The bike’s chain is probably one the most important parts on a bike. The kind of acceleration and deceleration forces that the chain handles are immense. In the course of normal riding, the chain probably goes through the most wear and tear as compared to any engine component; remember, almost all engine components are almost always lubed by the engine oil and are encased away from the harsh surroundings whereas the chain is mostly exposed to the elements of nature.

The chain’s exposure to natural elements make it age rapidly unless cared for. The difference in performance between a non-lubed chain and a properly maintained one is huge and can be felt almost immediately.

Why is cleaning bike chain necessary?

In most modern motorcycles, chain is not covered in full chain cover and is exposed. It gets subjected to dirt, dust, water every time you ride. Cleaning a chain and lubricating it properly will (a) make a substantial improvement in how your bike rides (b) will increase life of chain and sprocket.

In this article, we shall see how ten simple steps that can drastically reduce chain wear and keep your bike performing better. We will be talking most about the exposed ‘O’ ring chains as found on most modern bikes today.

What you need for cleaning and lubing motorcycle chain :

  • Plastic sheet for masking
  • Chain Cleaner
  • Chain cleaning brush (Grunge brush)
  • Soft bristle brush
  • Soft cotton rag or old t-shirt
  • Chain lube or SAE 90 grade oil

10 Steps to properly lubricate your motorcycle chain :

STEP 1 :

bike chain cleaning

The method of chain cleaning that works really effectively for us starts with a small ride for about 10 minutes. The idea is to build some temperature in the chain to loosen the grime so that the cleaner can penetrate better.

STEP 2 : Park your bike on a stand and switch off the engine.

bike chain cleaning

As a precautionary measure, remove the key from the ignition. If your bike has centre stand, chain lubing is much easier. If not, you can use paddock or other small stands specifically designed for chain lubing purpose like Motojack.

Remember that you are dealing with a potential risk to your fingers. Never ever be tempted to pop it into gear and clean the chain. Use a bit of elbow grease. To make it more comfortable, use a small seat/stool to support yourself while cleaning this activity. If you are comfortable, you won’t need to take shortcuts.

STEP 3 :

bike chain cleaning

Mask the rear wheel and tyre so that the chemicals are not sprayed on to the tyre or the wheels or worse, the brakes. You can use a large plastic sheet for this. To attach the sheet, one can use sticking plaster/tape at proper places.

STEP 4 : Shake the can of chain cleaner. Spray the cleaner on the chain. You can use kerosene if you don’t find chain cleaner.

The spray should be on the inner surface of the chain on the lower side. Preferably a few inches away from the place where the chain interfaces with the rear sprocket on the lower side. Also spray on top of the chain, preferable where the chain leaves the rear sprocket on the top.

Be liberal while using Kerosene or chain cleaner. Kerosene is cheaper than your chain/sprocket set.

All the while when you spray the cleaner, use the other hand to rotate the wheel. It is easy to get tempted to start the bike and engage the gear but don’t do it. People have lost fingers while doing this.Also rotating the wheel by hand allows you to inspect the chain closely. Look for wear on the rollers and the linkages. Check if the chain slack is consistent as well.

STEP 5 :

chain cleaning brush

You will need two brushes, a grunge brush and a soft bristle brush. If the chain is heavily dirty, the hard brush can be used to brush away the stubborn dirt. The soft brush should be used on the rollers and links. The brush stroke should be along the chain length, on both the sides, inner and outer.

If you feel that the chain is drying up, a small burst of chain cleaner should be enough to set it right. Brush the chain, section by section, starting from the master link or a reference on your chain. This will ensure that you cover the entire chain. The secondary stroke should be between the links, vertically.

STEP 6 : If the chain looks clean, proceed to STEP 7 else repeat STEP 4. The intention here is to rinse away the dirt left behind by the brushing activity.

STEP 7 : Use a dry soft cotton rag or old t-shirt to wipe dry the chain. Run the cloth on the rollers by pinching the cloth softly between your first finger and the thumb. Once cleaned properly, let it rest for a 10-15 minutes. The chain cleaner is quite volatile. The time that you let it stand alone ensures that the chain cleaner evaporates completely.

STEP 8 :

motorcycle chain maintenance

Shake the can of your preferred chain lube. One can also use SAE 90 grade oil using an oiling can. In a similar way to the one used in step 4, spray the chain lube in short bursts. It is essential to spray on the inner surface as the centrifugal forces on the chain will ensure that the lube sprayed on the inner side is spread automatically to the outer side. Once the inner and outer sides have been sprayed, rotate the wheel a few times by hand to even out the lube.

STEP 9 : The lubes that are sprayed are penetrative by nature. The treatment of lube on the inner and outer surface ensures that overnight, the lubes penetrate the hard to reach places and proper lubrication is achieved. The standing time (as we call it) allows lube to stick better to the chain.

