Some of the most important parts of your drivetrain are your chain and sprockets – so give them the attention they deserve. How to clean them, check them, and change them, all in one place!
Motorcycle Chain Maintenance
First of all, in order to properly maintain your chain, you’ll need to know what kind of chain your bike is running with. (For a quick video explaining all you need to know about different motorcycle chains, check out our Motorcycle Chains Crash Course.)
The most simple type of chain is a standard, non-sealed chain. This chain will require the most maintenance because it doesn’t have any way of keeping itself internally lubricated like an O-ring chain does. If your bike has one of these chains, you’ll need to keep a closer eye on it for wear and attend to it more often.
So why would anyone want a non-sealed chain? There are a few advantages to having a these chains depending on the type of riding you will be doing. Many racers prefer this type of chain because they tend to have less friction than their sealed counterparts. Also, many older bikes may not be compatible with O-ring chains.
An O-ring chain is a whole lot less needy. This chain has little o-rings between the link plates and rollers of the chain that are used to keep grease and lube inside of your chain, while keeping dirt out. While these chains require less upkeep and tend to not need to be replaced as often, they do require some care. Over time, O-rings will lose lubrication and eventually will dry out, crack or even fall off. The best way to slow this process down is with regular lubrication with an o-ring safe lubricant.
There are a few variations in the O-ring family. For example, an X-ring chain is designed to reduce the extra friction over an O-ring chain by the shape of its cross section. X-rings have less contact area between the X-ring and the link plates and rollers, and because of this reduction in friction, X-rings also have a tendency to last longer than O-rings.
How to Clean Your Motorcycle Chain
No matter the type of chain you have, it will still need to be maintained. Gunk and grease can have a tendency to build up around the chain along with dirt, and will increase the wear.
Before lubing up your chain, check it for any build up that may need to be cleaned off. If you find that you chain needs to be bathed, put your bike up on a stand so that the rear wheel is off the ground. Rotate the rear wheel to inspect your chain. If you notice that your chain is at the maximum adjustment, is worn down, or has any excessive rust or kinks, it may be time for a new one altogether.
If your chain is still in good condition but just needs to be freshened up, you should use a mild soap and a brush to scrub off any dirt or excess grease build up. While you can use a wire brush on a non-sealed chain, be sure to use a much softer brush on a chain with rings. We really like to use a Simple Solution’s Grunge Brush.
Wipe away the dirt and grease with a clean cloth and let the chain dry. To help dry out the nooks and crannies of the chain faster, you can use some WD-40 (that’s what it’s made to do; the WD stands for “water displacement.”) Some people use only WD-40 to lube their chains, but that’s not considered best practice – we recommend using a proper chain lube instead.
Lubing Your Chain
When lubing your chain, you’ll want to get the lube inside the pins and rollers and a little precision is necessary. With your motorcycle still mounted on its stand and the rear wheel elevated, apply lube to the lower chain while spinning the rear wheel forward, allowing the chain to climb on the sprocket.
Once you’ve managed to cover the entire length of the chain, wipe off any excess lube so that it doesn’t build up or attract dirt and let it sit for a few minutes. Give the rear wheel a spin every so often to help the lube work its way into the chain. Note: if you apply chain lube after a ride, when your chain is warm, it will allow the lubricant to penetrate more easily into the chain.
You’ll find that a properly cleaned and lubed chain can have a huge impact on how smoothly your bike can transfer its power from the engine to your rear wheel. Be sure to add chain maintenance to your list. The standard for checking your chain is every 300 miles, but check your owner’s manual for your specific bike.
Replacing Your Chain and Sprockets
Just like everything else on your bike, even the best of chains will get worn down eventually. Chains will get stretched out, rust and age. When they do, it’s better to catch it early and replace your chain before it lets you know that it’s time by failing on you during a ride.
You can tell when you should change your chain fairly easily. You may be able to tell when your chain needs replacing if your model has a “replace chain” marking and the rear-axle adjusters have reached it. If you don’t trust your eyes to catch the signs of a worn out chain, check your owner’s manual to find out at what mileage your chain should be changed.
Sprockets tend to show wear even more obviously. The gap in between each tooth on a worn sprocket will be rounded out, and eventually the teeth will “hook” as you can see in the photos. Any short or broken teeth, or excessive wear on the sides of the teeth, is also a sure sign that its time to replace the chain and sprockets.
If you find that it’s time to change your chain and sprockets, don’t fret; it really is a fairly simple process that can easily be done at home.
Removing the Old Chain
In order to get your bike ready for a new chain, put it in neutral and rotate the rear wheel to find the master link. Once you’ve found it, loosen the rear axle of your motorcycle and slide the rear wheel as far forward as you can in order to get the chain to be as loose as possible.
If your master link is the clip style, use a screwdriver in order to break it loose. If you have a hefty chain breaker or your chain is a fairly small chain, you can also use a chain breaker to remove one of the pins.
