Chain? Belt? Shaft? Which is Better?

Well, if you are thinking in terms of motorcycle fashion apparel, I would recommend chrome, shaft-drive pendants, hanging from a series of gold chains that are attached to a leather belt with a chrome bike-buckle to secure your pants. And that should give you a good indication on why I am writing about bikes instead of fashion.

OK, here’s the multiple choice quiz you wished for in elementary school: What is the best way to drive power from a motorcycle engine to its rear wheel?

  1. Chain Drive?
  2. Belt Drive?
  3. Shaft Drive?

If you answered “1,” “2,” or “3,” you are right!

(Wouldn’t that be great if all quizzes were that easy?)

All three are valid and workable technologies. In addition, they’ve all been around a very long time. “Which is best” depends upon your type of riding and/or personal preference.

First of all, for some riding applications “no thinking is required” because you won’t have a choice, but other types of riding can benefit from a little forethought.

No Thinking Required:

  • Dirt bikes come with chains
  • Dual purpose motorbikes have chain drives
  • “Most” sport bikes are driven by chains (with rare belt-drive exceptions)
  • In fact, the majority of motorcycles are chain driven
  • However, most large touring bikes are usually equipped with a shaft drive

Thinking Required:

  • Cruisers are the most popular type of bikes to find belt drives, although you can buy cruisers with shaft or chain drives
  • Sport-touring bikes primarily include chain or shaft drives
  • Most adventure-touring bikes are driven by chain or shaft with a rare belt-drive exception

OK, so what’s the difference already!?

Stated briefly, chain drives are the most economical way to transmit power to the rear wheel. They also convey the greatest percentage of engine power in the process. Chain drives are by far the most popular drive mechanism in motorbikes around the world. On the other hand, they also require the most maintenance, are dirty, and not as smooth as a shaft or belt drive. Bear in mind that the most routine motorcycle maintenance required of a rider is taking care of those metal chain links! (Unless you include putting gas in the tank.) So, reducing that chain maintenance equates to greater rider enjoyment.

Hence, belt drives are a viable option where available (mostly, but not exclusively, on cruisers). Not only do belts require less frequent adjustments than a chain, they also last longer, so the whole task of having them replaced is reduced. Belt drives are cleaner since there is no chain lube flying around to mess up your bike or that belt in your jeans with gold chains and chrome, shaft pendants dangling around. Belt drives are also smoother than chain drives.

And finally, there are shaft drives: the same technology that is used in automobiles. Shaft drives are smooth. They are the lowest maintenance of the three. (The shaft drive oil reservoir needs to be infrequently drained and replaced). They are quiet and clean. Motorcycle shaft drives are also heavier and more expensive than chain or belt drives. Furthermore, a small amount of performance is lost while moving that power from the engine to the rear wheel via some extra gears in the shaft drive. Hence, you won’t see them on pure performance machines.

In brief, most riders won’t need to decide between chain, belt or shaft drives because so many categories of motorbikes do not offer a choice.

On the other hand, should you be a rider fond of cruisers; or should you be a sports-touring aficionado; or one who likes to ride long distances on pavement and also ride on dirt roads (adventure touring); then you can purchase a bike with the technology of your choice to make your rear wheel go round and round at your whim.

Note: this doesn’t mean any given bike model within these noted categories will give you an option to purchase these different drive methods, it means you can find different bike models within the noted categories of motorbikes that will include your preference.

Most long-distance riders, whether on a cruiser, sport tourer, or adventure tourer will be better served with a shaft drive. But of course you will pay a little more for that smoother, cleaner and low maintenance choice.

Which means that nifty leather belt in your pants with the dangling chrome pendants will not get chain lube on them.

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