First Click: Oh great, now I want this $3,000 electric bicycle

April 13th, 2016

22

I just had one of those rare experiences with technology that made me feel like a co-conspirator privy to a disruptive secret. I’ve glimpsed the future. Not the future that comes in the year 2050, a year when all our dreams will come true, but the future that’s imminent, that’s near. A future that can be touched right now if only you knew where to look.

I’ve only had this feeling a handful of times before: the first time I saw the iPod and then the iPhone, the first time I rode in a Tesla, the first time I used Netflix, and the first time Palmer Luckey slipped a Frankensteined Oculus Rift onto my face. I felt it again on Friday when I rode the VanMoof Electrified S‎ — a pedal-assist electric bicycle that has me wanting to spend $3,000 on a gawdamn commuter bike.

I tested the new S in one of VanMoof’s own stores here in the company’s founding city of Amsterdam. Walking into the shop is very much akin to entering a Tesla showroom or an Apple store if either sold bicycles. VanMoof also has stores in Brooklyn, Berlin, and Taipei. Otherwise, you can always buy from vanmoof.com.

Cutaway showing the VanMoof Electrified S charging Cutaway showing the VanMoof Electrified S charging (VanMoof)

After a casual chat with the staff and a survey of VanMoof’s impressive lineup of bicycles and accessories, Dave rolled my $3,000 test vehicle up to the front door, dropped the kickstand and motioned for me to grab the bike and follow him outside. I stood there feeling awkward and unsure of myself. The way I imagine feeling if someone offered me the keys to a supercar, simultaneously feeling inadequate and afraid I’d wreck it. Unlike most electric bikes, there’s no bolt-on battery or bulky motor. Everything that makes this Electrified S special is either stuffed into the frame or housed in the front-wheel hub. Outside of its beautiful and thoughtful design, there’s nothing to suggest that the S is anything more than a regular bicycle. So, I decided to treat it that way. Grabbing the handlebars I rolled the bike forward a bit and kicked up the stand. It made a reassuring thnnnk as I walked out the door.

Before starting my ride I wanted to see if I could pick up the S and all the electronics it contained. So with one hand cupping the center of the crossbar I lifted. It was perfectly balanced — hanging in the air with the front and rear wheels at an equal distance from the ground. Even at 40.6 pounds the S didn’t feel that much heavier than traditional Dutch street bikes which tend to be built like tanks. It’s not light, but I can imagine hoisting it onto a wall mount if required.

Dave climbed onto his flesh-powered VanMoof and began to cycle into the adjacent park. He gave me zero instruction, which Dave later told me was on purpose because VanMoof wants people to treat the S like any other bicycle. I started pedaling and immediately felt the 250-watt motor pull me forward without any jerkiness. I stopped pedaling and the barely audible engine stopped too, though I continued to roll forward without any braking. (The motor on the Electrified S only runs while pedaling.) I stepped down on the pedal again and again with each push getting an electric assist. Soon I was shifted into the second of two gears and accelerating past Dave at a top speed of 20mph. This must be what Superman feels like, I thought, racing across an Iowan field unencumbered by Earth’s pathetic gravity. Still, I had to work — but half of my energy produced what felt like twice the result. By the end of my ride I was grinning from ear-to-ear, enthusiastically shouting expletives at Dave for making me think $3,000 was a perfectly reasonable amount to spend on a commuter bike.

See, I ride a bicycle every day, all year long, and in all weather conditions (yes, even during the occasional snowfall). I often have my young daughter on the bike with me, and sometimes we’re carrying a few days’ worth of groceries in shoulder bags and on the handle bars. Other days I might be carrying a Christmas tree or a microwave. Having an electric motor would certainly help me fight off those aggressive North Sea winds and get me and my cargo off of the starting line with less of a struggle. And its 75 mile range would also make longer trips possible — trips I now supplement with a car sharing service and public transportation. But unlike electric scooters like the Gogoro, I can still pedal the Electrified S home if the battery does run out.

I realize my situation is far from the norm for most people, but it’s very much standard in cities across Holland and Denmark, and it’s becoming increasingly common in cities the world over. The last US census showed a 60 percent increase over the last decade in the number of people who commute to work by bicycle. That number jumped to 105 percent for cities considered bike friendly. Still, for the 50 largest US cities bicycle commuters represented just 1 percent of the US population. Portland, Oregon had the highest bicycle commuting rate at 6.1 percent. In Amsterdam, some 70 percent of all trips are made by bike. But few cities are as flat and temperate as the Dutch capital.

Many people would be willing to swap a sedentary commute with a little exercise and fresh air, especially in good weather. Few, however, would accept showing up to the office each day soaked in sweat after a heavy workout. An electric bike can help with that, while extending commuter zones to the metropolitan fringes once thought too far to bike. Besides, $3,000 (or $2,298 for a limited time) won’t sound all that expensive when the L train eventually shuts down between Manhattan and Brooklyn will it? Especially if VanMoof’s GSM- and Bluetooth-based anti-theft system can maintain its perfect record (eight out of eight) for recovering stolen bicycles.

Amsterdam didn’t become a bicycle wonderland overnight — it took decades of infrastructure investment that began in the 1970s. But, as The Atlantic concluded in a recent report on the continued rise of bicycle commuting, "If you build the lanes, cyclists will come." And if my hunch is right, many will be coming by way of pedal-assist bicycles from VanMoof and beyond.

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