STEP 10 :In the morning, with a clean rag, wipe off the excessive lubricant to reduce the splatter while riding. Start the bike, once warmed up, engage first gear and drop the clutch. Let the wheel rotate freely for a few seconds. You are ready to roll now.

chain lubing

What you should watch out for :

Most chain manufacturers will ask you to stay away from corrosive/abrasive cleaning fluids. Some of these fuels react with the rubber linkages and destroy the lubricating grease inside the linkage. This affects performance and the life of your chain. A chain is pretty easy to clean provided it has not rusted or worn out. Most washing centres apply kerosene or diesel and wash the chain with a jet of water. Though this practice is not recommended, it is effective especially if your chain is heavily soiled (post monsoon washes). If you are getting your motorcycle cleaned at a washing centre, make sure to ensure that the pressure of the water jet isn’t too strong.

When should I oil my bike chain :

Usually, O ring chains will need cleaning and lubing every 500 kilometers in non dusty and clean conditions. However, with the type of dusty conditions we have in India, it would be a good idea to keep that interval at 3-400 kilometers between cleaning/lubing sessions. More frequent attention may be required in the monsoons where the exposed chains are almost always wet with rain water and mud.

Can I use WD-40 on motorcycle chain?

Use of WD-40 for cleaning motorcycle chains is one of the most controversial topics. However, there is a fantastic video by Motorcyclistonline about it

Result? WD-40 will not harm your motorcycle chain. But please remember that it will only clean the chain and will NOT lubricate it. So you can safely use WD-40 as chain cleaner.

Motorcycle Chain Cleaning checklist :

Daily : If you are staying in coastal area or if your motorcycle is in uncovered parking during rains, just a quick spray of chain lube is sufficient.

Weekly : If you have just done commuting throughout the week with no plans for ride outside the city, no need to spend time.

Monthly :

  • Complete chain cleaning as mentioned above.
  • Check the master link. The master link on a chain is the link that joins the two ends of chain together and will look slightly different than the surrounding links. Make sure it is secure. (The master link in this photo is shown in green colour. It may be same black colour in your bike)

monthly chain maintenance

  • Check for chain and sprocket wear. You don’t want them to be looking like this --

how to main motorcycle chain


Bonus Content :

Frequently Asked Questions about Motorcycle Chains

What are types of bike chains :

There are three types of motorcycle chains. O Ring, X Ring and Y ring. Each type of chain refers to the shape of seal between the locking pins and plates of the chain.

O ring chains were specifically designed to retain lubrication and keep away dirt. The O ring chain gets its name from the rubber o rings that are built into the metal rollers of the links in the chain. The O rings occupy the space between the rollers and links. These rubber rings also hold the lubricating grease inside the roller and also prevent dirt/mud from entering the chain linkage. This significantly increases the chain life and reduces the wear and tear.

A small cutaway image shown below will help you understand this better

chain cutaway image

X Rings and Z Rings provide better performance due to reduced friction between the interfacing components. However, the O ring chains are most commonly used because of their lower cost and longer life.

How do I know if my chain is worn out?

There are several ways to find out if your chain and sprocket need a change.

  • There are adjustment marks on swingarm of every motorcycle. If the chain is adjusted (pulled the rear wheel back as far as possible) to the maximum level, it is time for a change
  • Find a not so clean cloth (because you don’t want to get your hands dirty) and try to pull back chain at rear sprocket. If the chain exposes more than half of the sprocket, it is time for a change.
  • Put up motorcycle on center stand or on paddock / chain lubing stand. After your chain lube is done, move the rear wheel by hand slowly. If the chain moves smoothly, it is ok. If you see that chain is tight / not moving smoothly only at certain points, it is a case of “stiff links”. Try to clean and lube them again. If the chain is still tight at those spots, it needs replacing.
  • Check the sprocket teeth. The sprocket teeth should be evenly worn out on both the leading and trailing edges of each tooth. If the sprockets look like shark fins (sharp wear on one side and lower wear on other side), it means they are worn out and need replacement.

bike chain worn out

Do you need to change sprockets with chain?

chain and sprocket

As a rule of thumb, always replace chain and sprocket together. Putting on a brand new chain on a sprocket that is half worn out translates to hampered performance and reduced life for the new chain.

How long should bike chain last?

First thing you can do is check the points above to see if the chain needs replacement. If it does need replacement, it doesn’t matter how many kilometres you have used it. It needs to be replaced. Period.

Secondly, chain sprocket set of every motorcycle model is made differently. Lower priced motorcycles have chain sprocket sets that have lower life. Higher priced (and cc) motorcycles have sturdily built chain sprocket sets. eg. Yamaha R15 / FZ16 chain sprocket have about 15000 km life. While the Yamaha FZ1 (that is 1000cc) can easily do 35-40000 km on one chain sprocket set.

It also depends on how aggressively you ride. If you are always jerky on throttle, the jerks get transmitted to chain & sprocket so naturally they will wear out faster. If you are smooth while accelerating, they will last longer. Here we are not talking about riding slow. We are talking about jerky throttle input. We had two Ninja 250 purchased couple of days apart. One Ninja needed chain sprocket replacement in 28,000 km while the other one did the change at 48,000km. This is how much the jerky input affects the chain sprocket life.

Lastly, where you ride, how dusty, muddy your travel is, how correctly the chain tension is adjusted, how much you maintain lubrication are all factors that decide life of your motorcycle chain.

So choose wisely and ride happily.

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