Learn How to Adjust and Clean Your Motorcycle Chain to Keep On Rollin


It’s always interesting when you look back in time to study the origins of an item of modern life that you take for granted. Take the humble drive chain for example; it took over from leather belts and pulleys on motorcycles in the early 1900’s.

The drive chain gave bikers a more reliable and far stronger means of transmitting power from the engine to the back wheel. It also allowed manufacturers to develop more powerful engines, as slipping or snapping leather belts no longer restricted them.

To see how the chain evolved though, it needs three trips in the time machine. First stop is 3rd century Greece, where Philon of Byzantium used a chain to drive his repeating crossbow. Next worthy mention goes to Chinese engineer Su Song who used an endless chain to operate his water clock in 1092AD.

The freakiest chapter of chain history, comes in the 16th century, when Leonardo da Vinci, drew plans for the very first roller chain. It took engineers over three centuries before technology finally caught up enough to reproduce it.

How to Clean Your Motorcycle Chain: Time to Clean your Chain

Anyway, enough of the history lesson, its time to get greasy. So, first of all, why do you need to clean your chain? If you’ve got a road bike over 125cc, then you’ve probably got an O-ring chain fitted.

Small rubber O-rings or seals are fitted between the rollers and the side plates to cut down on friction and give longer chain life. Over time, these can get very gunked up, as the chain lube attracts dust, dirt, and sand. Without preventative maintenance, the gritty particles will grind away at the chain.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to clean the chain every time you adjust it. Some mechanics say that every 750-1000 mile is about right, but it’s your chain, and only you can tell if it needs attention sooner.

There’s no way around it, cleaning chains is a messy business, so get the back wheel off the floor so it can spin freely. Next, get some old newspapers or rags under the length of the chain to catch the dripping gunk. A pair of latex gloves is an excellent idea and a supply of clean rags.

As to what to wash the chain in, here we have some different ideas. I know bikers who swear by spraying their chain with WD40 or a similar penetrating fluid. This method they say keeps the mess to a minimum and dissolves the gunk like magic.

However, sprays like this do too good a job as it gets past the O-ring seals and dissolves the grease that’s packed behind them. You shouldn’t use gasoline to clean your chain either, for the same reason.

How to Clean Your Motorcycle Chain: Choosing your Chain Cleaner

There are proprietary chain cleaners on the market, that will keep the job straightforward, or you could go old school and use kerosene. It’s smelly and messy, but it’s dirt cheap, so enjoy the suck.

As to method, there are two ways. Firstly paint on the kerosene using a stiff brush and jab it into the links, or buy a pump spray bottle and squirt the fluid. Either way, do around six inches at a time until you’ve covered the whole chain.

The newspaper should catch most of the drips, and then use one of the rags to wipe the residue off. Don’t be tempted to spin the back wheel while you’re wiping the chain, its one of the fastest ways to trap a finger.

While we’re sitting next to the back wheel, it also makes perfect sense to check the chain for adjustment.

When adjusting a chain, there are basic procedures that are common to most motorcycles. For specifics, however, you will need to read your owners manual.

The manual will give you the data on how much slack is allowed in the chain (usually in millimeters) before adjustment is needed. It will also tell you which nuts and bolts need loosening to facilitate it.

How to Adjust and Clean Your Motorcycle Chain: Measure the Slack

To measure the slack, you’re going to need a ruler or tape measure, which you will require to keep static while moving the bottom run of the chain, up and down. This procedure should be carried out in different places, so rotate the wheel to check for any tight-spots in the chain.

As the swing-arm pivot and engine sprocket are in a fixed position, all of the adjustment goes on at the rear axle. Wheel adjusters come in all manner of shapes and sizes, but they mainly do the same job.

And that job is to allow you to turn the adjusters at set, equal increments to move the rear wheel backward. This action increases the distance between the sprockets, which takes the slack out of the chain.

Before you get to that point, though, you will need to loosen the axle. For this, you will need a heavy-duty socket on the nut and a suitable spanner or socket on the other end to prevent it from turning.

Choosing the Right Tools for the Job:

Motorcycle axle nuts are not standardized and tend to be large as in anything up to 40mm, so make sure you have the right tools for the job, and I don’t mean vice grips.

Note I said loosen, rather than undo, there should be no reason to undo any nut or bolt during this process altogether, but your owner’s manual will spell it out.

Once you’ve loosened the axle nut, move on to the adjusters. The adjusters live on either side of the axle and usually come with a lock nut, so undo this first.

Look closely, and you will probably see incremented notches or grooves by the adjusters, these are a guide to help you adjust each side equally.

This process is essential and getting it wrong will not only put unequal tension on your chain but also misalign your rear wheel. It is, therefore, safer to use your tape measure to ensure the adjusters have moved equal amounts.

Before you start on the adjusting nuts, mark the top of each hexagon, so you can quickly tell how many positions it’s moved. Using a spanner turn the nuts two positions at a time, alternating each side, until the chain is at the correct tension.

Once you’re happy that each side is adjusted evenly, tighten the lock nuts, and the axle nuts as well as anything else you may have had to loosen during the process.

Check the Torque Settings:

In respect of the axle nut, as this puts direct pressure on to your wheel bearings, it’s safer to follow the manufacturer’s torque setting to avoid over-tightening.

Before you push the bike off the stand, give the wheel a good spin to check that the chain runs smoothly. If everything is good to go, its round about now that you get the chain lube out.

Always remember, chains are designed to have some slack in them, and over-tightening can cause almost as much damage as a real sloppy chain. To make sure everything is as it should be, get the bike upright and sit on it.

With the suspension under-load, reach down and check the top run of the chain to make sure adjustment is still right. As a final safety check, give the axle nut and adjuster lock-nuts a once over, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

You’re now good to go, and even if this is not your first rodeo, and you know how to adjust and clean your motorcycle chain, take it easy for the first few miles. It’s easy to be a bit heavy handed with the chain lube and get it all over your tire.