Against the N+1 Theory of Bike Ownership

Against the N+1 Theory of Bike Ownership

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Everyone knows cultivating a garden takes work. You must nurture it with sun and water and soil. But you’ve also got to prune it once in a while, and that’s the hardest part. How do you walk into a beautiful garden and start to hack at the greenery? But cut you must if you want it to flourish and remain healthy and lush.

Bikes are no different. If you love to ride it seems impossible to have too many of them. But tending to your garden of bicycles also requires judicious pruning from time to time, and that often means letting some of them go.

So how many bicycles should one person have? Well, there’s no consensus on this matter. For some riders one single speed may be enough, and for others ten bikes with twenty gears apiece might be scarcely sufficient. Of course, cycling philosophers have ruminated on this question since the days of the penny-farthing, and according to the oft-cited Rule 12 of the Velominati, the equation for the correct number of bikes is 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.

However, the Velominati rules are stupid and should be ignored in most cases. The Velominati also says you shouldn’t use a saddlebag, which is like saying you shouldn’t keep a spare roll of toilet paper in the bathroom.

Obviously if you have bikes you never ride at all, there’s no reason to keep them. But for a long time I also believed in what I thought was a corollary to this: that whether you had one bike or 100, you could never have too many as long as you were riding them all—which I was. As it turns out, this is a dangerous line of thinking, akin to believing you can never have too much booze in the house as long as you’re drinking it all. Consumption is a bad metric, since you can over-consume anything, even bikes, and because of this it’s far too easy to rationalize your own gluttony.

What I eventually came to realize is that you have too many bikes when you consistently have trouble deciding which one to ride. This is not a question that should require deliberation: if you’re going for a road ride, you take your road bike; if you’re going for a mountain bike ride; and so forth. Easy. Obviously you may decide ride the “wrong” bike from time to time for the sake of variety, but when you find yourself deciding to go for a road ride and then wondering, “Okay, now which road bike should I ride?,” and then standing there like an idiot, it’s probably time to start cutting back.

This was the predicament in which I increasingly found myself. I also found that I’d end up choosing one bike over another mostly out of guilt—if I hadn’t ridden a bike in a while I’d go with that one, figuring as long as I still rode it I could justify keeping it (the gluttony rationale). Furthermore, as my bicycles continued to multiply and I had near-duplicates of pretty much everything I’d concoct ever-more implausible scenarios. “Well sure, there’s a lot of overlap here, but if I ever get a vacation home I’ll just move all the duplicates there and I’ll be all set.” Right. And perhaps the Lord might send a great flood, and biddeth me build a great ark, and to lead all my bicycles upon it two by two. Implausible to be sure, but about as likely as my getting a vacation home, which would also require an act of divine intervention.

It was at this point that I came to terms with the fact that I needed to start getting rid of my bikes. After that it was easy. Do you know that people will often give you money in exchange for bicycles? It’s true! As long as you’re reasonable about price and don’t think your ass sweat has somehow caused your bike to increase in value (a delusion from which many sellers suffer), there’s a buyer for pretty much every bike. Furthermore, the thing about bikes is that they’re merely physical objects, and while we do form strong attachments to our material possessions, we don’t really miss them when they’re gone—I mean sure, we may miss them in a superficial “Hey, I used to have one of those” way, but not in the “I now have a hole in my heart that can only be filled with drink” way.

Also, getting rid of some bikes makes you love the bikes that you do keep even more, and the trusty steed you ride day in and day out brings far more satisfaction than the one that makes a fleeting cameo as part of a rotating cast of characters. Once I figured this out, I found the process of getting rid of a bike to be even more satisfying than acquiring a new one! Yes, bikes are just things, but the bond we form with them is very real, and it grows stronger the more we ride them. This is even reflected in our art. Bruce Wayne was a millionaire, but would Batman have been nearly as compelling if, when the Bat Signal appeared, instead of taking to his trusty Batmobile he stood there in his garage like a schmuck trying to decide which of his many exotic sports cars to drive? Of course not.

A bike should bring you nothing but pleasure, and you should never find yourself riding one out of duty. Moreover a bike can only bring you that pleasure if you ride it, and ride it often. It can be hard to give up a bike, but it’s hard to love a bike you don’t ride, and in the end you gain far more than you lose.


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