Belt-driven bikes are “no longer an oddity” and are rapidly picking up pace in global sales, representing a huge opportunity for urban bicycle dealers as the world’s big cities move toward a future of active travel, believes Gates Director of Bicycle Market Todd Sellden.
Having now surpassed 500 OEM partners; ranging the likes of Kalkhoff, Cube and Ghost right through to smaller but sought after labels like Schindelhauer, Gates Carbon Drive systems are increasingly catching the imagination of consumers. For context, five years ago Gates supplied around 200 OEMs, while today you’ll find some of China’s largest bike share fleets drawn to associated low on-going costs. It’s not just fleet operators and manufacturers drawn to the perks of belts, though. Consumers are increasingly drawn to toward the clean lines, as well as the low maintenance implications of ditching the chain and derailleur.
Sellden explains: “The biggest limitation of belt drives is that they do not work with derailleurs. Chains are great for their ability to work with significant misalignment. Belts like to stay straight. That means you need internally geared hubs if you want to shift. The good news is that we are seeing a major push to create new and better internal hub and gearbox technologies. The NuVinci hub handles high eBike torque like no other option. The Rohloff Speedhub is the best solution for long mileage riders; Shimano has numerous geared hub options that are the simplest and best solution for city urban bikes. And now, a company from Germany named Pinion has introduced a gearbox that sits in the middle of the bike that keeps the gears enclosed and protected. All you do is change the gearbox oil once per year or every six thousand miles. These innovations are making the bicycle drivetrain as reliable as those in automobiles.”
Industry collaboration with the likes of Pinion is rapidly seeing new ideas emerge, as well as opening a broader scope of applications. Carbon Drive is already being raced on the World Cup downhill circuit clad to Nicolai bikes. As more frame makers adopt this technology, you will see more belt drive DH rigs competing at the highest levels, believes Gates. While Sellden has a soft spot for seeing how artisan framebuilders interpret the belt, he’s particularly excited by the off road potential.
He says of one collaboration: “We love Pinion in particular for applications like mountain biking because it is super strong and the weight is centered around the bottom bracket to provide great bike handling and stability for disciplines such as downhill. Pinion has launched a whole new line of lower priced gearboxes, the C-line, that range from 6 speeds up to 12. Gates is a perfect companion technology for Pinion and gives us great scope to expand deeper into the mountain bike market.”
There’s movement on price too, bringing the simplicity of the belt to the consumer for which it is perhaps most relevant – the less bike savvy consumer who just wants to ride , not maintain.
“Urban commuting is our biggest market and the biggest opportunity for growth of bicycling globally,” offers Sellden. “We now have two distinct product lines: our premium CDX belt and sprockets, which are made for the most abusive types of cycling, and our new CDN line for city and urban bicycles. While just a few years in the market, CDN has quietly grown to nearly a third of our sales. Since the two systems are totally interchangeable, CDN belts can be combined with CDX front or rear sprockets to match the performance objective of a specific bicycle.
“The CDN system allows bike brands to produce bikes with hub gears and our belts for $700 or $800, with some brands such as Priority creating beach cruisers and townies for $400. We are known for being a premium component on high end bikes, but we really want to be in this affordable town bike market because these are the bikes ridden by real people, non-enthusiasts, and we know that if we can make bicycling easier and simpler by getting rid of rust and maintenance and providing a cool low-maintenance bike then maybe these people will ride more and upgrade to a premium eBike or city bike with an internal hub.”
Meeting the mass market urban bike market demand has prompted the firm to look at new manufacturing technologies to improve costs, but there is no getting around the fact that belt drives are more expensive than a chain, admits Sellden. But can it work out cheaper in the long run for the consumer and the brand to go belted?
“The price is due to the fact it is a more complex product to manufacture, with carbon fiber cord and many proprietary technologies, but as our sales grow we will continue to drive down costs with the goal of helping bike brands put our belts on their highest selling models.
“Gates Carbon Drive is used on tandems and BMX bikes, cargo bikes, touring and trekking and cyclocross and gravel and eBikes. We are also increasingly used on spin class and stationary bikes because it is quieter and lasts longer than chains for these applications. Maintaining and having to re-tension stretched chains is a big expense for fitness clubs and spin class studios, and Gates offers a solution there. Carbon Drive is also used on water bikes such as those made by Schiller. You couldn’t use chains on a water bike because they would rust and leave a greasy slick in the water. So we are seeing innovators and inventors create new types of bikes and pedal powered devices. I find that very cool and satisfying.
“Now our mission is to continue expanding our product line and driving down prices through higher volumes, enabling more bikes to be delivered to market and prices ranging from several hundred dollars up to the most expensive premium applications.”
Hitting new genres and pricepoints means that it’s now not uncommon for bike dealers to host a number of belted builds on the shop floor, but the vast majority of the potential remains, explains Sellden.
“Bike dealers should consider stocking bikes with Gates belt drives because these bikes are selling, both in Europe and in the US. Slow adopters want low-risk proven products, and Gates Carbon Drive delivers. While Europe has a wider variety of brands and bikes that are using Gates Carbon Drive, the US is catching up, and we are also growing by leaps in Asia
One of the great things about bikes with belt drives is that consumers can easily see and understand the differences over chain. It is a funny experience when you meet a customer interested in a belt driven bike, and while you prepare to review the benefits of the Gates system the customer says, ‘Oh, that looks smooth. There is no grease. My brother’s Harley has a belt drive and it is really durable.’
“Many dealers get it. In the UK, for instance, Velorution has been a leader in selling Gates belted bikes. Bicyclists who live in the London area and want to test and see a range of bikes with Gates Carbon Drive visit Velorution as a destination store.”
Often consumers buying a belted bike won’t immediately associate Gates with the Harley Davidson brand, but the firm has supplied the iconic motorcycle label for decades. With that comes a certain level of kudos for Gates’ engineers, says Sellden.
He says of the research and development behind the product: “Gates was the first company to deploy carbon fiber in a dynamic application. Most bicyclists think of carbon as a frame material, which is a static application. Our PhD chemists and scientists developed a carbon cord that can bend and flex, as is needed in a belt drive, and that really allowed us to enter the bike market. We have the good fortune of leveraging the work of Gates PhD polymer scientists who are primarily focused on automotive and industrial products. My background is mechanical engineering, and I know from experience that the real technology within Gates comes from our chemists who develop polymer compounds and adhesion systems that bind multiple components to work as a simple belt. If you could peer inside our belts you would find decades of technological innovation that allows belts to perform to incredible standards of durability and strength.”
The perhaps billion dollar question remains; could the belt ever become as commonplace as the chain? Sellden believes the urban bicycle market’s potential is mostly yet to be realised, so, maybe.
“In some segments of bicycles, such as city bikes, belts combined with an internal geared hub, such as Shimano Nexus, is clearly a better option. As the durability and low maintenance of belts proves out on eBikes, Gates belts will become an increasingly strong option to a chain & derailleur combination. We continue to gain market share every year, and we know that will continue, but to predict the future is a perilous task. Gates Carbon Drive is excited to be celebrating its 10th year in the bicycle market. But Gates as a company, is actually 106 years old so we tend to have a long-term view. We realize it may take time for belt drives to overtake chain drives in some segments, but the current growth rate is a very positive trend line. There are billions of bicycles in the world, so there will always be room for both chains and Gates belts.”
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