Chain? Belt? Shaft? Which is Better?

Motorcycle Chain Drive

Chain Drive

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: Which 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:

Motorcycle Belt Drive

Belt Drive

  • 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.

Motorcycle Shaft Drive

Shaft Drive

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. Stated another way, for those who have a preference for either a chain, belt of shaft to propel your wheel wheel, then you need to select a motorcycle that features that specific technology.

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.

91 thoughts on “Chain? Belt? Shaft? Which is Better?

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  • I have owned bikes with all the different drives my best is Belt why its clean silent and no major maintenance i ride a Buell and its a grate final drive …however if you are going in the dirt this is not the one unless it is well protected from the elements stone and rocks etc

  • Harley built the model “XA,” which was an outright copy of a flathead BMW twin of the era. If memory serves, they were primarily used during the North African campaign, but had technical issues and were not mass produced for very long.

  • Harley made some shaft drive bikes for the Allies in WWII to use in North Africa, because the sand ate up the chains in not time. What system is best depends on what you’re wanting to do and where you want to do it.

  • Good(biking) a fully protected gear housing is required, all the way to the final drive. Only shaft

  • It depends on what your intentions are for the bike. Chain, speed. Belt Cruiser.Shaft towing a trailer. I’ve owned all three, I’m a trailer Tower, so the shaft was the choice first in the bike.

  • Have a Honda PCX 150 with a belt drive. Very smooth and a great ride. I’m very happy not to have to spend my time cleaning, greasing and maintaining a chain.

  • Rode all three, agree chains require a lot of maintenance, one of the belt fans mentioned the back tire locking up with a chain or shaft drive model. I have only had one defect related rear tire lock up and it was from a failed belt. Fortunately I was already slowing for a red light and throught the caliper had locked up on the rear disc. Just as suddenly it unlocked and the light had changed when I realized I had no power to the wheel. Luckily the light was for a shopping center parking lot and I coasted from the traffic lane then pushed it in without being ran over. Cahills a local dealer picked the bike up for free. The belt was a couple hundred dollars and was not covered by unlimited milage warranty.

  • Deepak, the costs to convert a 26hp Enfield Bullet to shaft drive, let alone the power loss would be prohibitive. You would be much better off using a very high quality o-ring chain and some good non-flinging lubricant.

    Even the idea of belt drive conversion means that you may have to adopt the toothed pulleys from another bike application and then a correct length matching belt would have to be found, and then there’s the greater width of a belt compared to a chain that might interfere with the space you have between the pulley and the swingarm.

    Best to simply upgrade to best quality component that the bike was originally designed for.

  • how well it would work out if we convert a chain driven motor bike into a shaft driven?? what will be the up’s & down’s?? please help me. i am trying this out on a royal enfield classic-350/500cc or Thunderbird-350/500cc (Indian bike). and also, trying to convert the same bikes into a belt driven. which will yield better results?? how??

  • I’ve owned all three types over the years. My current shaft-driven bike has been the smoothest riding, easiest to maintain drive system I’ve ever owned. I’ll never go back to belts or chains, ever

  • If it’s about power-consider this-Chain drive is on all high performance bikes do to power loss from engine to rear wheel ( chain 3% belt 11% shaft 31% power loss)

  • After 30 some years on motorcycles, and having owned all three types of final drives, their differences are pretty much as the author posted.

    Chain drives are the most cost and power efficient, but they also do wear the fastest, require the most maintenance (wheel alignment during tire changes, cleaning and lubing both chain inner run and sprockets (plus under cover of the countershaft) and they are the noisiest.

    Belt drive appears to at least double even the best chain’s life when both are well-maintained, and there’s simply less to do to maintain them other than a “foreign object debris” inspection to ensure no pebbles, rocks, or unusual wear to the belt teeth. However, they do eventually wear out and replacing them is more expensive than a chain though you can probably reuse the pulleys, unlike a chain. There is also a power limit as to what a belt can handle, but this is usually above what an average rider will be putting to them.

    Shafts are heavy, expensive to repair, and if the bike is towing a trailer often, there can be problems with ring and pinion gears or main bearings going south. They also used to have torque-reaction due to the “ring trying to climb the pinion” during throttle applications (any old Beemer or Guzzi guy or gal can talk about that). Also, suspension quality does suffer more because of all the unsprung weight that the rear shock(s) have to control especially in compression and rebound damping.

    All that said, they are the absolute simplest for daily maintenance, the cleanest running, the easiest to replace wheels and tires with, no wheel alignment necessary, periodic maintenance effort is deciding which brand of new snake oil you want to put into the case, and they will generally and easily run 100,00-200,000 miles without so much as that fluid change.

    However, your choice is incumbent upon the use you will put the bike to, and again as the author suggests, your style of bike that reflects that use will likely give you only one choice of final drive. Pays your money and takes your choice.

