Iíve had my belt-drive Spot for a year now, and because people are so hesitant to make the leap to the belt drive system, I thought I should write a review. Iíll try to keep it as brief as possible, but thereís a lot to cover.
Last year I was in Colorado and ordered the frame in person at the Spot factory. The shop was small, but busy, organized and as clean as a kitchen. The crew looked serious and fit, and Gavin was a pleasure to deal with.
I ordered the Ďcross frame with exactly the build that I wanted, my preferred cable routing, fender and water bottle mounts, lack of canti brake bosses, etcetera. I also ended up choosing to design my own powder coat job, which I payed extra for, and doesnít look anything like Spotís own paint schemes. Spotís in-house frames come stock with single-color powder coats from Spectrum Powder Works, which does top notch work, and offers amazing multi-color powder coats as an option.
The frame only took a few weeks to finish, but Spectrum was backed up at the time due to NAHBS so I didnít get the frame till three months later. Again, I chose a much more complicated powder coat than is standard, so a l assume it would ordinarily come more quickly.
The bike is lavishly specíed; Chris King ISO hubs laced to DT Swiss 430 rims. (29er/700c disk specific rims without brake tracks), SRAM Force cranks, Avid BB7 (road version) brakes, Hope floating rotors,Thompson stem and post, Deda road bar, and Tektro road levers.
Avid makes the BB7 brakes in a road specific version, which is matched to the amount of cable pull provided by road levers. There is no hydraulic road lever on the market at this time, much to my disappointment. I requested that my frame have only tabs for full length cable housing, so that if a hydraulic system becomes available, Iíll be able to use it. Full cable housing works well for the cable actuated brakes too though, Iím using Dura Ace housing and cables, which are stainless steel which helps contribute to the bikeís almost total lack of needed maintenance.
The BB7 brakes have incredible stopping power, but a lot of annoyances. They are maddeningly noisy. When they and the rotors were new it was really traumatizing every time I touched the brakes, and even now that they are broken in, they howl if they get slightly damp, slightly cold, or if anyone looks at them the wrong way. When theyíre warm and dry theyíre quiet, but still have a slightly unpleasant metallic scraping sensation while braking. In spite of all those complaints, they still give the best stopping power currently available with drop bars, stopping power that translates to incredibly short stopping distances and easy use even with small hands.
I know some people say that itís actually unnecessary to have this much stopping power on a Ďcross bike, but that is ignorant. Iím to the point now where I get a little panicky feeling the first time I grab the brakes on my Record specíd road bike because Iím so used to the gobs of effortless braking power on my Spot.
I live in Brooklyn, NY, and I use this bike as my daily commuter. I ride it about a hundred miles a week, so Iíve put about 4000 miles on it so far. The weather here ranges widely, from 0 to 100 degrees, with lots of moisture.
Enough back story, hereíre my impressions.
The Spot Brand fame is beautifully crafted. It invites up-close study with flawless welds and great details. Bottle cage and fender mounts are absolutely clean. The rear dropout arrangement, which splits on the drive side to admit the belt, is elegant and very cleanly executed. To be honest, the frame kind of outshines the IF fork that I used to save money, and which stupidly has fender mount points that are totally inaccessible once the brakes are installed.
The Spot frame has a very very nice ride. Itís a difficult topic to write about objectively, but this is a frame with a fine tune. Not just stiff, but bright, not just nimble, but poised. The rear end remains completely calm under extremely hard acceleration, in combination with the heavy-but-muscular steel fork, the bike has less unwanted flex than anything else Iíve ever ridden.
Off road, the Spot is most at home. It has uncanny rear wheel traction under hard effort, and in combination with the IF fork and massively powerful Avid BB7s, it feels totally composed when descending. I did a cyclocross race on it, and was told afterward by spectators that I had been the only one descending a particularly steep technical section. The thing is, I didnít even feel like I was taking a risk, the bike descended calmly and stopped at the bottom without a twitch.
For daily use, I have it specíd with road tires and very close fitting fenders. I ride in traffic a lot and that means lots of sudden full-strength accelerations. It does not feel as lively as some bikes Iíve ridden (possibly the beltís fault), but the frame always remains unperturbed and confident. The frame is also very calm and steady in corners, when traction goes from grippy to slick and back again, it never tweaks or twitches.
