Motorcycle Chain Adjustment & Maintenance



Modern O-ring chains have greatly improved the life and durability of motorcycle final drives. Yet they still require regular maintenance. Whether it is street or dirt riding, proper cleaning, lubrication and adjustment will ensure long life.


With the exception of motocrossers, modern motorcycles get the benefit of O-ring chains. The O-ring creates a seal with lubrication inside. This provides the primary pin lubrication. Spray on chain lube acts as a secondary agent to lubricate between the plates as well as between the O-ring and roller.

There are plenty of opinions as to what type of lubricants accomplish this best. Different riding conditions may have different needs. But as it is a secondary lubrication, overthinking it may be counterproductive, almost anything from WD-40 to motor oil can suffice. Most modern chain lubes are clean and won’t fling off or attract dirt. Some require care when applying. Chain “wax” will tend to stick to any part of the motorcycle it touches and can be difficult to remove once it has set.

Non O-ring chains are lighter, give less friction or drag, but also have a shorter life, hence the use for some racing applications. General maintenance is the same. Most chain lubes are labeled for both types of chain.  PJ1 Black is one specifically designed for non O-ring chains. From the manufacturer – “PJ1 Black Label has a foaming action that penetrates pins and rollers as well as lubricating the rollers, sprocket and side plates. After penetrating the inside of the chain, PJ1 Black Label chain lube becomes a sticky lubricant that bounces back or has a “memory” effect that withstands the continual mechanical stress of the chain”. Apply it with care, it can be messy.

Another product I really like is white lithium based spray grease. I find it excells in heavy use conditions such as water and corrosion. It also makes a great all purpose motorcycle grease. I use it anywhere that I want something heavier than multi-purpose lube, but cleaner than grease, such as throttle tubes and axles. It appears sticky, but does not attract dirt.


With proper care, most chains should only require minimal cleaning.  There are specific cleaning products like Maxima Clean Up. My personal favorite is WD-40. I spray it liberally on the chain prior to washing. It acts as both a cleaning agent and corrosion inhibitor. The Grunge brush is the perfect tool for chain clean up. After cleaning I apply lube liberally, typically Maxima Chain Guard.


The amount of slack to leave in a chain is very bike specific. Consult your owner’s manual for the specification. The amount of slack on the stand will be different than when the bike sits on its own weight. You will want to understand this difference so you can check the chain both in the shop and on the road. I like to get a friend to weigh down the bike so I can look at the amount of slack while it is under load. If the chain comes tight at any point, it should be readjusted.

The KTM PDS shock bikes require more slack than most. The chain should look visibly loose. I find an easy way to measure the slack is to place three fingers under the chain, just behind the top of the chain slider. The gap should be about 3 ½ fingers.

It is important to have the chain in correct alignment. The graduations on the swingarm help, but are not always very precise. The Motion Pro Chain Alignment tool provides a more accurate reading.

It is good to check slack in a couple of places around the chain; check, spin wheel partial rotation, check again. This may show that one area is tighter than another. This can be a sign of wear. But it also occurs to some degree naturally. This check ensures you do not get the chain too tight. A little bit loose is better  than tight. A tight chain places undue stress on the entire drivetrain.


Along with maintenance comes regular inspection. Chains do not last forever. Having one break can be hazardous, or at the very least a big inconvenience. Here are a couple of areas to inspect:

  • Wear or chain stretch – Here is one method to measure 520 chain wear. “Suck a wrench between your chain and rear sprocket by rotating your rear wheel by hand, until the chain along the top of your swing arm is tight. Using the method above, count out 24 intervals, and measure the distance center-to-center between the first and last pin. A new chain will be 15″ dead nuts. If you measure more than 15-3/32″ it’s time to get a new chain” (Dirt Tricks). There is also a chain wear indicator tool that you can purchase, it basically does the same type of calculation.
  • O-ring condition – Once the O-rings deteriorate, the chain wear will increase rapidly. At the first sign of degradation, it is best to replace the chain
  • Master Link – If you use a clip style link, it can wear quicker than the rest of the chain. The sealing is not as precise and the spring clip can be comprimised from rubbing against the chain guide. I typically replace clip links at the half-life of the chain.
  • Rivet Link – Generally considered stronger and superior to a clip link, this should last the life of the chain.

These tips should help you get more life out of your chain and keep your bike rolling as it should.

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