When To Replace Your Motorcycle Chain (Full Guide)

The chain is a crucial part of your motorcycle. Any problem in the chain will result in inefficient power transfer with proportionately lower torque and speed. But if you’re new to motorcycles, it can be hard to tell when you need to replace your motorcycle chain.

The motorcycle chain needs to be replaced as soon as you find that it is not working as it should because it is worn beyond repair. There are a few signs that indicate when this happens that you can pay attention to so that you are alerted to change it as soon as possible.

All mechanical components are subjected to stress which causes wear over time. Worn-out parts need replacement to continue to keep the motorcycle in running condition. In the article below, we take a deep look into when and how to replace your motorcycle chain.

How Long Does A Motorcycle Chain Last?

A motorcycle chain is supposed to last a minimum of 12,400 miles, or 20,000 km. As long as the chain is correctly adjusted and in good condition, it can be expected to last to the manufacturer’s guidelines. There are a variety of chains available that may provide longer life if they’re looked after.

Most motorcycle chains are subjected to excessive use without the regular cleaning and greasing that could extend their life, and this inevitably leads to early chain replacement. A lot depends on the type of motorcycle and the riding conditions that it undergoes. Lighter motorcycles in the 100 cc range are easy on their chains, and so they can be expected to last a long time.

Heavier motorcycles that are high performance can output high torque with speed and need chains to withstand that amount of stress. Heavy-duty chains are available at a higher price and are more suitable for these motorcycles as they are designed to take heavy loads and last longer. Regular chains are to be used according to the motorcycle manufacturer’s recommendations.

A Badly Maintained Motorcycle Chain Can Wear Out 3 Times Faster

A motorcycle chain that is poorly maintained without regular cleaning and lubrication may need replacement much fasterdue to excessive wear. Instead of getting the manufacturer rated 20,000 km, its life can be reduced to 30%, or about 3,700 miles (6,000 km).

Even if you were using a cheap chain for about $80, it is a waste of money that need not have been spent if it was looked after properly. A high-quality chain costs above $120 so looking after its lubrication regularly can save a good bit of money. A good quality chain for a high-performance motorcycle is about $160.

How To Make Your Motorcycle Chain Last Longer

Motorcycle chains can be expensive to replace often and can also affect the amount of wear on the gearbox sprocket and the rear-wheel sprocket. A chain that is worn out of its specifications can cause excessive wear on sprocket teeth and lead to a shorter sprocket life. This means an earlier replacement that could have been avoided if proper care was taken.

Every motorcycle chain needs to be cleaned and lubricated at regular intervals to ensure that it is operating at peak efficiency. If periodic inspections are not performed regularly, the chain lubrication can wear off and it can accumulate grime that accelerates the wear on both the chain and sprockets. This can be costly in the long run when a total replacement of chain and sprockets are needed.

The chain needs to be cleaned thoroughly, then waxed so that it is protected from rust and corrosion. This needs to be done every 500 miles or so to protect the chain and sprockets, especially if the motorcycle is being used in a wet and muddy environment. The chain interaction with the gearbox sprocket and the rear-wheel sprocket has a direct bearing on fuel efficiency, power output, and speed.

Clean And Lubricate It Often

The biggest enemy of the chain is water which causes rust and corrosion. So, it needs to be protected as much as possible by a layer of chain lube or wax. Chain lube is sold in cans and can be sprayed onto the chain making it very convenient and easy to use. But, the more efficient lubricant and protector is chain wax. In price, both cost about the same.

Prior to lubricating the chain, it must be thoroughly cleaned so that any dust or sand particles are removed from it. If this is not done, then any wax applied to the chain will mix with the sand to make an abrasive paste that will wear down the chain and sprockets even faster.

First Clean It

You also need a brush with nylon bristles to scrub the chain with. A chain brush can be found at a low cost and looks like two toothbrushes facing each other. Spray a chain cleaner onto the chain, then give it some time to loosen the crud before using the brush on it. Keep a cloth ready to wipe away the loosened dirt off the chain.

