If you ride a big twin Harley-Davidson or a BMW, you are familiar with belt- or shaft-drive motorcycles. These drive systems are quiet, clean, and require hardly any maintenance at all. But chain drive is still king in the motorcycle universe. It's simple, efficient, cheap to build, and lightweight. Better yet it allows you to easily change your gearing to suit your needs. But chains require simple routine maintenance. Sadly, most of them rarely see it!
We think most riders would actually enjoy doing their own chain maintenance, if they only knew how. It's not complicated and it doesn't require a million dollars worth of special tools. When your drive chain is properly serviced, your riding will be more enjoyable, your bike will be more reliable, and you'll spend a lot less money on replacing chains and sprockets well before their time. We routinely get well over 20,000 street bike miles from a chain and sprocket kit. Motorcycles that spend time wallowing in mud, sand, and water are much harder on chains, so they should be serviced more frequently and logically expect shorter service lives.
OK, where to start? All you need to know is: C-L-A. What's that you say? It's CLEAN, LUBE, and ADJUST. When your chain is properly cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted your drive system is working exactly as designed and you'll actually feel the difference in your riding. Your parts will last much longer too. Check your chain condition at least every 600 miles. Most often it will only need to be lubed. Other times maybe it will need to be cleaned and lubed. Much less frequently it will need a full, CLEAN, LUBE, and ADJUST. Here's how to do it all.
This is the part that puts off most riders. Look at all that nasty goo! What are you supposed to do with that? Clean it! That's what! First, if your bike has a center stand, get your bike up on it. It's much easier to work on your chain when the bike is vertical and twice as easy if it's vertical and the rear tire is off the ground. If you don't have a center stand, consider getting one or a Condor Pit Stop-Trailer Stop to hold your bike safely in the upright position. As an alternative, the Big Boy Wheel Jockey is a great product that allows you to turn your rear wheel fairly easily with the bike parked on its side stand. At this point it's a very good idea to have a piece of scrap cardboard under the entire length of the drive chain to catch any greasy bits or dripping cleaners and lubricants. Old pizza boxes are perfect according to Mark Zimmerman, author of one of our most popular books, The Essential Guide to Motorcycle Maintenance. He's right!
Next, you will want to remove the chain guard. Often they're secured to the bike with just two or three easy-to-reach fasteners. Make a note of which screws go in which holes, as they might not be the same. Be sure to use the right tool for the job. We don't want to see anyone trying to remove a #3 Phillips screw with a #2 Phillips screwdriver, OK? When the chain guard is removed you will have access to the upper "run" of chain. With Park Tool mechanic's gloves to protect your hands and with eye protection on your face, bunch up some clean rags under the chain and then spray cleaner onto your chain. We like Motorex Chain Cleaner extremely well but in a pinch you can also use kerosene in a heavy-duty spray bottle. Try hard to keep any cleaner from going anywhere but on the chain and rags. Watch the grime melt away! Cool, huh? Gently brush with your Grunge Brush which is adjustable for different chain sizes, then repeat the spray, brush, and wipe process until you're happy with the results. Give that section of the chain a final wipe with a clean rag.
Then, rotate the chain to bring a still-grungy section into easy reach and repeat the process. If you have a center stand, you can easily turn the rear wheel to rotate the chain. If you don't, you'll probably need to roll the bike a short distance. Before long you've got the entire length of the chain equally clean. At this point, the more anal-retentive among us will usually wipe the entire chain down, one more time with a final clean rag while blowing it off with some low-pressure compressed air. This isn't completely necessary but it makes us feel better!
Most modern drive chains have special grease sealed inside the rollers. This grease is kept inside, where it belongs by rubber O-rings, X-rings, and other letter-shaped rings. The O-rings also keep water and abrasive dirt out and that's why modern drive chains last so very long. If any of the rubber rings become damaged, or worse, fall off completely, the chain will be toast in short order, so keep an eye on them. While the lion's share of chain lubrication is built right in, there's a bit more that needs to be done on the outside.
