What is the Drivetrain on a Motorcycle? Chain vs. Belt vs. Shaft Drive


The drivetrain on a motorcycle is a group of parts that deliver the power from the engine to the rear wheel. The motorcycle drivetrain consists of three separate units, the primary drive, the transmission (gearbox), and the final drive. The primary drive includes the clutch assembly, the roller chain or belt, and the engine output sprocket. The final drive can be a chain, belt, or shaft drive depending on the model.

If you want to find out more about motorcycle drivetrains, this post is for you.

Besides the basics, we’ll compare the major final drive designs (chain vs. belt vs. shaft drive) head-to- head!

What is the Drivetrain on a Motorcycle?

The heart of each motorcycle is arguably its engine. These power sources come in many shapes and layouts, but all of them do basically the same thing, they generate power to propel the machine.

But how is this power transmitted to the rear wheel?

This is where the drivetrain comes into play.

The drivetrain on a motorcycle links its rear wheel to the engine. The drivetrain consists of several smaller parts, all of which play a major role in the proper operation of the bike. The motorcycle’s drivetrain can be divided into three main parts, the primary and final drives, plus the transmission.

Let’s take a closer look at each!

What is the Primary Drive on a Motorcycle?

The primary drive on a motorcycle is part of the drivetrain, which transmits the power from the crankshaft to the transmission. This unit consists of the clutch, the belt/roller chain, as well as the engine output sprocket. In most cases, all of these components are mounted under one roof.

Most motorcycles feature a wet clutch, which runs in an oil bath, but a few models still come with a dry clutch.

Transmission

The clutch is connected to the transmission, which is often referred to as a gearbox. The gearbox is designed to change the gear the engine is running in, which helps feed the rear wheel with a controlled amount of power.

In this post, we won’t go deeper into this topic, but you can read more about motorcycle transmissions here.

What is the Final Drive on a Motorcycle?

The final drive on a motorcycle delivers engine power from the transmission to the rear wheel. The final drive is also considered to be the drivetrain’s last gear reduction. This is because different pulley/sprocket kits can affect the acceleration as well as the top speed of the bike. There are three different types of motorcycle final drives: chain, belt, and shaft drives.

The majority of motorcycles are chain-driven, but a belt drive is commonly used on cruisers and e-bikes.

The least common motorcycle final drive design is arguably the shaft drive, which can be found on many touring and ADV motorcycles.

Which is the best?

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about each one in detail!

What is a Chain Drive in a Motorcycle?

A motorcycle chain drive is arguably the most commonly used type of final drive. The chain drive consists of three main parts, the chain and two sprockets of different sizes. The smaller sprocket is mounted on the “output shaft,” which is the shaft that protrudes from the engine. The larger sprocket is mounted on the rear wheel. These two sprockets are linked together with a metal chain. The small sprocket is driven by the transmission and rotates the chain, which finally drives the rear wheel.

It’s safe to say that a motorcycle chain drive is very similar to a bicycle drivetrain.

Chain drives are widely used virtually on all types of motorcycles. They are cheap, lightweight, and easy to fix and replace even at home.

What’s more, a chain drive is strong, durable, and can tolerate the power of high-performance sportbikes.

On the other hand, chains are messy and require a lot of maintenance, as they often need to be adjusted, cleaned, and lubricated.

On top of that, the chain is prone to breaking and can even wrap around the rear sprocket causing the wheel to lock.

Let’s compare the pros and cons of chain drives head-to-head!

Pros and Cons of a Motorcycle Chain Drive

Pros of a chain drive:

  • Far cheaper than a belt or shaft drive
  • Lightweight
  • Easy to maintain, fix, and replace
  • Can be fixed virtually anywhere in the world (great point on long tours)
  • Very strong and can tolerate high engine power (sportbikes, racing bikes)
  • Tolerates water, dirt, and mud
  • Robs the least amount of engine power
  • Offers a lot of flexibility (by varying sprocket sizes)

Cons:

  • Needs to be replaced more often than belts
  • Prone to braking (which can lead to dangerous situations)
  • High maintenance needs (adjusting, cleaning, lubricating)
  • Makes a big mess
  • Slightly noisier than belts and shafts

What is a Belt Drive on a Motorcycle?