This is going to extend the chain life and is well worth the time and effort spent cleaning it. Now that the chain is clean give it some time to dry before applying lube or wax. Lubricating the chain without first cleaning it won’t be as good because the chain wax or lube isn’t going to get maximum contact with the bare metal parts for protection.

Then Lubricate It

Your clean chain is now ready for the crucial step of lubrication. Whether you choose chain lube or chain wax depends on the type of roads you are riding the motorcycle on, as well as the weather conditions. If the motorcycle is being ridden often in a wet and muddy environment then the better choice is chain lube.

Chain lube and chain wax are manufactured in many different proprietary formulations containing various chemicals to lubricate and clean the chain. Each formulation claims to be able to work the best and the longest, so it is up to you to choose a brand from a reputed manufacturer that works for your bike.

Chain Lube

There are many types of chain lubes that use different chemical compositions that are best suited to be used in a specific environment. Liquid chain lubes are excellent for wet conditions and drier ones are suited to sandy environments. Most of them use a mixture of silicone and wax, with a water repellant added to coat the chain so that its metal parts are not exposed to water or sand.

Chain lube is a very convenient way to lubricate the chain with ease of use as its selling point. A can of chain lube spray can be applied to the chain in a few minutes without getting your hands dirty. Even if the chain has not been cleaned, it can be lubricated as applying it on a dirty chain is better than not having any lubrication at all.

Chain lube spray is able to penetrate into the deepest part of the chain and protect it from friction. Some of the high-priced sprays use proprietary formulations that claim to reduce rust and corrosion. Different varieties of sprays are available that can be used on any type of motorcycle. Chain lube is ideal for use in wet weather for protection from water.

Chain Wax

Chain wax is the more advanced and preferred method of lubrication for your motorcycle chain as it provides a number of benefits that chain lube cannot match. A waxed chain has lower friction than one that has used chain lube. The biggest advantage chain wax has is that it is longer lasting. Both chain lube and chain wax are relatively inexpensive.

Wax is sold as a paste or as a spray. Wax paste comes in a tube and has to be applied to the chain using a small brush. Whether using the spray or paste, the best results are obtained by applying it to a warm chain. To warm the chain, ride the bike for ten minutes and only then apply the wax so that it can penetrate into every part of the chain.

All waxes contain additives to clean the chain by dissolving grime. When applied to a chain that has just been cleaned, the wax coats the bare metal so that it is protected from dirt and water, and lubricates the chain links. A disadvantage of wax is that it hardens with time making it difficult to remove when the chain needs to be re-lubricated.

Additional Chain Protection

If your motorcycle does not have a chain guard, then consider buying one. The chain guard covers both the top and bottom of the chain enclosing it from water, mud, and dust. They are available in metal or ABS and PVC plastic and can be fitted with a few screws or are press fit. They have a long life in any weather, are very cheap, and are worth it for the protection they provide.

Chain guards are essential fittings for bikes that are ridden in muddy and dusty areas often. In wet weather, chain protection is essential to protect the chain from getting wet which can lead to rust and corrosion. They also save the rider a lot of effort cleaning the mud off the chain after a ride on muddy roads and water crossings.

Adjust And Inspect The Chain Regularly

Cleaning and lubricating the chain will go a long way in extending the life of the sprockets and chain. But you also need to inspect the chain at regular intervals for rust and adjust the chain tension. A loose chain does not transfer power efficiently from the gearbox to the rear wheel and affects the fuel efficiency of the motorcycle.

When the chain is too tight, it puts excessive stress on the bearings and sprockets which accelerates the wear on them. A loose chain can be easily spotted by the sag on the lower part of the chain, but a tight chain is more difficult to detect. Your motorcycle manual will recommend the optimal chain tension and the adjustment procedure to set it.

