How to Ride Other People’s Bikes

08.28.2008 | 6:23 am

Last Friday, I made an exception.

On ordinary weekdays, I don’t drive out of my way to go on a ride, because I don’t have a lot of spare time, and I have plenty of good riding right out my front door.

But, as I mentioned, last Friday I made an exception.

This exception was due to the fact that Kenny had installed his new belt drive on his Spot 29″ SS, and I — like anyone with an ounce of bike nerd in him — wanted to see it.

And by “see it,” I of course mean, “try it for myself.”

How to Choose Your Riding Buddies
Luckily for me (and not quite so luckily for Kenny), we’re fairly compatible for bike swaps. But what do I mean by “fairly compatible?” I’m glad you asked. Here are the bike swap compatibility metrics.

  • Bike Size: Kenny and I ride the same size bikes. We’re an excellent match this way.
  • Inseam: Our riding height is within 1″ of each other — I’d guess that Kenny’s saddle-to-pedal distance is 1cm greater than mine.
  • Pedal or Shoe Size Similarity: Kenny rides with Eggbeaters, I ride with Time ATACs. (As an aside, I have a theory that everyone who rides with Eggbeaters have formerly ridden with ATACs, but were seduced by the weight savings. My theory continues that everyone who rides with Eggbeaters will eventually move back to ATACs.) This is not optimal, but our shoe sizes are within 2 sizes (European) of each other. I wear a 43, he wears a 45. This works better for me than it does for him.
  • Setup peculiarities: It’s helpful to both parties if neither of you have odd bike setups. This is where I fall off the wagon a bit. I ride with Mary bars, which freak everyone out at first (especially on the downhills), and I have my brakes set up for the middle finger. Oh, and I put my saddle on backwards. Some people find that uncomfortable.
  • Saddle similarity: Kenny and I both ride the Selle Italia SLR. Apart from the fact that mine faces the opposite direction of most people’s (some people call it “the wrong way,” which I find an unnecessary and harsh value judgement), our saddle preference match is ideal.
  • Desirability: Kenny has a bike worth borrowing. If he didn’t have a really interesting bike, none of the other metrics would even matter.

If your compatibility in any of these metrics fails utterly, a bike swap is simply not possible. In which case, I recommend you eschew these non-compatible bike riders and begin to find yourself a more suitable set of riding buddies. Preferably, riding buddies that are approximately your size, use the same pedal setup as you, and who spend lots and lots of money on equipment you can then try out for free.

Bike Borrowing Etiquette
Before I get to my disappointingly short and ill-informed impressions of Kenny’s new drivetrain, first I need to describe the rules by which everyone who trades bikes — whether for a moment during a ride or for a couple of months — must abide.

Rule #1: You are a guest. After riding a borrowed bike, you must, upon returning it, immediately describe said borrowed bicycle as a “really great bike.” It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Say it, no matter what. In fact, say it especially if you didn’t care for the bike all that much. Critiquing another person’s bike is much like critiquing another person’s children, but moreso.

Rule #2: You break it, you buy it. Suppose you borrow a bike, throw a leg over, and turn the cranks exactly twice before the frame breaks neatly into two pieces, which roll — comically — off in two separate directions. You owe the lender a new frame. Don’t argue the point, and don’t try to weasel out of it. If you weren’t willing to take the responsibility, you shouldn’t have borrowed the bike.

The corresponding axiom to this rule is that if someone starts trying to loan his bike out a lot, it’s about to break.

Rule #3: No wiping boogers under the seat. Because that’s just gross.

OK, now I can go on to my short and disappointing description of how Kenny’s bike felt with that fancy new belt drivetrain.

