I’ve had my fair share of motorcycle chain blues on bike adventures, from a loose chain coming off in a mountain pass, to a tight chain eating away at my sprockets and nearly leaving me stranded in the Sahara Desert. If you are considering a long adventure bike trip, make sure you know how to maintain your motorcycle chain.
Inspecting your motorcycle daily on a long tour is important to keep your adventure bike reliable throughout trip. Apart from regular cleaning and lubrication, adjusting the tension of your motorcycle chain is one such task. If you neglect your bike chain it can leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere, or worse.
What does the motorcycle chain do?
The chain on your motorcycle is the main connection between your engine and gearbox, and your rear wheel. It transfers all the power from the output shaft sprocket on the transmission to the sprocket on the rear wheel. Depending on the power output of you bike, the chain has to withstand an incredible amount of force and friction. If the motorcycle chain is not properly maintained, it will wear out a lot faster than it should and could even break.
The chain fits onto two toothed sprockets. The front sprocket is driven by the gearbox and the teeth transfer the power from the engine to the chain. The chain pulls on the teeth of the rear sprocket, thereby rotating the rear wheel. You can imagine how much force there must be on each chain link if you accelerate hard with a 148 hp KTM 1190 Adventure.
Some motorcycles do not have chains
The large BMW bikes, from the old R 80 GS to the newest R 1250 GS, all have drive shafts instead. Similar to a car’s drive axles it transfers power through a solid shaft attached to universal joints on splines at either end. These require virtually no maintenance and can last as long as the bike if properly maintained. That is one of the reasons why the BMW GS is so popular for long adventure bike trips. That does not mean that a chain driven bike is not reliable enough for a long trip. Almost all the other adventure bikes are chain driven.
Some bikes even have drive belts made from Kevlar. Harley-Davidson has been using these belts for decades and a drive belt can last a 100 000 miles if cared for.
What maintenance does a motorcycle chain require?
Keeping a motorcycle chain in good condition requires regular, but simple, maintenance. If you are going on an extended trip, it is important that you know how to service a chain yourself. Here’s what you need to know:
Cleaning and lubricating
Your motorcycle chain is exposed to the elements. It is also quite close to the road, which makes it more susceptible to dirt and debris, especially on gravel roads and sandy tracks. Getting stuck in soft sand may even cause your chain to drag through the sand, turning it into a sprocket-eating monster. Dirt particles stuck to the oil on your chain will make it wear a lot faster than it should.
Cleaning your chain properly in your garage would mean using a chain cleaner (or brake cleaner) with a brush, hosing it down and lubricating it after it is dry. On a long trip, that is not practical as you need to clean the chain after every day in the dirt. Chain wax is used to clean and lubricate the chain in one go.
At the end of each day, while the chain is still hot from the friction of riding, spray the full length of the chain with the chain wax. A center stand is very handy, but you can also pull your bike on the side-stand with one hand while the wheel rotates in neutral (with the engine running). Once the chain is fully covered in wax wipe off the dirt with an old rag. Reapply a thin coat of wax and let it soak into the O-rings.
For a demonstration on how to clean your chain daily on a long trip, check out this video:
Visual inspection of you chain once it is clean is a very good idea. Look for damaged chain links. Links that stand up at and angle are a sign of a dry chain. Pull on the chain around the rear sprocket. You should not be able to pull the chain away from the teeth. Push up on the bottom of the long side of the chain between the wheels. The deflection should be in-line with the specs of the owners manual of your motorcycle. If you do this often, you will learn to get a feel for when the chain needs adjustment.
As the chain stretch it must be adjusted to remove the slack. A new chain will stretch more initially, so check it more regularly soon after replacing it or on a new bike. To adjust the chain you need to follow these steps:
- Check the tension between the sprockets with the bike on the side stand
- Secure the bike on a center stand
- Loosen the rear wheel nut
- Loosen the lock-nuts on the chain adjusting nuts
- Turn the adjusting nuts on either side to move the wheel backward (tighten) or forward (loosen)
- Make sure the wheel is straight (there should be marks on the swing-arm) and all the way back
- Tighten the lock-nuts
- Tighten the wheel nut
- Check the chain tension again (also check the tightest spot with your full weight on the bike)
For a comprehensive video on adjusting the chain tension on a Kawasaki KLR 650, check out the helpful video below. The process will differ slightly from bike to bike, but the principle remains same.