A belt drive on a motorcycle is a very similar system to the afore-mentioned chain drive. But instead of a chain, the transmission and the rear wheel of a belt-driven bike is connected to a rubber belt. Furthermore, sprockets are also replaced with two pulleys on these bikes, which actually do the same job. They are connected to the belt, so the front pulley can drive the rear pulley, which rotates the rear wheel.

Are Belt Drive Motorcycles Any Good?

Yes, a belt drive is considered a reliable and durable final drive system. The main advantage of the belt drive is that it’s completely clean and requires little maintenance. Also, it runs far quieter than a chain drive and lasts much longer too. That’s why belts are commonly used on cruisers and commuting bikes. What’s more, electric motorcycles also typically utilize a belt drive.

Drawbacks?

Unfortunately, they are not easy to fix or replace, so a motorcycle belt replacement is never the cheapest maintenance on any bike.

Let’s see the pros and cons of this design head-to-head!

Motorcycle Belt Drive Pros:

  • Simple design
  • High reliability and durability
  • Very clean (does not require lubrication)
  • Runs quietly and smoothly
  • Low maintenance needs (only requires a tension adjustment/visual inspection)

Motorcycle Belt Drive Cons:

  • Much more expensive than a chain drive
  • Harder and more expensive to replace
  • Can be damaged by a rock or if it snaps on the road
  • Not fixable
  • Pulleys are heavier and much larger than sprockets (so they don’t fit on smaller bikes)
  • Can’t tolerate high engine performance or stunts
  • Not recommended for off-road use
  • Gravel can easily damage the belt

Which is Better, a Chain or Belt Drive on a Motorcycle?

Many riders say that a belt drive is better than a chain drive as it’s cleaner and requires much less attention. Therefore, a belt drive is recommended for beginner riders and those who don’t like dealing with technical issues. Other riders claim that a chain drive is better as it’s far cheaper and easier to maintain.

It seems there is no clear winner here. As a rule of thumb, a belt drive does a good job on cruiser and commuting bikes, as they typically feature less powerful engines and cover long distances at a constant speed.

But when it comes to sportbikes and off-road bikes, a chain drive is usually a much better choice.

How Long Does a Drive Belt Last on a Motorcycle?

With proper maintenance and ‘reasonable’ riding, a motorcycle drive belt can last about 40,000-100,000 miles, or even longer. However, it depends on many factors like the performance of the bike, the quality of the belt, your riding style, and the quality of maintenance. It’s safe to say that the belt can see at least 40,000 miles on most bikes, but it’s not unusual for them to run more than 100,000 miles.

But unfortunately, drive belts can get damaged by a stone before reaching their lifespan.

Extra weight on the bike or towing a trailer can also significantly shorten the life of a drive belt, just like stunts.

With a wheelie or a burnout, you can literally destroy a motorcycle drive belt in a couple of seconds, as you can see in this video:

How Much Does a Motorcycle Drive Belt Cost to Replace?

As a rule of thumb, replacing a motorcycle drive belt costs about $500-$1,500, or even more. Why is it so expensive? First, the price of a drive belt ranges from $100 up to $300. And unlike a chain, replacing a drive belt is hard, so it takes a lot of time. As you might assume, this results in a lot of labor, which makes a belt replacement a costly service.

But why is a drive belt replacement so difficult?

The answer is that to replace the belt on many bikes the rear wheel and the swingarm have to be removed, and the clutch/transmission have to be disassembled to a certain point as well.

These are very time-consuming tasks, even for an experienced mechanic!

Generally speaking, a motorcycle drive belt replacement takes about 2-4 hours depending on the type of bike and the other repairs/replacements that may occur.

