Black and white plate photography images, which document the start of cycling, illustrate that we’ve been converting pedal power to forward motion, with the help of a chain, since the mid-1800s.
The automotive industry started with chain drive little later (1886) but evolved to using gearboxes and driveshafts in time. Cycling, for all its sophisticated wind tunnel R&D and obsessive carbon-fibre gram management, hasn’t managed to wean itself from the humble chain.
Proponents of the chain and derailleur say it’s a simple mechanism and after more than a century of continuous development, a very mature design which does its job rather well. The problem is that chains are exposed to environmental contaminants and as such they get dirty and rust. Wear is a compound issue too and chains which snap at the links can be lethal, causing a crash.
Is the cycling world finally ready to go chainless? A Danish company certainly thinks so. Ceramicspeed has its origins in producing extremely low-friction bearings for the in-line roller skate racers, before transitioning to do much the same for cyclists. The company’s US office, in collaboration with University of Colorado Boulder’s Mechanical Engineering Department, has now presented a revolutionary new bicycle propulsion interface which doesn’t feature a chain or traditional derailleur.
Currently a prototype, it’s called DrivEn and features a shaft, with a collection of ceramic bearings at each end, which transfers drive from the pedals to a 13-speed rear gearing ‘plane’, which replaces the traditional cassette. Conventional bicycle shifting systems have eight points of contact with the chain, whilst the Driven only requires two points of contact to transfer torque required to drive the rear wheel.
Ceramicspeed claims the benefits under testing conditions have proven to be substantial: a 49% reduction in friction compared to a benchmark chain and derailleur system. The near 50% improvement in efficiency sounds impressive and in the world of cycling, where advantage is measured in grams and single-digit percentages, the DrivEn system promises a disruption like no other, possibly enabling race winning times once unimaginable.
Although Ceramicspeed’s engineering fortitude has already won them the coveted Eurobike innovation of 2018 award, the system isn’t quite production ready yet. It won’t work on conventional bike frames currently in production, as the driveshaft requires room to operate which is currently occupied by the lower section of the rear triangle. An elevated chainstay design, such as that on the Trek Stache mountain bike, is not an impossibility and would provide the solution.
Industry sceptics are questioning if the DrivEn system will be capable of dealing with the extreme forces exerted by powerful riders, where power outputs can peak at 1700w. Another issue is whether containments (sand, mud, road grit) will affect the DrivEn system’s interface points in an equivalent manner to conventional bicycle chains.
For DrivEn to become an accepted industry standard it will require a robust and proven shifting system and bicycle frame manufacturers willing to redesign their products in a manner accommodating the shaft drive system. Impossibly sleek in appearance and beautifully elegant in design, it does look very much like the future of cycling.
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