The Truth and Nonsense of the N+1 Principle of Bicycles

If you’ve been around bikes long enough, you’re likely familiar with the “n+1” principle. Velominati describes it as follows:

The correct number of bikes to own is n+1.

While the minimum number of bikes one should own is three, the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your partner.

I became quite caught up in the n + 1 principle in my early days as a bike enthusiast, although I did not know it had a name. My stable quickly grew from one Fuji road bike to a road bike + fixed gear + light touring bike + a commuter/touring bike + folding bike + single speed folding bike + you get the idea.

As cycling became one of my central activities, bicycles also caught my fancy. I justified my n+1 purchases in different ways. I need a bike for commuting. I need this one as a back-up bike. I need a fixed gear to work on my spin. I need a single speed because it’s low maintenance and easier to clean.

I need this bike for randonneuring, and that bike for summer vacations and future bike tours, a mixte just because, and I must have this bike because it’s a limited edition and this other bike since it is no longer made and this might be my very last chance to own one ever.

S-1 does not apply at my house. There are no furrowed brows when someone in my house says “Have you seen this bicycle? I think I may need it.” We don’t hide bike purchases from each other or lie about how much they cost (which I have my own thoughts about for those who do) and I don’t say that my other half “won’t let me” buy a bike (also something I have thoughts about). My spouse and I know all about the need for bikes. Our dining room is proof of that.

Over time I’ve realized that n+1 is truth and nonsense, but more nonsense than truth. That’s part of the ongoing joke, I know. Even though we may be able to concoct justifications for another ride and the bike industry would have us continue to purchase specialized bikes for all types of cycling and road surfaces, who among us actually needs more than one bike?

Rivendell Romulus

I am proud of the bikes I own and it took some years and careful searching to acquire them, but it’s no feat to have a bunch of bikes. All it takes is disposable income, time, and a desire for bicycles.

Over the years, I’ve also learned that n+1 does not match my riding style. Generally, I ride three bikes: the Surly Long Haul Trucker, my Rivendell Quickbeam, and our Co-Motion Java tandem. While these are my everyday favorites, I think of my Rivendell Romulus, Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, and my Rawland dSogn as my preferred weekend single ride steeds. But I’m not riding much single bike on the weekend these days so they don’t see much time outdoors.

I’d likely ride my bikes more if I was doing more long rides by myself, but my current way of touring and randonneuring is by tandem. The other bikes are pulled out every once in a while, but generally they spend most of their lives in the Dining Room Bike Shop.

In contrast, Felkerino is more of an n+1 rider than I am. He frequently rotates through the bikes on his side of the dining room. He told me that he likes to switch his ride every two or three weeks. Felkerino gives all of his bikes equal love and attention, while I focus my affection on a few of the bikes I have.

I am happy with all my bikes and, with the exception of my torrid relationship with the Bike Friday Tikit, I’ve dialed in their fit and comfort so they ride well for short or long distances. It’s nice to have bikes that work particularly well for brevets, mixed surfaces, commutes, and touring, but it certainly isn’t necessary.

I don’t generally ride each of my bikes enough to truly justify owning them all. In the meantime, I keep the bikes I own as an indulgence. I already own them, and I aspire to ride them all more one day soon. Maybe tomorrow. Or next week. Or when it’s warmer outside.

I still look at bikes, admire them, and think about how they would ride and the ways they would complement my current bike family. Future bike is always out there and I want it. Practically speaking, though, my n+1 days are at a standstill. The dining room is far too crowded.

Categories: Commute Reflections, Rando ReflectionsTags: , ,

MG

Brevets, commutes, tandem rides, coffee. Sometimes a marathon. Washington, D.C.

44 Comments

  1. Great you mention your three favorites that I dont have. Great!!! I find bikes more like a drug….Search them out, find a reputable dealer, maybe try just a taste, jones for the feeling, feed your habit. Soon you need a different fix to keep it fresh.

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  2. I just took another look at your stable and notice there are no carbon bikes. I have several steel frame bikes for commuting, touring and randonneuring but also a carbon racing bike for training, long climbs and faster rides. Is a carbon bike on your list?

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  3. Dining room far too crowded = the need for a bigger dining room.

    As much as I make occasional noises about thinning the fleet and being able to own just two bikes (which ones I have no idea), in reality I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that I will never have fewer bikes and will quite possibly have more. Definitely, really…

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  4. Road bike (Fuji touring) and MTB for off-road and I’m pretty sure that’s all I really need. I’ve had more, but just for loaners. I like the idea of at least two so if one’s down for repairs, you still have something to ride – really essential if you’re a regular commuter.

