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Looking after your chain
Keeping your motorcycle chain in good condition is important. A well-maintained chain will deliver engine power more efficiently and reward you with thousands more miles before it needs replacement.
Note: The videos are in German.
Chain care on the motorcycle
Most bikers tend to regard cleaning and lubing their motorbike chain as one of their least favourite jobs. And yet your chain really does deserve to be looked after. To get you from A to B, it has to withstand the enormous torque applied by the engine, and is constantly exposed to wet and dirt that grinds away at the links. Besides, the chain drive is still the most uncomplicated method of driving a motorcycle. It’s lighter and more efficient than a driveshaft, and more robust than a belt drive. In other words, it’s still right up to date in technical terms. So we should be willing to give our trusty chain a bit of care and attention. It’s well worth the effort because a well maintained chain can last twice as long as one that is neglected. And it will also deliver more power to your rear wheel.
You need to make sure that the your motorbike chain is easily accessible and the rear wheel can be rotated freely. If your bike has a centre stand, that’s definitely an advantage. If it hasn’t, then we recommend that you check out the DIY tip Motorcycle Stand Basics. It’s a good idea to place a multipurpose drip tray under your bike to catch any dirt and lubricant. If you haven’t got a suitable tray, you could use a garage drip mat or a large sheet of sturdy cardboard. When cleaning and lubing your chain, you should wear work gloves to protect your hands.
Professional chain care – now let's get started
01 – Cleaning
Before doing anything to your chain, it makes sense to have a look behind the sprocket cover at regular intervals. It’s the place where dirt, grit and old chain lube collect, forming greasy black lumps. If you don’t remove it all, your clean chain will constantly run through the accumulated dirt, and soon be covered in muck again.
This is a job that should be done at least every 5,000 km, depending on how much dirt has built up.
The sprocket cover is usually held in place by several screws. On some motorbikes, the shift rod is routed through the cover, so you first have to remove the gearshift. But before doing so, mark its position on the shaft with a marker pen or centre punch so that you can refit it later without changing the ergonomics.
The lumps of dirt on the housing are extremely greasy. You can remove the heaviest dirt with a screwdriver, and then wipe off the rest with a rag and some chain or brake cleaner.
Then you can tackle the chain itself. Spray with chain cleaner and scrub with a special chain brush. In order to avoid damaging the O-rings between the chain links, do not use a wire brush. The more professional way is to use a Kettenmax device together with a suitable container for collecting the dirty liquid. Simply spray while rotating the rear wheel, and the Kettenmax does the rest. However, this method requires adequate space in the area of your swingarm, so it’s not possible with every model of motorbike.
After cleaning your chain, wipe it dry with a rag, and then it’s ready for lubrication.
02 – Inspecting the sprockets
Once everything is clean, you can also inspect the sprocket to see what state it’s in before replacing the cover (and the gearshift, if it was removed). The teeth should not be too pointed, as that would be an indication that the wear limit has been reached.
The rear sprocket is another place where lumps of grease accumulate. They are easy to remove with a rag and a suitable cleaner. The rear sprocket should not have any pointed teeth. Inspect your chain, and if any of the O-rings are missing, the chain will need to be replaced. If you’re able to lift the chain more than 3 mm off the rear sprocket, this means that it is worn.
A chain that displays uneven stretch should also be replaced. When you turn the wheel and press against the chain (or pull it) at the centre of the bottom run, the tension should be the same everywhere. If there is more than 2 cm variation in the slack, this means that your chain is worn. Another indication that your chain needs to be replaced is if chain links are stiff or rigid and cannot be loosened by using chain cleaner and chain grease. As a rule, it’s best to change your chain and sprockets at the same time because a new chain will not have a very long life on old sprockets.
03 – Lubrication
When you lube your chain, you should apply the lubricant carefully to avoid getting grease on the floor, swingarm or, worse still, the tyre. So take care with the direction in which you spray the lubricant and the intensity of the spray. The best way to keep everything clean is to use a special attachment like the “Sauber Sepp” from S100. Simply fit the “Sauber Sepp” to the spray can and point the nozzle at the spray guard, which you position behind the chain, close to the rear sprocket. Then apply the spray thinly until you have greased the full length of the chain.
You can choose between chain sprays containing grease and “dry chain sprays” based on PTFE. Both have their advantages and disadvantages:
Sprays containing grease
Sprays containing grease have good lubricating performance, provide corrosion protection and dampen chain noise. They’re also easy to see, so you can always tell at a glance when your chain is in need of lubing. Unfortunately, these sprays also make your wheel and swingarm dirty, and residues accumulate behind the sprocket cover and on the chain guard. Dirt and grit can easily adhere to the grease, thereby causing increased wear. You should regrease your chain every 800 – 1,000 km. The travel-size spray can is ideal for on the road. It can be refilled and is small enough to stow away easily on your bike.
