N + 1 is the formula to calculate the number of bicycles one should own. Have one bicycle? The right number to own is two. Have 15 bicycles? The right number is 16.
There are at least three reasons why this should be.
- There’s always something new. Something that requires possession. Thirty years ago, that bike was a Trek 2300 with carbon fiber tubes glued to aluminum lugs. (I immediately swapped out the Ultegra crank for a lighter, more beautiful Dura-Ace model. Despite the limitations of vertical dropouts, the bike eventually morphed into a flat-bar single speed, thanks to a White Industries Eno hub.)
- There’s always something different. Bicycles with equal-sized wheels? Been there, still doing it. But a bicycle with a 50-inch front wheel, no air in the tires, and a commanding view of the terrain? That’s what attracted me to a Kennedy ordinary, an Indiana-built reproduction high-wheeler I rode several times on PACRACC, a long-gone three-day ride around Bloomington/Normal.
- Sometimes (okay, all the time), the bikes you own are more valuable to you than anyone else. You keep a bicycle, even if you aren’t riding it, because you think it’s worth $500 and the rest of the world thinks it’s worth $40. Or less.
These reasons–and the fact that you’re a hoarder–mean you go from two wheels to four wheels to…well, to N + 1.
Yes, you sell a bike from time to time to buy tires, chains and pizza. We all have needs that require sacrifice. But over the decades, the number of bicycles in your basement, your garage, your two-car shed with no cars in it rises.
Until it doesn’t.
Maybe you get older and the space and cash you’d gain from a sale are more meaningful than the bike hanging on the seventh hook from the right.
Maybe you spend too much time every spring moving bikes around the basement trying to retrieve hummingbird feeders from the shelves said bikes are leaning on. (Which should be right about here; isn’t this where you put them–right next to the third edition of the Sutherland’s repair manual? And where are the hummingbird feeder hooks? Why did you mix them in with fender stays?)
Or maybe you find a bike, a heavily modified Giant Escape, that does several things well: keeps you dry because it has room for fenders; moves you down dirt roads as well as smooth pavement because it has wide tires; and lets you wear whatever shoes you want because the pedals sport a flat platform on one side for your Oboz trail shoes and Chaco sandals and cleat engagement on the other for your Shimano cycling shoes and cycling sandals.
(Some folks might argue that the right number of shoes is also, remarkably enough, N + 1*).
In any case, I recently sold a Fisher Advance, a Dahon Bullhead, a Schwinn Sports Tourer and, most recently, the Trek 2300. Each bicycle was interesting in its way but, given the mathematical implications of N + 1, mostly unridden.
So I lightened the load. And due to those same mathematical implications, my remaining bicycles–among them, a Bianchi Pista, the aforementioned Giant Escape, a Trek 1420, a Paisley tricycle, a custom Co-Motion tandem, and a Bike Friday tikit–get more use.
A Sekai 2500, the any-road bike I used before the Escape, may get repurposed as a city bike with an internal rear hub. A 1964 Schwinn Corvette still lurks out in the shed, awaiting adjustment to its infuriatingly early shifting two-speed hub.
An ancient Trek mountain bike, suitably burdened with a discontinued Bionx electric hub motor and aging battery? I may just keep it–it’s worth more to me than to anyone else.
And that’s where I am today. N – 4.
Do I think about future acquisitions? Oh, yes–all the time. That’s the pull of anticipation, of owning and riding something new and/or different. That will never go away. But I’m also enjoying the living space I’ve gained.
Take another look at that picture of the 2300. See how happy Cory is? That’s what happiness is when you have something you didn’t have before–when you’re looking forward to a ride on your new wheels. That’s N + 1.
I remember it well.
*Full disclosure: When I’m not riding a bike, reading the Grapes of Wrath, or falling asleep on the couch, I can often be found selling shoes. I’m in favor of shoes and unashamedly recommend them to most people.