Rotate the wheel and check if the chain tension varies or if any of the links appear to be worn.  While adjusting the chain tension, use the chance to inspect the chain links and sprockets for wear and corrosion. On most motorcycles, the chain tension is controlled by one or two bolts and nuts. These need to be checked and cleaned regularly to ensure that the chain tension is locked after it is set.

Chain Tension Adjustment

You can adjust the chain tension at home quite easily. The sequence is to loosen a few nuts, then move the rear wheel back until the chain slack is removed, and then tighten the same nuts. There are markers on each side of the swing arm so that you can adjust both sides by equal amounts. Extra weight on the bike increases the chain tension.

After doing this, rotate the wheel by hand while listening carefully for any slight noise from the sprockets which indicates that it is adjusted incorrectly. When correctly adjusted, it is completely silent. Chain tension adjustment will be covered in detail in your motorcycle manual. If in any doubt, consult it to find out the correct procedure and amount of chain tension that must be set.

Check The Gearbox Sprocket And The Rear-wheel Sprocket

If either the gearbox sprocket or the rear-wheel sprocket is worn, it can damage the chain forcing an early replacement. The best solution to this is to change the chain and sprockets as a set or to keep monitoring the wear of both sprockets during each lubrication.

The Easiest Way To Keep Your Motorcycle Chain In Good Condition

No matter how much care you take of your chain the biggest source of wear is sand and dust particles that get into the lubrication and grind the chain and sprockets down. In spite of keeping your chain in perfect condition with regular lubrication and a chain guard, dust and sand have a nasty habit of getting into every nook and corner until the smallest crevices are filled.

The simple solution to this is to be cautious of using your motorcycle in sandy or muddy areas or in places where there is a lot of water. If you have to use the motorcycle in an adverse environment then as soon as you get home, hose down the sand and mud from the chain and lubricate it immediately to seal out water.

How To Know When To Replace Your Motorcycle’s Chain

As a motorcycle chain gets worn out, it exhibits signs that it is time to be changed. A quick inspection of the chain will reveal whether it is worn or not and if it has rust spots on any of its links. A worn chain shows a sideways slop, where the chain can be moved sideways away from the sprockets. Chain stretch is another sign that it needs to be replaced as it is out of specification.

A motorcycle with a worn-out chain displays lower acceleration and lessened torque. Speed also suffers and in some cases, there could be chain noise at higher speeds as the chain struggles to maintain pace with the gearbox sprocket. With higher loads, the loss in pulling power is noticeable but at low and normal loads there may not be much of a difference.

In the worst case scenario, the chain can snap when power is applied, damaging one or both of the sprockets and requiring their replacement as well. When starting to move from a dead halt there could be grinding sounds as the chain moves over the gearbox sprocket. Fuel efficiency gets degraded when the chain is unable to transfer power from the gearbox.

Chain Stretch

As the motorcycle is used over time, the chain goes through cycles of heat and cooling, adding to the stress of use which causes chain stretch. The tolerances between the chain parts get degraded due to friction which shows as chain slack. The distance between the rollers increases as they get worn and they will not mesh properly with the sprocket teeth.

This is common and given enough time every chain displays this problem that can only be rectified by replacement. A very rough guide to chain slack is when you can move the chain up and down by 1 1/2 inches, this means the chain needs to be replaced.

Worn Motorcycle Chain Symptoms

The symptoms of a worn motorcycle chain are:

  • Grinding noise from the chain
  • Rust spots on the chain links
  • Noticeable loss of pulling power with a heavy load
  • Loss of acceleration
  • Chain noise at speed
  • Chain stretch and sideways slop
  • Degraded fuel efficiency
  • The chain does not mesh precisely with the sprocket teeth

How To Inspect Your Motorcycle Chain

If your motorcycle has a chain guard, then remove it so that you can inspect the chain links before they pass over the sprocket. A chain that has plenty of use left in it is free from any rusted areas and does not have any sideways slop and the lower part of the chain does not sag and is reasonably taut. Rotate the rear wheel slowly while looking for any rusted or damaged links on the chain.

