Choosing between chain vs belt drive eBikes is one of the hardest things in your buying decision.
Chains are cheap to purchase, easy to replace, compatible with derailleurs, and have been around forever (since the 1880s, to be precise). They are tried, tested, and trustworthy. Belts, on the other hand, are efficient, durable, and clean. Not your average clean… insanely clean! And they’re practically maintenance-free as well.
But it’s not so simple – there’s SO much more!
In this blog, I’ll be going really deep into pretty much every difference that exists between chain vs belt drive eBikes. And let me warn you beforehand, I’m a huge fan of belts… but I promise I’ll honestly applaud the chains where they deserve and roast the belts where they suck.
Here’s what this blog will cover.
- Chain vs Belt Drive Electric Bikes
- Chain vs Belt: Which eBike to Get?
So, let’s start (with the summary, of course)!
Chain vs Belt Drive eBikes Summary
|~ 300 grams
|~ 87 grams
|Complex, have more moving parts
|Frequently needs cleaning & lubing
|Can be angular
|Old, tested, and proven
|Compatible with every kind of bike frame
|Special features (split in the frame, belt tensioner system) are required
|Compatible with derailleurs/ external gears
Compatible with internal gear hub or crank-based gearbox
|Compatible with full suspension bikes
|Not compatible, though rare exceptions exist
|Better at lower power outputs
Better at higher power outputs
|Loses efficiency with time due to wear and ‘stretching’
|No wear and no loss of efficiency with time
|Easy, can install any chainring/ cog to alter gear ratio
Belt lengths are set and are not adjustable
|Prone to corrosion and rust due to metal alloy build
|Made of modern synthetic materials which don’t rust or corrode
|Lasts around 3-4k miles on average
Lasts around 15-20k miles on average
Impact on Frame
|Works at low tension, so no significant impact on frame
|Works at high tension, so bottom brackets and rear hub bearings deteriorate faster
|Service and Replacement
|Chains are easy to service and replace. Spare parts are universally available
Very complex. Takes more know-how and advanced tools. Spare parts are hard to find
Chain vs Belt Drive Electric Bikes
Let’s now dig deep into the differences between chain vs belt drive eBikes, starting with their build and working – as it’s what causes all these differences in the first place.
Build & Working
Chain drive eBikes, as you’d know, use an alloy steel chain to transfer power from a chainring/ sprocket mounted at the cranks to a cassette attached to the rear wheel. The cassette consists of cogs of multiple sizes – and the chain can be shifted up or down them by a derailleur.
Single-speed eBikes (the simplest drivetrain of all) comprise just one front chainring and one rear cog. It’s simple, strong, neat, and low-maintenance – but the biggest downside is that you’ll always be stuck in one gear… which will haunt you every time you climb a hill.
In multi-speed eBikes, you always have more than one cog in the rear cassette and sometimes more sprockets in the front. You can even have two derailleurs.
So, a chain drivetrain is usually more complex.
Besides the other drivetrain components, chains themselves are more complex than belts because they have more moving parts. I mean, each link has a whole new world of tiny components inside it.
More moving parts mean more maintenance (more on that later)… but the biggest advantage you get with chain drivetrains is that you can alter your gear ratio (by going multi-speed, as I mentioned above) to adapt to the challenge ahead.
Belt drive eBikes, on the other hand, don’t use chains to drive the rear wheel. They instead use a toothed belt in conjunction with a front chainring and a rear cog.
The belt is made of high-strength composite material, usually carbon fiber-reinforced nylon. It’s really, really strong (the folks at Gates Carbon Drive have a video where they lift a gigantic forklift using one of their belts, and it’s just insane).
Anyways, the technology is the same as that used in belt-driven motorcycles (such as Harley Davidson), racing car engines, and industrial operations – though the strength of the belt used in each case may vary for obvious reasons!
Belts are mechanically simpler than chains as they are made in one single loop with no moving parts – no pins, rollers, plates, or anything. While it may sound cool (which it is), the downside is that belts can’t stretch out like chains.
Gears & Driveline
In chain drive eBikes, the driveline doesn’t need to be straight, as the chain can run at any angle due to its unique and flexible build.
It means with these eBikes, you can easily go single-speed (straight driveline), or you can go multi-speed (angular driveline) by using a rear cassette and derailleur.
The insane level of compatibility that chains have with derailleurs – the modest, inexpensive, and most commonly used bike gear system in the world – is their biggest advantage over belt drive eBikes.
I mean chain and derailleur is a match made in heaven!