Belt Drivetrain Observations

I should first make it clear that I rode Kenny’s bike with the new drivetrain for a whopping fifteen minutes, which was quite possibly not long enough to make a full and final assessment. That said, here are the things I noticed:

  • Quick Engagement: It did feel like the moment you begin turning the crank to the moment where you get power to the wheel is a little faster. That is, in fact, the most perceptible difference between this drivetrain and a normal chained drivetrain.
  • Sproinng: You know how when you pull a rubber band tight between two hands you can feel the vibration of the rubber band for a moment? There seems to be a tiny bit of this when you go from coasting to pedaling. Sort of a brief moment of vibration you can feel through the cranks. It’s not distracting or irritating or even audible. Just interesting.
  • Thonk: Under heavy torque (steep climbing), both Kenny and I made the belt hop a notch, causing a loud metallic-sounding “thonk” sound. I think this has to do with the belt Kenny’s got on there right now: it’s too long, so the hub is bolted waaaay back on the chainstay, back further than the tensioners will go.
  • Ssssshhhh. Apart from the “thonk” belt slip, the drivetrain was absolutely silent. I’ve heard from people that it can get squeaky when dirty or riding in dusty terrain. The way Utah is right now — no rain for what feels like months — I’m sure Kenny will find out firsthand whether this is the case.

By and large, though, the belt drivetrain didn’t feel radically different from a chain drivetrain. In fact, I’d call the difference in feel trivial.

Now, that makes it sound like I’m not interested in a belt drivetrain, but that’s not true. I’m still very interested in a belt drivetrain, provided it turns out that it really doesn’t have to be maintained — lubed — like a chain, doesn’t break, and doesn’t start squeaking. And that it doesn’t turn out to be easy to kink or otherwise ruin a belt just through normal hard use.

In other words, the way a belt drive is going to be appealing to me is if its maintenance characteristics reveal themselves as compelling: if the belt turns out to be stronger, more durable, and in general more ignorable than a chain. I don’t expect ride characteristics to be different enough to bring me aboard, at least not for a few interations of the belt technology.

So while I used to be really excited to jump right on this bandwagon, I’m now in a more cautious “wait and see” mode. I’ll be really interested to see if Kenny falls deeply in love with the belt drive and starts evangelizing it. Or if, contrariwise, he shows up some day with the chain drive back on the bike.

In short, the belt drive doesn’t sell itself as a snap decision. What’s going to make it popular — or kill it — will be the long-term reactions of the early adopters.

Holy smokes, I just gave an honest, non-ironic semireview of a new product.

Somebody slap me.


  1. Comment by cheapie | 08.28.2008 | 6:27 am

    oh man. i know i shouldn’t do this. everyone will hate me. but i…just…can’t…resist!



  2. Comment by Bryan | 08.28.2008 | 6:28 am

    Reading you describe how similar you and Kenny are leads me to think you two were matched using or Kinda freaky.

  3. Comment by cheapie | 08.28.2008 | 6:33 am

    since many chains break while shifting, and this is made for SS bikes, should we assume that there’s virtually no chance of the belt ripping in two? because if it does, there’s zero chance you’ll be able to finish your ride.

    what the belt sound like under normal load? is it silent (except for the two sounds you mentioned) during normal riding?

  4. Comment by fatty | 08.28.2008 | 6:34 am

    cheapie – that’s a good question and one i should have addressed in the body of my post. i’m going to amend the post, but the answer is: it was dead silent.

  5. Comment by Gavin | 08.28.2008 | 6:50 am

    Does the belt come in a fixed size ? How does one fit it onto the bike, it must split in two ? The Spot website ain’t really full of info.

    It does look interesting alright, certainly be keen to try it out on my singlespeed commuter. Maintenance would be reduced to brake pad and tube/tyre replacement.

  6. Comment by Travis | 08.28.2008 | 6:52 am

    I can’t think of how you can ride with a saddle thats backwards…. It would hurt my wedding tackle… do you really have it on backwards?

  7. Comment by Boz | 08.28.2008 | 6:58 am

    Since timing belts have driven cams in engines for ages with success, I can’t imagine any human being able to break that belt. There must be a way to install it without taking a hacksaw to the frame, like a secret slip joint or something. Hmmm…

  8. Comment by cheapie | 08.28.2008 | 7:04 am

    boz…maybe a removable piece in the right rear triangle?

