Chain maintenance is a bit of a chore for us motorcyclists… Especially for us who ride through winter in Scotland, with wet salty roads that chew through chains quicker than you can keep up. But maintaining your chain is a necessary evil to keep everything running smoothly and to prolong the life of your motorcycle chain.
First off you will want to inspect your chain for a few key indicators of wear.
Horizontal free play
As your motorcycle chain ages, the links gradually wear down, resulting in more free play side to side. Too much free play can result in the chain breaking while in use, which is why it is so important to keep an eye on.
Horizontal free play is perhaps one of the largest indicators of when a chain needs replaced.
The easiest way to check for free play is to simply wobble your chain side to side. You should have a little wiggle room from the sprockets, but overall the chain should feel quite rigid.
Verticle free play
Your motorcycle chain will stretch as it wears down, which if left unchecked could result in your chain coming flying off the sprocket and potentially locking up a wheel.
To check for verticle free play you will just need to push the chain up as far as it can go then pull it down as far as it can go. The measurement between both of these points will be your free play measurement, which you should compare with your owners manual (usually 1-2 inches).
In order to adjust your chain tension, you will typically need to loosen the main rear wheel bolt and adjust the wheel alignment with the wheel adjusters on the rear axle. Be careful to keep the rear wheel in alignment though.
Neglecting your chain or improper link installation can cause stiff links, which in turn can increase the wear rate of your chain.
The easiest way to check for stiff links is to put your motorcycle on a rear stand and to spin the back wheel. You should be able to see kinks in the chain as it moves if you have stiff links.
A fresh sprocket should have thick even spikes as seen in the image below which shows a heavily worn sprocket behind a much newer sprocket.
When to replace the chain and sprockets
If any of the previous parameters are at all excessive then it’s probably a good idea to replace the chain and sprockets.
Typically you will want to replace both the chain and sprockets together, this is because they generally wear at a similar rate. Even if the sprocket still looks ok, a worn sprocket will cause a new chain to wear faster and the extra cost to replace the sprockets is generally marginal and is worth the effort while you are already down there.
Motorcycle Chain Maintenance
So now that you have inspected your chain and have come to the conclusion that you don’t need a new one, it is time to clean, lube and protect the chain to keep it maintained.
Cleaning your chain
It’s advised to get a hold of a good rear stand for your motorcycle, as it makes cleaning your chain significantly easier.
You will also want to get your hands on a chain brush which will also make life a lot easier.
My method for chain cleaning is to use a portable garden sprayer filled with soapy water to spray the chain, while rotating the rear wheel and scrubbing the chain with the chain cleaning brush. You could easily use a degreaser spray though and rinse off with a garden hose.
Lubing your chain
Once your chain has been rinsed off with clean water and is more or less dry, you will want to lubricate the o-rings.
A common misconception with chain lubing is that the lube is there to protect the chain from rusting. This is not the case though, the lube is there to reduce the friction of the chain to prolong its life. You will want to use other products to protect the chain from rust.
You don’t need to get the lube on the outside of the chain, the purpose of the lubricant is to lubricate the inside parts so that they don’t have as much friction when moving. Focus on getting the lubricant into the o-rings.
Wet vs Dry Lube
There are lots of different chain lubes on the market. Two of the main designations though are wet and dry lubes.
Dry lubes are typically wax based and are better used in dry climates. The benefits of dry lubes is that they won’t fling off as much crap and won’t hold on to dirt as easily. The downside though is that they are washed away easier than wet lubes.
Wet lubes are typically an oil based lubricant which are better suited to wet climates. Wet lubes can be a bit messier and can hold on to dirt easier, but a high quality wet lube won’t be anywhere near as bad as using something like engine oil, which some of us sometimes have been known use.
I personally use Muc-off wet lubricant because I live in Scotland where the only thing quicker than my motorcycle is how quick the weather can change!
Now that your chain has been lubed, you will want to coat it with something to prevent it from rusting.
Typically chain rust prevention is done with a spray on wax and while this is a perfectly good method. I prefer to use another product called ACF-50.
ACF-50 is an anti rust spray which is used to prevent rust on aircraft. It is magic stuff for motorcycles and does wonders at stopping your precious metal from rusting away.
The up side of ACF-50 is that it doesn’t leave as much residue as chain wax, which has a habit of flinging off at speed and spraying everything in the process.
ACF-50 is also in my experience a lot more effective and longer lasting than wax, especially in harsher climates.
Which ever product you use, you will want to manually spin the back wheel and coat the entire outer surface of the chain.
How often should you clean your motorcycle chain?
Personally, I will lube my chain a couple of times a week (every 100 or so miles) while the bike is stationary. I do this without moving the bike and so only get a portion of the chain each time. This just keeps the lube topped up.
Then every 500-1000 miles or so (or when I see rust), I will get the bike up on its rear stand and go through the whole process of inspecting and cleaning the chain.
If you live in a nice dry climate, then you may find that you don’t need to clean your chain as much and just topping up the lube may be enough for longer.
Also I find that better quality coated x-ring chains seem to be able to go longer without rusting and typically last longer overall. Making them worth the extra cost when it comes to replacing your chain. I find that cheap sprockets are perfectly fine though because the chain will typically wear slightly faster.