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Bikebiz | For every rider

Chapter 4 - Chain Maintenance

Kym Liebig

Cut the slack – caring for your drive chain

There are riders who really dive into bike maintenance, and then there are those who are happy to take care of the basics and leave it at that.

But while you can perhaps be excused for not rebuilding your bike’s gearbox in the shed, visiting a workshop to have your chain adjusted is a bit like leaving work and going home to have your mum tie your shoelace when it comes undone. There’s just no dignity in it. You can do it yourself.

Let’s start with some quick facts and then get on with some basics that could save you time, money…and a visit to mum’s place.

Chains work hard.
Chains get hot. They take tremendous strain, are exposed to road grime, dirt, water and more. If they’re not properly adjusted and lubed they can wear out very, very quickly, taking the sprockets with them. That’s expensive. 

Chains stretch.
What? How? They’re made from steel, right? Sure, but torque and abuse can eventually impart enough incremental wear to leave you with a chain stretched long enough to drag on the floor.

A poorly adjusted chain could kill you.
If your chain is very slack, you hit a big bump and your bike ‘throws’ the chain, it could potentially lock up your countershaft sprocket, damage the gearbox, lock your rear wheel and cause a crash. Nasty.

Lube it or it will die!
A mechanical fact, rather than a safe sex campaign slogan. Yes, chain lube is messy. It gets everywhere and you have to clean it off. Deal with it. If you are one of those freaks who would rather have a perfectly clean, shiny chain than use chain lube, get used to replacing your chain and sprockets. Often.  

The basics of chain adjustment
Let’s pretend like you’re really new at this. Drive chains on motorcycles are adjusted by moving the rear wheel rearwards to remove slack, or forwards to increase slack. Slack is determined by measuring how far you can move the lower run of the chain up and down by hand. If your lower chain run is hanging in a loop that looks like an inverted Sydney Harbour Bridge, there’s a good chance it’s too slack.

While there are some variations as to the finer points, adjusting a motorcycle chain consists of three basic steps;

  • Loosening off the rear axle so that the wheel can be move backwards or forwards on the swing arm
  • Tightening or loosening the adjustment bolts that are usually situated very near the axle until you are happy with the chain tension. It’s important that adjustment is made evenly on each side
  • Checking the wheel alignment using the marks on the swing arm
  • Tightening up the axle fastener/s to the correct torque

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it is. Although there are some details that can catch you out and take up time when you are first learning the process. Once you’ve backed off the axle torque, be sure to tweak your chain adjuster bolts evenly – adding a half-turn per side and then checking your chain tension is a good idea. You might be surprised how little it takes to make a difference. Many bikes have stickers on or near the swingarm suggesting how much slack is correct, but 25 to 30 millimetres is usually about right. Oh, and here’s a tip – be sure to measure while sitting on the bike, as your weight on the seat will take some slack out of the chain. Or lots, if you’re a tad on the porky side.  

Work evenly with the chain adjuster bolts on each side. If you get stuck into one adjuster and forget the one on the other side, your wheel alignment will be out. In essence, your rear wheel will be pointed right or left instead of straight ahead. Left as it is, this will quickly wreck your chain, sprockets and tyre, while also making your bike handle like a pig on stilts. Virtually every bike has marks on each side of the swing arm to indicate wheel alignment – make sure the same number of marks are showing on each side and you’ll be in good shape. 

So, you’ve adjusted your chain, it’s properly aligned and you’ve tightened up the axle bolt to the right torque. Good to go? Almost. Take your bike for a short ride, sure, but check your chain again when you get back. It’s not unknown for the tension to have changed just a bit and it might call for another adjustment. It’s all practice, right?

Oh, and if you are a bit uneasy about trusting the correct torque on the axle nut to plain old feel, buy a torque wrench and follow the manufacturer’s recommended torque values. 

Get to love lubrication
There are dozens of different chain lubes, so we’re not going to get into recommending what’s best right here. Everyone has their favourite, based on how little it flings off, its colour, smell, whatever. Talk to someone at Bikebiz accessories and they’ll point you at a decent brand. 

Likewise, how often you lube your chain will come down to how far you ride, how hot, cold or wet it is, your speed and lots of other factors. Here are some broad tips:

  • The best time to lube your chain is right after a ride – the chain is warm and the lube will be thinned and ‘wicked’ into the rollers
  • Those handy spray straws included with some aerosols are a great way to precisely aim lube at the inside of the chain’s side plates, where it will do the most good.
  • Have a helper roll the bike along as you spray the chain. Even better, but the bike up on a paddock stand, roll the wheel and spray. There are many ways to lift the rear wheel while getting the job done. A paddock stand is best, but car jack stands or some help from a couple brawny mates will do. Just be sure that whatever you use is safe and stable.
  • Don’t ever be tempted to run the bike in gear on a paddock stand to roll the wheel while you lube the chain. Chances are you’ll wind up with two less fingers and a Honda launched through your lounge room window.
  • Never let your chain rollers get ‘shiny’. Once all the lube is gone, chain damage soon follows
  • It’s a good idea to carry a small can of chain lube under the seat or in your pack – if you notice your chain needs a dose, you can do it wherever you need to. But possibly not on your mate’s newly paved driveway.

Proper chain maintenance tends to be something learned through habit, or maybe one expensive lesson. Resident Bikebiz wise owl Mark tells a story of a Kawasaki Z1R back in the day, freshly fitted with an expensive new chain and sprockets that were destroyed over just a few hundred rainy kays. The rain washed off the lube, heat and road grit took care of the rest. Since that day, Mark sticks to a ritual of lubing his chain once every two tanks of petrol when commuting in the dry, and at every single fill when covering distance in the wet.

Once you’re into the swing of looking after your chain you’ll no doubt develop a routine of your own that’ll simply become another part of the ownership experience. It’s one of the few tasks you can often take care of using just the toolkit your bike came with, and it’s a great confidence builder if you’re new to working on bikes. Enjoy it and remember, if you need advice we’re here for you – because we love our bikes, just like you do.

Until next time, enjoy the ride!

Click here to read Chapter 5- Changing your oil and oil filter.