Ask MO Anything: How Often Do I Have to Lube My Chain?

John Burns
by John Burns

Am I a Slacker?

Dear MOby,

After reading the Comments every time you guys write about that new Yamaha Tracer GT, I’m starting to feel negligent about my old Bandit 1200’s chain maintenance. Guys on there talk about how they could never have a bike with a chain because they’d have to lube and adjust it every night in the hotel parking lot when they’re out touring.

My Bandit’s a 2006 model with nearly 60,000 miles on it now. It had a nice new gold O-ring chain when I bought it five years and 25,000 miles ago. I keep the chain clean like the rest of the bike, as much as possible. But if it’s been lubed more than six or seven times in those five years I’d be surprised, I’m still on the same can of lube. I’m pretty sure I’ve adjusted it twice, and I’ve never done either in a hotel parking lot. The chain seems to be just fine. No kinks, no tight spots, no problems. Am I a bad parent?

O-ring Curious
Midland, Texas

Good question, O-ring. I too am often remiss when it comes to chain maintenance, probably because most of the bikes I ride are brand-new and usually borrowed for not very long. My personal 2000 R1 says it’s got 20,000 miles on it now, and its OEM chain seems fine too in spite of a less than rigorous maintenance schedule. Mostly I clean it along with the rest of the bike, which isn’t very often here in sunny SoCal, then squirt the chain with WD-40 to keep it from rusting – and every now and then with actual chain lube. I’ve always been of the belief that the whole point of a sealed chain, sealed with either O- or X-rings, is that the seals are there to contain the permanent lubrication inside the rollers, and whatever you squirt on the outsides is mostly cosmetic.

Your question forced me into getting on a chat with Farrah at RK Chains, who I asked, do you really need to lube an O-ring chain?

Farrah: Yes you do. The lubrication keeps the chain seals pliable so that they keep the internal lubrication in its place and keep dirt and debris out. Chains that aren’t cleaned and lubricated, she says, don’t last as long and could void your chain warranty.

Hmmm. Does RK recommend any specific lubricant?

No, says Farrah, we do not. But make sure whatever you use is safe for use with O-ring chains.

I think if you’re riding a dirt bike or an ADV bike offroad a lot, you definitely will be cleaning the entire bike and the chain along with it much more often than most of us fairweather streetbike riders – whose chains rarely if ever get encrusted with dirt. But that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from giving your chain a wipe-down and squirting on some lube now and then.

Interestingly, my R1 manual says I should clean my chain with kerosene. RK’s website specifically says Do Not clean a sealed chain with kerosene or WD-40! I’ve been doing it wrong. You should instead use only a mineral-based O-ring safe chain cleaner, says RK.

Pro Honda and lots of other people make chain cleaners and lubes that say they’re O-ring safe. So does the Dupont Teflon Wax stuff I’m really fond of; I’ve been meaning to get a new can for about five years now…

As for adjusting, it seems like the chains on bikes I’ve owned stretch a bit at first and then mostly settle in for the long haul. You should definitely check the slack, easy enough to do when you’re already squatting out back to check tire pressure (which I actually do do frequently). One finger on the bottom run is all you need to make sure there’s not more than an inch of play or so on most streetbikes. Usually there’s a sticker on the swingarm to tell you just how much play there should be. And all the experienced motorcycle people I know have always said too much drivechain slack is way better than not enough. If the chain’s too tight, it’s gonna mess with the gearbox’s countershaft when the suspension compresses, and that’s not good. When you start having to take out slack more often, it’s time for a new chain.

Finally, RK’s site says drive chains are a wear item: Sealed ones should be in general good for 20,000 miles, unsealed ones for 3,000. A lot of that depends, again, on what kind of bike you ride where and in what conditions. But it definitely seems like sealed chains have reached a high-enough level of sophistication that lubing and adjusting them every night in the hotel parking lot is really more of a personal problem than a mechanical one. But, to each his own. Unless you’re slogging through the Darien Gap on your Bandit, you’re doing fine. Ride in peace, and get a new can of chain lube.

Send your moto-related questions to If we can’t answer them, we’ll at least do no harm in the time it takes to seek out a believable answer.

John Burns
John Burns

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3 of 26 comments
  • TC TC on Dec 18, 2018

    I liked the belt drive on my Buell. Lightweight, clean, and no maintenance. Would like to see more bikes use them.

    • Born to Ride Born to Ride on Dec 21, 2018

      If they made a kit to convert my Vstrom to a belt drive, I would buy it the day it was available.

  • Max Wellian Max Wellian on Dec 19, 2018

    Good chain is a hundred bucks. Replace it every 20k miles and enjoy life. Those seals won't rot in a few years.