VanMoof, the electric bicycle company that impressed us last year with its speedy and stylish Electrified S, is releasing a new model designed specifically for Tokyo. The Electrified X is more compact than the S, with smaller wheels and an all-new frame that retains all of VanMoof’s smart features like pedal assist and anti-theft location tracking.
Tokyo is a geographically huge city, but at street level things are often on a smaller scale than you’d expect. “Everything here is more compact,” VanMoof CEO and co-founder Ties Carlier tells me at the company’s new pop-up store in Harajuku. “Apartments are smaller, cars are smaller, even the roads are tinier. So with that in mind, we thought we’d need a bike that’s also more compact. I just knew there had to be a way to get that same technology and that same VanMoof feeling we have into a new design that will fit a city like Tokyo.”
The most common types of bike seen in Tokyo, however, are the oversized clunkers known as mamachari, which more or less means “mom’s bike.” These are big, utilitarian rides that usually have 26-inch wheels — the Electrified S has even bigger 28-inch wheels — and tend to be used for shopping or transporting kids. You don’t have to spend more than $100 or so on a non-electric mamachari, and their popularity among all sorts of people suggests Tokyo residents aren’t opposed to big bicycles. But VanMoof believes the Electrified X, with its range of up to 120 kilometers (75 miles), will be used in an entirely different way.
“Actually electric bikes are already very big here — people love to ride them,” Carlier says. “But I think the big difference there, and what’s super interesting to me, is that they’re used for very short distances. It’s usually a mamachari used within the same neighborhood — it’s very rare that someone rides it outside the neighbourhood to work or further away. That’s a bit of a shame, I think, and that’s what our bike is perfect for. That 5- or 10-kilometer ride a day, you’re faster than a car or any other transportation, basically, and it makes it so much more fun. The fun part is the most important thing, I think. With my commute in Taipei or Tokyo or Amsterdam, this bike is the best part of my day.”
That might sound hyperbolic, but after taking the Electrified X for an hour-long spin around Tokyo yesterday, I can believe it. The bike is just a total blast to ride. With a top speed of 24 kph (15 mph) it’s a little slower than the Electrified S, but I didn’t mind. The 250-350-watt front-wheel motor makes pedaling up inclines effortless, and there’s a boost button that gives you an extra burst of speed and feels like using a mushroom power-up in Mario Kart. Before I knew it I was approaching Takadanobaba, way north of Shinjuku, and I hadn’t even thought to check where I was going.
At six foot four, I’m a lot taller than most Japanese people, but I still found the Electrified X to fit me fine. The other popular bicycle wheel size in Japan is 20 inches, which pretty much feels like a BMX to me, but a 26-inch mamachari is too ungainly; the 24-inch Electrified X really does find a comfortable middle ground. It’s not so small that you feel ridiculous trying to go at top speed on the road, but when you do ride on the sidewalk — as almost everyone does in Japan — it’s compact enough to get out of the way. And since you don’t need to change down gears or pedal hard to start up again after stopping, it’s a lot less frustrating to ride alongside obstacles and pedestrians.
“I think with this bike you can ride on the road,” says Carlier. “It’s fast, and it should be okay — I do it and it feels much safer. I think the mamacharis you’ll see on the pavement, but the rest like you and me, young professionals will ride on the road. I think it’s the right place for a bicycle.” Carlier does, however, hope that Tokyo will develop more bike lanes in the future — right now there are barely any — and says this may form part of Tokyo’s redevelopment in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics.
Could the Electrified X really be faster than commuter transportation? I have my doubts here in Tokyo, unless you have a particularly convoluted commute. But Carlier claims he rode his Electrified X right out the door from Haneda airport and arrived at his Airbnb an hour faster than his colleague who took the train. “Not only that,” he says, “my colleague arrived tired and stressed from the Metro after walking and with all these direction, and I came with a smile on my face — I had a beautiful ride through the city.”
“The most important thing is that the electric bike opens up the city. In Amsterdam people know it’s the best way to get around, but that’s because it’s a small city and everything’s within a 20-minute ride. I do think Tokyo’s the perfect city to show that electric bikes can open up the city. The public transport here is considered to be good, and it is, of course — but is it a nice part of your day?”
VanMoof is taking orders for the Electrified X in Japan from Tuesday next week. It’ll cost 370,000 yen (about $3,320), though preorders will be available for 270,000 yen ($2,420) for a limited time. This price includes a two-year warranty along with VanMoof’s “bike hunter” service, which promises to either track down or replace your stolen bike within two weeks. As for a release for the Electrified X outside Japan? Nothing’s planned right now, but it could be in the cards.
“It was really designed with Tokyo in mind, but we’ve shown it to people in the US and Europe and a lot of people love it — I think potentially we could bring it to other countries too.” Carlier says. “The weird thing is, it’s actually become my favorite bike. I love the big one, but now I’m riding this one and it fits my size perfectly too.”
Carlier is a couple of inches taller than me, even. If he’s right about the Electrified X, VanMoof may just have made its most universally appealing bike yet.