Like any machine, your bike needs regular maintenance. Neglect will lead to undue wear and, in many cases, can end up causing damage.
Checking your motorcycle chain tension is a job that should be done fairly regularly. Luckily, it is essentially the same across bikes and easy to learn.
With a few simple tools, and about half an hour, you can check the tension yourself and make any necessary adjustments- a skill that should be in any rider’s arsenal– and this guide will show you how.
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How To Adjust a Motorcycle Chain
The first step in any job is planning. Do some research about your bike and identify the tools you’ll need. For my CB500F, it’s a few spanners and a Paddock Stand- simple.
Pictured are the tools I use at home- a motley assortment of equipment, but it gets the job done.
There’s also some chain lube– not strictly part of the job, but it’s always a good idea to apply some when you’ve got the back end in the air.
Of course, the better the tools, the better the job, and getting the best equipment is always recommended. Usually, I’d have access to better gear, but this only goes to show that adjusting your chain needn’t be an expensive job.
Note: Use a motorcycle torque wrench! If you’re not confident tightening your axle nut manually and don’t want to void any warranty, make sure you use a torque wrench for this job!
If you do want to grab some gear, though, here are a few recommended tools you can get from amazon:
A cheap paddock stand makes this job a lot easier.
Another cheap option, this Amazon Basics torque wrench, does exactly what it says on the tin. Don’t expect it to last 20 years, but at its price, you won’t mind.
Once you’ve got your tools together, prepare your work area. You’ll need a flat surface to support your bike and a clear area around the rear wheel to work. It’s also handy to have something soft to kneel on and a place to keep your tools that isn’t the floor.
As seen here, this job can be done in a yard as easily as in a garage. You’re golden if the ground is level and the surface is strong enough to support your bike.
After the area is sorted- being sure you’ve cleared any garden furniture or barbecues that may impede your progress- you’ll want to get the bike up on its stand.
With some difficulty, this can be done alone, but it’s advisable to get someone else to help you. Just find your swingarms, line them up with the rubber grips, and push down on the back of the stand to lever the bike into the air.
Once the bike is up, you can inspect the area you’re working on. Give your chain a quick once over and spin your wheel to check for play or sticking.
Now is a good time to lube the chain (mine needed it desperately- as you can see!) and look around your bike for any other issues you might not have noticed at a glance.
With the bike on the stand, you’ll have much better access to the bike’s undercarriage and the ability to inspect the entire rear tire without moving the bike.
Now that your bike is stable and off the ground, you can check the chain tension.
The correct amount is usually printed on the swing arm above the chain and can be measured with a tape measure by placing the tape against the arm and reading the distance between the two. Bear in mind that, while elevated on the stand, there is no weight on your bike’s rear end. This means you’ll want to leave a little more slack than is recommended to be taken up when you let it down.
Note: Take your measurements from a middle point between the front and rear sprockets, and rotate the rear wheel to find any tight spots- this is where you should measure.
Next, loosen the rear axle nut (red) and the lock nut (purple). Repeat the process on the other side of the bike. When you loosen the locknuts, hold the adjusting nuts (blue) still with another spanner to avoid unintentionally altering the chain tension.
Image 1: Red= Axle nut. Blue = Adjusting nut, Purple = Lock nut
Image 2: With locking nut loosened.
With the axle and lock nuts loosened, you can start to adjust the chain. Turning the adjusters clockwise will tighten the chain, and counterclockwise will loosen it.
By turning the adjusters, you’re moving the whole wheel up and down the swingarm, so moving them gradually and equally on both sides of the bike is essential. I usually do a quarter turn per side before rechecking the tension and continuing if necessary.
Make sure you’re happy with the play in your chain- spin the wheel and make sure it moves freely- there will be some resistance, but it should be able to turn unaided for a few revolutions at least.
Check the tolerances on your bike (usually stickers on the swingarm, as seen below, but a quick google search will turn up the owner’s manual for your motorcycle if the stickers aren’t there). If everything is up to spec, you’ve probably not ruined your bike- congratulations!
Now look at the chain wear indicator (also seen below) and ensure that your movement of the back wheel hasn’t caused it to move into the red. If it has, you should get a new chain and sprocket fitted as soon as possible- eventually, the chain will be so slack that it will no longer work properly, and riding with it like this can have some nasty consequences.
Believe it or not, it’s usually a good idea at this stage to tighten all the things you’ve loosened throughout the job.
Grab the same spanners as before and tighten the locknuts on either swingarm.
For my bike, the Honda manual recommends 15ft/lbs of torque- just-a-bit-tight, in layman’s terms. Then you’ll want to tighten the axle.
Unless you’re confident/stupid enough not to, this is where your torque wrench matters- the thing you’re spinning holds the wheel on, after all, and you don’t want that falling off while you’re on the motorway…
Now that everything is nice and tight and not going to fall off, you can take the bike down (don’t forget the kickstand- trust me). Recheck the tension now that the weight is back in the system, and make sure everything lines up.
If it does, that’s it, chain tension adjusted… you can now tell everyone you meet that you ‘do your own services’ and ‘know your way around a spanner’, and your bike won’t destroy itself for another two weeks at least- result.
What if I don’t?
Not maintaining your chain properly can be a real headache. And arm ache, neck ache, spine ache… you get the gist. If your chain comes off either sprocket when you’re in motion, it’s very likely to do one of two things:
- Lock up the wheel- this is the most likely eventuality. The chain comes free of the sprockets but remains intact and will wrap itself around the rear wheel/brake calliper/sprockets in such a fashion as to stop the wheel’s rotation. Bad news- if this happens anywhere above 25mph, you’re going down like a sack of bricks.
- Shred the bike- this one’s rare and more of a horror story, but it can happen. As above, due to extreme neglect or large forces, the chain doesn’t remain intact. I don’t think the problem here needs to be explained since we’ve all seen a chainsaw.
Your chain can be too tight, as well. While the results won’t be as spectacular, they will be just as expensive. Tight chains can bend shafts, break sprockets and damage housings over time.
Keep an eye on your chain tension; it’s pretty important.
Check out our maintenance guide– there are a lot of good habits for a budding mechanic to pick up.
Chain adjustment is just one of the many regular jobs that need doing to a bike and can seem mysterious and complex at first. Once you have a go, though, and get some oil on your hands, you’ll quickly realise that most jobs are relatively straightforward and rewarding.
Remember- with the proper research and advice, you can do almost any job your bike needs at home.