If you’re a cyclist you would know what this duo is capable of. If you’re not, just know that this arrangement helps you at ALL times. It allows you to get more torque at hills or more speed at flat roads/ descents. It literally opens a world of new opportunities.
But unlike chains, belts can’t run at an angle – they can only operate in a straight driveline between the chainring and the cog. It means you can’t use a belt with a derailleur or any kind of external gear system.
You would either have to go single speed (and forget that such things as hills exist) or limit yourself to crank-based gearboxes (such as Pinion gearbox), or internal gear hubs (such as Rohloff Speedhub).
Ditching external gear hubs has its upsides – you get better aesthetics and performance, can shift gears while stopped, can jump to any gear at any time, or can even enjoy a continuously varying transmission (such as NuVinci hub) – but all that means parting with more Benjis! Boy, are they expensive!
Efficiency & Performance
When it comes to belt vs chain efficiency, belt drives are clearly superior due to many reasons.
As I mentioned before, belts always operate in a straight/ horizontal line between the front chainring and the rear cog. It’s the most efficient driveline with absolutely minimal energy losses. Even if you go multi-speed with belts, all gear shifting would still occur in a gearbox or internal hub and the overall drivetrain will remain efficient.
On the other hand, running the chain diagonally or at any angle using the derailleur increases friction in the drivetrain, which reduces energy efficiency. Of course, you can use internally geared hubs or go single-speed to keep the driveline straight at all times and achieve higher efficiency. But eBikes that combine chains with internal gears are pretty rare.
Another reason belts are significantly more efficient than chains is that they don’t wear out as quickly as chains.
Chains might work better initially – but they wear or ‘stretch’ over time. This stretching is basically the loss of substance on the chain from wear. Loose chains are prone to slipping, which causes a considerable loss in efficiency.
Compared to that, belts maintain their shape almost indefinitely… and the drivetrain stays efficient during their entire lifecycle (which is also pretty long, btw). As a matter of fact, it’s the chainrings and cogs and not the belts that wear out first. Nonetheless, they wear down more rapidly with chains than they do with belts.
Also, not scrubbing and greasing the chain enough can accelerate the wear process, leading to further drops in efficiency.
Another thing to keep in mind is that chains work more efficiently at low power inputs whereas belts are more efficient at high power outputs. It explains why low-end eBikes with weaker hub motors come with a chain drivetrain and premium mid-drive eBikes feature belts.
Compatibility & Adjustment
Chains go with every kind of bike frame but belts don’t. Since they are manufactured as a single continuous loop they can only be installed if the bike frame has a split in the rear triangle – which considerably reduces its stiffness (some bikes use an innovative frame design to avoid the split in the frame, though). With belts, you also need a tensioner system for their proper functioning.
Another thing to note is that belts can’t go with a full suspension bike as they can’t withstand the change in the chainstay length when the suspension travels during the shock absorption process. Chain drive systems, on the other hand, can perfectly work with a full suspension bike as the rear derailleur can easily alter the chain length without losing tension using the springs inside it.
Belts can also limit your rim width or tire size in some cases as they’re wider than chains and can lead to clearance issues.
Another thing I don’t like about belts is that you can’t adjust them like chains. As their lengths are set, you can’t install a new cog or chainring to change your gear ratio (as you can easily do with chains). If you want to do so, you would have no choice except to buy a new belt with a different length. With chains, you’re practically free to do whatever you want!
Maintenance & Cleaning
Practically speaking, belt drives require NO maintenance. In fact, this is the very reason most people switch to them. They don’t need to be oiled or lubed and don’t even require any adjustments at all.
Even if you take them to the nastiest of terrains, they would just need a quick scrub to get rid of all that dirt or mud. You can even choose to skip that – and you’ll be fine.
On the other side, maintenance is honestly speaking just another name for chain drivetrains. In order to keep your chain running smoothly, you need to keep it as clean and as lubed as you possibly can. The more, the better!
The frequency of cleaning and maintenance of your chain drivetrain may vary from a couple of days to once a month, depending on your use.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and greasy every now and then, you can go for a chain. But if you do, look the other way!
As belts don’t need any lubrication, they usually don’t get covered with dirt or mud as easily as the chains. They are way too clean and you can confidently throw them in the trunk of your car or behind your desk. This neat, grease-free nature of belts makes them suitable for those who want a clean ride to work… and also for tourists and backpackers.
But chain drive eBikes aren’t so clean, and you have to be really careful where you’re putting or storing them.
Reliability & Durability
Since chains are made of metal, they tend to corrode, especially if you live in an area with weather conditions favorable to rusting. Belts, on the other hand, are made from synthetic composite materials, which don’t rust like chains.
