MC Garage Video: Motorcycle Final-Drive Systems Compared

Chain vs. Belt vs. Shaft! Which Setup is Best?

Chain, belt, or drive shaft. You wouldn’t buy a bike based solely on what kind of final drive it has, but it’s worth knowing how the systems differ.

The earliest motorcycles were all belt driven, but today you mainly see belts on cruisers and the occasional e-bike. Compared to a chain and sprocket system, belt drive is smoother, quieter, and since it doesn’t need any messy lube, it’s a whole lot cleaner. And besides the occasional visual inspection belt drive doesn’t require much in the way of maintenance. Belts last a long time, too—100,000 miles isn’t out of the question for a properly maintained belt.

If belts are so great, why don’t we see them on more bikes? Packaging and difficulty of replacement are the biggest drawbacks. Belts can’t wrap as tightly as chains so they need to be run on big pulleys that wouldn’t necessarily fit on smaller bikes. And when it comes to replacing a drive belt, the process usually entails removing the swingarm. Belts also sap a lot more power than sprockets and chains, so they’re not nearly as efficient.

Drive shafts must be the best form of final drive, right? Riders that have them on their bikes certainly think so, and BMW has been using shaft drive since 1923. Drive shafts are low maintenance, run clean, are impervious to rain and dirt, and—barring any sort of freak failure—will last the life of the bike. Those are important benefits, but shafts are also expensive to build, they weigh a lot, and they sap a lot more power than other final-drive systems. And you can forget about easy gearing changes.

That brings us to the good old chain and sprockets, which is far and away the most common form of final drive. As with most things that are mass-produced, cost is a huge factor, and chains and sprockets are cheap to make. They’re also compact, fairly durable, easy to replace, offer easy gearing changes, and are the most efficient means of power transmission. Yes, chains require regular cleaning and lubrication, tend to make a mess of things, are quite a bit noisier, and wear out much faster than belts or shafts, but you know what, every system has its drawbacks.

The biggest complaint most people have about chains is how much maintenance they require. Need a refresher on proper chain care? Check out the links below.