Buyers' Guide: 10 Best Gates Carbon Belt Drive Bikes
March 14th, 2016
March 14th, 2016
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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Bike builders have been seeking alternatives to chains for decades. In the early 1900s leather straps were used on some bikes, while others have experimented with shaft drives. The reason: chains work fine but they require regular lubrication, cleaning and maintenance to perform well. Chains also stretch so they require regular replacement. For some people, chain and bike maintenance is a turnoff that prevents them from riding.
Background Check Belts were an adaptation of existing industrial and automotive belt drives, simply adapted for bikes. Efforts to use belt drives on bikes date to the 1980s and earlier. Bridgestone manufactured belt drive bikes in Japan through the 1980s. In the late 1980s, the founder of Strida folding bikes approached Gates about using a Gates' belt. Strida have since gone on to commercial success and have gained a niche in the marketplace. Simultaneously, Gates engineers were inspired by their decades of work providing carbon fiber reinforced belts to Harley Davidson. In the mid-2000s the company decided to make a dedicated bicycle belt drive engineered for the rigors of cycling, using its patented carbon fiber cord technology and an 11 mm tooth pitch profile. Gates Carbon Drive launched in 2007 at Interbike after several years of research and development by engineers at Gates Corporation; a company that was already the world's leading supplier of belts for automobiles, motorcycles, snowmobiles and many other applications. To date, Gates Carbon Drive is the only bicycle belt drive designed and engineered from the ground up specifically for bicycling.
What is a Belt Drive Bike? The Carbon Drive system consists of two sprockets and a carbon fiber reinforced belt. Initially met with skepticism, Gates Carbon Drive has gained industry acceptance and is now featured on hundreds of bike models from more than 200 brands around the world. It is most popular in European countries with a strong tradition of transportation cycling, including Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark, though its use is growing in the UK with the rise in popularity of urban cycling and electric bikes. The advantages are that it is clean, quiet, light and strong. Carbon Drive never requires any lubrication, and if it gets dirty you can simply hose it off with no worry of rust. Gates Carbon Drive is also lighter and stronger than most chains due to the carbon fiber cords, and users typically get two to three times the lifespan of a chain. Gates Carbon Drive is today used on everything from mountain bikes to cyclocross bikes, to BMX and even fat bikes, but its most popular application is on transportation bikes; both urban commuters and electric bicycles. Users of transportation bikes want a simple and low-maintenance drive. Typically these bikes are paired with an internally geared hub such as Shimano's Alfine and Nexus, Rohloff, NuVinci or Sturmey Archer, or with gearboxes such as the Pinion system. These chain-free and derailleur-free bikes are a low-maintenance and a clean solution that keeps the look of a single speed bike, but with the practicality of gears inside the rear hub. The only bicycle category Gates Carbon Drive is not speced on is competition road race bikes due to the added weight of internally geared hubs versus derailleurs. In the future, as technology advances and geared hubs and gearboxes become lighter and more affordable, this could change. It's worth noting that a Carbon Drive, nor any other belt for that matter, can be added to any bike. Because the belt is a solid circle, there needs to be a link in the bicycle frame that can be released in order to slot the belt behind the frame and stretch it over the drive. This sounds scary, but it should be rather simple. One other thing is that belts come in many different qualities and colours, allowing you to customise your bike's look as well as how much you spend.
Gates Carbon Drive in Action:
In 2009 British cyclist James Bowthorpe set a new world record for fastest bike ride around the world, using just two belts for his circumnavigation of the globe. Other adventurers include Reza Pakravan, who pedaled 11,000 miles from the Arctic Circle in Norway to South Africa on one belt; a journey during which his colleague had to change his chain multiple times. Gates Carbon Drive is currently on display at the London Design Museum as part of the Cycle Revolution exhibit through June.
