The Importance of Chain Maintenance: A Cautionary Tale

Just because a bike is new doesn't mean regular maintenance can be ignored

I won’t embarrass my friend by naming him. For the sake of narrative we’ll call him Jeff because the only Jeff I know doesn’t ride a motorcycle. Actually, come to think of it, I know a number of Jeffs, and one of them does ride a motorcycle (he is a motorcycle instructor). But this is not a story about that Jeff; it’s a story about a Jeff who is not actually named Jeff, one who rides a Triumph Tiger 800.

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Jeff decided to buy a brand new Tiger 800 last year, partly based on my fondness for the platform and my praise for the Triumph overall. The British brand isn’t perfect but it does enough things right that I’m usually willing to recommend it (unless you’re thinking of getting a Tiger 1200 and taking it off road). So I was happy when Jeff first got his bike and absolutely loved it.

I’m unsure whether owning a Tiger 800 has resulted in Jeff’s fulfilling outdated marketing gender cliches.

He loved it so much that for a number of months afterward he’d occasionally text to sing the bike’s praises. This week, however, he got in touch to let me know things had gone a little Pete Tong*. He was having to replace his chain and sprockets. Like me, Jeff commutes on his bike, having managed to put more than 7,000 miles on the clock in less than a year. That’s more than the annual distance covered by the average British motorcyclist (and almost more than three times the annual US average), but not so many that I’d be expecting to replace chain and sprockets.

I mean, my bought-new Suzuki V-Strom 1000 had roughly 15,000 miles on the clock when I traded it in a few years ago (for a bike with shaft drive, which I have since traded for a bike with a chain) and the condition of both chain and sprockets was still good. I couldn’t imagine Triumph’s set-up would wear out so quickly; I’ve ridden (and owned) several Triumphs over the years and generally found their fit and finish to be at least on par with most of the Japanese big four. I was baffled.

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It was at this point that Jeff admitted something: in those 7,000+ miles he had never checked or adjusted the chain.

As it happens, Jeff’s local Triumph dealership is one of the best in the United Kingdom and part of the service experience there involves a technician filming the bike as he or she walks through various checks. Jeff sent me the video. As soon as the technician touches the chain – even before he says anything – it’s clear that the thing is fubared. It’s visibly dry and has too much slack, easily banging against the swingarm.

Jeff’s chain was not in good shape

Some of the links of the chain are visibly kinked and rusted. The sprocket teeth aren’t in awful shape but they are indeed worn. The technician also points out that the chain has eaten through a big chunk of the chain rubbing strip.

Had Jeff been so inclined, I’m pretty sure he could have milked a few thousand more miles out of the set-up but he probably would have been back in the shop by the 10,000-mile mark. In conjunction with the cost of two new tires and the bike’s annual service, Jeff ended up shelling out some £1,300 (about $1,700). That is a lot of money, and a painful lesson to learn.

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Jeff, needless to say, feels pretty silly about all this. I think we’ve all been in situations where we think, “Oh sure, it sounds stupid when I say it out loud, but at the time it made sense to me.” Like when I took out a loan to be able to focus on The Motorcycle Obsession full time. Yeah, of course it turned out poorly and now I have nothing to show for it but colossal debt and being chained to a full-time job so intensive that TMO now goes silent for days on end, but at the time it seemed like a good idea

Anyway, in Jeff’s case, he made the mistake of thinking/feeling that a brand new bike wouldn’t require an owner to be as dedicated to maintenance as he/she might need to be with a used machine.

One assumes that tail bag is full of chain lube.

I had a check of the owner’s manual for the Tiger 800 (Triumph makes all of its manuals available online**), and it says: “Lubrication is necessary every 200 miles and also after riding in wet weather.”

The brand suggests the same for my Bonneville T120. That interval strikes me as ridiculously short – manuals for other chain-driven bikes I’ve owned have advised intervals of 400-600 miles – but I adhere to it because I’m a nerd. I’ve heard that the reasoning behind the short interval for the Bonnie is that the front sprocket sits next to and above some pretty hot bits of the engine, meaning oil burns off quickly.

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I would assume the same sort of thing applies to the Tiger 800 but you’ve got to admit that’s annoying. For a bike like the Bonneville, which inspires a sense of preciousness, it’s just barely tolerable. But for a bike like the Tiger 800 – marketed as a rugged, world-crossing machine – it’s a pain in the ass. Effectively, Triumph is telling you to oil your chain more often that you fuel up.

To counter this, part of Jeff’s aforementioned £1,300 went toward the purchase of a Scotoiler system. I’ll admit I have always been skeptical about the value of a Scotoiler*** but there’s no denying it’s better than ignoring your chain entirely, and a lot of riders swear by them.

Jeff will still need to adjust his chain, though. Triumph doesn’t offer any guidance on how often to do this, but it’s always been my understanding that it’s good to check every 700 miles or so. A well-maintained chain can go quite a while without adjustment – I’m presently past the 2,000-mile mark with my Bonnie and still within the 2-3cm window for slack – but it’s not something you can really ignore for 7,000 miles.


* Nice 90s reference there, Chris.
** This is such a good idea.
*** You still have to clean your chain, do you not? Spraying lube onto a chain is not that hard or time-consuming. If you’re being extra attentive it may take a whole 20 seconds. It’s the cleaning of said chain – an essential part of keeping it in good condition – that is generally a pain in the ass. And I’m assuming that the presence of a Scotoiler would make it even more of a pain.