Your motorcycle chain is a consumable part of your bike, so you’re going to have to replace it sooner or later. But what chain do you choose? What type will suit you best? What’s the difference between an unsealed, O-ring, or X-ring chain anyway? There are lot of chains available on the market, from cheap and cheerful products to incredibly expensive performance parts. They come in different lengths, with different pitches, and a variety of master links. Choosing the right one that suits your needs is a tricky business, but we’ve put together a list of our favorite chains out there to make life a little easier for you. These products have been carefully selected from a wide range of chains that have been designed to offer the best performance for a variety of different motorcycles from different categories. Hopefully, there’s something in here that suits you, or points you in the right direction for your next purchase!
Motorcycle Chain Buying Guide & FAQs
While the items listed above are highly recommended by us, motorcycles and riders are different and each rider will need to do a bit of research into what chain will best suit their needs and what kind of chain is best suited to their motorcycle and riding style. Do you need a chain that offers the best performance or lasts the longest? Are you looking for something specifically for off-road purposes? Or do you just need the cheapest thing you can buy that won’t wear out after a hundred miles? You should ask yourself these questions, but you also need to make sure that the chain you’re looking at fits your motorcycle. Here, we’re going to answer a few frequently asked questions and go into detail about some of the specific features of motorcycle chains.
Why You Should Invest In A Good Chain
Despite being made of strong metals and designed to handle serious punishment, motorcycle chains are perishable and will eventually need to be replaced. The stress that they’re put under causes them to stretch, and an over-stretched chain will skip teeth on a sprocket, damage those same sprocket teeth, fall out of line, and eventually snap. A snapped chain isn’t ideal. But there’s more to chain replacement than simple routine maintenance. A new chain can increase performance, offering better throttle response, faster acceleration, and even improve handling. It can also change and streamline your maintenance routine too. The best motorcycle chain that you can drastically improve your motorcycling life. But features should you look out for?
What To Look For In A Motorcycle Chain
Before investing in a chain, you should take the time to learn what all the numbers and words mean in a products description. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the jargon so that you can guarantee that you’re buying the chain for your motorcycle, avoiding an unnecessary headache in future. These features are some of the most important to keep in mind before investing.
Pitch – The pitch of a chain refers to the distance between the chain’s pins. You might have seen numbers like 520, 525, and 530 being advertised. These numbers are the chain’s pitch, and the wrong pitch will drastically decrease the performance of your motorcycle. If the pitch is wrong, then it won’t connect with the sprockets correctly. Make sure you follow your manufacturer’s advice for the ideal pitch, or change your sprockets accordingly.
Size – Even with the correct pitch, you may not have the correct size. A chain’s size is also calculated by length, and the length is designated by the number of links in a chain. Different motorcycles require different chain lengths. Removing links from a chain that’s too long isn’t too much hassle but it’s always better to get a chain that fits perfectly for easier installation.
Connecting Link Type – While it’s not the most obvious thing to be concerned about, the right kind of connecting link or master link is an important thing to pay attention to. Typically, they’ll come with a clip-type link or a rivet-type. Clip links are much easier to use and install but they do have a higher failure rate. Rivet-type motorcycle chain master links are much tougher, but they require a special tool for installation. Some motorcycle chains don’t even come with a master link of any kind attached and you’ll need to buy your own one. Pay attention to whether it comes with one or not to avoid disappointment.
Chain Strength – A chain’s strength, or tensile strength, is a measure of the maximum load of weight that a chain can handle before it stretches, or snap. Chain’s with higher tensile strength ratings can endure more force that those with less. Larger motorcycles generally require a higher tensile strength rating. Tensile strength is measured in pounds.
Pre-stretched & Pre-lubed – You can also buy your chains pre-stretched and pre-lubed. A pre-stretched chain has been stretched at the factory, using tension to simulate real-life riding. This helps to increase the overall lifespan of a chain and increase the length of time between chain replacements. A pre-lubed chain comes from the factory already coated in chain lube, allowing you to install your chain and ride away without having to worry. These chains will still require re-lubing and maintenance in the future though.