Grab a can of a high-quality chain lube like Motorex Racing Chain Lube with PTFE. Shake the can vigorously for 60 seconds after you start to hear the rattle of the mixing ball inside. Playing some Steve Miller Band on the iPod sound dock helps with this process immensely in our experience. With the little plastic hose or "straw" inserted in the spray nozzle, apply chain lube directly onto the lower run of chain where the rollers meet the rear sprocket. It's vital to use the straw to get the lube where you need it and not where you don't. You don't want to lube your tires or brakes. Also spray the point where the inner and outer links meet on both sides of the chain. Rotating the wheel will assist with lubricant penetration. Gently wipe off any obviously excess lubricant that is trying to drip off the chain. Then, allow the chain to dry for 10 minutes or more. Your chain should be looking very happy at this point. As a rule of thumb for street bikes you may want to reapply lube to your chain every 500 to 600 miles. Depending on the conditions in which you ride that could be more or less often.
As the rear suspension moves up and down, the chain tension changes as well, so it's essential the chain slack be set correctly for your comfort, control, and safety. Every motorcycle has a specified range of proper chain slack, which can be found in the owner's manual. Sometimes a sticker near the swingarm might also list this vital data. A chain that is too tight will ruin wheel bearings, itself, and who knows what else. A chain that is too loose could jump the sprockets, locking the rear wheel, or it could even punch a hole in your engine. That's never a good thing.
With the motorcycle on its side stand or center stand, locate a point on the bottom run of chain roughly halfway between the front and rear sprockets. Some of us have a piece of tape on our swingarm at this exact spot for reference. Pull down gently on the chain and with a tape measure held against the floor or swingarm, see how far the chain moves from the lowest to the highest point you can achieve. If that number is in range with your owner's manual spec, you're done! Clean up your tools, properly dispose of the dirty rags, and go for a ride. You probably won't need to do another thing to your chain for 500 miles or more.
If, instead, your chain tension is out of range with your owner's manual specs, no worries. Let's get 'er fixed up. You will need tools to loosen the rear axle, to adjust the chain tension adjusters on both sides of the swingarm, and a way to properly tighten the rear axle. It's a good idea to have a torque wrench so you know the rear axle is tightened correctly. If your rear axle nut uses a cotter pin, you should have a few spares of the correct size on hand at all times. It's never wise to reuse an old cotter pin. Once you familiarize yourself with exactly which tools are needed to adjust chain tension and where you keep those tools, it's a breeze to do. Our chief garage rat has green electrical tape on the two sockets he uses for most chain adjustments. That way he can grab them off his socket storage rail quickly without even needing his glasses!
The specific procedure for adjusting chain tension on your bike should be found in your owner's manual. It probably reads something like this... With the motorcycle safely supported on its stand or in the Condor Pit Stop-Trailer Stop, loosen the rear axle just a bit. Loosen it only enough so the chain tension adjusters can easily move the rear axle. Then only a tiny bit at a time move one chain adjuster and then the other on the opposite side the same amount. Moving the axle toward the rear of your bike tightens the chain. Check your chain tension. Repeat as needed. When you're in range, perhaps slightly to the tighter end of the correct range, you're good. Be sure your chain tensioners are evenly adjusted and locked (if they have lock nuts). Finally, tighten your rear axle to the proper torque setting and install a new cotter pin if your axle uses one. Look carefully to be sure the adjusters did not move as you were tightening the axle. As a final check, on your center stand or Big Boy Wheel Jockey watch your chain roll over the trailing end of the rear sprocket. It should track down the center of the sprocket and not track to one side or the other.
With your chain CLEAN, LUBED, and ADJUSTED, your bike will respond to throttle inputs correctly, it will be much easier to ride, and you'll save a lot of money on prematurely worn chains and sprockets. The quality time you spend massaging your bike during chain and other types of maintenance is a wise investment in safe, dependable performance. Plus you have the priceless satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself.