Greg Martin, a 37-year-old firefighter from Ketchum, Idaho, won the single-speed division (and came in fifth overall) on a bike that didn't have a chain. It used a smooth, silent, carbon-polyurethane belt — similar to that of auto transmission and timing belts — to prove that belt-drive, a new technology unknown to most bikers, is ready for prime time.
With dedicated chain rings required to match the studded belt, this Carbon Drive system from Gates, a leading motor-vehicle belt supplier, isn't cheap — and it can't be used with derailleurs. But the system offers a number of benefits over the 150-year-old chain. It's lighter; doesn't use grease; requires no maintenance; won't break, stretch, rust or fall off; and, best of all, it offers a pronounced improvement in "engagement" — the millisecond it takes for the bike to react to your pedaling forces.
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Each of the four review bikes below (reflecting categories that are best suited to belt-drive) delivered an instant reaction that my cycling buddies and I found rather exhilarating.
— Roy M. Wallack
Spot SS 29er: Steel-frame, front-suspension, single-speed, Carbon Drive replica of Greg Martin's world championship bike. Features oversized 29er wheels, disc brakes and a Maverick SC32 inverted fork with 4.75 inches of travel.
Likes: I felt supercharged. With its large wheels, the SS is spectacularly fast compared with a normal 26-inch-wheel mountain bike. And being a single speed, it's a time machine, taking you back to childhood, to a simpler, purer, more fun form of riding. With no gears to shift, you climb by standing out of the saddle, rocking the bike side to side, pushing the pedals with arms, back, glutes — not just your quads. With my whole body sharing the work, I finished a solid 2 1/2-hour climb in the Santa Anas uncharacteristically fresh and ready to do it again. The technology plays a big role here; with the belt's lack of a time lag and the fork's unique vertical engagement with the massive, proprietary 7/8-inch diameter front hub, the bike jumps when you say so. The exotic inverted fork also stays naturally lubed and dirt-free better than conventional forks. The steel frame is light, durable and will hold its lively ride feel for decades. Finally, Spot's unique "slider" rear dropout makes wheel removal and proper belt positioning easy and simple. Weighs 22 pounds.
Dislikes: None — except the price.
Price: $4,400. (303) 324-8313; http://www.spotbikes.com.
Trek Soho: The first Carbon Drive bike, introduced in 2009, is a stylish, aluminum-framed commuter-coffee road bike with Shimano's eight-speed internal-geared hub, puncture-resistant tires, fenders and a fancy insulated aluminum latte thermos.
Likes: A blast. Fast, aggressive, nimble handling and great out-of-the-saddle hill-climbing for fitness and commuting. That's due to the lean-forward, mountain-bike positioning, 700C road wheels, and an eight-speed drivetrain with a potent 55-tooth sprocket. Cool styling, including a muscular top tube festooned with racy rubber panels. 32 pounds.
Dislikes: No commuter rack included (although it has front and rear rack eyelets). Mushy drum brakes (instead of better disks) don't cut it for potential high speeds and hills. No kickstand, so you might unintentionally dent your fender while pit-stopping at Starbucks. A lack of quick-release hubs hinders easy transport and quick flat-fixing.
Price: $1,149. (800) 313-8735; http://www.trekbikes.com.
Touring dream machine
Co-Motion Americano Rohloff: Deluxe, steel-framed long-distance touring bike with disc brakes and the acclaimed German-made Rohloff Speedhub 14-speed internally geared hub.
Likes: A bike tourist's dream. Possibly the world's most durable, trouble-free tour bike, an invaluable asset on mega-mile round-the-world journeys through off-the-beaten-paths hot spots such as Botswana, Kazakhstan and northern Nevada. The belt drive and Rohloff rear hub eliminate the need for finicky derailleurs and provide an acceptable range for flatland flying and steep hill climbing. Classic looks with a matching Brooks leather seat and handlebar. The durability is worth the tradeoff of the extra-heavy hub, and it isn't that big a deal on loaded touring, anyway. 27.4 pounds.
Dislikes: Cumbersome shifting. The Rohloff's twist shifter requires excessive torque, lacks visible gear numbers (so you can't tell what gear you're in) and is located inconveniently, making you move your right hand 6 inches from the brake hoods or the top of the bars to the end of the drop. Bottom line: You momentarily control the bar with only one hand and can't make shifts while standing. I did get used to it after a couple of hours, and as an old world tourer love the bike nonetheless, but Rohloff should make a more road-bike friendly version. For now, putting this shifter on flat bars would be safer and more natural.
Price: $5,446 ($5,146 with standard chain). (866) 282-6336; http://www.co-motion.com/single_bikes/amerohloff.html.
Shop till you drop
Specialized Globe Live 03: Deluxe eight-speed, aluminum-frame "shopping bike" with a large front rack, wraparound handlebars, disc brakes, bell, kickstand and fenders from Specialized's new Globe division. A step-through frame is also available.
Likes: Rides great, with a super-comfortable, upright-back riding position — perfect for casual riders out for neighborhood errands and fun, functional fitness with friends. Solid, dual-legged kickstand perfect for parking at Starbucks and loading up to two bags of groceries in the wide, wood-bottomed rack. A limiter spring helps keep your handlebars under control while steering. Well-coiffed with matching, cream-colored tires, seat and handle grips. 33.5 pounds.
Dislikes: No hard-core hammering; the 46-tooth sprocket makes it a good hill climber (and good at carrying heavy loads) but limits top-end speed. Quite expensive for a casual bike. Also, the large open gaps and shallowness of the rack diminish its functionality; small items can easily fall out, and tall items can tip over; serious bungee-cording is required for all cargo big and small.
Price: $1,550; (Similar Globe 2 and 1 models, with standard chain drive, run $940 and $580, respectively.) (408) 779-6229; specialized.com or globebikes.com.
Roy M. Wallack is the author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." email@example.com