Motorcycle Chain Maintenance and Care
It’s easy to ignore your motorcycle chain but it requires just as much attention as other key components on your motorcycle. Using our guide to motorcycle chain maintenance and care, you’ll avoid a rusty noisy chain which impedes your safety and the motorcycle’s optimal function. An ignored chain will eventually fail, typically by breaking. A broken chain will ball-up around the counter-shaft (A drive-shaft that transmits motion from the main shaft to where it is required i.e. chain) and front sprocket. When this happens, your chain will rip and tear its way through your soft aluminium motor guarantee to damage your engine (either from the chain flailing around or from the motor coming to an immediate stop) – and lets not forget how unsafe this all can be!
When a chain snaps, it often gets caught in the rear wheel, resulting in an immediate rear wheel skid. Rarely, will the chain fly off the bike without making contact with anything; while the rider coasts to a stop. In either scenario, you will be stranded and likely have sustained unnecessary damage.
There are basically two main types of chains: O-Ring chains and Non-O-Ring chains. O-Ring chains have, as you might imagine – small rings in an “O” shape built into them. The O-Rings are used to keep grease and lubrication inside your chain (between all the moving parts). Non-O-Ring chains do not.
It is important to remember that the very design and purpose of an O-Ring chain is to keep the lubrication inside. You should lubricate your chain every 800 km / 500 miles of riding. There are many types of lubricants available; from basic wax, foaming wax, conventional lube to foaming conventional lube. Different lubricants will provide different levels of “fling” (grease flying off the chain when under-way) and protection. Funny thing is – the more “fling”, the better protection for your chain where the less the “fling” the opposite.
When your chain is without lubricant it will build up heat which results in chain stretching. Without lube, your O-Ring will also be exposed to the harmful ozone and ultraviolet rays, causing these components to dry out, crack, and perhaps even drop off.
It is important with O-Ring chains, most commonly used on today’s bikes; to lubricate your chain immediately after riding – while the chain is warm. Lubricating your chain while still hot will cause the lube to dissolve and be drawn into the chain as it cools. Also, remember that chain lubrication’s primary function is to lube between the chain and the sprockets.
How To Lubricate Your Motorcycle Chain
You will need to lubricate your chain in two locations. Spray the majority of the lube on the inside of the chain. This helps prevent fling and will force lube into the chain when riding. You also need to spray lube directly onto the O-Rings. The best way to do this is at the rear sprocket, spinning the wheel as you go. Avoid the temptation to prop the bike up on the track stand or centre stand, start the bike, put it in first gear while the rear wheel is in the air, and spray as the motor moves the rear wheel. And beware this is EXTREMELY dangerous! Numerous fingers have been lost while performing this, experienced mechanic or not. It is much better and safer to do it the hard way, with the motor off, the bike in neutral and rotate the rear wheel [on a centre stand] by hand.
With regular lubrication your chain will perform well, but there is a trade-off – the lube also attracts dirt resulting in a very dirty, gritty, chain. Dirt as you might imagine is another enemy of your chain. So about every 4800 km/ 3000 miles or whenever you change your oil, ensure you clean your chain. The easiest way to clean your chain is with a rag, a toothbrush, and kerosene or additional methods detailed in our article here.
Don’t use harsh solvents, like gasoline, because they can ruin the O-Rings. Spray or wipe your chain with kerosene. The best part about using kerosene is that it will clean your chain quickly while saving you lots of time. It’s best to use an old rag, soak it with kerosene and wipe it over the chain until the chain is clean. Incidentally, kerosene can be found at any hardware store or even department store usually in the camping section. It’s traditionally used to fuel camping stoves and lanterns. After about 20 minutes you’ll have a flawlessly clean chain!
TIP: Be certain to purchase “kerosene”, not camp fuel or white gas which comes in the same container as kerosene but it is extremely volatile will ignite surprisingly easy. Don’t trust the store clerk either, if it doesn’t say kerosene it is most likely white fuel which is VERY dangerous.
Clean the Counter – Shaft and Adjust
While you’re at it, remove the counter-shaft sprocket cover and clean all the excess lube build-up around the front sprocket. The build up here can cause problems later down the road.
Slacking Off – Too Tight or Loose
Your chain also needs to be adjusted properly. Of course, your owner’s manual will have exact requirements for your bike. General guideline allows for about 1 to 1.5 inches of slack being how much the chain will move up and down freely at a point halfway between the two sprockets.
Slack in your chain is necessary because your swing-arm moves up to compress for a bumps and uneven road surfaces. The chain gets tighter when this occurs. A chain which is too tight will bind on the sprockets, causing quicker wear of both chain and sprockets. Furthermore, a tight chain will over time ruin your counter-shaft and your counter-shaft seal (the seal around the shaft that carries the front sprocket) – and may even bend the counter-shaft.
So when you are testing the slack, be sure to sit on your motorcycle to compress the swing arm. You’ll need a helper for this.Also, a tight chain is likely to develop tight spots which are portions of the chain that stretch at different rates and cause binding between links. And too loose, the chain runs the risk of flying off the sprockets. Also a too loose chain causes a lot of slop in the drive-line. Example: twist the throttle, short delay, then lurching as the chain snaps tight, then loose until you are under heavy acceleration. Chain adjustments are very important, even though it may not be something you need to do very often.
Adjusting The Chain
If your chain requires adjustment, your owner’s manual will have the information you need to tighten/loosen it as there are many different types of adjustments. You will likely start with loosening the axle to allow the wheel to move. Then you can turn the adjuster screws, ¼ turn at a time, until you reach the proper adjustment. I prefer to turn the left one, and then turn the right one the same distance to maintain wheel alignment/balance.
When you achieve proper slack, and you’ve tightened the wheel back up, you’ll need to make sure the wheel alignment is still correct. If the wheel is crooked in the swing-arm, your chain and sprockets will wear really rapidly and you may even experience unusual handling characteristics.
Aligning the Wheel
There are two ways to measure alignment. You can grab a flexible tape measure, similar type as in your sewing kit and measure from the centre of your axle to the centre of the swing arm pivot. Or you can “string” your bike up. Here you’ll require a long piece of string which will wrap around the front tire and reach around the rear wheel. You’ll pull the lengths of string back toward the rear wheel and then use your calibrated good vision to compare the strings with the alignment of the wheels. If your wheel is out of alignment, it will be pretty obvious. Personally I’ve have had a lot of success using the tape measure method and seems to work quicker and more accurately than stringing.
After you are confident with your alignment, tighten everything up and check the slack again. Best to tighten chain slack when everything is fastened back down.
When to Replace Your Motorcycle Chain
One of the best tests you can do as basic motorcycle chain maintenance and to see if it’s time to replace your chain, is go to the rear sprocket and pull straight back on the chain. If your chain pulls away from the sprocket by much, it’s likely stretched out. If the chain does not pull away and stays right on the sprocket, then the chain is not stretched out yet.
Another tip is to look at your sprockets teeth and if the points seem hooked, it’s time to replace it.
Motorcycle Chain Maintenance Myths
A common misconception with chain replacement is to change you chain and sprockets at the same time. This is only true if you use aluminium sprockets. If you use steel or factory sprockets, then generally two chain replacements to one set of sprockets. That is, of course, if you replace your chains before they’ve become so bad they damage the steel sprockets.
To Sum it Up
Lubricate often! A well oiled chain is quieter and has a lot less drag allowing the motor to spin the rear wheel easily without having to force its way past a worn or tight chain. And if you’re lubrication your chain every 800 km / 500 miles, you’ll already be on top of the game regarding it’s condition and when it will need adjusting or replacing.