Different Types Of Motorcycle Drive Chains
Apart from the above mentioned features to look out for when trying to determine the best motorcycle chain for your needs, there’s also the matter of whether you choose an unsealed chain or a sealed one, and if you choose a sealed one, whether you choose an O-ring or an X-ring chain type! There’s a huge difference between the price, performance, longevity, and level of maintenance between the different chain types, so here’s a quick overview.
Unsealed Motorcycle Chains
An unsealed motorcycle chain is a very basic but very reliable chain. These roller chains don’t feature any fancy seals or hold any interior lubrication. They’re often found on older motorcycles or on smaller-capacity machines. They’re not particularly sophisticated but they do the job, and are very cheap to buy. The problem with an unsealed chain is that it requires more care and maintenance, with cleaning and lubricating becoming a very regular part of your maintenance ritual. On the plus side, since they don’t have any fancy seals in them, you can treat them a little rougher than other types. Just be prepared to replace them fairly regularly.
O-ring chains are just like unsealed chains apart from the fact that they have special O-rings in the chain links that hold lubrication between the pins and plates of each link, allowing the chain to move freely and stay perfectly lubricated. The O-ring seals also keep out dirt, grease, and grime, protecting the chain from unnecessary wear and tear. The lubrication is all done at the factory, so you don’t have to worry about it – but you still need to keep an eye on you chain, adjusting it and cleaning it regularly to keep it rolling smoothly.
One of the downsides to O-ring chains is that you can’t just scrub away at them with a wire crush or use harsh chemicals to clean them, or you’ll risk the integrity of the actual O-rings. These chains also add drag to your motorcycle, so if you’re serious about racing they can affect your performance. But for most riders, the drag-effect won’t be noticeable.
X-ring chains are essentially an evolved version of O-ring type chains. They are an improvement on the O-ring design and do everything an O-ring chain can. The difference is the shape of the seals. Rather than using O-shaped seals, they use clever X-shape seals, which have a smaller surface area. The smaller area reduces drag, which makes X-ring chains a more attractive prospect for high-performance motorcyclists who want all the benefit of O-ring technology without any unnecessary drag. This kind of chain comes at a premium price, but you get an efficient chain that’s almost maintenance free, with a long lifespan without any negative performance-sapping compromises.
There are other types of sealed chains which are essentially further evolutions of the X-ring, or similar. Z-ring chains, for example, are like X-rings with a different profile. There are others too, and no doubt there will be more types to come in the future.
How To Replace A Motorcycle Chain
It’s all very well looking at the best motorcycle chain types and buying the best chain for your motorcycle, but it’s fairly useless to you if you don’t know how to fit it! Even if your chain doesn’t need replacing right now, it will do eventually. Before we tell you how to replace a motorcycle chain, let’s look at the signs that will tell you if your chain is ready for replacement. It’s important to read the signals that your chain might be nearing the end of its life, because if it snaps it could lead to an accident. A snapped chain will cause your motorcycle to de-power at a very inopportune moment. A flailing chain could also cause an injury. More likely, you’ll be left stranded somewhere and have to pay for a recovery vehicle. None of those are great situations to be in.
The signs of a failing chain can include stuck links, rough gear changes, the need for more frequent adjustment, and the need for added lubrication. Plus, it could just be stretched too far and no amount of adjustment will bring it to where it needs to be. If you’re suffering from any of these sign, it could be time to look at your chain properly and consider replacing it.
When you buy a new chain that fits your motorcycle and is the right size and type, it’s also worth buying new sprockets too. The reason for this is that the teeth of a sprocket wear away over time, and while you’re changing your chain, you might as well do your sprockets while you’re there. You don’t have to do this though. However, it’s recommended that you know what a worn sprocket looks like when compared to a brand new one, because it’s not always obvious to the untrained eye. If you’ve put the hours in maintaining and cleaning your chain and sprockets, you may not have to replace those sprockets. If you’re not a maintenance freak, it’s probably best to change the sprockets anyway. Don’t run to a mechanic either – this is a job that you really should be able to do yourself.
