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Chain Maintenance

Written by  February 1, 2014

Proper lubrication and maintenance of a chain is essential for peak performance and optimal chain life. Every rider with a chain-driven motorcycle needs to provide their chain with the appropriate care by following the manufacturer’s lubrication schedule and recommendations.

If this is not done, the service life of the chain will be shortened and maximum power transmission will not be delivered, no matter how high performing the chain or sprocket is.

What goes wrong with a chain?

Chains lead a hard life. They're exposed to the little bits of grit which get kicked up from the road. They spin around at high speeds, which tend to throw off what little oil gets puts on them. Chains either break (which is very bad), seize up (also very bad) or get worn out (inevitable). The most common way chains die is through corrosion. Winter takes a heavy toll on chains with salt and grit on the road and freezing temperatures make it less attractive to go outside and work on the bike for any length of time. Generally, by the end of winter there's a few seized links in the chain which hop whenever they go over the sprocket. Let’s not forget our trips to Daytona Beach (Bike Week/Biketoberfest) and riding on the beach – cool, right? Not so good because of the salt in the sand from the ocean and in the air. What about our long rides through those desert sands in New Mexico, Arizona? It sure is beautiful, but that blowing sand gets all over your chain. Hmmm, maybe it is time to replace the chain.

How can I prevent premature wear?

There are lots of ways to prevent corrosion and early wear. Do your research and buy the right chain for your bike and riding conditions, and don’t forget the regular maintenance. Most bike chains are o-ring chains. This means that there is a small rubber ring at each pivot point. The purpose of this o-ring is to trap grease inside the pivot and keep it lubricated. This means that o-ring chains have a much longer life than plain chains. However, one problem with the o-ring is that if the grease ever gets washed out from within the chain, then the o-rings will make it very hard to get grease back in it. Additionally, the o-rings themselves can be damaged by various fluids and by rough treatment.

How do I clean the chain?

To properly lubricate your chain, it should be cleaned first. I like to use WTK Chain Cleaner, as it lets you clean your chain safely and easily. Safe on o- ring chains and water soluble, it will not harm paint or plastic. Spray onto your entire chain and let stand for four to eight minutes. Then spray off with water. If you've never cleaned your chain before, chances are it is very gummed up. So let it sit a little longer, about 10 to 15 minutes, then rinse it off with water. Since the cleaner has done all the work, a lot of water pressure is not needed. Please do not use a commercial car wash sprayer. A garden hose works just fine. By spraying off with water, this allows the removal of old lubricant and abrasive grime from inaccessible areas of the chain. Or if circumstances don't allow you to spray it off, use a wet rag to wipe the chain off. The chain should be dry before applying lubricant. You can wipe off excess water with a clean cloth. Then follow chain lubricating instructions, covering all sides of the chain.

Time to lube the chain

Under normal conditions, a chain should be lubed every 500 miles. The key to applying lube is sparingly, but thorough, don’t over lube. If you apply too much, it splatters everywhere: rear brakes, tire and fender. Put a rag on the other side of the chain, it will catch any overspray. What should you use? Everyone has their favorites, but Motorcycle Consumer News recently tested 22 different brands of chain lubes (yes, including WD-40!) for 'initial rolling resistance, post rolling resistance, sling off, corrosion resistance, grit resistance and value.” The top six recommended products were (in order of scoring): PJ1 Chain Lube Black; Kawasaki K-Kare Foaming Chain Lube; Yamaha Performance Chain Lubrication; Pro Honda HP Lube; PJ1 Chain Lube Blue; and Torco Power Slide Titanium. I’ve been hearing good things about a manual, auto lube system from LoobMan, but as of yet, have not seen it in action.

What about a stretched chain?

All chains 'stretch' during their lifetime and eventually need replacing. However, chains don't stretch the same way elastic bands do - they get longer because the metal in the links gradually wear away and makes the overall length of the chain increase. As the chain stretches, the amount of free play increases and you eventually have to move your rear wheel back a bit to take up the slack. If there's too much slack, the chain will jump around whenever you change speed. If there is too little slack, the chain will get over-tensioned when you slow down.

How do I put on a chain?

To put a chain on a bike, it has to be broken to get it round the swing arm, and then rejoined. There are two main ways of joining a chain. First, you can use a special joining link which clips on to the side of a plate and holds it in place. The other way is to rivet the chain closed, which involves hammering a special pin until the end is smeared out a bit over the side plate and holds it in place. If the chain becomes un-joined at speed, you're in big trouble. Chains are heavy and if it becomes detached while the bike is moving, it's going to cause serious damage and probably lock up the bike. For this reason, be very careful when joining chains. Don't reuse the closing links, since they get weakened when you take them off. If you have a riveted chain, check the rivet link to make sure it's flattened enough to stop the side plate from coming off.

What about the sprockets?

When you replace the chain, always replace the sprockets too - they're much cheaper than the chain anyway. It's a false economy not to, since putting a new chain over worn sprockets will make your chain wear out faster. It's much easier to loosen the bolt which holds the front sprocket when the chain is still on the bike. You put the bike into a high gear and get someone to stand on the rear brake while you loosen the holding bolt a bit. Since the front sprocket is still attached by the chain to the rear sprocket, it can't spin around while you try to loosen it.

I would like to thank Andrew Birkett, for assisting with this article.