However, because chains are getting stronger and stronger, you may find that your chain will out power the chain breaker, and the pin you’re trying to punch out might just break the head of your chain breaker instead.
That’s why the safest way to do this is by “prepping” the pin you plan to punch out. With a hand held grinder or rotary tool, grind off the heads off one of the pins until its flush with the link, then punch it out. You’ll find that it comes out much easier, because you don’t have to bend the flanges of the pin head with your chain breaker.
Once you have the master link disconnected or have the chain separated, carefully pull the chain until it is completely free.
Choosing the Right Sprockets
When buying new sprockets, the most important thing to check is that they are the same size as your chain. So a 520 chain will go with 520 sprockets, a 530 chain with 530 sprockets, and so on.
Another important thing to select is the sprocket sizes. Generally you will default to replacing with OEM sprocket sizes, but you can find significant gains in performance and driveability by switching sprockets to a different size. I have a complete article on this called How to Choose Motorcycle Sprockets, so give it a read through to see if you can benefit from this mod when choosing your next set.
Changing your Sprockets
When changing out sprockets, it’s a good idea to break all the bolts loose while the chain is still installed, and the tire is still on the ground. It’s a lot easier to do it this way than when the chain is off and the bike is on a stand. After the chain is removed, taking the sprockets off is simple and straightforward.
Important note: If you do choose to change your sprockets along with your chain, loosen the countershaft nut (the nut holding the front sprocket on) BEFORE removing the chain, otherwise it may be very difficult to remove!
Chuck the old sprockets and put the fresh sprockets onto your bike. Replace all of the bolts, apply threadlocker, and cinch them down to the manufacturer’s recommended torque spec with a torque wrench; for the rear sprocket, be sure to tighten the bolts in a star pattern. Once the new sprockets are on, you’re ready to install your new chain.
Installing a New Chain
One of the easiest ways to get the right size chain is to simply count the number of links in your old chain and buy the same size chain. If you’re between sizes, buy the chain that is longer just to be safe. It’s always better to have to knock a few links off with a chain tool, which is an easy process, rather than go through the hassle of exchanging it for the right size!
When fitting your chain onto your bike, make sure you move your chain adjusters to the forward-most position. The chain will stretch quite a bit as it breaks in, and this will allow you to move the adjusters backward to compensate as that happens. Wrap the chain around the sprockets and do a test fit, and remove any links necessary to get the tightest fit you can.
Next, secure both ends of the chain together with the master link. If you’re installing an O-ring or X-ring chain, be sure to slide the seal over the pins of the master link before attaching the master link plate and clip. While clip style master links are easier to install, rivet style links are stronger, more secure, and look more professional. The installation process is more involved, but it’s totally doable with a chain tool and a little attention to detail!
In order to install one, before trying to connect it to the chain, you should coat the link with the (very goopy) lubricant that came with it. Be sure to coat the O-rings as well, then slide them onto both of the master link’s pins. Then coat the remaining pair of O-rings and the master link’s side plate. All you’re trying to do here is mimic the pattern of O-rings on the rest of the chain – when looking at it, it will be pretty self-explanatory.
Once everything is all nice and lubed up, insert the master link into the chain by sliding the pins into the chain from the back. Then put on the remaining two O-rings and use a chain tool (I use the RK Chain Tool in the photo above, but there are several models available to do this) to press the master link’s side plate onto the pins.
With a wrench, slowly tighten the chain tool until the side plate is evenly mounted onto the master link, with the open ends sticking out just enough to flare them. Then take the plate off the chain tool, and insert the rivet flare pin into it. Carefully align the rivet setter over each rivet and tighten it slowly until you flare the rivet just enough (see photos for reference.)
Once the pin is in a mushroom shape, repeat on the other pin. Keep a close eye on the pins as you do this, in order to not over tighten them; this can damage the flare on the rivet and cause the chain to kink as well. Once you get them flared just the right amount, you’ve got a perfectly secured rivet master link that will hold even while you ramp up your RPM’s.
After the master link is ready to go, tighten your chain adjusters to where you have the right amount of chain slack. This is important so check your owner’s manual, but generally having an inch or so of up and down flex in the chain is about right. It’s better to have it a little too loose than too tight, because your chain needs to move up and down, flexing with the suspension of the bike. If your chain is too tight and you start working the suspension on a ride, you can risk snapping the chain.
Wrap It Up & Ride!
Once you’ve gotten everything installed, double check everything to make sure the sprockets are installed securely, your rear axle is tightened up, and your chain slack is within spec. Wipe down your parts to minimize grease sling, and take it for a test ride!
That’s really all there is to it! It may sound intimidating, but following this guide, the instructions that come with your chain tool, and the recommendations in your owners manual, changing your chain and sprockets can be a totally doable DIY project. Doing it yourself will save you a bunch of money too (for other motorcycle parts of course!)