  9. Comment by fatty | 08.28.2008 | 7:14 am

    travis – no, that was just me being hilarious. in reality, i have the saddle positioned sideways.

  10. Comment by Rob | 08.28.2008 | 7:15 am

    The belt get installed through a “keyhole” slot in the special rear dropout. The system requires a special frame. If you look in the comments for yesterday’s post (“online / Offline”) there’s a few links.

    If you look at this pix ( the white parts are the frame and the silver “wedge” is the key. When the rear wheel is unbolted, the key is removable and lets the belt pass through. Hope that makes some sense.

    WIN Susan.

  11. Comment by PissedOffCil | 08.28.2008 | 7:20 am

    I’d like a belt drive with a Rohloff… Now that would be a great setup!

  12. Comment by Aaron | 08.28.2008 | 7:34 am

    I doubt the belt is EVER going to break. Cars and trucks have been using belts for years, and they put a lot more load on the belt then any human could ever produce. Harley-Davidson has been using belt drive for decades. Again, a much harsher enviroment than a mountain bike would ever have. I like the idea of zero maintenence. It will be intersting to see if Spots idea takes off.

  13. Comment by KM | 08.28.2008 | 7:37 am

    Must hear more…….before opinions stick.

  14. Comment by BotchedExperiment | 08.28.2008 | 7:52 am

    FYI, when I try to get on Brad or Racer’s bikes, I can’t even touch the pedals while sitting on the saddle. It’s not optimal.

  15. Comment by Dobovedo | 08.28.2008 | 7:57 am


    (that wasn’t for Fatty, who literally asked for it. it was for the person – whether they tried to disguise it with humour or not – who posted a “first” comment)

  16. Comment by BotchedExperiment | 08.28.2008 | 8:08 am

    I’d say the fact that it didn’t feel much different than a chain is a strong selling point.

    It’s just like a chain, but better, which makes it better and not worse, unless it turnes out to be worse and not better, then it is worse.

    Personally, I’m ripping the fanbelt out of my car and grabbing a hacksaw. My Rig will be belted in a couple hours.

  17. Comment by cheapie | 08.28.2008 | 8:29 am

    sorry Dobovedo. too much time spent reading BSNYC i guess. ;-) won’t happen again. i promise.

  18. Comment by MattyDC | 08.28.2008 | 8:55 am

    Sure, the belt won’t crack under load. But is it really “no” maintenance. I would imagine alternating bouts of heat and wet weather/mud might lead the belt to dry out to the point of cracking.

    Also, what if one of the “teeth” flicks off. I assume the whole belt needs to be replaced vice a single link on a chain.

    Damn that Cotton Gin, I think the bike chain, like the violin, has reached its design zenith.


  19. Comment by Den | 08.28.2008 | 9:02 am

    *slap* *slap*

    You have your seat on backwards! I thought this was supposed to be a family site!


  20. Comment by bikemike | 08.28.2008 | 9:48 am

    the coolness factor could negate any disadvantages to this system. wayy cool looking.
    the cog and chainring look like something used in a 1950’s washing machine. very retro.

  21. Comment by Badder | 08.28.2008 | 9:50 am

    Fatty, in future I would suggest that you void talking about seat direction as it gets your loyal readers thinking about your genitalia in relation to the seat. Which can’t possibly be a good thing and quite possibly is illegal in some southern states.

    Now I feel icky

  22. Comment by Carlos | 08.28.2008 | 10:07 am

    Since you can’t shorten or lengthen your belt, it will limit your gearing, or at pretty much limit your gearing changes to your drop out/track end length and your front “belt wheel”. I agree though that mated with Rohloff might be sweet.

