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Chains vs. Belts for Electric Bikes

We’re all about helping you choose the very best e-bike for your needs, whether you are after an electric mountain bike, an electric cargo bike, commuter or touring ebike.

One of the questions that we get regularly when people are comparing bike models is about chains versus belts. We sell lots of bikes that use chains and derailleurs in the drivetrains, and a few that use belts and internal gear hubs too.

Pros and cons

So what’s the difference between the two and how should you choose what to get? While there are lots of pros and cons for each system, we wanted to cover the main ones that are important to the buyers of our electric bikes and not confuse the issue with ones that don’t make much difference.

The key thing to remember is some of the pros and cons of the two systems, such as efficiency, can make a difference on non-electric bikes. Once you go electric they don’t really apply.

Chain Drive

On the positive side chain drives, or more specifically the derailleur method of shifting gears, is quiet, crisp, responsive and generally costs less. A well tuned chain and derailleur system is a joy to use and you should be able to smoothly and easily shift gears under load. There are also automatic shifting options coming that are integrated with ebikes, so your can set you pedal cadence speed and let the bike change gears automatically for you. 

On the negative side, well tuned and maintained is key. Chain drive systems need regular cleaning, lubrication and adjustment. If you don’t do it, it can lead to poor performance and premature wear. One thing that we often see with our Christchurch customers is the small cogs (the high gears) on their ebikes wearing out due to the bikes being ridden mostly on the flat and under high power. The chain forces are being transferred through just a few teeth on the small cogs and they do wear faster. Luckily these small cogs can be replaced cheaply, avoiding costly replacement of the entire cassette.  

When it comes to lubrication, if you use oil based chain lube, it gets dirty and can then get on you and your clothes. A hint here - modern wax based lubes are just as good as other types of lube for most uses, and leave your chain, clothes and you clean.

Lastly if you are planning on doing lots of riding away from main centres, replacement chains are easy to find, and pretty much any bike shop will have replacement chains in stock should you need one.

Belt drive

The first thing that people notice when they jump a belt drive bike is how quiet they are.

What isn’t so obvious is how durable and low maintenance they are. Belts don’t need lubricating, so don’t attract dirt and debris. They are less prone to stretching too, so drive systems with belts tend to need less tuning. Unlike the chain driven bikes, belt drive bikes don't suffer from the accelerated wear on the cogs -  something our Christchurch customers riding at high speed on the flat roads appreciate. 

Bikes with belts use internally geared hubs, and as a rule these are incredibly durable and maintenance free. As an example Rohloff hubs just need an oil change every 5,000 km, and some are still performing well after several hundred thousand km.

Internally geared hubs do come with some drawbacks though. Their shifting often isn’t as smooth and easy as a chain/derailleur system. However, there are also automatic options now available that shift for you and smoothly match the "gear" of the bike to the speed you are going and how hard you are pedalling.

Belt drives are less common than chains too. That means you might not be able to get the exact bike you want with a chain drive, and if you do happen to break a belt away from a main centre, you might find a bike shop has to order a replacement in.  

So what to choose?

If you want durability, low maintenance and a clean drivetrain, or will always be riding fast on the flat in the high gears on a high speed ebike go for a belt.

If you want easily adjustable, readily available parts and familiar shifting, and don’t mind the regular lubrication and maintenance, go for a chain.

BUT, the single biggest piece of advice we have for most people, is choose the bike that best meets your needs across a range of criteria. Don’t get too hung up on whether it has a chain or belt.

Ultimately, the best way to know what to get is to test ride it. Come and talk to us, and we can help you find the bikes that are going to suit you best, and we can set up some test rides for you. That way you can experience the differences between chains and belts for yourself.

Contact us to talk about what you want your new ebike to do.