Choosing the Right Drive System for Your Motorcycle
motorcycle with chain drive closeup

Belt Drive vs. Chain Drive vs. Shaft Drive Motorcycles: Understanding the Types of Motorcycle Drive Trains

All motorcycles use a certain type of drive system, such as a belt drive, chain drive or shaft drive. These systems keep the bike running by moving the rear wheel. Chain drives tend to be the most popular type of system, but they can also be a pain to maintain. Many drivers swear by the belt drive, but it tends to be more expensive. Shaft drives aren’t as common as belts and chains, but they have their advantages as well.

So, what kind of drive system is right for you? We’ll walk you through the different types of drive systems, how they work and why some drivers prefer certain styles over others so you can choose the right type of system for your bike.

Chain Drives

The chain drive has become the go-to choice for many manufacturers in the motorcycle industry. Simple and easy to produce, the chain drive will serve you well in a variety of situations. The system uses a metal chain to connect the transmission and rear wheel. The output shaft will spin when the motor is running, which pulls the chain and causes the rear wheel to turn.

There are several types of chain drives to choose from. 

The O-ring style uses O-shaped rings with inner and outer roller covers on every chain link. This is common on off-road motorcycles, as the O shape helps keep dirt at bay. The style and shape keep the lube in between the pins and plates for lasting lubrication.

X-rings tend to be more efficient than O-rings. They provide less drag and more mileage, which makes them ideal for racing motorcycles. The X shape is also made to retain lube for less maintenance. 

You will also find non-sealed chain drives, but this mostly applies to vintage motorcycles. As the name implies, non-sealed chains are often vulnerable to wear and tear. You will have to replace these chains more often than you would an O- or X-shaped chain.

chain drives pros cons

Pros:

Chain drives are relatively cheap to produce compared to other types of drive systems. You can buy a replacement for just a few hundred dollars or less at nearly every motorcycle shop in the country. They feature a simple design, which makes it easy to spot the problem under the hood. You should be able to replace your old chain without visiting your local mechanic.

Chain drives also tend to be the most efficient when it comes to transmitting power. They come with a transmission rate of 98 percent efficiency.

Chain drives work well in wet conditions. They can also withstand exposure to the sun, oil and grease, which isn’t true of belt drive systems. 

Cons:

Chain drives also tend to be fickle. The chain can easily slip out of place, which means it will need to be realigned. They also require more frequent lubrication and tightening. Expect to get your hands dirty if you plan on lubricating the chain yourself.

It’s rare for a chain to completely snap on the road, but this can lead to serious injury. If the chain becomes dislodged, it could tangle around the sprockets, which could result in a crash. That’s why it’s important to maintain your chain on a regular basis.

Considering how susceptible chain drives are to everyday wear and tear, you and your group should use motorcycle communication systems to keep in touch on the road so you can quickly call for help if you get into a wreck.

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These kinds of systems also tend to produce more noise than other drive systems. You may notice intense vibrations when driving at high speeds. You also can’t use chain drives when it’s necessary for the drive to slip. 

Chain drives won’t last as long as belt drives. Experts say they usually last between 30,000 and 50,000 miles, whereas belt drives last 100,000 miles or more. If you’re constantly putting your bike through the wringer, you might want to upgrade to a belt drive.

Belt Drives 

front motorcycle star with belt rotation

Belt drive technology has come a long way in recent years. Previous iterations used two or three belts to move the internal accessories when the engine starts. Today, most belt drive systems use what’s known as a serpentine belt, which connects all internal components to the main drive pulley, including the radiator, HVAC system, water pump, alternator and power steering. When the engine starts, the main drive pulley starts to turn, which pulls the serpentine belt and thus the rest of the car’s accessories. This passes power onto the many internal components needed to keep the bike running.

There are other kinds of belt systems as well, including the V-belts and timing belts. V-belts, also known as drive belts, usually run through one or two internal components, but that’s about it. That means the system needs multiple belts to run all the related accessories. V-belts tend to be more common on older bikes, but they are still used today. Having more than one belt usually creates more opportunities for things to go wrong. You will have to replace each belt individually. Getting the right tension can also be a pain when working on these systems. The belt could even rotate under hard loads.

Timing belts connect the crankshaft and the camshaft to keep them in sync. If you can’t see the belt, don’t worry. It’s usually hiding behind the timing cover. 

Most belts contain dozens of tiny grooves or teeth on the inner side, which match up with the outer grooves on the pulleys on the many parts and components. The teeth fit into each as the belt powers the many pulleys in the system.