If your chain has stretched past the maximum, you need to replace it. The owners manual should specify the maximum length between a specific number of chain links with a specific weight hanging from it. When you replace the chain you have to replace both sprockets at the same time. There is no use in fitting a brand new chain on worn sprockets. This is a sure way to reduce the life of the new chain.
If you are about to set off on a long adventure bike trip, consider replacing your chain and sprockets before you leave, especially if you are not going to be near a dealership that stocks the parts. You can carry a spare chain, but it is heavy and keeping weight to a minimum on a long trip is key.
What happens if I ride my motorcycle chain with incorrect chain tension?
Riding with a chain that is too slack will wear it out faster. If they chain stretch enough, it may even come off the rear sprocket. This happened to me once in a mountain pass with my wife on the back. We did a weekend trip of nearly 1 000 miles on a brand new chain. I was lucky that I noticed it straight away and managed to grab neutral before it snagged, potentially locking up the rear wheel.
A chain that is too tight is arguably worse than a slightly slack chain. It will wear the sprockets much faster and could even damaged the transmission. You will immediately feel that it is too tight if it won’t deflect when pressed with a finger. If it is extremely tight, you might hear a grinding noise coming from the gearbox when accelerating. You will also notice a clicking sound when pushing the bike backwards.
“As we neared the Ethiopian border, after a grueling day in Northern Kenya’s bandit country, my heart sank. It sounded and felt like my gearbox was broken. I expected the worst and was starting to make plans to source a new bike in Moyale, Ethiopia the next day.”Francois Steyn – Crossing Africa
That evening I checked my chain tension and realized it was way too tight. Then I remembered that an adjusting bolt rattled out on the rocky road earlier that day. As a quick fix I jammed a sharp rock in there and zip-tied it to the swing-arm. The next morning, after crossing the border, I purchased a few adjusting bolts (exactly the right size) for a few cents each. That’s why touring with Chinese bikes makes so much sense in Africa.
For the actual post we made of the shocking road between Marsabit and Moyale (it has since been tarred), click HERE.
Chain maintenance on a long adventure bike tour
While it is fine to service your chain every 300 to 500 miles during regular riding on the tarmac, you need to be more proactive on a long trip. Make a point of checking it each evening after the day’s ride. This is especially important of you rode in dusty conditions. It is best to clean and lube the chain while it is hot so that the wax can seep in.
By checking your motorcycle chain daily, you will be able to spot necessary maintenance in time before damage can occur. If you suspect the chain needs replacing, do it as soon as you have the opportunity. On our Crossing Africa trip I did a major service on our two Chinese 200 cc delivery bikes in Nairobi. It was nearly halfway up Africa and I had the opportunity to get spare parts if I needed.
If in doubt, replace it
After contemplating it for a while, I somehow decided to leave the original chain as I wanted to see if we can make it to Cairo on the original chains and sprockets. This nearly bit me in the backside on the very last day of the tour. My chain and sprockets were so severely worn that I had to pull away slowly each time to avoid the chain wrapping around the front sprocket. And that was on our longest day of the whole tour, from the Western Desert to Alexandria in the far North.
After replacing the chain with a space I bought in Sudan, it wouldn’t move. The sprockets were too badly worn. I put the old chain back and nursed it safely to the finish line. I trick I learned later was to turn the worn sprocket over to get a few more miles out of it.
Our Chinese bikes were in a bad way by the end of this trip, but they made it on the original chain and sprockets. This was mostly due to the slow speeds and lack of power, as well as daily inspection and cleaning of the chains.
Keeping your bike safe and reliable is a very important part of a successful and enjoyable overland adventure bike tour. Apart from scheduled oil changes, keeping your tires and drive train in good condition is possible the most important maintenance task to do on a daily basis. Luckily it is also one of the easiest motorcycle maintenance jobs to your yourself.
Look after your bike and it will look after you.