Winter Biking Update - Trouble on the beltline

Last year, I wrote a post covering my search for a bike to commute on in the winter (you can find that here). While my Norco Judan has served me well last winter, this season has been off to a very slow start: mechanical issues have put my winter bike out of commission.

It all started when I was getting my bike tuned up in preparation for the upcoming winter. Admittedly, this tune up should have happened before I put it away at the end of the season, but when summer hit, all I wanted to do was ride other bikes and my winter workhorse was neglected. Regardless, I came across some major drivetrain issues.

The first indication was that the belt would not spin freely. There was some resistance when spinning by hand, but no binding. However, it would only spin a ½ to ¾ turn freely. Not good. In my previous experience, this meant that the sprockets were out of alignment (belt drives have very little tolerance for this, compared to chains).

After spending way too much time adjusting the sliding dropouts and different belt tensions, I was still not able to fix the issue. There must be something else amiss.  Once I removed the wheel, the issue became apparent: there was play between the sprocket and the freehub. Disaster.

The sprocket was able to move a good 15 degrees around the freehub and 2mm laterally. Using a standard strap wrench to immobilize the belt sprocket, I removed the lockring. Dismantling the cog/spacer system confirmed my worst fears: significant failure on the splines of the freehub and cog.

Every tooth is broken

Every tooth is broken

Decisions

So some repair is in order. The most basic repair would be to simply replace the broken parts and put it back together. Easier said than done, it seems.

Sun Ringle has very little technical information about past models on their site, and I could not find any information as to which hubs my wheels actually had. Doing some image search comparisons and talking to a few shops, I was pretty sure that they were Disc Jockey II hubs, but wanted to be certain before ordering a $90 part (ouch!). It took a little over a week to get any information out of Sun Ringle (called, left a message, and sent an email), but it is in fact a Disc Jockey.

I did consider replacing the hub altogether with something much cheaper and more reliable (Shimano Deore or SLX perhaps), but the rims are 28 hole, which pretty much eliminates any Shimano hub. Another alternative was to replace the rear wheel entirely with an entry level rear for around $140. In the end, $90 is still less than $140, so I begrudgingly ordered a new freehub. One upside is that the new one is chomoly, which should be much more durable to the alloy one that it is replacing.

Now for the cog. Looking on the Gates lineup, it appears that I have the older CDC series of Gates products. While they still have their older CDC systems on their site, the actual parts are difficult to find. Web searches return almost exclusively CDX products. In order to switch over to the CDX system, I would need a new chainring and belt, in addition to the sprocket. That is getting expensive. Finally I was able to find a 28 tooth CDC in Austria on “pre-order” for €75.

Parts found, all good right? Still, I was hesitant. What is stopping the exact same failure from reoccurring? All of the new parts I found were made of steel rather than the alloy of the failed parts, so that was a positive indication of increased durability, however, €75 seemed like a lot of money for a sprocket. I wanted to explore what other options were out there.

Other Options

IGH – This is something that I had considered for this bike for a little while. Sealed system with a belt would be perfect for the winter. But then you are looking at a $350 hub and a new wheel build. And I would still need a new (expensive) sprocket. Plus, it would be more difficult to service myself.

1x10 – There are a number of quality, simple 1x10 drivetrains out there.  Very straightforward system that I could easily maintain. Still get a gearing range to make the bike more versatile. SLX could be had for around $160 (chainring, cassette, derailleur, chain, and shifter).

SS Chain – New chainring, sprocket, and a chain. Probably around $75.  Simple, trouble free.

While all of these had different things that appealed to me, the 1x10 seemed to be the best bang for my buck.

Dropping the Belt

Something that I felt was significant in my decision to change away from a belt drive came from the Gates FAQ. Gates states that their belts last twice as long as a chain. Huh? TWICE!? That is a far cry from the earlier claims about belt drives lasting tens of thousands of kilometers. And given the cost of a belt, it hardly seems like an advantage at all.

In addition, due to the higher tension required on belt drives, it puts added stresses on the sprockets, bottom brackets, wheel bearings, and freehubs. This may speak to the kind of failure that I experienced with this system. Apparently the newer Centertrack systems allow for lower tensions, but that doesn’t really help me with the CDC drive. As I mentioned above, the newer Gates parts are steel, so I am sure that has helped improve things.

While I am ditching the belt drive in this application, I am not writing it off completely. I know many people who have had success with the new belt drive systems. I would still consider a belt drive in the future, depending on the application and needs.

The Build

With decisions made and parts ordered I had one remaining obstacle: dropouts. The current sliding dropout on the drive side of the Norco did not have a hanger. Should be simple enough to swap out, right? Again, information and resources were limited, and contacting Norco didn’t return and results. I was able to come up with a solution using a Google image search for sliding dropouts and scanning the pictures for anything that looked similar. It turns out that Kona has a very similar dropout system on their Unit bikes (and others). The Kona CC dropout seemed to fit the bill.

IMG_20151209_203145256.jpg

I picked one up from a local shop to see how they compare. The bolt hole spacing was identical and the entire dropout was 3-4mm thicker, which shouldn’t be too much of an issue with a steel frame. A little more concerning was the fact that the bolt holes (that fit inside the frame) were about twice as long as the stock dropout. Test fitting in the frame confirmed that they stuck out to far to be able to get any compression to hold the dropout in place. A stack of washers seemed like a pretty inelegant solution, so out came the Dremel. A fresh, large diameter cut off wheel made quick work of the soft alloy of the dropout. Now we are in business.

The rest of the build went together without incident. Shimano SLX for the cassette, shifter, chain, and derailleur. Obviously, I went with the Shadow+ version of the rear derailleur for the added chain retention benefits from the clutch mechanism, especially important for 1x systems. For the chainring, I went with a 34 tooth oval ring from Absoluteblack. The oval ring was only about $10 more than a round one, so I figured I would give it a shot.

This was a fun little project, even if I didn’t really want to spend money on my winter bike. I will be monitoring how the SLX holds up to winter riding, although, I do not expect any issues. In addition, look for a post in the future as to the influence (real or imagined) that the oval rings have on the feel of the bike. Whatever the result, the most important thing is that I am back on the road.