Love Your Chain: Top Motorcycle Maintenance Tips

Author: Phil Turner Posted: 16 Jun 2015

Follow our top tips to looking after your chain

Motorcycle chain care & maintenance

The average middleweight motorcycle puts about the same amount of power to the rear wheel as a small car, and all of it through the drive chain. Let it run dry and/or dirty and you don't have to be Einstein to work out it won't be long before it starts eating itself and your sprockets away.

Ignore your chain and sprockets and at best it'll wear out three or four times quicker than it should, knock a big chunk off your bike's performance and need adjusting a lot.

At worst it'll get so worn that you'll end up sitting on the side of some dual carriageway waiting for a van to take you home, or it'll break while you're riding and wreck your swingarm, engine and gearbox casings, your nice seat unit, or even your leg.

If your current chain care routine involves a blast with the pressure washer when the rest of the bike is getting washed, and a quick squirt of chain lube when it's starting to look a bit dry or rusty, you want to be reading this.

Three steps to chain heaven:

1. Inspection:

You should be checking your chain and sprockets for damage, wear and free-play in adjustment before every ride.

  • Examine the free play on the bottom run of the drive chain, consulting the owner's handbook for advice on adjustment.
  • Check for tight spots by rotating the rear wheel. If it will not rotate freely then a new chain may be required.
  • Inspect the rear drive sprocket for wear, making sure that the apexes of the teeth are not curved.
  • Check for any rust spots. They are an indication for insufficient lubrication or poor corrosion protection of your chain spray.

2. Cleaning: 

The chain should be cleaned before each lubrication, as the combination of dirt and grit with chain lube/grease can make a 'grinding paste', severely reducing chain life.  If that isn't possible, aim to clean the chain every 750-1000miles.

  • Never use petroleum-based cleaners, detergents and/or wire brushes as they will damage the chain and/or seals. Like you would/should be doing with the rest of your bike, get something specifically designed for the job and go for a 'spray-on-rinse-off ' formula if you can.
  • If it's properly grimy, go over the links with a soft nylon brush or sponge, never use a wire brush.  When you're happy it's done the job, rinse off thoroughly with clean water.
  • Avoid using high pressure jets or pressure washers, as the water can be forced inside the O, X or Z rings, and make sure the chain's completely dry before you lubricate.

3. Lubrication:

A motorcycle chain should be lubricated every 300-600 miles to ensure peak performance and a long life.

  • Lubricate the chain after riding, not before. This allows time for the solvents in the spray to evaporate before the bike is used again, and lets the lubricant penetrate the link properly. 
  • Get your bike on its centre stand, or on a paddock stand, as you'll need to rotate the rear wheel fully.
  • Spray the chain with a thin and even coating of chain lube/grease. Aim the spray nozzle at the inside of the chain, rotating the wheel until you've covered three full revolutions of the chain.
  • Again, always go for a specific motorcycle chain lube/grease, as other non-specialist products may not lubricate effectively.

Choose your weapons, wisely

Got your chain care routine down to a tee? What type of chain you have and what you put on it is just as important as how often you do it.

Dr Mario Kraft, deputy head of research and development at Dr O.K. Wack Chemie GmbH (developers of the SDoc100 range of motorcycle care products) explains the science behind chain care:

Any idea what type of chain you have on your bike? Most modern bikes have an O-ring, X-ring or Z-ring chain. These have internal lubrication applied in the factory and sealed in by an O, X or Z- ring – hence the names – and is supposed to stay there for its life for the life of the chain.

Dr. Mario Kraft from the developers of SDoc1000

Why does this matter? Dr Mario explained: “It's very important that the cleaning agent or the chain lube you choose won't attack the seal, if it does the inner lubrication can get out and dirt will get in and the lifetime is shortened dramatically, even if you're using external lubrication regularly. Choose only cleaners or chain sprays that have been tested with O, X and Z rings.

On top of that, material compatibility is important since almost any product which is used could come into contact with parts of your bike around the chain: aluminium rims, steel components, varnish, rubber pipes or tubing or other plastic parts, and can damage them. The golden rule? The cheaper a product is the less likely it is that all this has been tested properly by the manufacturer.”

There are two main types of chain cleaner: solvent-based and water-based. The pure solvent-based products are sprayed on the dirty chain until the chain is completely clean or your can is empty. The water-based versions, are sprayed on the chain like a liquid but within seconds become gel-like (geek points: this is called thixotropic) so that it sticks on the dirty chain and is able to get to work on the dirt and grit. Once it's done its thing, you rinse off with water.

Dr Mario continued, “Water-based cleaners, like SDoc100 Chain Cleaner, are the ones to go for as you use less of them; they spend more time on the chain attacking the dirt and grime, so you don't have to; and they're much more environmentally friendly and less likely to react with other surfaces on your bike.”

There are also two kinds of chain sprays / lubricants available: traditional grease based sprays and the new dry lubes. The current rule of thumb is that you need both kinds: the grease-based for winter and the dry for summer. Dr Mario explained why: “The main advantage of grease-based sprays is that they cover the whole chain, keeping water off and protecting against corrosion. The relatively large amount of grease/lubricant is capable of ensuring a longer lasting lubrication too.

The main disadvantage is that the grease can be thrown off the chain while riding, leaving it unprotected and contaminating the areas of the bike around it.

Another disadvantage – and the main reason why grease-based lubricants shouldn't be used in the dryer months, is their stickiness. Dirt and grit stick to it and form a kind of grinding paste, with obvious consequences for the chain and sprockets.

It's often said that the advantages and disadvantages are switched with dry lubes – no stickiness, so no grinding paste, but less coverage and corrosion protection – but we've started to investigate the contradiction and have developed our first dry lube, which has been developed to overcome the disadvantages of corrosion of the chain after raining and long lasting wear protection. Initial results are good.”

But do you agree? Any other top tips you'd like to pass on? 

Chain spray from SDoc1000 

Now you know how to inspect, clean and lube your chain is it time to adjust it? Learn how to tighten your motorcycle chain like a pro here.