Belt vs. Chain Drive Electric Bike

The question of belt vs chain drive on electric bikes is something may be pondering if you’re trying to determine the best electric bike based on your needs. While belt drives are often considered an upgrade from the older chain belt style, they’re not always the best choice, and since they’re increasingly common, you should get to know the pros and cons of each kind.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Chain drives are inexpensive, easy to find, and compatible with most motor and frame types.
  • Belt drives offer superior durability with little to no maintenance, but their considerably higher cost makes them less practical for casual riders.
  • Chain drives require regular maintenance and are susceptible to rusting, which may mitigate their appeal to casual riders in comparison to maintenance-free belt drives.

Differences between Belt Drive and Chain Drive Systems

Chain drives have generally been the most common variety on e-bikes since they first appeared on the market, and go back at least 100 years on traditional bicycles. They’re so ubiquitous that many people have only ever seen a chain drive on a bicycle, e-bike, or motorcycle, and the fact that they’ve remained the primary technology for over a century speaks to the effectiveness of the system.

More recently, belt drives- which are made of a single piece usually made of an ultra-strong synthetic fiber attached to pulleys on the gearbox and rear wheel have begun to emerge on e-bikes as an alternative, and they’re generally marketed as an improvement on the chain drive. While this is often true, several factors- like value and compatibility- should be considered before either purchasing an e-bike or changing from one drive type to the other.

Like the debate over brake pads vs disc brakes, the choice comes down to the kind of rider you are.

Insider Tip

Chain belts are easy to replace and repair and will fit most e-bikes regardless of motor or frame types.

Value

The most immediate difference between chain drives and the less common belt drive is that chain drives are considerably less expensive. Belt drives are a newer technology compared to chain drives and they’ve only recently started to be more common on e-bikes- though as they become more and more common, those prices are likely to drop considerably.

Compatibility

When it comes to upgrading or switching drives on an e-bike you already own, compatibility is going to be a key factor when deciding between drive types. Here, chain drives have the advantage- most chain drives will be compatible with most e-bikes regardless of motor, wheel, or bike frame types. Conversely, belt drives are a newer option, and are often more proprietary- there are also far fewer options and even fewer belt drive bikes.

Repairability

A chain drivetrain is made of multiple pieces (the chain itself) that can be removed or replaced, making repairs possible in many cases. Belt drives, being one piece, can’t be dismantled in order to do repairs and thus will generally require a replacement depending on the damage- and being more expensive and less common than chain drives, this can be an issue.

Noise

Here’s where belt drives definitely have a major advantage. Chain drives can be quite noisy due to their metal construction and multiple pieces, especially at higher speeds. Belt drives aren’t metal and are comprised of one single strip of material, making them far quieter in any situation.

Durability/Maintenance

Chain drives require far more maintenance than belt drives- they need to be cleaned and dry lube treated regularly to keep them running smoothly. They’re also more susceptible to the elements, can limit top speeds, and can rust if not properly cared for. Belt drives, on the other hand, are extremely tough, don’t rust or wear down like chain drives, can support more weight, and don’t require any special maintenance.

Warning

While chain belts are far less expensive and not difficult to find, they require regular maintenance that belt drives do not.

F.A.Q.S

What are the most common drive types for e-bikes?

The traditional chain drive is by far the most common drive type found on an e-bike drivetrain, followed by belt drives. Other very uncommon drive types that some e-bikes come installed with are shaft drives, string drives, treadle drives, and direct drives.


Will belt drives get any cheaper?

Belt drives are often considered upgrades to chain drives and have only recently started to come built-in on more e-bikes. If they start to become the standard, there should be a significant but gradual lowering of prices on belt drives, though this could take several years yet.


Are belt drives worth it?

If you ride on a regular basis, especially in a range of rough weather and terrain, a belt drive will provide far superior performance and durability with none of the maintenance required by chain drives, but for a very casual rider who mostly sticks to roads and doesn’t ride more than a couple of times a week, it may not be worth the price.



STAT: A worn-out chain drive is around 4% less efficient than a worn-out belt drive in terms of battery drain. (source)

STAT: Conversely, research suggests that chain drives in good condition are about 20% more energy-efficient than belt drives in good condition. (source)

STAT: A well-maintained belt drive can last 3-5 times longer than a typical chain drive. (source)

Jed Smith

I'm a musician and recording engineer and live in Queens. I have a cat. Her name is Elsa. I love to write about consumer tech and musical instruments.

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