Stationary exercise bikes and especially spin bikes, can be driven in different ways. The two most common ways are by belt and by chain. There are some pros and cons to both of those. What are they and is a belt or chain best for you? I’ve done some research and here is what you need to know.
A belt drive is the best option for most people. Belts don’t require much maintenance and are quiet and smooth. Belts have to be replaces at some point but that’s easy to do and cheap. Chains feel more realistic like riding outside but require more maintenance and make more noise.
For specific details about both types and what’s best for you, keep reading.
Stationary bike drive types
Let’s go back a little. There are different types of stationary bikes. Many of them actually don’t have any drive connection. With recumbent and most other magnetic resistance bikes, there is no drive mechanism. The pedals of those bikes are often mounted directly on the flywheel. That means there is no drive mechanism.
The bikes that do have a drive mechanism are the spin bike and the air bike. They have a drive mechanism because their setup means that the pedals and flywheel or fan are not directly connected. They’re not in the same place which means that there needs to be something in between to connect them.
The two most common ways to do that is with a chain or a belt. Let’s take a closer look at those two types and what their pros and cons are.
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Let’s start with chain drives. Everyone knows what a bicycle chain looks like and how it connects the pedal to the wheels. A chain drive on a stationary bike works and looks very similar.
Instead of rotating a wheel that makes you move, you move a flywheel or fan that creates resistance. Otherwise, the chain and sprockets are functionally the same as on a normal bike.
What are the pros and cons of a chain drive?
- Very durable if maintained
- More realistic feel
- Unlikely to completely fail
- More sensitive to dusty environment
- Needs more maintenance
- Is a bit noisier
- Doesn’t feel as smooth as a belt.
Chain drive conclusion
Chain drives have been on bicycles for a long time and they are proven. They last long but need some maintenance to stay in great shape. The biggest pro of chains is the feel. And if maintained well, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to replace the chain and/or sprockets.
However, the maintenance is more than with a drive belt and it also creates more noise. So for people who don’t really care about the realistic feel, a belt drive is a better option.
Belts are by far the most common drive method. Older exercise bikes tend to have chains more often but over time manufacturers have shifted towards using drive belts.
A belt has no metal unlike a chain. It’s made from rubber. There are little rubber teeth on the belt which makes power transfer easier without slipping. It’s very similar to a timing belt on a car engine.
Belt driven exercise bikes are much more common than chain drive exercise bikes. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons if we can see why that is.
- Low maintenance
- Easy to clean
- Smoother feel
- Cheap to replace
- Has to be replaced at some point
- Less realistic feel
Belt drive conclusion
The lower maintenance demands and smoother feel makes a drive belt the right choice for the majority of people. They do their job very well and efficiently and for low costs. The biggest real drawback is that if feels more different from riding outside than a chain drive does. For most people that is a sacrifice that is easy to make.
A belt should just be cleaned with the rest of the bike while a chain also needs lubrication which can be messy and takes more effort.
Chain or belt drive for your home gym?
Which one is best for you home gym? It really depends on your training goals and expectations.
For the vast majority of people, a belt drive is easier and better. The lower maintenance alone is a big reason why a belt is better. They last long enough where that shouldn’t be a big issue and the money/time you save on maintenance and lubricants will probably pay for the replacement belt.
If the benefit of a more realistic feel and longer lifespan are worth it to you at the cost of more maintenance, a chain is an option. For most people this won’t be the case so a belt is the better option.
If you get an exercise bike without any drive mechanism, you’ll have the least amount of maintenance possible. Find my favorite exercise bike with low maintenance requirements here.
If you’re seriously training for riding outside, a chain is a better option because it feels closer to the real thing. For most people that are just looking for a good workout, a belt drive is more than fine.
Does realistic feel matter on an exercise bike?
The biggest difference that matters between a chain and belt drive model is the feel. A chain will make your stationary bike feel more like riding a bike outside. Is that really important enough to deal with the drawbacks though?
For the vast majority of people it isn’t. For most people a belt drive is the right way to go. I say that because of the reasons most people buy a stationary bike. The biggest reasons to buy an exercise bike are;
- Improve cardio
- Lose weight
Most people aren’t training to ride a bike on the street. For the two purposes named above, a drive belt is perfect. A really realistic feel doesn’t matter that much for those purposes. A chain drive won’t bring you to your goals any faster.
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There are a few people who are seriously training for riding outside. Maybe they want to stay in shape through the winter and want to get the closest to the real thing as possible. For those people, a chain drive bike can be a better option. However, you have to be very serious about cycling for it to be worth the hassle of extra maintenance.
How long does a stationary bike drive chain last? How long an exercise drive chain lasts really depends on how clean your space is and how well you maintain the chain. If it’s maintained regularly and properly, a chain can last for years. Serious cyclists that ride outside replace their belt after about 4000 kilometres. Indoor they’ll last longer.
Does a magnetic resistance exercise bike require new drive belts? An exercise bike with magnetic resistance doesn’t have a drive belt or chain so they don’t need to be replaced. Magnetic resistance bikes need very little maintenance in general. Just keeping them clean and dust free is all you can do.