Keep in mind that in many cases the pulleys have to be replaced along the belt (or at least the rear), especially in case of high mileage. Installing a new belt on worn-out or damaged pulleys is never a good idea!

What’s more, once virtually half of the bike is taken apart, besides the pulleys it makes sense to check the swingarm bushings, the inner primary bearing, and the transmission shaft bearing.

It is not uncommon for some of these to need replacing as well, which also increases the total cost.

How do You Maintain a Motorcycle Drive Belt?

Contrary to popular belief, drive belts are not completely maintenance-free but rather low-maintenance. To maintain a motorcycle drive belt all you need to do is visually inspect the belt and keep it at the correct tension. Most manufacturers recommend checking the drive belt after the first 1,000 miles. Then, the recommended drive belt maintenance interval is typically 5,000 miles, which is often the same as the oil change interval.

But keep in mind that the exact service schedule may vary from one bike to the next, so make sure to check your bike’s service manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.

What is a Shaft Drive on a Motorcycle?

The motorcycle shaft drive, as its name suggests, utilizes a spinning metal shaft to drive the rear wheel. The rear wheel features a gear inside a hub to which the shaft is connected. The other end of the shaft is geared directly to the transmission. The entire assembly has an elongated housing (filled with oil) that protects it from damage and the elements.

Thank to this protection, a shaft drive is extremely durable and needs very little maintenance.

On the other hand, it features a very complex design and many heavy parts. This results in higher manufacturing costs, and a lot of additional weight on the rear wheel.

A shaft drive is typically installed on larger touring and adventure bikes, which have to cover long distances, preferably without any failure.

Are Shaft Drive Motorcycles Better?

We cannot clearly state that shaft drive motorcycles are better than any other bike out there. But it’s safe to say that you can find this unique final drive system primarily on high-end bikes. Why? This is because the shaft drive is considered a premium part because of its complexity and high manufacturing costs. Nonetheless, many buyers are happy to pay for it, so they can enjoy the comfort and convenience it provides!

Let’s see the pros and cons of shaft drives in a nutshell:

Pros of a motorcycle shaft drive:

  • Low maintenance (only a periodic oil change is required)
  • Very clean compared to a chain drive
  • High durability and reliability
  • Great for adventure and touring bikes
  • Tolerates off-road riding
  • Safety

Cons of a motorcycle shaft drive:

  • High manufacturing cost
  • Complex design
  • Hard and expensive to repair if it’s somehow broken
  • Adds a lot of weight to the rear wheel
  • Different riding experience (a.k.a. “shaft jacking” – especially on older models)
  • Causes much more power loss than belt or chain drives
  • Hard to change its gear ratio
  • Available mainly on high-end bikes
  • Requires a lot of torque and a large-displacement engine (at least about 600cc)

How Does a Motorcycle Shaft Drive Work?

Compared to chain and belt drives, a motorcycle shaft drive works in a much trickier way. Simply put, the transmission output and the drive shaft are connected to a special coupling. On the other end of the shaft, you can find a spiral bevel gear housed in a hub. This bevel gear can drive the wheel as it rotates the direction of spin by 90 degrees. Finally, the transmission drives the shaft, and the bevel gear on the end of the shaft drives the rear wheel.

The whole assembly is completely enclosed and runs in oil. Therefore, the metal parts are lubricated and protected from dirt, water, and any other external elements.

What is Shaft Jacking on a Motorcycle?

Shaft jacking is an effect that occurs when a shaft-driven motorcycle rises its rear end during acceleration (and lowers it when decelerating.) This was a typical issue on older shaft-driven motorcycles.

Shaft jacking was not only uncomfortable for riders but also dangerous, as closing the throttle when cornering led to handling issues. To eliminate this negative effect, modern shaft-driven bikes already feature “parallelogram linkages.”

How do You Maintain a Motorcycle Shaft Drive?

