-a-commuter flaws include:

- no fenders, no clearance for fenders.

- straight flat bars; for quite a few people, bad for their hands.

- skinny tires.

- bottle mounts, but no rack mounts? If you're riding far enough to need a drink, you're going to get plenty tired of that bag/backpack.

The biggest problem is the tires. You can swap out bars, you can add P-clamps, maybe you don't ride in the rain. But if there's no room for big tires, there's no chance of an upgrade. I'll try to say this clearly, perhaps someone in the bicycle industry is reading. Big fat tires are better. A $900 "commuter" with skinny tires is bogus.

Big tires are faster ( this assumes you are not rolling along at 25mph where wind resistance is much more important, which is the usual case for most commuters). A 60mm Schwalbe Big Apple has lower rolling resistance than 28mm Bontrager Race Lite. I measured it my own damn self, both in my actual commute (got noticeably faster) and in controlled rolls down a gentle hill.

Big tires are safer; I hit a pothole going at least 25mph down a hill, that would have taken out my tire and rim with skinny 25mm tires; instead, all I got was the bang of the front shock bottoming, and a smack in the hands. Slotted storm grates are not a problem, because the tires simply do not fit in the hole.

Big tires are lower maintenance; the lower pressure that they run reduces the need to constantly maintain pressure, and the lower pressure reduces the pressure that they exert on the inevitable scraps of glass, so that the glass is less likely to cut through before it is flung off. Need to hop a curb? Go right ahead, big tires can take it.

Big tires are also easier to work with. I change my Big Apples barehanded -- my biggest worry is that they stay properly seated when inflating them.

When it came time to buy a bike for my wife, there were many requirements to meet, but for me the most important was ability to run big tires, because they are that much safer, and that much lower maintenance.

Paul Dorn said...


Agreed on all points. My primary interest is the bike industry's commuter oriented research (I don't expect racers to adopt this belt). This Trek District model is an interesting bike, but you are right: It appears primarily intended for the fit-affluent-guys-who-wanna-be-messengers fixie rider market. However, Trek is also marketing a more commuter friendly belt-drive Soho, which would have been a better image.

Anonymous said...

The Soho is better, but really, is there any need for this fancy-shmancy new belt drive when we already have chain guards?

Tim said...

I'm all for chainless bikes, but as mentioned already some of the commuter gaffes in the marketing are kind of glaring. Also, surely 3,000 is a misprint for 300, which still seems kind of high for chain part count. I'd like to see the 3,000 part chain he's talking about: each link must have roller bearings.
However, if they're trying to have success in the mass market, they are probably trying to appeal to the uninitiated public, and the features of such a bike would be quite different from one marketed straight to the seasoned commuter crowd.

Karl McCracken said...

Having just had my Sturdy Commuting Bike's prognosis ("Terminal - it'll get you through the winter, but after that . . . ") with faults induced by chain wear, I'm all for belt drive. Before you say it, yes I've maintained my bike, including regular checks on chain wear. How it got from being bang-on 10" for 10 links in August to this is just beyond me. It's a cheep bike, so it's only slightly more for a whole new bike, but this still grates!

I also like the idea of a greaseless solution. In part, I could get there with hub gears (which the belt drive would need) to eliminate chain drops, but the simplicity of the belt is something to lust after. There are ~300 components in a chain (9 per complete 1" inner & outer link, and usual lengths around 36"), which to my mind is just too many opportunities for failure.

Oh, and Dr2Chase - the other thing missing is a sit up and look the traffic in the face posture on the concept bike inf the photo. ;-)

Yokota Fritz said...

Chaincases aren't possible on folding bikes, and bagging folding bikes just to prevent grease transfer to seating and other passengers is a pain. I absolutely LOVE the belt drive as used on the Strida folding bike.

I'm testing a shaft drive folding bike right now. I'm a little less enthusiastic about shaft then belt, but it solves the same basic problem of cleanliness.

dr2chase said...

Karl McC - I'm a hair less dogmatic on the whole sit-up-and-beg thing; I'm personally happy to have the bars about level with the seat, and some of my non-trivial weight not on my behind. I have a 3-speed that has me more upright, and for my back, a slight lean onto the handlebars is actually more comfortable, especially on bumpy roads.

The bike in the picture is almost bars-level. I was going to say "just raise the stem", but of course it is threadless, so instead, you could just flip over the stem, and get them to a decent height.

David Hembrow said...

For all the reasons given, this is a long way from a proper commuting bike.

What's interested about it is that Trek already do produce sensible bicyles. However, they only sell them in the country where there is a market for such things.

Take, for example, this model and this model.

All you need to do is convince them that it is also worth trying to sell these useful bicycles in the company's own country of origin. They're far more useful than that gimmick they're trying to palm you off with.

There is a reason why the rush hour in the Netherlands looks as it does.