How to: Maintain and change your motorcycle's chain and sprockets
So you're going about your usual ride and you notice some strange vibrations in the foot
peg. Don't be alarmed! Over time, your drive chain will have a tendency to "stretch" out
with use and will require a certain amount of maintenance just as the rest of your bike
does. "How have I never thought of this?" you ask yourself. Over the years, chains have
become more and more advanced and have needed less and less maintenance. It can be
easy to over look your chain especially if you bought your bike straight from the
manufacturer. But no matter how advanced chains get, they'll always need a bit of tender,
loving care just like the rest of your bike and will even need to be changed out
Of course it would be too easy and boring to make all motorcycles the same. Instead,
many bikes are made without chains and run off of a drive shaft or belt. If this is the case
for your motorcycle, we doubt this guide will be much of interest to you.
On the other hand, if your bike does run off of a drive chain, maintaining your chain can
be the difference from running smoothly and some very unpleasant engine damage (not
to mention body damage). An improperly maintained chain will not only affect how your
bike runs, but will most likely fail. You're lucky if your chain fails without causing any
damage. While it is possible that a chain can snap and fly off of your bike without
coming into contact with any of your precious parts, it's highly unlikely. When a chain
fails, it usually goes out with a vengeance. Often times, the chain will whip violently
against your engine and since you spend so much time tweaking and tuning that beautiful
machine, you probably don't want that to happen. Chain failure can also cause your
motor to come to an immediate stop which will not only damage it, but probably damage
you as you unexpectedly fly off of you bike. Long story short, maintaining your chain
can prevent both you and your bike from being damaged.
The best way to prevent a chain from breaking or to avoid having to replace your chain
more often than necessary is to just maintain it. Seems simple and obvious enough, right?
To start, in order to properly maintain your chain, you'll need to know what kind of chain
your bike is running with. The most simple and straightforward type of chain is a
standard, non-sealed chain. This chain will require the most amount of maintenance
because it doesn't have any way of keeping itself lubricated like an O-ring chain does. If
your bike has one of these chains, you'll need to keep a closer eye on it for wear and
attend to it more often.
So why would anyone want a non-sealed chain? There are a few advantages to having a
these chains depending on the type of riding you will be doing. Many racers prefer this
type of chain because they tend to have less friction than their sealed counterparts. While
these chains will need more maintenance and need to be replaced more often, they allow
racers to get a better ride. Also, many older bikes are not compatible with O-ring chains.
While you may want to try to switch your chain over to the less demanding of the types,
your engine may be better off staying with its original non-sealed chain.
An O-ring chain is a whole lot less needy. This chain has little o-rings between the link
plates and rollers of the chain that are used to keep grease and lube inside of your chain
while keeping dirt out of your chain. While these chains require less upkeep and tend to
not need to be replaced as often, they do require some care. Over time, O-rings will lose
lubrication and eventually will dry out, crack or even fall off. The best way to slow this
process down is with regular lubrication with an o-ring safe lubricant. However, no
matter how much you lubricate, the O-rings will get old eventually.
There are a few variations in the O-ring family. With the same concept of keeping the
chain lubricated and reducing friction, other designs such as X-rings are slightly
modified. For example, an X-ring chain is designed to reduce the extra friction over an
O-ring chain by the shape of its cross section. X-rings have less contact area between the
X-ring and the link plates and rollers. Because of this reduction in friction, X-rings also
have a tendency to last longer than O-rings.
However, no matter the type of chain, it'll still need to be maintained. Gunk and grease
can have a tendency to build up around the chain along with dirt and will increase the
wear. Before lubing up your chain, check it for any build up that may need to be cleaned
off. If you find that you chain needs to be bathed, put your bike up on its handy dandy
stand so that the rear wheel is off the ground. Once your bike is flying high (and is stable
while doing so), rotate the rear wheel to inspect your chain. If you notice that your chain
is at the maximum adjustment, is worn down, or has any excessive rust or kinks, just
forgo the chain cleaning and slap a whole new one on there.
