Motorcycle and ATV Chain Cleaning: Things to Know

Cleaning the drive chain is at the top of a motorcycle and ATV’s most important maintenance jobs list, as regularly cleaning your powersports vehicle’s chain is essential to the machine’s performance. 

ATV chain cleaning

A clean chain provides a far smoother transfer of power from a motorcycle or ATV’s engine to its rear wheel. With less frictional resistance caused by built-up dirt and congealed grease, the clean chain gives more predictable power delivery and a slight increase in performance, plus a smoother ride.

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Regularly cleaning the drive chain also removes abrasives such as sand and grit. If left on the chain, these particles quickly wear out both the chain and sprockets. Cleaning your motorcycle’s chain and sprockets ensures they perform better and last longer.

How Often You Should Clean a Drive Chain

The frequency your bike’s chain needs cleaning depends on what type of bike it is and what conditions it normally runs in. Your motorcycle or ATV’s owner’s manual provides the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning the chain, but as a general rule:

  • Standard and cruiser bike chains should be cleaned once every 500 miles or every two weeks.
  • Performance and sport bike chains should be cleaned once every 300 miles or every two weeks.
  • Off-road and dirt bike chains should be cleaned after every ride.

Motorcycle chain cleaning things to know

What to Clean a Drive Chain With

Before buying a chain cleaner, determine whether your chain is an O-ring chain (sealed chain) or a standard chain (no-ring chain).

Motorcycle ATV chain cleaner

NOTE: X-ring chains and Z-ring chains are considered O-ring chains.

O-ring Chains 

  • Have small synthetic O-rings between the inner and outer links that seal in lubricating grease. 
  • Most motorcycles use O-ring chains because they’re longer lasting and require less maintenance.
  • O-ring chains should only be cleaned with designated chain cleaner.
  • Never use petroleum-based cleaners or harsh chemical cleaners, as they’ll damage the synthetic O-rings.
  • Don't use pressure washers, as the force of the water jet can easily penetrate the seals made by the O-rings, making them useless.
  • Use only a nylon chain brush, since wire brushes damage the synthetic O-rings. 

Standard Drive Chains 

  • Don’t have any O-rings between the inner and outer links, so they’re metal-on-metal. 
  • Some bikes use standard chains because they transfer more power to the rear wheel. However, they require more frequent maintenance.
  • Standard drive chains can be cleaned with harsher chemicals and petroleum-based cleaners because there are no synthetic parts to damage. 
  • Use a nylon motorcycle chain brush to scrub standard chains. Pressure washers can be used too, but with the chain removed from the motorcycle to prevent the water jet from accidentally damaging other parts.

Drive Chain Cleaner Types

Solvent-based cleaner 

  • Sprays onto the chain and immediately dissolves any grease and dirt it touches before evaporating. 
  • Not compatible with O-ring chains because they can damage the synthetic material. 
  • Can take several cans to clean a single chain and sprocket set.

How to Use It: Spray the chain with cleaner, then scrub it with a nylon brush if necessary and continue spraying it with cleaner until it’s clean.

Water-based cleaner 

  • Sprays onto the chain, where it solidifies and remains penetrating grease and dirt for much longer, before being rinsed off with water. 
  • Compatible with O-ring chains and remain on the chain longer.
  • More effective at cleaning built-up dirt, so less cleaner is required to clean a chain and sprocket set.

How to Use It: Spray the chain with cleaner, then rotate the chain to make sure it’s completely covered. Let the cleaner sit and penetrate the dirt for a few minutes, then scrub the chain with a nylon brush before rinsing it with water.

After cleaning the chain, it’s very important to lube it. This provides protection against water and dirt, and gives the chain and sprockets the vital lubrication they require. 


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