By Steve Schaefer
Bicycles are ubiquitous. I’ve had one most of my life, starting before the age of 6. I even made a living as a bike messenger many years ago at age 18. I now own a 35-year-old 10-speed and a modern 21-speed cruising bike, but I don’t ride them. Part of the problem is that I live in a hilly area, and while it’s nice to ride downhill it’s a lot more challenging to ride back up. VanMoof has an answer.
VanMoof e-bikes help you pedal, while still retaining the look and feeling of being “a bike.” The VanMoof S3 model I tested has a small electric motor and is packed with loads of technology neatly and securely hidden inside its sturdy, matte black frame.
The S3 and its smaller, but otherwise identical X3 sibling, just came out in April, replacing the previous S2 and X2 while offering more features and better quality, at a lower price! How did they do that? Answer: VanMoof increased the production volume in their Taiwan factory, as well as owning more of the production process and outsourcing fewer of the steps involved. This increased efficiency resulted in savings they could pass on to their customers.
VanMoof is a Dutch company from Amsterdam, but they have a few locations in the U.S., including San Francisco! The narrow, but deep shop sits at 886 Valencia Street in the City’s famous Mission District, across the street from a remarkable mural that’s been updated for the COVID-19 pandemic.
I arrived at the shop a few minutes early and waited patiently for my appointment outside while three employees arrived, including Grace, who became my guide for exploring this exciting bike. Once they opened up at 11 a.m. I entered the shop and saw a few of the bikes set up. Grace brought out a black S3 and explained the good stuff.
This is a beautifully simple looking ride. The surfaces are all painted a deep matte black that looks like it’s an eighth of an inch thick. The handlebars are simple one-piece units with the appropriate brake levers on each side and a couple of little thumb buttons for controls. The left button is an on/off switch and the right controls some settings and lets you select extra boost when you need it while riding up hills. There are matching black fenders that, per Grace, are great for keeping rain from spraying you off the tires. There’s a small but bright LED headlamp up front and a red taillamp.
You can use a phone app with the bike, but I wasn’t able to test it. There used to be one set up in the shop display, but with COVID-19 concerns, it’s a more touch-free environment now. We kept our masks on the entire time, including my photo session. You can do a lot with the bike itself, but the app enables more configurations, and can even be set to unlock the bike when you approach.
A compact display is built into the top of the upper bar, and with a small flush field of little lights lets you set five levels of automatic assist, from none (0) to 4. You can also see the level of battery charge and note your speed when you’re out riding; it also displays messages from the anti-theft system. You can use the display to unlock the bike, too, tapping in a three-digit code.
This is an assisted bicycle, so you won’t be cruising along with your feet sitting on the pedals doing nothing. It just makes it a lot easier to ride. You can decide what level of assist works for you, although my brief test had the max setting.
This bike has one sophisticated anti-theft system, too. You line up a couple lines on the wheel and hub and press a small button behind the left pedal. Chunk! The wheels are locked up tight. A thief would not be able to use the bike, even if they cut the chain lock and dropped the bike in their truck. And, an alarm sounds when the locked bike is moved and gets louder if the thief continues to fool with the bike. The display shows a flashing skull to presumably further discourage the bad guy. If they do run off with your bike, within 15 minutes its hardware sends out an SOS to VanMoof, where an employee can track its whereabouts. I’m not sure how exactly they confront the perp who stole it (find a cop?) but VanMoof promises recovery or replacement if they can’t recover your bike within 2 weeks (a loaner is provided). This theft policy costs $340 for three years—well worth it, I’d say.
Once Grace showed me the tricks of the bike and adjusted the seat for me, I walked it out the door and took off for a short test ride. In San Francisco, there is no shortage of hills to climb. I learned right away that you must pedal to use the boost button. The transmission itself is an automatic—you don’t select gears, so it downshifted for me to start out and I could feel it shifting when it sensed I needed it.
When I hit the first hill, a real steep one, I pushed the boost button but the motor (or more likely, I) petered out partway up. It may be that some hills are just too steep for the boost. More likely, I am not in great shape so I needed more than it could provide.
So, I came down the hill and was able to test the hydraulic disc brakes. These really work well and are likely to stay good for a while. You can see the metal discs and the small pads sitting over them, just like in a modern car (but much smaller). Brake pads do wear, so VanMoof recommends purchasing the service package. It takes care of all your routine maintenance for $340 for three years, which just happens to be the same price as the anti-theft package. That’s also almost exactly 300 Euros, so maybe they just do a straight conversion from the Amsterdam even-numbered price. You can also get occasional service without a plan, but it’ll be just like going to the car dealer—you need at least some maintenance, it could add up, and parts are extra.
I tried the boost on a few less daunting hills near Dolores Park and the little motor gave me the help I needed to climb them. And, cruising on relatively flat streets is magic. It’s like walking on those moving sidewalks at the airport—normal effort gives you extraordinary velocity.
The little motor in either the S3 or X3 provides boost torque of 59 NM (43.5 ft.lbs). It’s powered by a 504 Wh (Watt hour) battery. Note: I’m used to talking about kWh (kilowatt hours) from electric cars. This tiny motor puts out just over half of one kWh. A Chevrolet Bolt, for example, has a 60-kWh battery, making it 120 times more powerful than the bike. Of course, the Bolt’s battery weighs 900 pounds and the one in the S3 fits neatly inside the bike’s vertical tube.
Battery range varies tremendously. If you use the minimal assist (level 1) and are pedaling moderately on a flat surface, you can get some assist for more than 90 miles. If you have it set to maximum assist and are using boost a lot, it could be more like 37 miles. “Your mileage will vary.” Of course, you can pedal without assist for as long as you like.
It takes about four hours to fully charge the battery on 110 household current. The battery is not removable, so you need to bring the bike close to the outlet—a task easier in a garage than in a third-floor walkup apartment.
The S3 has 28-inch wheels and has a regular full-size adult frame. It accommodates riders from 5-8 to 6-8, which just includes me (at the lower end). The X3, with 24-inch wheels and a smaller frame, accommodates riders from 5 foot even to 6-5, so I could pick either one, I guess. Below, it’s shown in the other color, a rich light gray (the black S3 better matches my outfit).
So, what’s the price, you ask. It’s $1,998 for either the S3 or the X3. If that seems like a lot think of it as an Apple iPhone 11 and a regular bike as a Nokia cell phone from 2000. This is no ordinary bike. There’s a lot of sophisticated brain power in these e-bikes, and they are built like fortresses to protect the hardware—and keep it from being stolen. If you have the means and the desire to ride a bike for an extended distance for commuting or just fun, the VanMoof bikes are worth the investment.