Motorcycle Chain Maintenance — Chain Reaction
It's Technology Straight From The Steam Age, But Every Serious Sportbike Still
Uses It. SSB Goes To Work On The Chain Thang....
By Alan Dowds
There are a few areas of bike design that have all sorts
of theoretical disadvantages-until you look at the other options. Front forks
are perhaps the most obvious, putting your main braking force on the end of a
pair of long springs while making it all part of the steering, too. On paper
it's a mess, but in practice, there's little to touch it for effective front
A chain final drive is, when you think about it, a pretty poor setup, too. What
other high-precision operating system on your bike is stuck out in the breeze,
with nothing more than an occasional squirt of sticky oil to protect it from
dust, water, grit, spiny anteaters and whatever else the road tosses at it?
Imagine your valve gear was similarly designed (as it was on the very earliest
bikes)-you'd be changing cams and rockers every few hundred miles.
Yet your chain survives thousands and thousands of miles, despite getting every
last pound of thrust your bike's engine produces pinged through it. Wheelies,
hard starts, savage gear-changes-these all put massive strains on what is,
essentially, a bunch of tiny steel plates, pins and rollers all pressed
An old, worn-out chain saps... read full caption
An old, worn-out chain saps power and destroys sprockets. Check your chain
often: Keep it lubed and properly adjusted and it'll last. For the style
conscious, you can even color coordinate your links.So why chains? They're
actually incredibly efficient at transmitting power. That's why they're used on
racing bicycles: nothing else can make the most of a rider's leg power with
minimal loss. Indeed, if a chain is enclosed, lubricated and tensioned properly,
it's a superb power transmitter. Cam chains and primary drive chains will last
almost the full life of an engine these days.
Chains are light, especially in comparison to options such as shaft or gear
drive, and they allow the simple changes of final drive gearing that are
essential for racers. They're extremely tough and resist snapping, which belt
drive systems can't manage, and they're much narrower than either shaft, gear or
belt final drives.
Futuristic options to replace chains include hydraulic drive systems, and if
electric bikes ever become a realistic option, they may use direct-drive motors
mounted inside the wheel hub. But we're betting that the humble chain and
sprocket, like the front fork, will be with us for a while yet.
What's In A Chain?
A roller drive chain is made up of inner and outer plates, joined together by
riveted pins. The pins also hold rollers and bushes between the plates, which
engage in the teeth of the drive sprockets. An O-ring chain has small rubber
seals (in the shape of an "O") between the bushes, rollers and side plates,
which hold a special grease inside the bushes to cool and lubricate them. X- and
W-shaped rings have also been used. These have an "X" or "W" shape in profile,
which gives extra sealing lips on the side plate to hold more lubricant in
Your chain gathers old lube, grit and dirt, so it's worth giving it a regular,
good clean. Again, there are loads of powerful spray-can products, which
generally do a good (though pricey) job.
A cheaper option is to use kerosene or diesel fuel. Whatever you use, work it
into the chain with a stiff paintbrush-with the bike on a stand-while turning
the back wheel. Wipe off any excess after cleaning and allow the chain to dry.
Then lube the chain as normal.
There are literally dozens of spray-on chain lubes available, and it's hard to
be definitive on what's best. The most important thing is to use it, and use it
properly. Little and often is the key to good chain lubing, and proper
application reduces fling off and waste.
Apply lube when you get home from a run because the chain will be warmer, which
helps the lube penetrate and quickly evaporates the solvent used in the lube.
Leaving the lube on overnight or longer also helps it stick properly to the
Put the bike on a stand and turn the wheel by hand while spraying the lube into
the bottom chain run where it feeds onto the rear sprocket. Let it dry for a
bit, then wipe off any excess with a cloth.
Some folks (and some manufacturers) suggest using SAE90
gear oil for chain lubing, which is messier and less convenient.
Rear sprockets can be made of steel or aluminum. Aluminum is lighter but wears
faster, although special hard anodizing can improve wear rates. The rear
sprocket is unsprung mass, so lighter is better for handling purposes.
The back sprocket is usually bolted to a sprocket carrier hub that's located in
the rear wheel via a shock-absorbing, rubber cush-drive. The locking sprocket
nuts can come loose, so check them at service time.
Front sprockets are generally made from steel-their smaller size makes any
weight loss insignificant and the large forces going into such a small part
necessitate a tougher material.
Front sprockets are normally mounted on the gearbox output shaft, using machined
splines. A circlip, large nut with tab washer, or a bolt-on plate secures it
solidly in place. Always use correct torque figures and new washers when
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