However, having more moving parts, chains and other related drivetrain components wear out more quickly than in belt drive eBikes.
While a well-maintained chain drivetrain can last for a maximum of 5k miles in absolutely ideal conditions, belts can let you cruise up to 20k miles before needing a replacement – and this is one of the things I like the most about them. A belt lasts at least 3x more than a chain drive, on average!
However, belts have their own demons. While they do last longer than chains, they’re way too hard on your bottom bracket and rear hub bearings due to their significantly higher tension. The added stress leads to quicker wear of the bearings.
Replacement & Repair
Although belts are durable, they can still fail… and when they do, finding replacement parts can be hard.
For instance, if you ride in a remote area, it can be nearly impossible to find a replacement belt or chainring. You can either purchase them online or only at high-end retailers. On the other hand, replacement parts for chain drivetrains are easier to find even in the remotest areas of the world.
You can even repair or replace a chain by yourself if it breaks. But if your belt gets damaged in the middle of nowhere (though it’s very unlikely… but not impossible) with no mechanic shop around you, you are screwed!
Weight & Sound
Belts are significantly lighter than chains. Even then, the difference in weight is too small to have any meaningful impact on your ride or the overall weight of your bike.
However, as an upside, belt drive eBikes are almost silent. In chain drivetrains, you hear the sound of metal parts moving against other metal parts quite a lot, especially when shifting gears. The noise intensifies if the chain is not adjusted right or if it has worn out with use.
Pricing & Options
Chain drive eBikes are quite inexpensive as they are made of relatively cheap material and use pretty old technology. It’s also because they are easier to manufacture and can go with any frame. And like I said earlier, derailleurs are one of the cheapest gear systems out there – so that also helps reduce the costs.
Since most people on the market want to stay below $2,000, you have a LOT more options to choose from when buying a chain drive eBike.
Belt drive eBikes, on the other hand, require custom-made frames and are therefore quite expensive (with fewer options).
Belts are costlier in themselves but if you plan to go multi-speed and you add in the cost of an internal gear hub or a crank-based gearbox, the costs rapidly mount up to insane levels. However, when you factor in the long service life of belt drivetrains (and all the fun), the gap between the costs narrows down a bit.
Chain vs Belt: Which eBike to Get?
I guess I have covered everything about chain vs belt drive eBikes, so I’ll be brief here.
Truth be told, both chains and belts have their pros and cons. Both systems are great and choosing between the two is just a matter of personal preference.
If you’re tight on budget, or you have a thing for derailleur (as many avid cyclists do), or you don’t mind getting grease on your hands every now and then, go for the chain.
As a matter of fact, if you live in a hilly area and you can’t afford to have internal or crank-based gears, you’d have no choice but to go for a multi-speed chain drive eBike. And if that’s the case, here are the ones we’d suggest you check out:
Best Chain Drive eBikes
Link to Buy
|Ancheer 26” City
|Bargain price tag, lots of features
|Rad Power Bikes RadMission
|Reliable and durable brand, great looks
|Attractive exterior, leather styling
|Stunning 124 miles (200km) mileage
Best Fat Tire
|Puncture-resistant tires with thick tread
|Aventon Pace 500
|Best in every aspect, suits every rider
Best Folding City
|Light & sleek Magnesium frame, torque sensor
On the other hand, if you want to have a reliable, durable, and efficient drivetrain, or if you’re looking for a single-speed eBike to be used on flat city roads, or if you’re just a clean freak and hate those nasty maintenance drills, the belt drive eBikes are the way to go.
Also, if your commute involves ascents or hills and you can afford the internal or crank-based gears, just get a belt – it’s absolutely worth it!
Here are the ones we like the most:
Best Belt Drive eBikes
|Link to Buy
|Ride1UP Roadster V2
|Feathery 15kg (33lbs) with affordable tag
|FLX Babymaker II
|Sleek frame with gates carbon drive belt
|Multi-speed with mid-drive torque sensing motor
|Trek Allant+ 9S
|Bosch mid-drive motor with Enviolo Trekking CVT hub
|Riese & Müller Charger4 Mixte GT Vario
|Bosch mid-drive motor with Enviolo continuous hub gear
If you want to explore more electric bikes, here are the best eBikes for urban use, here are the best ones on Amazon, and here are the best options under $1000! If you don’t want to buy a new eBike at all, you can electrify your regular bicycle with electric bike conversion kits at an affordable cost, provided that it’s in good shape.
Hope it was an informative read!