Step One: Armed with the correct chain and a safe working area, prop your motorcycle onto a rear stand and gather your tools. You’ll need a breaker bar and a chain tool, as well as whatever tools are required to remove your motorcycle’s rear wheel and access your front sprocket. In short, the order of things is:
- Gain access to your front sprocket and loosen it
- Remove the old chain
- Remove your rear wheel
- Replace your front and rear sprockets
- Replace your rear wheel
- Install your new chain
Step Two: Gain access to your front sprocket and see how the existing sprocket is attached. It will be torqued on tight and may require a friend to help you remove it. Alternatively, you can secure the back wheel with a block of wood, but it’s best to have a friend help instead. Put your bike in gear and let your friend hold down the rear brake pedal. Using a breaker bar and brute strength, undo the nut holding the sprocket.
Step Three: Now the sprocket is loose, return your bike to neutral and remove your old chain by using your chain tool. Follow you chain tool’s instructions to break a link in your existing chain. For best results, break a link on the rear sprocket for added stability while you work. With the pin removed, remove the old chain.
Step Four: Next, remove the rear wheel completely, and remove the old rear sprocket. Tighten the nuts on the new sprocket to the correct torque that your motorcycle manual suggests. Once installed, replace your rear wheel but leave the axle loose. You’ll need to set the tension with it later.
Step Five: Back to the front sprocket, remove the nut that you loosened before and slide on your new sprocket, and torque it accordingly. It may be that it has to be torqued after the new chain is fitted.
Step Six: Unpack your new chain and route it through your bike, leaving the ends to overlap on your rear sprocket. If your chain is too long, you will need to remove links using your chain tool to make it fit. If it fits, unpack your master link and prepare a clean working area.
Step Seven: Grease the pins and O-rings as directed, and assemble the parts. Slide it into place and fit using your chain tool. Using your chain tool, it’s time to rivet your chain. A measuring caliper can be helpful here, but it isn’t essential. Simply use the chain tool to deform the ends of the pins in very small increments. Take extra care with this.
Note: using a clip master link is a much easier process, but clip-type motorcycle chain master links have a much higher rate of failure than a rivet-type.
Step Eight: With your chain properly riveted and attached, all you need to do is tension your chain according to your owner’s manual, and the job is done. Check out our FAQ below for a brief description of how to properly tension a chain.
For a really handy video to help you replace your motorcycle chain, watch this excellent instruction video.
Frequently Asked Questions
How To Clean A Motorcycle Chain?
Cleaning a motorcycle chain is an essential task. A properly cleaned chain will work more effectively, and any lubrication added afterwards will work much better. To start with, you’ll need a specially formulated degreasing agent or good old fashioned kerosene. Spray your agent of choice onto the chain at the rear sprocket. Turning the rear wheel to ensure that the whole chain is covered. This first spray will help flush out grime and road dirt.
If you keep to a strict cleaning and maintenance routing, a wipe over the chain with a cloth might be all you need to do. However, it’s always worth going the extra mile and giving your chain a thorough clean. Using a chain cleaning brush, give the chain a scrub. If you have an O-ring chain, make sure your brush won’t damage the seals. After the scrub, give the chain another round of kerosene or degreaser spray, and wait until it’s completely dry before applying a new coating of lubrication. Buying a proper chain cleaning kit will give you all the tools and chemicals you need.
How Tight Should A Motorcycle Chain Be?
It’s important to keep your chain at the correct tension. If it’s too loose, it could remove itself from the sprocket and end up getting caught up in your rear wheel, causing you to crash. A chain that’s too tight will increase wear to your chain and sprocket, and could cause trouble with your rear suspension. The correct tension of your chain should be written in your owner’s manual, or written on a sticker on your swingarm. Generally, a chain’s tension should be between 30 to 40mm, measured when your bike is on a stand.