If your chain is still in good condition but just needs to be freshened up, you should use a
mild soap or WD40 and brush to scrub off any dirt or excess grease build up. Kerosene
can be used but we recommend something more mild on O-ring chains as kerosene can dry them out. While you can use a
wire brush on a non-sealed chain, be sure to use a much softer brush on a chain with
rings. We really like to use a
Simple Solution's Grunge Brush with Degreaser. Wipe away the dirt and grease with a clean cloth and let the chain
dry. Try not to let your chain sit without lube for too long as the o-rings could dry out.
When lubricating your chain, do it while the chain is warm. Riding around for a few
minutes in order for your chain to be warm when you apply lube will help the lube to
work its way into the chain.
Every now and then, or if you get your chain particularly dirty by riding through some
extreme terrain, you should remove your chain, brush it well to knock off build up and
then submerge it completely in a mild solvent to get rid of any build up that your brush
can't reach. Once most of the build up has broken free from the links and rollers, let the
solvent completely evaporate before you reapply lube.
Once your chain is back to being as clean as it was when you first slapped it onto your
sprockets, you'll need to lube it up again. If your chain is still wet, be sure to allow it to
dry before adding any lube. If you add lube to a still wet chain, the lube will trap the
moisture inside the chain and cause it to rust. If you're impatient or if you're re-lubing
your chain after washing your bike, pick up a water dispersant, such as WD-40 or chain
cleaner, in order to knock off any moisture before you spray on lube.
Believe it or not, there is a wrong way to add lube to your chain. Start out by using a
lube like Bel-Ray's Super
Clean Chain Lube. We definitely do not
recommend the point and shoot method. You'll want to get the lube inside the pins and
rollers and a little precision is necessary. With your motorcycle still mounted on its stand
and the rear wheel elevated, apply lube to the lower chain while spinning the rear wheel
forwards, allowing the chain to climb on the sprocket. Once you've managed to cover the
entire length of the chain, wipe off any access lube so that it doesn't build up or attract
dirt and let it sit for about ten minutes. Give the rear wheel a spin every few minutes in
order to help the lube work its way into the chain.
Can't manage to get your hands on a can of spray lube? If you have some extra oil (no we
don't mean olive oil) laying around in your workshop, you can lube your chain the old
fashion way. Remove your chain and, after cleaning it, place it in a pan or pot filled with
oil. Allow the chain to sit for about an hour while being sure to move it around every now
and then. We recommend using a screwdriver to do this as not to get your hands dirtier
than you need to. Once your chain has had a chance to soak up as much oil as it wants to,
take it out of the oil and hang it so that the excess oil can drip off. If you haven't figured
it out already, dripping oil can cause quite a mess so we recommend putting a catch pan
underneath your chain as it drains. Once most of the oil has dripped off, wipe off any
remaining excess with a clean rag and put your chain back on your bike. Be sure to get all
excess oil off as regular oil will fling off excessively. We've just fallen in love with this
Motorex Street Bike Chain Clean Care Kit
because it comes with everything you need to keep your chain maintained.
You'll find that a properly cleaned and lubed chain can have a huge impact on how
smoothly your bike can transfer its power from the engine to your rear wheel. Be sure to
add chain maintenance to your list. The standard for checking your chain is every 300
miles but check your owner's manual for your specific bike.
Sometimes, cleaning and lubing your chain just won't be enough. Just like everything
else on your bike, even the best of chains will get worn down eventually. Chains will get
stretched out, rust and age. When they do, it's better to catch it early and replace your
chain before it lets you know that it's time by failing on you during a ride. If you didn't
catch on earlier, a failed chain can wreak havoc.
