Cyclists throw off chains with new belt-drive

Monday, December 1, 2008

If you've ever been riding down the street and had the cuff of your pants ripped by your old bike chain, there may be a revolution at hand.

The Trek Bicycle Company is part of a movement to bury the finger-pinching, pants-munching, grease-laden, rust-prone sprocket and chain, and usher in the era of belt-driven bikes.

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

The nation's largest domestic bike manufacturer is hoping to capitalize on a new group of urban cyclists who are trading their cars for a more low-tech way to get around because of volatile gasoline prices as well as health and environmental concerns.

"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" the consumers and Trek. He said a belt is a low-maintenance solution to a chain, which has roughly 3,000 parts, including 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 an unlikely scenario, Bjorling said.

One version of the chainless bike, the District ($930), is a single-speed, complete with a silver body, orange accents and brown leather seat and handles. The other, the Soho ($990), is an eight-speed bike that uses an internal hub to adjust the speed rather than gears.

Bjorling admits chain-driven bikes are still more efficient, but said an urban rider won't have to worry about greasing or cleaning the chain. The belt can be cleaned with a normal cleaning agent and rag, and the bike sprocket is designed to push through any snow, dirt or grime. And one belt will typically last three years -- the life span of three chains.

It will be interesting to see if Trek or Cannondale will be able to develop this technology for racing bikes. That would be the greatest revolution in bicycle technology since the invention of index shifting.

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