The Best Belts on the Market:
Schindelhauer are a premium, stylish brand from Germany, but they do have a distinct British-looking charm about them, especially the models laced with Brooks leather saddles and grips. It is no surprise therefore that their biggest distributor is Velorution; a shop in central London. Schindelhauer are completely dedicated to belt-drives and use a "crocodile clamping system"; a plate is removed to slot in the belt in, and then the wheel moves in and out to remove or add tension to your belt.
Shand are a favourite of ours at Bikesoup. The name derives from being handmade in Scotland, and we like a good chuckle with these guys at shows. They also happen to create some stunning custom bikes, and they have recently launched some new models with Gates belt drives and Rohloff internal gears. Their success here has seen them start up distribution in the US too, so they are aiming for global domination. They have three bikes to offer; the urban road oriented Stooshie and the Stoater, and the off-road tourer (come beach-racing single speed cyclocross machine, pictured above) called the Drove.
Proof that the big brands are taking notice, Cube have the Editor. An understated urban commuter with value and practicality in mind. The base model can be picked up for less than a grand, which means it's ripe for purchasing on the Cycle to Work Scheme and is available in many bike shops in the UK.
Scott is another major manufacturer who have taken note of the benefits of the Gates belt drive. The Scott Sub comes with a little more colour than the usual urban commuter, an 8-speed Shimano Alfine, and it's also available with disc brakes and body-coloured mud guards, making this a great option for all weather conditions.
Van Nicholas are the all-titanium bike brand. They are super sexy and super expensive, but value is in the eye of the wallet holder, right? Van Nicholas have a great selection of performance road bikes and niche titanium mountain bikes, but their focus (and what they're known for) is on the touring market, where performance belt drives make a showing. That being said, I'm totally in love with their belt-driven Zion Rholoff 29er mountain bike. They have also recently started working with Pinion gearboxes.
Lios Folding Bikes
Lios will not be a solution for many people on this planet, as they offer a full carbon folding bike that weighs less than my road racing bike and costs more than a modest car. Founded by a former Royal Marine, the bicycle is British, but it clearly longs to be kept folded up on a yacht in Italy. If I ever need a low-maintentance run-around that would be less effort than walking and can be kept in a small cupboard or carried as hand luggage on a train, oh and I had a spare £3,500, Lios would definitely be on the top of my list.
Marin are another big-time global bike manufacturer with good UK brand awareness and availability. The Marin Fairfax is a simple and affordable urban commuter, coming in options ranging from £500 for a basic Gate drive commuter with rim brakes, to £1,900 with pannier racks, self-charging lights and disc brakes.
Another big player now offering belt-drive is Focus with their Planet. Another simple and affordable option that should be easily ordered through bikes shops in the UK. The Planet looks to be a relaxed mountain bike style of riding, but with smooth rolling tyres. Again, these guys offer a number of model options, including mudguards and rack mounts.
Riese & Müller
Riese & Müller are lesser known in the UK, but are rising e-bike stars in Japan and Europe, especially after winning awards at Eurobike 2015 and the Red Dot Award in 2014. They will surprise you with the spread of electronic bikes they offer; from load-carrying courier bikes to futuristic commuters. What surprised me the most was their new Roadster; an e-bike that doesn't look much like an e-bike at all.
Stevens is fast becoming more popular in the UK with many Brits turning to their mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes in recent years. The Stevens P18 is their purpose-built commuter with pannier racks, self-charging lights, an impressive 18-speed internal gear hub and, of course, Gates belt drive. They are one of few to offer the desirable Pinion system.
Woodrup Cycles are a custom bicycle building workshop and, although there are many custom builders in the UK, these guys have already done a number of custom build F.A.B (Fixed and Belt) bikes; from touring to commuter.
Sticking with the British brands, Milk Bikes are a UK based bicycle company who have recently added a belt drive model to their ever-growing fleet. For £1,675 you can get the RDA with an 8-speed Shimano Alfine with Gates Carbon Drive, and a custom paint job.