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Chain Replacement Breakdown: Part 1

Before we begin

If your motorcycle has a chain, eventually it and the sprockets will need to be replaced. Doing it yourself will save you some dollars in the labor department, but the procedure needs to be done right.

While there is a multitude of information across the web in both text and video formats, it’s rather fragmented. Hence, we’ve decided it’s time to compile the ultimate one article-does-it-all piece for you would-be do-it-your-selfers as well as those of you who may learn from the wisdom here.

The decision to replace a chain begins with a regular inspection of the chain. You need to inspect typically about every 500 miles, or take that to mean every second or third fill-up. As the chain ages, you’ll need to adjust it from time to time during these inspections.

During inspection, you’re looking for obvious wear on the sprocket teeth. Then pull the chain at the far side of the rear sprocket and see if light from the other side is revealed. If it is, it’s time to replace the chain.

There are many opinions about if the sprockets should be replaced at the same time. When you add up the dollars and cents you think you’re saving by not doing so, you’ll be spending the difference later when it becomes clear the new chain didn’t last as long. A new chain without a sprocket replacement will only get about half the life since the teeth on the old sprockets are sorely out of alignment with the new chain from the get go. And it only gets worse from there. Our opinion is to change the sprockets together with the new chain EVERY TIME.

Photo: Note the two gaps between the chain and the sprocket we see when the chain is pulled from the rear of the sprocket. That's a sign of wear.

How long should a chain and sprocket set last? That will vary based on how well adjustments were executed each inspection interval, what sort of lubricants and solvents were utilized along the way, and how hard the bike was ridden. A rider with a smooth touch should expect 15,000 miles or more. Someone who rides a bit hard, jerking the throttle with frequency can expect less. Off-pavement riding puts more grit into the chain and rain riding can take off lubrication over time causing metal on metal wear.

What you’ll need

All makes and models of bikes vary, so we’ll cover the basics here and you can let the shop manual specific to your bike fill in the details.

Photo: This mistreated master link was never lubed at the time of installation. Note the wear and rust that occured as a result.

  • The Shop Manual specific to your bike – If you don’t own one, get one. Yes, they can be expensive, but they provide valuable information including torque values for every nut and bolt along the way as well as insight into which body parts need to be removed in what succession – a critical part of tearing down many modern day motorcycles that are wrapped in plastic.

  • Safety glasses, shop towels and nitrile gloves – The basis of any service work begins with these essentials. Today you can buy safety glasses with bi-focal readers built in. Nice!

  • Level 2 service tools needed to work on your bike – These would include the proper axle wrenches, sockets and wrenches that will be needed to adjust the axle position after the install. These should all be called out in the shop manual.

  • A torque wrench – This is essential as you’ll want to adhere to the torque numbers called out in the shop manual to be sure you’ve set everything good and tight, but not so tight you can’t get it off the next time.

  • Chain cleaning solvent – There’s no need to clean your new chain, but you’ll need to clean the area around the drive sprocket and it’s cover when you pull the old front sprocket. This also comes in handy when other areas need some cleaning, like the rear hub. WD-40 is not an acceptable chain cleaning solvent as it can penetrate the O-rings. Never spray WD-40 on a sealed O-ring chain.

  • Small amount of assembly lube – This is a heavy duty grease-like product we’ll use during reassembly.

  • New sprockets and chain – Order them from your dealer or order them online. We recommend you don’t go cheap. The cheaper you buy, the less life you can expect out of the chain and sprockets. OEM sprockets and a top grade sealed gold O-ring chain is about as good as it gets. Be sure to buy a chain that is as long or longer than the one you’re replacing.

  • A Dremel or similar cutting tool – We’ll be using this to burnish a pin on one of the links so we can remove the old chain. We’ll use it again to do the same on the new chain so it has the correct amount of links in it when we thread it onto the bike. There are carbide bits you can use on a standard electric drill for the same results and forego the expense of buying yet another tool you’ll rarely use.

  • A motorcycle specific chain breaking tool – Prices for these are all over the map. They take a beating, so it’s worth it to pay a little more for a better one that will last.

  • A fractional caliper measuring tool – These come in analog and digital formats. The digitals are easier to read, but since you won’t use one very often, chances are the battery will be dead next time you reach for it. Save yourself the hassle and get the analog one.

  • A buddy – This is a lot easier if you have a friend on hand. Plus, you guys can b.s. about motorcycles when he or she is not needed.

Tom Mehren, Jesse Murphy, Greg Maust/November 15

Click here to read part two: The 19 step chain replacement process


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