Motorcycle Chains and Sprockets

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Be sure to oil/lube your motorcycle chain regularly, and the chain and both sprockets will last much longer. If it is time to replace something, it’s typically best to replace the chain and both sprockets all together. This is a good time to take a close look at your wheel’s spokes and tires too.

Keep your motorcycle chain lubed every couple hundred miles and ensure it has the proper slack. This will keep the chain and sprockets in good condition for longer.

How to Replace Motorcycle Chains & Sprockets

A high quality chain is a key piece of your motorcycle. Inspecting and maintaining your drive chain and sprockets is a crucial part of your regular maintenance, too.

To replace the chain and sprockets:

  • Remove the front sprocket cover.
  • If the chain is endless-type, you’ll need a chain breaker tool.
  • If it has a master-link, remove the clip and the master link.
  • Remove the old chain.
  • Remove the lock tabs on the front sprocket bolt and remove the front sprocket. You’ll need a large socket. It helps to keep the bike in gear with the chain around the sprocket so you can keep it in place while loosening the bolt.
  • Remove the rear wheel, unhook the lock washers and loosen the bolts.
  • Replace with new sprockets, a new chain (being sure to get the correct size), and new lock washer.
  • Tighten, align, and lube everything back up.

For clip-type master link chains, the closed end of the clip should be facing the direction of travel. If you don’t have a special master link tool, you can use a vice grip and small sockets to get things clipped together. Be sure to apply even pressure to the to chain link if you do this.

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Motorcycle Chain Alignment & Slack

The easiest way to align your motorcycle chain is to make sure the rear wheel is installed at the same marks on each side of the swing arm. A chain that’s not properly aligned will wear itself and the sprockets much faster.

When installing and servicing your chain, refer to your shop manual for the proper amount of chain slack you should have. A chain that’s too tight will wear too quickly and possibly break. A chain that’s too loose can slap around and possibly come off.

You’ll want to check your chain tension regularly. If it’s too tight or too loose, adjust it before riding.

Make sure that your chain is properly lubricated as well.

Loose Motorcycle Chain

If your motorcycle chain keeps getting loose, you may have the following issues:

  • Misaligned rear axle (refer to the marks on your swing arm to ensure proper alignment.)
  • Loose chain tension bolts.
  • Overly-worn sprockets.
  • Overly-stretched chain after riding with it too tight.
  • Wrong-sized chain.

Motorcycle Chain Too Tight

If you chain is too tight:

  • It can break more easily.
  • It will wear out faster.
  • It will wear out your sprockets faster.
  • It can put unnecessary stress on the transmission and final drive.

Tight motorcycle chains can cause poor gas mileage, strange noises, poor engine performance, and poor suspension.

Rusty Motorcycle Chain

Your motorcycle chain can get rusty if:

  • You fail to oil and lube it regularly.
  • You ride through wet conditions and fail to clean and re-lube the chain.
  • You leave your bike outside for extended periods of time.

An overly rusty chain can break and should be replaced.

What Can Happen if your Chain Breaks?

Having your chain breaks is one of the worst mechanical failures you can experience on your bike.

A broken chain can happen if:

  • The chain is too tight.
  • The chain is too loose.
  • Sprocket teeth are worn.
  • The chain is rusty.
  • The chain isn’t lubricated.

If your chain breaks, it might cause major damage to both you and your bike.

If your chain breaks while you ride, you’ll experience a sudden loss of power to the rear wheel.

In the best case scenario, the chain will roll off the sprockets and onto the road without hitting anything or anyone. In this case, you can coast to a safe stop.

In a more likely scenario, the sudden break is going to cause the chain to move violently – either towards the engine or out the back.

If it hits you, it’s going to hurt. This is why the right riding gear is important.

If the broken chain hits the crankcase, it might crack and drop its oil.

Be sure to inspect and lubricate your chain regularly and replace both the chain and sprockets when necessary.

Motorcycle Gear Ratios

The combination of the sprocket sizes you choose (as well as the size of your rear wheel) will affect your gear ratios. You can change the gear ratio from stock to alter how you bike performs at different speeds.

If you want to lower your engine RPM a highways speed, you can either swap for a larger front sprocket or a smaller rear sprocket.

You can use a motorcycle gear ratio calculator to mess around with different combinations.

Main Types of Motorcycle Chains

You’ve got a few options when it comes to motorcycle chains. The main types include:

  • Standard motorcycle chains.
  • O-ring chains.
  • X-ring chains.

Standard Motorcycle Chains

Standard motorcycle chains are non-sealed. These were the original type of chain, but can still be used today.

If you’ve biked up a barn find or an older project bike, chances are pretty good that you’ll find a old, rusty non-sealed motorcycle drive chain on the equally rusty sprockets.

Non-sealed chains require more maintenance (cleaning and lubrication) than their o-ring and x-ring counterparts.

O-Ring Chains

O-ring motorcycle chains feature o-rings on each pin. These help keep the chain better lubricated and protected from dirt and grime. These come pre-lubricated from the manufacturer and require less maintenance, but should still be inspected regularly.

X-Ring Chains

X-ring motorcycle chains are similar to o-ring chains, but feature less surface area and reduce drag. These are common in racing or performance applications, and are typically a bit more expensive, but also last longer than o-ring or non-sealed chains.

Motorcycle Chain Rivet Link vs Master Link

Motorcycle chains come with two connection methods, either using a master link clip or a rivet.

Master links clips are easier to install and remove. However, these come with more opportunity for failure, especially if installed incorrectly.

Master link clips that require no tool to install are suited for small-sized motorcycled. These are typically only found on non-sealed motorcycle chains.

Master link clips that feature a press-fit as well as the safety clip are suited for mid-sized motorcycles.

Rivet links require a chain tool to install and remove, but offer a bit more strength and security in the connection. These are typically recommended for high-torque bikes, performance applications, and more powerful engines.

Press fit master link and rivet links are found on both o-ring and x-ring motorcycle chains, depending on the application.

Most new chains will include either a new master clip or a rivet.

What size motorcycle chain do you need?

The size, pitch, and length of your motorcycle chain depends on sprockets you have on your bike.

Pitch corresponds to the distance between the chain’s pins. Common pitch sizes are 520, 525, and 530, or 420 for smaller bikes. You need to choose the pitch that matches your front and rear sprockets.

Size refers to the number of links in the chain. This will also depend on the size of your sprockets.

If you’re running a stock set-up, you can refer to your motorcycle’s service manual for the correct type and size of chain to use.