The answer is both complicated and straightforward. The simple answer assumes that the chain is maintained correctly and paired with a properly maintained sprocket set.
A good quality O-ring chain should last 20,000 to 30,000 miles if properly cleaned and lubricated. A chain can fail as soon as 5,000 miles if you buy a lower quality chain and fail to maintain it.
The complications come when you start thinking about the types of chains, how to clean, and what chemicals to use.
What kind of chain do you have?
There are three types of motorcycle chains today. Standard or unsealed, O-ring and X-ring.
Unsealed chains are like old-school bicycle chains. They have no seals keeping lubrication inside the pins, while O-ring and X-rings have seals between the links and pins.
To protect these chains, they have to be doused in oily lubricants that tend to spray off the rapidly moving chain all over your bike and or your pants leg!
The lack of seals also allows contaminants like dirt and water to get to the inner parts of the chain, increasing wear and allowing rust.
O-ring chains have a rubber or silicone ring that seals in grease at the factory and protects this grease for the life of the chain.
These seals not only increase the life of the chain but make it cleaner, quieter, and more efficient. They are cleaner because the essential wear portions are sealed, so they do not require quite as much external oily lubricants.
More about lubrication later when we talk about maintenance.
An X-ring has an X or even asterisk-shaped cross-section. This shape improves performance by reducing the contact surface between the link and the seal.
Less contact means less drag, so less energy loss. Less energy loss means less energy needed to move the chain, so you get more speed from the same horsepower.
This small change can shave tenths of a second off of lap times and significant cash from your bank account.
Unless you are mainly racing, you can save a significant amount of money by sticking with O-ring chains.
How to care for your chain
- Check for sprocket wear – it should be even on both sides of the tooth. Shark fins occur when the leading edge wears more than the back edge. Accelerating hard but gently decelerating can cause this wear pattern.
- Check for chain wear – is there a lot of side-to-side wiggle room, kinks, or sticking links? If so, consider replacement rather than cleaning!
- Check the master link – is it secure?
- Spray the chain down with kerosene or a chain cleaning chemical of your choice. (Kerosene is cheap)
- Scrub with a chain brush – we love the Grunge Brush
- Spray again
- Repeat 5 & 6 until as much gunk as possible is gone.
- Dry the chain with a rag
- Apply lube to a clean and dry chain. The type of lube is a matter of preference. A specially formulated motorcycle chain lube like Maxima Chain Wax will likely work best. It will be a lot cleaner as it will ‘stick’ to the chain better. See motorcycle chain wax vs chain lube.
How to reduce chain wear
- Clean and lube regularly
- Maintain tension
- Maintain sprocket alignment
When to change your chain
All of the maintenance and cleaning in the world will not change the fact that a chain will wear out and need to be replaced.
The textbook method to see if it’s time to change is to check your shop manual for your bike. It will give you the maximum length for a certain number of links. Measure the length of that number of links, and if yours is longer, it’s too worn. Also, if an adequately lubricated and tensioned chain makes chattering and rattling noises, it’s time to replace it.
In addition to replacing the chain, you should replace the front and rear sprocket simultaneously. Putting a brand new chain on an old sprocket will only accelerate the wear on the chain. The parts are meant to synchronize, so spend a little extra cash and get the set.
Your motorcycle is a wonder of modern engineering, certainly. However, you have to protect your investment with some care and maintenance.
Chains and tires are among the two most essential wear items to consider. Keeping your chain adjusted, clean, and lubricated will ensure many miles of smiles in the future.