  23. Comment by Fat Bike Racer | 08.28.2008 | 10:20 am

    I can’t imagine the belt working in the muck of the east coast, how do you think it will work with mud packed in the teeth? Did you get any loose pebbles or plant life stuck in it? A chain is soooo self cleaning.

  24. Comment by Bob | 08.28.2008 | 10:38 am

    The belt would also self clean mud away, I’d think too that small pebbles would be a non issue because of the space between the belt teeth. They would just roll off harmlessly. I have a couple friends that have lost chains to sticks but barring a catastrophe I can’t see a belt falling to a stick either.

    The only real improvement I could see to that belt drive would be a light tensioner on the return side of the belt, ideally with any belt drive the leading tension takes care of itsself.

  25. Comment by kenny | 08.28.2008 | 10:40 am

    The reason the belt slipped is that I don’t have the right tensioner. I should be getting that today as well as a bigger front sprocket. I was able to tighten the belt a little better on yesterdays ride and rode hard with no slipping. On Sunday, I rode for 8 hours thru stream crossings and a lot of dust. One long section was so dry the dust must have been about 5 inches deep. The dust felt like water hitting my shins as it came off my front wheel. My point is, having a belt on this particular ride felt way better than having a chain. My buddies where all having chain related issues, but my belt felt the same at the end of the ride as it did when I started.

    I am worried about the belt breaking. I’ve heard there have been some issues with it. If a chain breaks you just replace a few links and you’re good to go. If the belt breaks you’re hiking out, which in my case could be some distance. The belt comes with a lot of warnings about how to handle it. Improper handling can damage the carbon tensile cords that make up the backbone of the belt’s strength.

    I think only time will tell, but for now, it feels great and I’m really excited to have it.

  26. Comment by 1E guy | 08.28.2008 | 10:47 am

    the belt comes in only one size, only one ring & cog combo avail… which when used on a 29 in wheel is right around 49 gear inches…certainly a pretty usable ratio…yes you must have a slotted rear dropout to install the belt…the belt is everything people are raving about(light,clean,retro…)EXCEPT bombproof. We have received demonstrations and clinics on installation, mine has been professionally installed and still I have personally broken 4(yes FOUR belts)I’ve given up and gone back to a chain.
    I love my Spot frame but am disappointed with the belt. I don’t get much useful info anymore from the supplier, other than maybe the Q.R. allowing the hub to shift a tiny amount causing the belt to walk off leading to nicking then breaking. In my opinion 4 breakages is not worthy of typical consumer use.

  27. Comment by Rick S. | 08.28.2008 | 10:58 am

    Note to others: Don’t ride with Kenny when he is trying to test out the belt drive. I learned my lesson yesterday.

    I rode his bike for like 30 ft and could tell how immediate the transfer of energy was. Very cool concept.

  28. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.28.2008 | 11:02 am

    With the style of belt SOP has selected, I would be very surprised to hear of a belt tooth flicking off.

    The belt will eventually need replacing due to degradation of the rubber compounds, but I don;t think thsi is going to happen very often. The timing belt in your car, which is subjected to more heat only needs to be replaced every 60,000 miles (well 80,000 in my case, generally) and this translates to 5 to 8 years. I guarantee you that the timing belt or the H-D motorcycle drive belt application is a lot tougher environment for a belt.

    The worst enemies of belt life are heat and applied power. A bicycle belt does not see much of either. The next worst enemy of this belt is going to be how it responds to dirt. I would not expect much problem for dry dusty dirt – maybe squeaks, but not much measurable reduction in belt life.

    I am wondering how these things will do in cyclocross-like situations with either heavy gritty mud carrying pebbles that might not pump out of the belt teeth, or thick heavy clay with grit.

    If the belt can manage this kind of stuff, that would be impressive. And pressure-washer cleaning, which is not very easy on chain life, will be great for a belt.


    I have exactly 2 bicycle buddies with compatable sizing and equipment. My son, and a friend, both of who have bikes in the XL/63cm frame size. Only problem is their bikes are way better than mine – There is no compelling reason for them to want to trade and ride mine!