You can measure your tension using a special measuring tool, or by using a ruler and taking a measurement from the middle of the swingarm, measuring downwards to the chain’s link pin. For the first measurement, pull the chain as far down as you can. For the second, push it as far up as you can. Calculate the difference, and the result is your chain’s slack or chain tension. If it’s within the suggested parameters, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re too slack or too tight you will need to adjust it. A motorcycle tensioner tool makes this task much easier, but it isn’t necessary.
How To Adjust A Motorcycle Chain?
To adjust your motorcycle chain tension, loosen your rear axle nut. Don’t remove it, just loosen it. You need to adjust the position of your axle to increase or decrease tension on the chain. Different motorcycles have different axle adjusters, but the most common type is a nut on a thread on either side of the swingarm. After undoing a lock nut, all you have to do is turn the adjuster a quarter of a turn at a time. This moves the axle position and increase or decreases tension on the chain depending on how you turn it. It’s important to note that this has to be performed identically on the other side of the swingarm to ensure correct wheel alignment. Most swingarms have markers which allow you to make sure your wheel alignment is correct as you do this. These markers shouldn’t be relied upon completely, but they’ll give you a good indication.
Check the tension again. If you’re satisfied, you need to place a screwdriver or something similar into the teeth of the rear sprocket, and turn the wheel. This pulls the axle against the adjusters. After that, you can tighten everything up to the recommended torque setting, and remove your temporary obstacle. Check your tension a final time, and if it falls within the correct parameters, the job is done. Give it a clean and a fresh lube while you’re there.
How To Lube A Motorcycle Chain?
After you’ve given your chain a thorough clean and left it to dry, you can then start the lubrication process. The process is different depending on the type of motorcycle chain lube that you’re using. If you’re using a simple spray application type lube, all you have to do is spray it directly on the chain. This is best done at the rear sprocket, with gravity helping the spray to find its way to where it needs to be. Spray into the inside of the chain whilst slowly turning the rear wheel. Repeat this process whilst aiming at the side of the chain. Move your spray location to the top of the sprocket, aiming up into the chain links. Finally, give the chain a spray from between the wheel and the chain. It’s an awkward angle, but it’s easily done. Remove any excess with a cloth, and wait 15 minutes or so (depending on the manufacturer’s instructions) for the lube to tack, and you’re good to go. Motorcycle chain wax, or paste applications, can have different application methods. Be sure to follow the instructions on your product to ensure the best results.
Make sure that you also follow strict safety standards while applying lubrication. Always make sure the bike is switched off, and that the bike is firmly secured on a side, center or paddock stand before starting any work.
How Long Does A Motorcycle Chain Last?
The overall lifespan of a motorcycle chain varies greatly thanks to a number of contributing factors. These variables include the type of chain in question, the tensile strength of the chain, the conditions that the chain is used in, and the level of motorcycle chain maintenance undertaken by the owner.
Sealed chains have a much longer lifespan than unsealed roller chains. Stronger chains can withstand more punishment before stretching. Chains used in milder weather conditions don’t suffer from as much corrosion or other chemical interference, and chains used on sealed roads pickup less dirt, grime, and grit than those used on unsealed, gravel roads. And finally, chains that are regularly cleaned, lubricated, and well-maintained will last much longer than neglected chains. These are all facts. However, chains are consumable products that are meant to be replaced – so don’t expect one to last forever.
On average, an OEM chain that has been regularly serviced and maintained every 500 miles or so should last between 15,000 miles and 25,000 miles. Some chains will last up to 30,000 miles if you really take care of them. There’s no fixed number of miles that a chain will last for. Some riders may only get something like 6,000 miles if they ride in off-road, dusty conditions, and neglect their maintenance. There are too many variables for an exact figure, but somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 is a good ballpark figure.