The belt is made of rubber and other materials for added durability. Most belts contain metal or steel wires for added strength. They also come with a Kevlar coating on the outside, which protects the belt from wear and tear.

belt drives pros cons

Pros:

Belt drives are known for requiring very little maintenance. That doesn’t mean you can neglect your belt for years on end. Some say these belts can last between 10,000 to 20,000 miles, but it’s not unheard of to see them last between 60,000 and 100,000 miles if cared for properly. To make the most of your belt, be sure to inspect it regularly for cracks, missing teeth and other signs it needs to be repaired. 

Belt drives also don’t require lubrication, so you don’t have to worry about getting your hands dirty. 

They are also less noisy and produce less jerk than chain drives. The smooth rubber meshes perfectly with the pulleys for a perfect fit every time. You don’t have to worry about the belt falling out of place or clanking against another piece of metal.

Cons:

Belt drives are considerably more expensive to produce and replace. While these systems have many advantages, prepare to pay more right out of the gate. 

They aren’t as common as chain drive systems. Even though they last longer than other systems, you might have trouble finding a mechanic with replacement parts in your area.

Belt drives are also more susceptible to transmission loss. If the belt isn’t properly aligned, some of the teeth are worn or the belt needs added tension loss, expect to lose as much as 10 percent transmission power.

Shaft Drives

Shaft drives tend to be the least common of the three, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. The system uses a shaft that’s connected to the gearbox via a universal joint. The other side of the shaft is connected to the rear wheel hub via a spiral bevel gear. The gear then turns the direction of rotation of the shaft 90 degrees to make the wheel turn. The entire system is sealed in an internal component to prevent outside wear and tear. It’s also dripping in oil and lubricant for lasting performance.

These systems are not used on economy or low-capacity motorcycles. They are extremely heavy and best suited for heavier bikes made for long distance driving, touring, traveling and going off-road. Virtually all BMW bikes use shaft drives. They are reserved for large capacity bikes, usually 600cc or above.

shaft drives pros cons

Pros: 

Shaft drives require zero maintenance. The entire system is sealed in lubricant so you don’t have to get your hands dirty. 

Most systems are designed to last the life of the engine, meaning you don’t have to worry about the bike breaking down when you least expect it. These bikes are made for the open road. Drivers need to know that they won’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere. 

If you plan on taking a long trip or exploring the wilderness, it’s important to use motorcycle headsets so you can easily radio for help if you get into an accident. 

Cons:

Shaft drives are extremely heavy and costly to produce. You will have to pay more upfront to use one of these systems, but it should last the test of time once you do. The system may also weigh you down on the road. You won’t find shaft drives in performance or racing bikes where speed is the ultimate goal.

These systems also lose a great deal of transmission power. Expect to lose around 20 percent to 25 percent of your transmission power when using a shaft drive. 

Large black motorcycle engine

Choosing the Right Drive System

If you’re in the market for a new motorcycle, choosing between these three options can be difficult. You’ll need to consider your priorities when choosing a drive system. 

If you’re focused on saving as much money as possible and keeping your bike light and fast, we recommend going with a chain drive.

If you hate the idea of maintaining your bike and want the most peace of mind for your buck, it’s best to go with a shaft drive. The same is true if you like to go off-road or enjoy long road trips. 

If you want a medium or lightweight bike that will serve you well in a variety of settings with little maintenance, consider going with a belt drive. 

This guide should help you make sense of the different kinds of drive systems used in the industry today. There is no right choice. It all depends on what you plan on doing with your bike. 

Additional Safety Considerations

Regardless of what kind of drive system you choose, it’s best to invest in Bluetooth motorcycle speakers so you can send and receive calls hands-free on the road. Whether you’re going off-road or running errands in between work, there’s a good chance you’ll need to stay connected to the outside world. You can quickly check in with your loved ones or look up directions on your phone without taking your hands off the handlebars. 

communicate hands free

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Make sure you understand how your drive system will affect your performance on the road. You should know how the system works so you can repair it or find assistance when necessary.

Watch out for warning signs that your drive belt needs to be repaired, such as high fuel consumption, squealing, handling problems, braking issues, poor tracking and alternator failure. Your drive system is designed to keep the various components of the bike running in unison. If you notice any one of these warning signs, it might be time to replace your belt.

Use this guide to make an informed decision when choosing between various drive systems. Every type of system comes with its fair share of pros and cons. Choose the features that are most important to you.

 

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