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    • I agree. I know someone who has one single bike and a tandem. When something goes wrong with his single bike, he rides his tandem solo. It works for him, but I’d probably think about adding at least one more bike to the fleet.

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  5. In addition to a few bikes for specific types of riding or tasks, I have bikes that are specific to holidays. I rode a different bike on each errand on last years Errandonnee. My spouse is content with n but I probably border on s+1 🙂

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  6. Dave

    MG, it’s funny that you posted this. I just bought my wife a Form Cycles Revel titanium frameset that was a great price on the Paceline Forum. She has one Serotta and didn’t think she needed another, but she saw the frame and agreed. It’s all built up and has been ridden once. It fits her perfectly and gives her a little variety. Now, when she is on her Ti bike, I am on mine. The n+1 seems to be a force that one has to learn to deal with or it will take charge. One forum member compared cycling to a “really, really, expensive eating disorder”. I can see his point.

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  7. Spot on. N+1 makes a nice joke to chortle over, but eventually there are big practical considerations to take into account when owning multiple bikes. Space, money, available time to ride being the main ones.

    As for me, I need a minimum of four mountain bikes. Two in Porto, and another two back at my Mum’s house in Devon, to ensure I always have a fully working bike available whether I’m at home or visiting the family during holidays.

    One of my most recent bikes, a Raleigh titanium of 1993 vintage, cost the princely sum of 50 pounds yet rides wonderfully and gave me my most recent KOM on an especially gruelling climb across part of Dartmoor. (see https://retrosteelrider.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/review-1993-m-trax-duo-tech-300/ assuming it’s OK to post a link here?) Being so cheap, I find it rather to easy to accumulate new vintage bikes like these to my collection (but not boutique, garage-queens – I don’t need bikes that won’t get ridden or risked being trashed).

    How many bikes would I like to have? Maybe somewhere around the 10 mark, mostly mountain bikes but with a road bike and a cyclocross bike for days when I feel like some narrow tire action.

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    • I have a travel bike that fits in a suitcase I can use if I fly to visit family, which is a nice option. I will say that I like having my bikes all in one spot, though if you are traveling back and forth a lot between places, it probably makes sense to keep one in each location if you can.

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  8. “I am proud of the bikes I own and it took some years and careful searching to acquire them, but it’s no feat to have a bunch of bikes. All it takes is disposable income, time, and a desire for bicycles.”

    That’s a quote for the ages! 😉

    I’ve been struggling with the N+1 equation for a couple years. A few years ago I got up to five, which is an all time high. It caused me to sit back and say “Do I need so many bikes?” Nope, especially since there was too much overlap with most of them. Now I’m down to three: the three speed city bike, the old mtb converted to town/road/tour duty, and a workhorse cruiser/beater. One of the reasons I’m going custom is to get a bike that does 90% of what I need to do on a regular basis: commuting, utility riding, long-distance riding, touring, rough stuff. I’ll probably get ride of the ol’ mtb then. Three seems like a good balance number.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t WANT more bikes. I wouldn’t mind a true cargo bike, a nice folder, maybe an old Raleigh International converted to a three speed clubman. But that’s all speculative. Right now I should try to be satisfied with what I have. And I don’t have a lot of money or mechanical experience either, so I should avoid more “projects” and the like.

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  9. Reblogged this on EzpcgoescyclinG and commented:
    I saw this it made me laugh ….Can you have too many bikes ?
    Yes …..but only if you find you are not using them very often… a bikes purpose is to be used isn’t it …are do we collect them as works of aesthetics we just want because they are beautiful as well?
    See the attached blog on “N+1 rule of bike acquisition ….”
    Me? I’m just jealous of the authors noted collection of bikes …and the fact that he keeps them in the dining room…..LoL.

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  10. I had to reblog this….. the truth and the nonsense being that I identify with it just too much. I’m jealous your bike garage is in your dining room and admire your collection of steeds, but can we really have too many bikes? Yes..we can …bikes are meant to be used. Surely once we get to the stage when we are no longer using them regularly that then is too many?
    Unless of course, we are acquiring them because of their beautiful aesthetics , as prima facae examples of beautiful engineering that we long to own just as examples of what is essentially an engineering art? Hmmm… jury’s out again.

