With all the dirt, grime, mud and various other things found on the road or a trail, motorcycle chains can get really, really dirty. Imagine a golden retriever who’s been let off the lead and has spotted a deep, muddy puddle. Yep, really that bad.
And yet despite the important job your drive chain has to play in propelling a motorcycle, it’s often overlooked until it’s prematurely worn out. So it’s time to give it a bit more TLC and also save you having to buy replacements all the time.
Read on to discover all you need to know about motorcycle chain maintenance.
Drive Chain Inspection
Before you get started with cleaning, it’s a good idea to have a look at your entire chain and sprockets for wear and tear.
Examine the free play on the lower section of your chain, check that the slack is correct for your bike model. This is normally found in the owner’s manual or chain side of the swingarm, however an average rule of thumb is that it should be between 30 – 40 mm (1.2 – 1.6 inches) for street bikes.
If it’s larger than this it will need adjusting, if you reached the limit on the chain adjusters then it’s time for a new one.
Check for tight spots by rotating the rear wheel. If it will not rotate freely then a few links may be kinked or binded together and a new chain may be required.
Visually inspect for kinks, rust, or any damage to the rollers, plates and pins. If you find anything excessive on these then you’ve guessed it, time for a new chain.
Check the master link is secure also looking for rust and damage. The master link on a motorcycle chain is the link that has been used to join the two ends together and will look slightly different than the surrounding links. The master link will be fastened in one of two ways, either by a clip or by rivets.
The easiest defects to spot on sprockets are broken or chipped teeth. If you come across either then it’s time to replace it.
Deterioration will come in stages. The first indicator is a “sharpening” feel to the edges of the teeth. As the edges get sharper, the “shoulder” area begins to show wearing.
This is the area below the sprocket “valley” where the chain sits. This wearing doesn’t compromise the functionality but is an indicator that the sprocket is nearing the end of its optimum life.
The third stage is when the teeth look like “shark fins”. Shark fins occur when the leading edge of the sprocket tooth wears more heavily than the back side. This is the ideal time to change the sprocket.
The final stage, if you fail to notice the shark fins, is hooking. This level of damage is unsafe and causes major stress on the chain and as a result the rear sprocket also.
Check that the sprocket nuts are all accounted for and tight as well. Most come with a locking washer or the like, however with the amount of vibration and stress these parts go through they can sometimes wiggle free and finding out that you’ve lost nuts halfway down a motorway is not the ideal time to discover this.
Cleaning Your Motorcycle Chain
Now you’ve checked everything and concluded that your chain and sprockets are good for another few thousand miles, it’s time to get to work. The whole process should take less than an hour (depending on how much grime there is to clean and how thorough a cleaning job you want to do) and doesn’t require any specialist tools or knowledge.
Before starting, I’d recommend giving the whole bike a clean beforehand. You don’t want to spend the time and effort cleaning the chain and sprockets to then have dirt flying off the rest of the bike onto your nicely lubricated chain, the road will do enough of that for you.
What You Need
The key to anything is in the preparation, so gather all the things you need first:
- Motorcycle lift or rear stand*
- Socket or spanner set
- Motorcycle grunge brush, soft-bristled scrubbing brush or old toothbrush
- Clean rags
- Rubber or work gloves
- Chain cleaner
- Chain lubrication
- Bucket of water or hose
- Piece of cardboard
*If you do not have a rear stand (aka paddock stand) you can simply clean the chain in sections, move the bike forwards/backwards then clean the next section.
- Place your bike on a flat workspace such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking ensuring the area is well ventilated. Using the centre stand (if your bike comes with one) or a paddock stand*, lift the rear of the bike up so the rear wheel is off the ground and can rotate freely.
- Using your spanner or socket set remove the front sprocket cover, to find this follow the chain to where it vanishes close to the centre of the bike. The cover is normally held on by 2-3 bolts. Taking this off will not damage or affect the functionality of the bike so no need to panic if you’re new to doing your own bike maintenance.
- While rotating the wheel, spray the chain and sprockets with chain cleaner (Kerosene can also be used for this process).