You can tell when you should change your chain fairly easily. The fastest and most
straightforward way to tell is to grab hold of one link of your chain (while your engine is
off if you care to keep your fingers) that is resting on the rear sprocket and pull it away
from the sprocket. If you can pull the link halfway off of the sprocket's tooth, your chain
has gotten too loose and should be adjusted. If you've reached your maximum adjustment
or if you notice that you sprocket teeth are worn down excessively, it's time to replace
your chain. However, if you're one of the cool kids who likes to adjust their chain as it
stretches out, you'll be able to tell when your chain needs replacing if your model has a
"replace chain" marking and the rear-axel adjusters have reached it. If you don't trust
your eyes to catch the signs of a worn out chain, check your owner's manual to find out
at what mileage your chain should be changed.
If you find that it's time to change your chain, do not despair. Changing your chain is a
fairly simple process that can easily be done. The hardest part is probably finding a new
chain to replace it with. There are so many different varieties and brands of chains. You
may think that it might just be easier to get the same chain that your bike came stock
with. However, other than being far more expensive, many motorcycle manufacturers sell
the chains without a master link which may force you to bring your bike into a dealer to
have your chain changed.
Removing the old chain
In order to get your bike ready for a new chain, put it in neutral and rotate the rear wheel
to find the master link. Once you've found it, loosen the rear axel of your motorcycle and
slide the rear wheel as far forward as you can in order to get the chain to be as loose as
possible. If your master link is the clip style, use a screwdriver in order to break it loose.
If you have a hefty chain breaker or your chain is a fairly small chain, you can also use a
chain breaker, like this
Smith Tools Chain-A-Part Model A Chain Breaker, to remove one of the pins. However, because chains are getting stronger
and stronger, you may find that your chain will out power the chain break and may only
end up breaking the chain break (oh, the irony). Some people find the easiest way to
remove a chain is to simply cut right through it. With a hand held grinder, grind off the
heads off one of the links, be careful not to hit anything around the link, and then punch
out the pins. Once you have the master link disconnected or have the chain separated,
carefully pull the chain until it is completely free.
Sprockets: To replace or not to replace, that is the question
There seems to be a bit of a debate on whether or not you should change your sprockets
at the same time that you replace your chain. Manufacturers will always tell you to
replace them at the same time. While this has become generally accepted among bikes
that run off of aluminum sprockets, many people try to refute this suggestion with
sprockets made from more resilient metals. An aluminum sprocket is a lot softer than
other types of sprockets and is known to wear down a lot faster. With these sprockets,
changing them at the same time as you replace your chain is a definite must otherwise
your sprocket will chew up your new chain a whole lot faster. Since chains can be a bit
spendy and are vital to the health of your bike, you don't want them to wear any faster
than they already do.
On the other hand, sprockets that are made of a more resilient metal will have a tendency
to wear at a much slower pace. Many people find changing out their sprockets to not only
be unnecessarily expensive but to be quite annoying as well. This means that it can be
easier to justify cutting corners and only changing out your sprockets every other time
that you replace your chain.
Our opinion? Cutting corners on your bike may save you time and money, but in the long
run will only up your chances of having something go wrong. With a motorcycle, it's
always better to be safe than sorry and since chains and sprockets are meant to wear
together, putting a new chain on an old sprocket will not allow the two parts to mature
simultaneously. This could either have no affect on how your bike rides or your chances
of chain failure, or it could cause your chain to wear much faster and fail on you in the
middle of a ride. Since we all know what can happen when a chain decides to bite the
dust unexpectedly, we vote for the safe option of always changing your sprockets when
you change your chain. After all, it may cost you a few extra minutes and a few extra
bucks, but it'll help make sure that you also save yourself time fixing your engine after
your chain has tore through it or save you the pain of having to grow back the skin you
left on the asphalt when your bike stopped short.
Making the sproket switch
Once you're old chain is chillin in the trash and your new chain is waiting to make its
way onto your bike, you'll want to remove the old sprockets and let them join their
resting place with the old chain. In order to remove them from your bike, just loosen the
bolts holding them in place with a breaker bar. Be careful when breaking bolts free as
sprockets have a tendency to bite. Once the bolts are loose, you can then use your hands
to take them all the way off.