  29. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.28.2008 | 11:03 am

    SPOT, not SOP

  30. Comment by Bryan (not that one) | 08.28.2008 | 11:21 am

    Can you carry a spare belt in case it breaks mid-ride?

    I don’t have a single speed so I have no idea if it’s feasible to tension a belt or even a chain mid-ride with typical seat bag tools.

  31. Comment by Spiff | 08.28.2008 | 11:24 am

    If, as 1E guy says, there is only one ring and cog combo available, I’ll wait until there’s more options. I like the idea, but I’d want more gearing options.

  32. Comment by Marrock | 08.28.2008 | 12:06 pm

    This strikes me as something better suited for the dedicated commuter bike than anything you’d pound on off-road.

    Belt drive with an internal hub sounds ideal for someone riding to work, the store, or whatever, not something I’d want to bomb down a mountainside with, IMO, YMMV.

    And I’m speaking as one that uses a bike as much as possible to get around town.

  33. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.28.2008 | 3:26 pm

    If, as Kenny says he is getting a larger front pulley, then it is not true, as 1e guys says, that there is only one available.

    just sayin’…

  34. Comment by blinddrew | 08.28.2008 | 3:36 pm

    interesting. the reason you only find belt drives on harleys and buells is because mechanically they’re not actually as efficient as a well set-up chain drive (by a factor of all of about 0.5%). Hence sport motorbikes use chains and lots of tourers use shafts (even less efficient but also less maintenance).
    I’d be interested to see how it would handle a good UK mudbath of the kind we regularly encounter. Because a chain has no “back” to it mud can be pushed out the outside by the teeth of the cog, a belt such as this doesn’t have that option.
    Roll on the winter test in muddy uk conditions – i will happily borrow kenny’s bike for this. purely in the interests of science you understand

  35. Comment by Hamish A | 08.28.2008 | 3:38 pm

    Orange have been working on a belt drive bike in the UK (and they’re based ‘up North’ where the mud is deep, sticky and pretty much constant) and they’ve reported really good results.

    One of the UK mags did a quick feature last year:

    I like the idea of a belt driven Alfine hub, it’ll be interesting to see how Kennys works out – I figure if it can survive him then I’ve got no worries!

    Thanks for the Bike Swap rule clarification Fatty :-)

    WIN Susan!!!

  36. Comment by Lucky Cyclist | 08.28.2008 | 6:57 pm

    So……in most heating and air conditioning applications, There is a Variable pitch pulley on the motor side. They do it so you can dial in the amperage on the motor. The belt rides in a “V” instead of a cogged interface like Spots. It seems like if this were adapted to bikes you could conceivably have a wide variation in gear ratio. Those pulleys are heavier than Motorhead though.
    People have been trying to apply belts to bikes for years, and nothing has caught on. I remember seeing a geared design once. The cassette looked like the hats Devo wore in the Whip It video.

  37. Comment by regina | 08.28.2008 | 7:00 pm

    Sssllllaaappp!!! Ihave such an awesome picture in my head of you riding side saddle.

  38. Comment by kenny | 08.28.2008 | 8:55 pm

    I am getting a bigger front ring. It should take the gear inches up in the low 50’s. Not sure of the exact ratio. They designed the sprockets hollow on the inside so any mud or small rocks should be pushed right thru the gear by the belt.

    Like I said, time will tell.

    I rode again today with maximum load to the point where I had to get off and push and it didn’t slip at all. It’s still very quite.

  39. Comment by Al Maviva | 08.28.2008 | 9:38 pm

    >>>>Elden Writes:
    >>>>I ride with Mary bars, which freak everyone out at first (especially on the downhills), and I have my brakes set up for the middle finger.

    What a coincidence.

    I ride with Mary bars, and the communications center of my brain is set up to operate the middle finger.