  • In my opinion the belt is probably the safest, most economical and efficient of the drives. when a chain breaks or chews up the sprocket it can lock up the rear wheel, break a gear tooth on a shaft drive the same thing. If this happens at say seventy miles per hour you better have some very good riding apparel. If a rubber belt strips a tooth or the belt breaks the rear wheel simply freewheels .

  • I’ve got a Hyosung Aquila 650. as you may know it is a belt driven bike. unfortunately, belts manufactured for these bikes are of poor standard, (24000km in 12 months) the belt was shot. The whole time I had to content myself with a horrible squeaking sound. NEVER AGAIN will I own a belt driven motorcycle. I am now going to convert the Hyosung to chain.
    My Question is???
    Can a Hyosung Aquila be convert to a shaft drive? Has it been done before?

  • I ride a suzuki burgman 650 is 6 speed electric shift,and has a belt
    drive.very smooth.before this bike I rode a honda rebel 250cc 5speed chain drive.
    I enjoy the belt drive alot.

  • I have heard the enthusiasts of chain drive come up with a miriad of reasons why chain drive is for them, including the by-line “No Chain, No Gain”. They also throw in all sorts of technical explanation as to why shaft drive goes through 90 degrees TWICE before driving the wheel (Moto Guzzi goes through 90 degrees ONCE before drive) but no mention is given to the chain drive gearbox requiring the ONE TIME 90 degree configuration either. This is true for belt drive configurations as well. It has to be said that for clean motoring (biking) a fully protected gear housing is required, all the way to the final drive. Only shaft transmission achieves this state. My last chain drive bike was a Kawasaki 650. I then toured up Africa on a Kawasaki ST1000 – a shaft drive. Since that bike I have never desired a chain driven bike and most likely will never again. Maybe one day the penny will drop and the manufacturers will stop feeding the consumer filthy maintenace – or the chain and belt drive enthusiasts will see the light and not throw good money after bad.

  • You didn’t mention one other factor that may or not play in to the choice of drives and that is driveline offset. As a general rule chain driven bikes will give you a better front/rear wheel alignment. Look at the standard offset between the front and rear of a belt drive cruiser. This offset will effect (very minor) high-performance handling.

  • After 38 years of Motorcycling there is only one choice for me.

    Do you want to spend your weekends cleaning and adjusting your chain/belt?
    Do you want to risk catching road debris in your drive gear?
    Do you want to spray chain oil onto your back mudguard?

    I prefer a maintenance free, clean, efficient solution, just needing an oil change a year.

  • I have a 600cc engine off of a 1996 Yamaha xj600 that is chain driven. can it be belt driven?

  • I have a 21ps bike of bajaj, which is drived by chain.after all i would like to say dat my 1st prefer is belt drive .coz-a belt drive is ware & tear system at d same time disz vry much smoother than chain drive & maintainance free. We can use it all bikes.but d shaft drive is not for normal bikes,its for waste of money due to some reach peoples demand.

  • I have one if each, a BMW with shaft, a Suzuki DL-650 with chain and N H-D XR-1200 with a belt. All are great provided you properly maintain them. I like the chain because, at reasonable cost, I can change the ratio, increasing or decreasing RPM and power to the rear wheel, lower RPM for touring, higher for hooligan. Chains have come a long way in durability. I regularly get over 20,000 miles on a very good quality “O” ring chain.

  • i rather go to the chain drive and belt drive they are more durable in long long ride i have a scooter and under bone bikes but today i have an accident may Suzuki raider 150 was destroyed i love riding bike because it gives me a great and meaningful meaning to my life

  • Sometime in May I made a comment and must have had a seniors moment (I’m 56).

    I said “inline V4” meaning motor, transmission and shaft being inline unlike some V4’s that are mounted transverly in the frame which means the motor is 90 degree to the shaft drive. Then you have another 90 degrees at the drive end of the shaft. The new Honda VFR1200 is a good example.

  • Bought my Moto Guzzi Elddorado new in December 1973, and the shaft drive has cost me zero to maintain for the past 38 years. I love it.

    Every year since then, I told my Harley dealer that I’d buy one if they would switch to a shaft drive. Guess what his answer is.

  • believe it or not wal-mart in cent fla but its DU-PONT TEFLON CHAIN-SAVER -says dry, selfcleaning lubricant…and says doesn’t attract dirt! no fling off.. for bikes. dirt bikes..atv’s.. go karts…sort of yellow can..endorsement from motor cycle consumer news… goes on wet, set updry…will not drip or fling off…o-ring safe …shake well… all that on label.. just watch over spray drys looks like wax spots on chrome wheels but cleans off with rag. seems to work so far…last chain drive i had we ould take off and clean and soak in light oil over nite. and thats a long way back . then i went to shaft….

  • Roy,

    Reference your 29-Aug-2011 Comment about drive types, specifically spray teflon dry lub for your chain

    What is the brand of spray Teflon dry lub that you use and where do you get it? My Honda Magna has an “O-ring” chain. Have been using Chain Wax on the recommendation of the local Honda dealer – it is a bit messy requiring clean up, I use WD40 for cleaning.

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