The best time to inspect the chain is just after it is cleaned and before it is lubricated as the bare metal links are clearly visible. A chain may not have external signs of corrosion, but it may still be worn. Check if the chain meshes precisely with the sprocket teeth or if there is a mismatch that indicates it is worn.

How Often Should You Change Your Motorcycle’s Chain?

Motorcycle chains are expected to last for about 20,000 km according to the manufacturer but in practice may need to be replaced before it has gone that distance due to various factors. Riding conditions, regular or irregular lubrication, and the type of riding play a part in deciding how long the chain will last.

Heavy and high-performance motorcycles need to change their chains more often and keep them lubricated to ensure that their performance stays the same. Lighter sports bikes and motorcycles used for commuting do not need to change their chains so often as long as they have been cleaned and lubricated periodically.

Motorcycles that are used in detrimental conditions are most prone to have chain damage due to corrosion and excess wear from sand and mud. Chains that are poorly maintained also fall into this category of needing replacement before the manufacturer-rated mileage has been met. If power transmission has dropped, first change the chain.

How Much Does It Cost To Have Your Motorcycle Chain Replaced?

It can cost between $70 an hour to $250 to have your motorcycle chain replaced, inclusive of the chain cost. You can do it at home if you know how to use a torque wrench and have some experience. A new chain can cost from $50 to $120 depending on the chain you select.

Replacing the chain is a job best left to a professional repair shop. The motorcycle has to be lifted up and then suspended while the rear wheel and axle are removed. After the new chain is fitted you might find that one of the sprockets needs to be replaced as well because it does not mesh correctly with it.

On the lighter sports bikes these faults do not show up so easily as they can take a lot of abuse before they need replacement, but on the heavier bikes, it can prove to be a costly repair later. 

Types Of Motorcycle Chains

Motorcycle chain manufacturers make several varieties of chains that are suitable for sport bikes and high-performance motorcycles. Chains for sport bikes are cheaper, but they’re not as durable as the more expensive, heavy-duty ones intended for use on heavier bikes. Price also depends on the material used to manufacture the chain.

Chains are made from steel or carbon steel which is much stronger than regular steel. Both types of chains can rust and have to be protected from water with a coat of lube or wax that has to be renewed regularly.

O-rings Or X-rings

There are two types of chains, ones that use O-rings and others that use X-rings. The O-ring chains became popular in the 70s and are used mostly by street bikes. O-rings revolve on a bush that is pre-lubricated before it leaves the factory so have an inbuilt layer of lubrication. However, they still need to be lubricated at regular intervals.

X-ring chains originally meant for the racetrack came later and made their way to sports bikes. These chains cost more and are more expensive to produce. Their construction is different as they are manufactured from stronger metals and use thin side plates with hollow link pins.

When Should You Replace Your Motorcycle’s Sprockets?

The ideal time to replace the sprockets is when the chain is being replaced. If one of the sprockets is worn it will have an impact on the other sprocket and chain, degrading the performance of the motorcycle. Worn sprockets cause degraded torque, speed, poor acceleration, and low fuel efficiency.

The gearbox and rear-wheel sprockets need to be regularly inspectedalong with the chain to ensure that they are in good condition. A worn sprocket will exhibit hooked, sharp, or pointy teeth which are signs it needs to be replaced. The valleys between the teeth are uneven indicating excessive wear.

The main cause of friction in the chain is misalignment between the gearbox sprocket and the rear-wheel sprocket. In real life, perfect alignment is practically impossible although it can be minimized by lubrication.

Final Thoughts

A motorcycle chain should last around 12,400 miles, or 20,000 kilometers, but this depends on how well it is looked after. Cleaning and lubricating it when needed will go a long way in keeping it in perfect working condition. Replacing a chain can be costly and is best done by a professional.

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