The Pitfalls of N+1 Bike Buying

The oft-cited N+1 equation to calculate the right amount of bikes to own might sound like a dream, but it's not without its faults in reality.
Photo: Hannah Morvay

When I was a kid, I dreamt about all the cars I wanted to own someday. Usually I manifested the dream by squiggling them down on drawing paper, copying the images from an auto magazine on to a blank, rough sheet.

In my dream garage sat a Hummer… an H1 of course, not the goofy, squished H2 and H3 versions. An old Corvette, the late 60s models, and of course a vintage Land Rover Defender, maybe a Mercedes sedan. Something to go camping in, something to drive to the grocery store, and one or two that fulfill the romanticization of owning old cars. Shoot, who am I kidding, I still do dream about all these cars; they just look a little different.

What has become the more attainable and sensible version that does not require a certain degree of wealth is owning several bikes and it’s a dream possible at rungs up and down the socioeconomic status ladder, especially if you’re mechanically adept. Older bikes can be some of the most rewarding to restore and if you know what you’re looking for; people will discard them for almost nothing, making for cheap projects, at least in the beginning.

That’s not me, or at least not yet. After working in the bike industry for roughly six years, I happen to have a lot of product and bikes that have come and gone over those years. I know this probably sounds like a dream to a lot of people, but I’ll spend some time here explaining why there are thorns with these roses, and why the virtue of the perfect amount of bikes to own is the amount you currently have, plus one, isn’t perfect.

After sorting through different bikes over the years, I’ve come to discover the perfect quiver for me is a short travel, 120mm bike, a longer travel 160mm bike, and a gravel bike. In a perfect world where storage and money wasn’t an issue, I’d add a hardtail, a road bike, a mid-travel mountain bike, and who knows what else.

But the short and long-travel bikes make the most sense to me currently, as they cover pretty much anything on the spectrum, though there are rides where I am over- or under-biked. For the gravel bike, it acts as a hardtail, a bikepacking bike, and a road bike too.

The problem with too much crap

I’ve been a fan of Fight Club, the book and the movie, since I was a kid. Say what you want, but both speak to confusion of masculinity and consumerism in a way no one else had at that time, and going into the 2000s, with its Hummers, and MTV Cribs, and Pimp your Ride were a great time for it, not to mention Chuck Palahniuk is just an excellent fiction storyteller.

One of the standout scenes to me though is shortly after the narrator, played by Edward Norton is sitting with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in a low lit dive bar, and the narrator is talking about how he lost all of belongings in his apartment fire. His DKNY jeans, his swanky Swedish furniture, and how much of a pain it will be to replace it all.

Durden jabs him playfully for a minute, before telling him, “The things you own, end up owning you.”

This poignant line pops up in my mind more than it should. When I was younger, and had more time and less crap, I can safely say that my bikes were just about always closer to 100% health. I’d sit down, flip my bike upside down, and re-lube and pack the wheel bearings. On my car, I more regularly made time to flush the transmission and change the oil, and on sunny days, I’d take a rag and spray bottle and scrub all the dried energy drink sugars from the corners of my cup holders.

As life goes on, there’s a point where this kind of maintenance becomes unsustainable for most of us. The silver lining is that between November and March, mountain biking comes to crawl, if not a halt and I find more time for maintenance. The reality is that I don’t typically start until March, when it warms up and working the garage is more enjoyable than it is hand numbing.

So, with the three full-suspension bikes (including my wife’s), I’ve got a laundry list of maintenance action items: Bleed three sets of brakes, replace a set of brake pads (maybe two), install a shifter to review, service one shock and two forks (trust me, they are due), and install a set of cranks and handlebars to review. (I’ll leave the cars out of this one). And when the mountain bike season starts, as most people know, the maintenance items only snowball from there.

Livin’ the dream

This is probably the part where the “first world problems” comments come in, and I agree that it’s a fair simplification of this problem. My point is to argue that while owning an array of different bikes may sound like the dream there are caveats that come with it and the sacrifice is usually time.

Are you mechanically adept (or prideful and stubborn) and choose to do all of your maintenance at home? If so, you can save yourself a lot of money at the expense of your time.

If not and your bike shop techs know you by your first name, you may save a lot of time by having others maintain your bike for you at the expense of money.

The one factor that could be a big (X-1) in this equation is if you like to work with your hands and intrinsically enjoy the act of maintaining your bike. As someone whose work is mostly done indoors, behind a computer, I confess that torquing bolts and spilling brake or suspension fluids on my fingers is often as refreshing as washing my face off in a mountain creek on a hot summer day.

There’s also plenty of times I’ve been in the garage until 7 or 8PM, cursing myself because a tire just won’t seal and there’s a thousand other things I’d rather be doing.

But it’s apparent that no one is getting a way scot-free here. If you own more than one bike and want them to run properly you will pay with both time and money, but one more than the other depending on your maintenance skills. Hell, even if you only own one mountain bike, you’re already aware of the time, money, or discipline it takes to keep it in good health.

And to provide a convenient counterpoint, the great thing about having more than one mountain bike is that when something catastrophic does take your bike out of commission, it’s nice to have something else to fall back on. But that’s only if you’ve kept up on that bike’s maintenance too.