Our guide to clean, lubricate and adjust the chain for maximum performance and efficiency

Power made by the internal combustion engine (or an electric battery unit nowadays) moves your body and soul by sending all that power and torque to the rear wheel of the motorcycle via either a chain drive or a belt drive mechanism.

A belt drive is made of rubber, plastic, and other synthetic substances, and is used on some luxury motorcycles for it requires fewer adjustments and is quieter, cleaner, and runs more smoothly compared to the chain drive.

It doesn’t need any lubrication and is easy to maintain. But it is not the case with chain drives. Here’s our guide to help you with the right care package so that you do not have to end up sitting on the side of a freeway waiting for help that may never arrive.

Manufactures prefer a chain drive over belt ones for most of their products because of better metals, tighter tolerances, and significant improvements in durability, making it the most efficient way to get power to the ground. Ignoring your chain and sprockets will hamper your motorcycle’s performance and economy, and you might also have to shell out for more gas and to get them replaced two or three times quicker than necessary.

Apart from blasting your chain with water, follow these commands, and you could live a healthier and happier life on two wheels:

1. Choosing the right chain:

Maintaining the chain and sprocket of a motorcycle
- image 869206

Older motorcycles use chain drive systems that were difficult to maintain as often dust and dirt would settle wedged between the pins and rollers. They had to be constantly cleaned and rid of these elements for them to last long.

Modern manufacturing, however, has given the chains O-ring, X-ring, or Z-ring seals to deal with this very issue and also to keep a special lubricant inside to make the mechanical movements smoother. The material of metal used on modern chains will not be affected by the moisture and do not rust as much as the older ones did.

If you own an older motorcycle, we would recommend you change them with ones having seals that would help you in better maintenance.

2. Cleaning:

Maintaining the chain and sprocket of a motorcycle
- image 869209

Before you could lubricate the chain or inspect it, always make sure you clean the chain off any dirt, dust or residue. Lubricating it without cleaning would create a paste that would further damage the chain and the sprocket, severely reducing the life.

Apart from giving a pressure wash, use non-petroleum-based cleaners and detergents to remove the harsh residues. Using a soft nylon brush or sponge is an excellent way to make your work easier, and NEVER use a wire brush as they will damage the chain and/or seals. Clean the chain every 500 miles for prolonged usage.

There are two types of chain cleaners: solvent-based and water-based. The water-based cleaners shove the dirt directly off the chain while the solvent-based cleaner sticks with the dirt to a gel-like formation that can then be rinsed off with water.

3. Lubrication:

Maintaining the chain and sprocket of a motorcycle
- image 869207

Once the chain is completely clean of the elements, make sure it dries up before you can grease it. Make sure to use specific motorcycle chain lube/grease to spray that does not damage the seals.

Set up the motorcycle on a center stand or a paddock stand used for maintenance purposes. Target the nozzle spray at the inside of the chain where the seals are located and over the rollers, while you cover three full revolutions of the chain. Wipe off any excess lube with a lint-free cloth. Once every 200-300 miles, a dash of lubrication should always be topped up to ensure peak performance.

There are also two kinds of chain sprays/lubricants available: traditional grease-based sprays and the new dry lubes. The grease-based lubes are generally preferred for their winter capabilities and also since they quickly cover the whole chain. A dry lube should be used in warmer conditions since the grease will dry up and form a kind of grinding paste.

4. Inspection:

Maintaining the chain and sprocket of a motorcycle
- image 869205

The easiest way to know that your chain needs replacement is when you see rust, kinks, and a lot of noise during operation. If the seals of the chains give in, the pins and rollers get rusted with the moisture in the air. This will also cause “kinks” on the chain since the special lubricant present within the seal would have dried, and the rollers and pins tend to get jammed up along with other dirt.

These kinks will eventually become weak points within the chain and will be at a higher risk of breaking and can cause excess wear on your sprockets. Such things will also cause damage to the sprocket and will tend the chain to operate from being smooth to a clunky, squeaking rattle.

5. Adjustment:

Maintaining the chain and sprocket of a motorcycle
- image 869208

Another critical inspection to be carried out is the chain’s fitment within the sprockets and the tension it needs to hold. For prolonged usage, the chains tend to get stretched, or rather, the holes where the links attach wear and get slightly larger. This expands the length of the chain and loses the necessary tension for an efficient transfer of power.

Your motorcycle’s owner’s manual will give the right amount of slack the chain needs to have at all times. Luckily, every chain can be adjusted to retain this slack over a limited range, after which the chain can no longer be modified and needs it to be replaced with a new one. 1.2–1.6 inches of slack is typical for street bikes, while dirt bikes may need 1.4–2.0 inches.

Most motorcycles these days have bolts that you turn to increase or decrease the chain slack. Checking and adjusting your chain every 500 miles is necessary.

A video link to help you guide on how to adjust the chain slack:


Useful tips for maintaining your chain-sprocket drive:

1. The frequency of chain-sprocket maintenance depends on your riding style. Off-road, doing water crossings, or riding in mud or sand, will make it more challenging to clean and maintain the chain. Racing, track days, constant high speeds will put more tension on the chain and would need frequent adjustments for the proper slack.
2. Look out for rusts, kinks, and noises before the ride, during the journey, and also after the trip.
3. It is advisable to lube the chain just after a long ride, while the chain is still warm. This will allow the lube to settle down quicker and set into every crevice.
4. Make sure you replace both front and rear sprockets every time you replace your chain for optimal performance.
5. Always wipe down and lube your chain after riding in the rain to prevent rust build-up.
6. Make sure to use non-petroleum-based cleaners and detergents to clean the chain before lubrication.
7. Do not use engine-oil as a lubricant as it can’t protect against water or dust as it is more viscous.
8. Although WD-40 is sometimes known as a lubricant, it is not as effective since it is mainly a water displacement liquid, and is not meant for any lubricating.
9. It is advisable to clean and grease your chain every 300-600 miles of riding.
10. Do not use a wire brush to clean the chain as it might damage the seals.

Source: Bennetts

Sagar Patil
Motorcycle industry expert since 1997! - sagar@topspeed.com
Over the years, a deeper conscience of machines moving body and soul has given him a crisp grasp over the concepts of motorcycling. A sucker for details and common sense, he loves getting his hands dirty every once in a while. His love affair with motorcycles ushers in the specialist skillset making Sagar our go-to expert for everything on two-wheels.  Read More
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