- Leave the cleaner for a minute to soak in and break down the grease. Then use your brush to give the chain and sprockets a good scrub and remove any stubborn grime. Remember to keep rotating your wheel in the process.
- Wipe the chain and sprockets down with a clean rag removing the rest of the grime and residue cleaner.
- Repeat the cleaning process: spray, soak, scrub, wipe, until you’re happy with the result.
- Rinse your chain and sprockets with clean water to wash off any remaining dirt and cleaner that may have been hiding then wipe dry with a clean rag.
- The inside of the front sprocket cover should also be cleaned using the same process. Sometimes you might need to scrape some of the muck out of the casing first. A plastic pallet knife is useful here or anything of that shape just try to avoid using a metal implement.
Now everything is nice and clean it’s time to get things greasy again.
- Using the piece of cardboard underneath the lower section of your chain to protect your wheel and tyre from overspray, apply lubricant liberally to the whole chain, rotating as you go for a consistent coating. Be sure to hit the inside of the chain, the outside of the chain, as well as both side portions. For sealed chains only apply a small amount of chain lubricant during this process.
- Gently wipe off excess lubricant from the chain and clean the surrounding area of the chain lube.
Congratulations, you’re all done and ready to ride!
NB. NEVER, ever, ever use the throttle as a way to spin the wheel while cleaning. The repercussions aren’t remotely worth any “time-saving” you think you’re getting from it.
How often should I clean my chain and sprockets?
The chain should ideally be cleaned before each lubrication, as the combination of dirt and grit with the lube can make a ‘grinding paste’, reducing the life of the chain. If that isn’t possible, aim to clean the chain every 750-1,000 miles (1,200 – 1,600 km).
How to figure out your motorcycle chain type
You can tell the difference between a plain and a sealed motorcycle chain based on the space between the metal links.
A standard motorcycle chain is made up of metal-on-metal links without any seals in between. Sealed motorcycle chains (known as O-rings, X-rings and Z-rings) use a rubber seal between the inner link and outer links to keep grease inside the pin and bushing cavity.
This helps extend the chain life but means a more gentle approach to cleaning and lubricating is required.
Why regular motorcycle chain maintenance is so important
There are several reasons to keep your chain clean other than just looking good. The dirtier it is, the higher the wear on the chain and sprockets too.
If a chain wears excessively and becomes too loose, then it could get jammed between the front sprocket and its cover or even jump off the rear sprocket and get caught up on the swingarm. These are very worst-case scenarios and unlikely to occur; however it’s worth knowing what could happen and doing what you can to bring the percentage of these happening to you down further.
Remember. front sprockets are always the first to wear out. Once it’s worn it will quickly wear the chain and rear sprocket as well. They all work together and affect each other. A worn front sprocket is very hard wearing on the chain, will wear it out much earlier than a good sprocket will. The chain, the most expensive and important component in this system, is the thing you want to protect.
Best motorcycle chain cleaners
There are a few things worth considering when buying a chain cleaner: efficiency, composition and cost.
As with many cleaning products used on vehicles in previous years, chain cleaners would have been based on the harshest of solvents available to be as effective and efficient as possible. However these would have had longer lasting harmful effects on the environment.
More modern cleaning products are biodegradable so that they minimise their impact on the environment.
The following are just a few of the highest regarded and used in a market of hundreds.
- Maxima Chain Care Aerosol Combo Kit, (Pack of 3)
- Motul Chain Care KIT
- Muc Off Chain Cleaner
This 3 pack chain care kit includes Maxima chain clean up, Maxima multi purpose lube and Maxima chain wax.
From Motul comes a complete motorcycle chain maintenance kit. Their lube and cleaner are race developed.
Includes 1 can of chain cleaner, 1 can of chain lube, a grunge brush and a pair of gloves
Muc-Off know about cleaning bikes, in fact it’s what their brand was built on.
Their chain cleaner spray is suitable for all types of chain, O, X and Z-ring versions - and it is water-soluble too, so you spray it on, give it a moment, brush it in and then rinse off.
This is my go-to chain cleaner.
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