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  11. The whole N+1 thing can be dangerous as it is all too easy to justify a huge number of bikes. In all honesty I only “need” one bike, although I own three (four if you count the beach cruiser currently in pieces for restoration). I put most of my miles on my road bike, but having the time trial bike is a nice touch! I think put less than 100 miles on my hybrid last year. Now, I’d quite like a retro roadie to ride L’Eroica Britannia, oh and a semi-recumbent tandem of course…

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  12. Jim B

    I was happy with three bikes for a long time, (touring, road, and MTN) so, the N+1 thing did not hit me for a couple of years running here. But….there is always a but isn’t there….I have the fat bike bug so here we go to #4.
    I will get all three involved for Errandonee

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  13. I have two bikes – a tourer that was bought as the ultimate commuter and touring bike. It is terrific, whenever I try another bike I remember how much I love my tourer. So it is N. N+1 is the bike that I don’t actually need, it is a cargo bike. I smile constantly when I ride it. The attention it pulls is more extreme that stepping out with a new baby… I do make excuses to use it, over and above the shopping, kids’ activities. I’m dreaming of taking it on a train/bike tour with the family – just in case our panniers are not big enough! Also dreaming of an electric assist for it as I think my knees will complain mightily in a few years time.

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  14. mhl

    I can assure you that N+1 (or S-1) is not nonsense! My wife doesn’t get why one person could want a bunch of bikes. So I have been on a quest to find the perfect all around bike. As you might imagine, this is a hard task, and as a consequence I have sold my bike several times to buy another bike that gets me closer to the ideal all arounder. Turns out buying and selling every year or two is no better in wife’s eyes – she thinks I am too picky and get bored with what I have.

    Finally, last year I just broke down and got a second bike, and she realized it wasn’t the end of the world! (for now, I am not pushing my luck to get a third though)

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  15. katzenfinch

    We’re up to seven — two for my wife, four for me, and a tandem — and I have a custom on the way which, as adventurepdx says, should take care of 90 percent of my cycling needs. In theory I know I should be able to sell at least a couple to help finance the new one (and make room for it in the garage), but past experience has shown me that when I sell a bike, sooner or later I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps I should adopt the attitude of people who foster dogs for rescue organizations, and limit myself to a couple of “pets” while acting as temporary guardian for a series of other bikes until they find their forever homes….

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  16. I’ve been battling with the N+1 mathematical statement for two or three years. A couple of years back I got up to five, which is an untouched high. It made me kick back and say “Do I require such a variety of bicycles?” Nope, particularly since there was an excessive amount of cover with a large portion of them. Presently I’m down to three: the three rate city bicycle, the old mtb changed over to town/street/visit obligation, and a workhorse cruiser/mixer. One of the reasons I’m set custom is to get a bicycle that does 90% of what I have to do all the time: driving, utility riding, long-separation riding, visiting, harsh stuff. I’ll most likely get ride of the ol’ mtb then. Three appears like a decent adjust number.

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  17. As for me, I need a minimum of four mountain bikes. Two in Porto, and another two back at my Mum’s house in Devon, to ensure I always have a fully working bike available whether I’m at home or visiting the family during holidays.

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  18. samitinparis

    From your list of bikes, I deduce that you are a road biker. For us switch hitters (road and MTB), the ideal number of bikes is not N+1 but (N+1) x 2.

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  19. Fun article. I think the idea of N + 1 is fine, but I’m with you – how many bikes do people really need? I recently just purchased a Specialized Allez (road bike) to go along with my Specialized Crave (MTB) and Cannondale Slice (TT). I’m a triathlete, so the TT has been my bike for 99% of rides in the past 10 years, and I only just got the MTB. The road bike was an addition so I can try real racing!

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  20. Scottie Manners

    I do agree that 3 is the perfect number with this principle. I have the 2 extreme ends: a full suspension MTB, and a 15lb road bike. And a Kona that fits right in the middle of full-on roadie or offroad. The Kona is the workhorse/urban commuter/gravel grinder/ in-between do-it-all bike that fits nicely in the middle of the two extreme disciplines. And if one is down I can always commute on the road bike or mtb if need be.

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    • Three does seem like a good number. As for me, I probably should dial my own collection back, as I really am not riding that many bikes! Right now, I’m only riding my Rawland Sogn and Rawland Nordavinden when I’m not hauling gear around, and our tandems all see good use on the weekends. In conclusion, n+1 really has its limits. Thanks for your note and thanks for reading!

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