  40. Comment by dr_robert | 08.28.2008 | 9:54 pm

    The cog & sprocket look massive, but the belt is synthetic, so it probably isn’t as heavy as a chain.

    What’s the net weight savings (if any) of a belt drive over traditional?

  41. Comment by Tom | 08.29.2008 | 1:47 am

    I bet this would work really well and look fantastic on an Ibis Tranny… Split rear triangle already included. Although having to take your frame apart to change a belt would be a bit of a pain at the trailside.

  42. Comment by Big Mike In Oz | 08.29.2008 | 4:44 am

    Size 43 shoes??? Me too!!! Next thing you’re gonna say you’re 5′8″, early 40s and balding. And I’ll bet the seat on your road bike is 27.25″ from the BB axle.

    When you come to visit all you have to bring is a toothbrush. But make sure you have your name written clearly on both forearms in permanent marker.

    It’s growing more and more likely that we’re twins. And not the Schwarzenegger/DeVito kind.

  43. Comment by Mike Roadie | 08.29.2008 | 4:52 am

    Us poor road folk……………..

  44. Comment by buckythedonkey | 08.29.2008 | 6:21 am

    Kenny, surprised not to see a chain tug on the drive side. Is that what you mean by not having the right tensioner?


  45. Comment by kenny | 08.29.2008 | 9:10 am

    My tensioner was spots old one. (worked with the chain not the belt) They’re sending me the new tensioner with my new sprocket. I’m thinking the belt and sprockets are about a half pound lighter than the chain, rings and cogs. Someday I’ll have to accually verify those numbers.

  46. Comment by Chubby | 08.29.2008 | 9:36 am

    Intriguing. Maybe Kenny can guest-blog a follow-up review in a few months?

  47. Comment by The GPC | 08.29.2008 | 10:06 am

    Hey, since your are dicussing alternate uses for the drive train, check out this YouTube video.
    I stumbled across it and it absolutley blew my mind. The thought that we could pedal a bicycle without a chain or pulley drive train at all is pretty awesome. Plus the video has a distinctly “Ikea” type feel to it. Bet the swiss invented this contraption.
    Btw the way, I am starting to get a real hankering for a single speed 29er. Thanks a lot (sarcastic)!
    My best to Susan.

  48. Comment by The GPC | 08.29.2008 | 10:11 am

    Also (can’t help myself) this one:

    Man work is slow today!

  49. Comment by Walt | 08.29.2008 | 4:56 pm

    Hey Kenny -

    I weighed it all (48/26 drivetrain) versus my chain drive (34 DH ring/steel 20t cog/PC951 chain) and the weight difference is about 60g. Not sure what setup you normally run, it’d be a decent amount lighter as compared to, say, a big thick 1/8″ chain. With a lightish chainring and cog on a chain drive setup, the weight savings are <1 oz.

    That’s not really the point though, as I see it. Quiet, strong, reliable, reasonably efficient, did I mention quiet?

    I’m psyched to get mine built up.


  50. Comment by Walt | 08.29.2008 | 5:03 pm

    Oh, almost forgot – I’m guessing the beefy chaintug(s) you need for the belt setup make the weight a complete wash, or even possibly very slightly heavier.

    Doesn’t reduce my enthusiasm one bit, though. If I want to go faster, I’ll, like, train.

    BTW, Kenny, what’s the chainstay length (or range of lengths) on that bike? Does the tire fit ok with the wheel at the front of the dropout? Enquiring minds (who are trying to build a bike around this darn thing and are stumped by the chainring clearance problem) want to know.


  51. Comment by Will Handsfield | 08.31.2008 | 1:07 pm

    I got to check out a custom built Spot Brand belt driven 3 speed during the DNC for the Freewheelin’ project:

    The ride was solid, and I loved the characteristics. It was a bit more noisy in some gears, but I’m blaming that on the SRAM internal 3 speed system. I think I will get a belt driven 7 or 8 speed if I go for a 29er.


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