In this article we will have a look at chain maintenance on the trail. More specifically we will look at cleaning and lubricating your chain and what how to prepare for a broken chain. This post is part of a series on trail side maintenance which will also include articles on tires, air filter, oil change, bike setup, suspension and general tips and tricks so that you are well prepared to go ride and deal with whatever the adventure will throw at you. Preparation is key if you do not want a small problem turning into a big one while off the beaten track.

Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.

Regular chain maintenance

The chain is the single part that connects your engine with the rear wheel to drive you forward. It is important to take proper care of it, but it is not a science nor an art. It is just common sense to regularly clean it and lubricate properly. That way, the chain will last longer and not wear out the teeth on the sprockets as quickly. It can be a bit of a dirty job, but that should not keep you from proper chain maintenance.

Why clean and lubricate the chain?

Modern X-ring and O-ring chains are lubricated in the factory and sealed properly so no lubrication should escape during the lifetime of the chain. So, why should you clean and lube your chain than? Well, the lubed and sealed parts of the chain are the links and rods that connect the links. Chain links rotate around those rods and that rotating part is what is lubed inside and sealed and requires no further lubrication, ever.

The rollers in between the side plates do require maintenance. These are the parts that roll through the teeth on the sprockets where there is metal-on-metal contact. Dirt on those parts will cause excess abrasion and wear on the chain and sprockets. Proper cleaning and lubrication of those rollers is what extends the lifetime of your chain and sprockets.

Travel tip!

Use a pair of latex gloves when doing chain maintenance on the trail. This keeps your hands clean and dry, very welcome when it is cold.

How to clean your chain

There are so many different opinions on the best way to clean your chain. And if you have been riding a chain driven motorcycle before, you probably have your own method that works for you. But, some general tips to keep in mind when cleaning:

Most of us hose down our dirty bikes with a pressure washer. We all know now to force this high-pressure stream of water into the bearings. Same goes for the chain. Do not put the high-pressure waterjet up close on that chain. Chances are water will get past the rubber O- of X- seals and push out lubricant or force dirt into them. So, be gentle with the pressure washer.

When on a multi-day trip, you probably don’t have a pressure washer on hand at the end of the day. Cleaning the chain is pretty simple. If it is dry dust and dirt, you can get away with brushing it off first. Otherwise a quick scrub with a rag, an old toothbrush and a cleaning agent of your choice will do the trick. What chain cleaner to use? Have a look at this video from Fortnine video on the subject. I have used Motorex chain cleaner as well as WD40. Both seem to work well, although according to the video above, apparently the Motorex product degrades the seals. I have not had a problem with it and my chains seem to last a long time (25K), although I have not yet replaced the chain on Bigfoot Bike yet. I will post updates here as I do.

How to lubricate your chain

If you have cleaned the chain, make sure it is dry so that no remaining cleaner will negate any lube you apply later on. Then, spray a little bit of chain lubricant on the rollers of the chain only. There is no need to bath the whole chain in it, as it will only cause excess drops to splatter all over the rear of your bike.

I spray one full rotation of the chain on the outside on the rollers. Then, one chain rotation on the inside of the rollers.

What to lubricate with? The internet is full of comments, opinions and tests of chain lube, so I am not going to recommend one specific brand or product here. I can tell you what I use: Motorex offroad chain lube. It is supposed to stick less so that dirt does not stay on it as much compared to “normal” road chain lube. There is also an “Adventure riding” chain lube from the same brand and probably others. I am not convinced yet, but will probably give it a go at some point.

Here is another video on the subject to help you educate your product choice:

Travel Tip!

Many lubricants also come in small travel-sized cans, saving space in your luggage. Some can even be refilled from a larger can. Use a small can for a while to see how many times you can lube your chain with it, so you know how long it will last your on an adventure.

When to do chain maintenance

First of all; I do not clean my chain after each ride, but I do lubricate it after every ride. When you arrive in the dark at the camp site, you simply cannot be bothered to deep-clean your chain. I get it, and it is not necessary. But, it is a good moment to quickly apply a new layer of chain lube. The chain is still warm, thinning the lube a bit, helping it to get where it needs to go. Also, with the bike standing still for the night, any aerosols and other components in the lube that you don’t need for lubrication (but are in there so aid storage and/or spraying it on the chain), can evaporate.

Dealing with a broken chain

A chain can break if it is old, worn out or tensioned too high. Proper chain maintenance will reduce rate of wear. But no chain has eternal life, so replace it in time.

Do you need to be prepared for that? I personally don’t. In 24 years of riding motorcycles, both on the road and in the dirt, I never have had a broken chain. Having said that: I am not going around the world on my motorcycle, which means I have plenty of controlled moments to take care of my chain and replace it when needed.

If you do want to prepare, it is good to know what you need to carry. Although, keep in mind that when you break a chain it means it is very weak. The weakest link has broken, and if you can repair it, it is definitely not a long-term solution to keep using that chain.

There are two common methods to connect both ends of a chain together; a riveted link or a link clip.

Riveted Chains

A riveted link means that the two ends of a chain are linked together by inserting a pin through both ends and pressing it so that the ends of the pin flatten out. That way the pin will not remove itself from the chain again while riding. Although a lot of force is required to rivet the links, it is not a brute force attack. Riveting it too tight will prevent those links from properly rotating around the pin. A chain tool is your friend here. Motion Pro makes a few different tools that do the job. You can get them from various places. I have had a very pleasant shopping experience dealing with Adventure Spec in the UK. Not sponsored, just a happy customer.

Using a chain clip

Less common, but still widely available, are chains that connect both ends with a spring clip. It is a piece of metal that you push over the chain link pins that connect both ends of the chain together. No special tools are required for this, but a good pair a pliers is definitely a must to get the clip over the pins. Make sure to connect the pin so the the closed end of it, moves “forward” when the motorcycle is riding. That way if something, anything snags or hits exactly that clip, it will not push it off.

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A well cleaned and lubed chain, is a happy chain 🙂 // Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

A clip is a lot easier to deal with in my opinion, especially on the trail. But, hardly anybody uses these nowadays. In the olden days, clips were easy to get the chain off completely and to put it in a “bath” in order to clean it well. That does not happen anymore. I do not know of anybody having lost their clip while riding, so I do not think that is a realistic issue.

Make sure you don’t have to repair a chain out and about

If you have to repair a chain, you also need to carry a few spare links. They usually came with the chain when it was put on new. A new chain is long needs to be made to the correct length. You could use those links. But even if you could repair the chain, chances are the broken chain may not be your biggest issue. A chain that breaks while riding at speeds, will slam into the rest of your bike. Some have plastic covers of the front sprocket. This will be destroyed by a whipping chain. It can also hurt your leg or other parts of the motorcycle.

Wrapping Up

So, make sure you take good care of your chain. Clean and lube it regularly and keep it well tensioned. And replace in time of course. Don’t run the risk of breaking it along the way because it may well cause more damage than just a broken chain. Just do proper chain maintenance, it does not take more then a few minutes to lubricate it. And a few more to clean it.