Maintaining a motorcycle drive shaft typically means periodic oil changes and an occasional visual check. Besides these oil changes, drive shafts are virtually maintenance-free, which is one of the main advantages of this design.

Malfunctions with a shaft drive are fairly infrequent, but if any issues arise, it can usually only be fixed by a professional.

If you want to learn more about the process, here’s a great video on how to maintain the shaft drive on a motorcycle:

Chain Drive vs. Belt Drive vs. Shaft Drive Comparison Chart

The chain drive vs. belt drive vs. shaft drive debate is one of the best arguments in the motorcycle community. But since each design has its own pros and cons, it seems there is no clear winner here.

For better comparison, we’ve compiled the most important properties of these systems into one chart.

  Chain Belt Shaft
Maintenance High Low Low
Durability Low Medium High
Easy to fix or replace Yes No No
Costs Low Medium High
Clean No Yes Yes
Fits on smaller bikes Yes No No
Weight Low Medium High
Noise Higher Low Low
Tolerates dirt Yes No Yes
Used on Virtually on any type of bike Scooters, cruisers, commuter bikes eBikes ADV, touring, sport-touring bikes

Related Questions

What is a Drivetrain?

The drivetrain is a bunch of parts that transmit power from the engine to the wheel(s). On a motorcycle, the drivetrain consists of three parts: the primary drive, the transmission, and the final drive.

Are Shaft-Driven Motorcycles Any Good?

Yes, it’s safe to say that today’s shaft-driven motorcycles are really good. In the past shaft-driven bikes suffered from “shaft jacking,” but on most of the newest models this negative effect has already been eliminated.

Is a Belt Drive or Shaft Drive Better?

When it comes to the everlasting belt drive vs. shaft drive debate, many riders say that a shaft drive is better as it provides the highest safety. Why? This is because you don’t have to be afraid of the belt flying off if it accidentally breaks. Besides, shaft drives are extremely reliable, require much less maintenance, and can also run in a dirty environment.

On the other hand, don’t forget that a shaft drive also has many cons like its heavy weight and hefty price tag. Therefore, the final decision often comes down to personal preferences.

Why do Harleys Use Belt Drives?

According to RevZilla, Harleys use belt drives because this design requires far less maintenance and is much quieter compared to a chain drive. Therefore, belt-driven Harleys offer more comfort and convenience to their owners.

What Year Did Harley Go to Belt Drives?

The first belt-driven Harley was introduced in 1981. In the following decade, the manufacturer slowly switched over to the new technology. Finally, the last chain-driven Harley-Davidson was manufactured in 1992. From then on until 2021 Harleys have been available exclusively with a belt drive system.

Are all Harley-Davidson Bikes Belt Drive?

No, it’s a lesser-known fact that not all Harley-Davidson motorcycles feature a belt drive. Although all of their models have been manufactured with a belt drive for many years, the 2021 Pan America 1250 was released with a chain drive. Why? This is because this machine is an adventure bike, on which a belt drive doesn’t work well.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Harley-Davidson Belt?

As a rule of thumb, replacing the drive belt on a Harley-Davidson costs about $700-$1500 (including the belt). But depending on the mileage, be prepared to replace the pulleys and some other parts as well.

How Long Does the Drive Belt Last on a Harley-Davidson?

With proper maintenance, drive belts on Harleys typically last about 40,000-100,000 miles. It always depends on the performance of the engine, your riding style, environmental conditions, and the quality of the maintenance.

Are Indian Motorcycles Belt Driven?

While the majority of Indian motorcycles are belt-driven, surprisingly not all of them! A well-known chain-driven Indian motorcycle is the FTR 1200 that features regular sprockets and a chain.

Can You do a Wheelie on a Shaft Drive Motorcycle?

Contrary popular belief, it’s possible to do wheelies on a shaft drive motorcycle. However, it’s definitely not recommended! Wheelies are not only dangerous, but they can also damage the shaft drive in many ways, which can translate to expensive repairs. Therefore, wheelies are not recommended on any street-legal motorcycle.