The belt drive doesnít require any special expertise, and owners will be best off if they are willing and able to fine-tune their own machines. Over the last year I have continually tinkered and adjusted and tweaked to get it just right. It has not been overly problematic, but it requires an accurate tune, and most bike shops arenít experienced with them yet. The guys at Spot are very nice, and are happy to help if you get stuck.
Setup is simple because Gates did an excellent job with the whole system, which is intelligently designed and nicely finished. The rear pulley is used together with a set of spacers that add up to the same thickness as a cassette, so when all are used with the pulley, the cassette body is filled and a regular lock ring is used. When I installed a 55 tooth front pulley, I found that the ring rubbed on the chainstay, but Spot sent me some spacers to go between the spider and pulley, and that solved it. Iím now running a 50 tooth pulley, which has no clearance issues. To change the rear pulley, simply grab it with a strap wrench instead of a chain tool, and loosen the lock ring.
I have the older belt design, now Spot is using the Center Track system, so I wonít go into the precise setup too much. It will suffice to say that the rear dropouts are very well designed, the entire dropout slides forward and back, so the belt line and tension can be adjusted without loosening the wheel, or affecting the disk brake. Once adjusted it stays adjusted, and removing the wheel to change a tire does not affect the belt tension. Once the wheel is back in place, the belt will be properly tensioned again.
It takes some getting used to that the proper tension for the belt is surprisingly taught! For the first few months I had it, I would occasionally jump the belt under hard acceleration, and I kept making the belt tighter to prevent it, always fearing that I was going to damage something if I over tightened it. But when I got the special tension meter tool that Spot offers, I found that I had it at the correct tightness, and could even run it a bit tighter. Only time will tell how the Chris King hub will hold up. So far itís still perfect though. Itís important to run the belt tight enough because skipping it is unnerving, and drains oneís confidence in the bike, and Spot tells me that it can damage the belt.
The belt is extremely static, but certainly has more stretch than a chain. It is exactly as efficient as a chain according to an independent study (look on Gatesí website to see the results), but it is not completely free of stretch. If the belt is adjusted just slightly looser than recommended, it will jump when you stomp on it, which makes a catastrophic feeling and sounding clank. Looking at it on the stand, it doesnít seem possible that such a tight belt with such large teeth could skip, but it can if youíre strong. Technically, I have never made the belt jump when it was correctly tensioned, but I feel like I could if I really tried. Using a lower gear ratio would make it less likely to skip because you wouldnít be putting so much standing torque on it when accelerating from a stop.
Having said that, the belt is a dream to ride. Itís not just quiet, itís silent. The bike literally doesnít make any sound apart from the tires striking the pavement. Pedestrians wonít know youíre there until you enter their field of vision. Power transmission attains textureless perfection under the right conditions. Back pedaling the system feels strangely rough, for some reason it doesnít mesh smoothly in reverse, and soft pedaling the system forwards with little or no tension creates a soft vibration. But under steady watts, it finds itís happy place and becomes perfectly smooth, all sensation of meshing teeth disappears.
When the belt gets wet it starts to make a noise as it meshes under power that can sound like something is out of adjustment. Nothing has ever come of it, and it still works fine and returns to itís usual silent self as soon as it dries out.
The teeth of the pulleys have taken a polish. Itís interesting to see how evenly distributed the wear is on the surfaces of the pulley teeth. The blue plastic coating on the inside of the belt lasted for several months before wearing through. Now the surface of the belt looks like little threads embedded in black polyurethane.
Between the lack of aluminum dust from rim brakes and the lack of chain oil, the bike stays amazingly clean. It really illustrates how much oil gets spattered all over a regular bike. The whole bike, including the drive train, wipes clean with water. No soap needed, nor even a scrub brush. All you will find on the rag is dust and sand. You can grab the belt with your hand after riding it thousands of miles and it doesnít make your hand dirty. Thereís nothing to get on your clothes. Itís a really cool unexpected advantage.
A regular chain drive has numerous points where metal contacts metal. Numerous is an understatement. The result is a myriad of tiny rattles. They are missing from the belt drive system. Dropping the bike from a few inches reveals a total lack of rattles, just a soft ďbongĒ noise as it bounces on itís tires.
The only way to accomplish a multi speed belt drive bike is with internally geared hubs, which are inefficient, heavy, and clunky. I still think that chains are the best solution for multi speed applications. But when a single speed will work, there is no doubt that belt drives have all the advantages. They are much lighter, much quieter, much cleaner, and much longer lasting. I hope that people will gain some confidence in the system from this review, stop deliberating, and go get a belt drive!