Dry chain sprays
“Dry” chain sprays are less prone to fling-off, so they help to keep your motorbike clean. Coloured chains keep their colour, the wheel stays cleaner, and lumps of grease don't build up behind the sprocket cover. Also, sand and grit cannot adhere to the chain. On the other hand, the spray is washed off quicker if it rains, so your chain needs re-spraying more frequently. That means at least every 500 km (about 300 miles), and after every ride through the rain. Dry sprays provide less corrosion resistance and do not dampen chain noise as effectively. If you decide to change over to a dry chain spray, it’s essential to first degrease and clean your chain thoroughly.
Use of a lubrication system
A more convenient alternative to regular manual lubrication with a spray is to use a lubrication system such as Scottoiler or Cobrra. They lubricate your chain automatically with a special oil, which is applied to the chain in a precisely measured quantity from a reservoir via a dispenser tube. This ensures that the oil is distributed evenly over the length of the chain as you ride. Unlike chain spray, this oil does not harden and does not leave behind any grease residue. If the oiler is correctly adjusted, almost no oil gets onto the wheel, so it’s easy to keep clean. You can find more information in the DIY tip Chain Lubrication System.
04 – Checking chain tension
To minimise wear, your chain needs regular cleaning and lubing, but the correct tension is also essential. You can find out exactly how much slack your chain should have by looking in your owner’s manual. If you can’t find your owner’s manual, the alternative is as follows:
a) First, find the the chain’s tightest point by turning the rear wheel by hand. That way you avoid the risk of overtightening your chain.
b) Then, with both wheels on the ground, you need to simulate the actual load that your bike will be carrying on the road. So if you’re about to go on a biking holiday with your partner, or if you regularly carry any sort of load on your bike, you should measure the slack with a pillion passenger and/or luggage on your bike to simulate realistic riding conditions.
c) Under this load, your chain should still have 2-3 cm of slack (free play) in the middle of the bottom run. Ideally you should have someone to assist you when you do this check.
d) If the slack differs from this, you need to correct the tension.
Loosen the torque arm as well as the axle nut
The rear axle nut must be loosened before you can adjust the chain tension. On bikes with a rear drum brake, and some with a disc brake, you also need to release the torque arm.
By screwing in the bolts or nuts on the chain adjuster, you pull back the rear wheel, thereby tensioning the chain. If you loosen the bolts, you press the wheel forwards, which loosens the chain.
The bolts of the adjusters must be turned the same number of turns on each side of the swingarm, preferably in ¼-turn steps, to ensure that the chain runs in correct alignment. So you should check the markings on the swingarm and make sure they match on both sides.
Always tension evenly on both sides
After adjusting the chain adjusters, tighten the axle nut to the specified torque and check the slack again. If the tension has changed when you were tightening the axle, don’t lose your cool. Sometimes it takes a little while to get the tension exactly right.
The alternative is to use a Chain Monkey. This tool makes chain tensioning a quick and easy job. You can find more information about chains in the DIY tip Chain and Sprocket Kit.
Bonus tips for real DIY mechanics
Protect your forks
Protect your forks! Motorbike forks often have a problem, namely dirt. When dust, sand, grit and insects etc. build up on your fork tubes, they can act like sandpaper and before you know it, they’ve caused serious damage to the fork seals. So what can you do about it? Enduro motorbikes showed us the answer: rubber gaiters to protect your forks.
Keep track of all those small parts
Keep track of all those small parts! If you're dismantling a component that has lots of different screws, rings, lock rings, split pins, springs etc., it can be difficult to remember what goes where. Well, here's a simple solution. All you need is a piece of corrugated cardboard. Simply press each screw etc. into the cardboard in the appropriate position. That way you won’t lose anything and, when you reassemble the component, you’ve got a ready-made guide to where everything belongs.
Keep your exhaust safe over the winter
Keep your exhaust safe over the winter! If you intend to lay up your bike at the end of the season, remember to protect the inside of your exhaust. Even if you have a stainless-steel exhaust, the interior is likely to be normal metal that can easily rust. What to do: Spray some oil into the exhaust while it is still warm, and then stuff an oily rag in the end. That will prevent any condensation from forming in the rear silencer, so there’s no danger of rust!
Never use force when fitting an exhaust
Never use force when fitting an exhaust! Believe it or not, your exhaust likes to be handled gently. If you try to force it into a certain position, the resulting stresses at the connections and mounting straps will sooner or later cause damage to the fittings or the exhaust itself.
Beware of pins and needles
Beware of pins and needles! Everyone knows about the vibration you get when you ride a single-cylinder motorbike. That’s just the way it is. So on a long trip, you may start to get pins and needles in your fingers, and your hands may even become quite numb. You can try different grips, thicker gloves and modifying the handlebar. If none of this helps, and your motorbike has two or more cylinders, it’s a good idea to check that your carbs are properly synchronised. Also check for any loose nuts, bolts, or other fastenings.
The Louis Technical Centre
If you have a technical question about your motorbike, please contact our Technical Centre, where they have endless experience, reference books and contacts.
These tips for DIY mechanics contain general recommendations that may not apply to all vehicles or all individual components. As local conditions may vary considerably, we are unable to guarantee the correctness of information in these tips for DIY mechanics.
Thank you for your understanding.