Which Honda Motorcycles Have a Shaft Drive?

The most well-known shaft-driven Honda motorcycles are as follows:

  • DN-01
  • CX400/500/500 Turbo
  • CX650/650 Turbo
  • CTX1300
  • CB700SC
  • GL500/650/700
  • NT650V/700V
  • ST1100/1300
  • PC800
  • VF750S
  • VF750C Magna
  • VFR1200F/X
  • VT400/500E
  • VT750C Classic
  • VT1100 Shadow
  • VT1300CX
  • VTX1300
  • Gold Wing
  • Valkyrie

Which Motorcycles Have a Shaft Drive? (Chart)

Over the years, a shaft drive has been used by many major motorcycle manufacturers. The best shaft-driven bikes are arguably made by Moto Guzzi, BMW, Triumph, and the Japanese “big four” (Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki).

For your convenience, we’ve compiled the most popular shaft-driven motorcycles into one chart:

Brand Model
BMW HP2 Enduro
BMW K1
BMW K75 /T/C/S/RT
BMW K100 C/RS/RT/LT
BMW K1100 LT
BMW K1200 GT/LT/RS/S
BMW K1300 R/S/GT
BMW K1600 GT/GTL/B
BMW R2, R39, R27, R32, R45 R51
BMW R67, R60, R65, R68, R69
BMW R70, R75, R80, R90
BMW R100 S/RS/RT/T/CS
BMW R1100 R/RT/RS/GS/S
BMW R1150 GS/R/
BMW R1200S/ST/C/GS/RT/R
BMW R900RT
BMW R 9T
Honda DN-01
Honda CX400,500,650,650 Turbo
Honda GL500, 650, 700
Honda NT700V, NT650V
Honda ST1100, ST1300
Honda VF750C Magna
Honda VFR1200F
Honda VFR1200X
Honda VT400/500E/750C
Honda VT1100 
Honda VT1300CX
Honda VTX1300
Kawasaki GTR1000 aka
Kawasaki 1400GTR
Kawasaki GT750P (Z750)
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic
Moto Guzzi California
Moto Guzzi Sport 1200
Moto Guzzi V7 750
Sunbeam S7, S7 deluxe, S8
Suzuki GV1400 Cavalcade
Suzuki Boulevard C109RT
Suzuki Boulevard C50 – VL800
Suzuki Boulevard C50T – VL800T
Suzuki Boulevard M109 – VZR1800
Suzuki Boulevard M50 – VZ800
Suzuki Boulevard M90 – VZ1500
Suzuki GS1100G
Suzuki VL800 Volusia
Triumph Rocket III, Tiger, Trophy SE
Yamaha FJR1300
Yamaha VMAX
Yamaha XJ750, XJ900S
Yamaha XT1200Z Super Tenere
Yamaha XV535 Virago
Yamaha XV750 V-star
Yamaha XV1000, XV1100
Yamaha XVS400, XVS650A, XVS1100
Source: MotoFaction.org

Conclusion

The drivetrain on a motorcycle delivers power to the rear wheel from the engine. It contains three major units, the primary drive, the transmission, and the final drive.

Motorcycles can feature three different types of final drives. The chain drive is still the most popular design by far, but a belt drive is also commonly used on cruisers and electric motorcycles.

The least commonly used final drive on motorcycles is arguably the heavy and expansive shaft drive.

Each of these systems fit different types of motorcycle categories, which are as follows:

  • Chain drive: sportbikes, smaller street bikes, off-road bikes
  • Belt drive: cruisers, electric bikes, commuter bikes
  • Shaft drive: touring and adventure bikes (600cc and above)

References

https://www.revzilla.com/common-tread/why-things-are-the-way-they-are-final-drive

https://motofaction.org/motorcycles/list-of-shaft-driven-motorcycles/

https://motorbikewriter.com/chain-versus-belt-shaft/

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