Many people like to mess with the amount of teeth that their sprocket has. Putting a new
sprocket on with a different amount of teeth will affect your gear ratios and your RPM's
at a given speed. We don't recommend messing with the number of teeth on your
sprockets unless you fully understand how it will affect your bike. Most bike
manufacturers choose the sprockets that they put on their bikes stock because it will give
the average rider the best performance. Changing your sprocket size could give you better
performance but it will also come with downsides that you may not be aware of. For the
sake of this guide, we recommend only replacing your sprockets with the same size and
tooth amount unless you've done the adequate amount of research and talked to your
dealer or manufacturer to understand you bike's sprockets and gear ratios.
Chuck the old sprockets and put the fresh sprockets onto your bike. Replace all of the
bolts and cinch them down to the manufacturer's recommended torque spec with a torque
wrench. Once the new sprockets are on, you're ready to slap a new chain on them.
Installing a new chain
One of the easiest ways to get the right size chain is to simply count the number of links
in your old chain and buy the same size chain. If you happened to fail your high school
math class enough times that you don't trust your counting skills, buy a chain that is a
few links longer just to be safe. It's always better to have to knock a few links off with a
chain breaker rather than add an extra master link or have to buy a second new chain that
is long enough.
Once your chain is at the correct length and the new sprockets are happily in place, take
your new chain and feed it onto the front sprocket and around the rear sprocket until the
two ends meet. Then, secure both ends of the chain together with the master link. When
putting on a clip style master link, make sure that the closed end of the link is facing the
direction that your chain will be rotating as the inertia of your moving wheel can cause
the clip to come undone. This is also always a good precaution because, while it may not
happen that often, a rock or a fall may cause hit the master link and cause it to come
undone at a very inopportune time. If you're installing an O-ring or X-ring chain, be sure
to slide the seal over the pins of the master link before attaching the master link plate and
While clip style master links are easier to install, many people prefer to use a rivet style
instead. These master links are stronger and have a better ability to hold their own at high
speeds. In order to install one, before trying to connect it to the chain, you should coat the
link with the lubricant that came with it. Be sure to coat the O-rings as well and then slide
them onto both of the master link's pins then coat the remaining pair of O-rings and the
master link's side plate. Once everything is all nice and lubed up, insert the master link
into the chain by sliding the pins into the chain from the back. Then put on the remaining
two O-rings and use a chain tool (we're in love with this
RK Chain Cutter & Press Fit Rivit Tool
becuase it is also a great chain breaker) to press the master link's side plate onto the pins. With a
wrench, slowly tighten the chain tool until the side plate is evenly mounted onto the
master link with a small portion of the pins sticking out of the outer surface of the side
plate. Beware of pressing the link plate on too far, which can cause the chain to have a
kink that will not flex easily. Then insert the rivet flare pin into the chain tool. If you
really don't trust yourself to not over rivet the chain and cause a kink, a stalking plate will
space the plate and keep you from over riveting. This will allow you slowly tighten the
wrench in order to flare the tip of the pin. Once the pin is in a mushroom shape, repeat on
the other pin. Keep a close eye on the pins as you do this in order to not over tighten as
this can damage the flare on the rivet and cause the chain to kink as well. And presto!
You've got a perfectly secured rivet master link that will hold even while you ramp up
After the master link is all set and ready to go, recheck the length of your chain; adjust
accordingly and lube that puppy up (unless you put on an O-ring chain that comes pre-
lubed). You'll also want to make sure that your chain is neither too loose nor too tight. If
it's too tight, your chain won't be able to rotate properly. If it's too loose, you risk the
chance that your chain will fly off of your sprockets. A standard recommendation is 1" to
1 3/8"s of slack but we recommend checking your owner's manual so see what it says to
keep your chain at. With a new set of sprockets and a new chain, you'll be surprised at
how much better your bike will run.
And for your viewing pleasure, here is Steve Matthes on how to adjust a dirt bike chain: