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Test-riding the (2017) VanMoof Electrified S

A week-long love affair with a $3,000 electric bike

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Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

The 2016 Vanmoof Electrified S is one of, if not the best pedal-assisted electric bikes available. The 2017 model is even better.

I just spent a week with a prototype of the new Electrified S on the cobbled streets of VanMoof's HQ city of Amsterdam. The two most notable changes are an enhanced boost mode and all new motor and electronics. Hitting the boost button doesn't jolt the bike forward like before. Instead, it delivers a smooth increase in power until the button is released, or you hit a legal maximum of 25 km/h (15.5 mph) in Europe, or a more generous 20 mph (32 km/h) in the US. The motor is now more efficient and significantly quieter — so quiet that other cyclists will wonder if you're riding an electric bike or if you’re just a very powerful and attractive human being. The overall result is a ride that feels more refined, and more deserving of its $2,998 price tag. 

Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

I found myself using the continuous boost button frequently in my day-to-day travels — always set to 4 (max power). Boost is super handy for making quick starts at traffic lights, or for getting the bike started when it's loaded down with the weight of my flesh and bones, a loaded backpack, and shopping bags hanging off the handles. (Hey, this is Amsterdam!) I also boosted to maintain my speed on inclines and when riding in the face of gusting winds. The bike's always providing power to assist each push of the pedal, of course — hitting the boost button just delivers an extra oomph when you need it. 

During my testing I can confirm what VanMoof's head of R&D, Job Stehmann, believes as well: 30 km/h is the ideal speed for commuting outside of densely populated urban centers. That speed allowed me to ride farther than I normally would, turning a 7.4-kilometer trip that Google estimated would take me 27 minutes, into a 19-minute assisted ride. One day I rode about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) — a distance that would have normally meant using a car-sharing service. But the Electrified S let me handle it with ease, and with the added convenience of literally riding door-to-door.

Touch Unlock.
Touch Unlock.
GIF: VanMoof
Boost.
Boost.
GIF: VanMoof

My prototype wasn't just any prototype — it was Stehmann's personal bike, the hardware equivalent of the production bike that will begin shipping to customers in a few weeks, only running some very special software. Hitting the boost button on Stehmann's bike will, for example, boost the Electrified S continuously until it reaches 36 km/h, that’s 11 km/h faster than the Dutch speed limit. Illegal, surely, but also a lot of fun. While Stehmann's tweaking might sound reckless, it's really not. What kind of engineer would he be if he didn't test the upper limits of the bike's design? 

Asshole warning

After a week of riding an Electrified S, I noticed a change in my riding behavior (and not for the better). I've always been a fast cyclist around the city, usually quick on the start, and more likely to be passing someone than to be passed. If that's you then be warned: owning a VanMoof might turn you into an asshole. I found myself riding a bit too fast at times because I could, following others too closely, and getting frustrated by slower riders who were only "slow" because I had a turbocharged, pedal-assisted electric bike. In other words, I had turned into the stereotypical BMW driver. Don't be that guy. Don't be me.

As a company, VanMoof is anything but reckless. Its sibling founders take an approach of unhurried evolution rather than explosive revolution. "My brother and me, we really believe in building it up, slowly," said Ties Carlier, VanMoof co-founder, when I met him last year at the launch of the original Electrified S. "We started from zero, and we don't have any investors — no family money. Our growth came from just selling a couple of bikes, and then improving it and selling another batch, and so on. After 7 years we're still a small company, but we're having lots of fun, and we're making a beautiful product — that's what we want. We could have been double the size maybe, but we are super happy with how it's going and how we're growing."

Last month VanMoof launched the all new Electrified X in Japan. By all accounts, it's been a major success, having sold at about three times the initial rate of the VanMoof SmartBike, according to Stehmann. Impressive because the X is only on sale in a single country.

Boost button and bell.
Boost button and bell.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge
Touch-sensitive display.
Touch-sensitive display.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

VanMoof owners are a loyal and passionate bunch that will happily promote the merits of their wondrous riding machines without any prompting. They can also be rather demanding: the 2017 Electrified S was announced without an upgrade option for owners of the 2016 model. That's when jilted members of the Vanmoof-ing Facebook fanpage rallied to secure a $1,500 trade-in offer.

Skimming though the members-only pages reveals high praise for both the bikes and the service that owners receive. You'll also find a fair share of complaints as you'd expect, especially with the VanMoof app. The app’s very basic. Other e-bike companies include turn-by-turn navigation, a real-time dashboard view of the current ride, and even detailed ride histories. VanMoof doesn't, which makes it seem neglected by comparison.

The VanMoof app doesn’t estimate the distance-to-empty either — a feature many e-bike apps have added long ago. The VanMoof app shows the percentage of charge left on the battery instead of the estimated kilometers (or miles) remaining. “Of course we can do that," said Stehmann when I pushed him, "but is that the feature you really want, because we can do way better than that." Better according to Stehmann, means understanding how each person rides and calculating the distance-to-empty based upon their riding habits: do they ride in windy or hilly areas? Do they use the boost button a lot? Do they carry heavy loads? etc. What appears at first to be a simple feature request actually requires some fairly sophisticated algorithms and data processing to meet VanMoof's standards.

Software crash

As a longtime champion of smart homes, I'm well aware of the foibles presented by smart devices. There was a time when I couldn't operate my lights if my phone's battery died, for example. During my testing I suffered a software glitch that killed the power on my VanMoof even though the battery was nearly half full. No big deal, right? After all, you can still pedal a VanMoof under your own power. True, but the smart lock was attached and it requires electrical power to release it. Fortunately, I was able to carry the 18.4kg (41-pound) bike about 70 meters to my house where I could troubleshoot the issue and ultimately reset the bike by attaching a power bank to its USB service port. Job Stehmann tells me that the issue is already sorted in the production code. Nevertheless, it's a lesson you should heed as a possible smart bike owner.

But VanMoof isn't interested in building a feature-heavy app, especially one that requires your constant attention. "Our vision for the app is to keep the phone in the pocket," says Stehmann, noting that Google Maps provides excellent turn-by-turn navigation for cyclists, while Strava provides a detailed record of your cycling activity. When viewed in that light the app's bare-bones approach makes a lot more sense.

The 2017 Electrified S most clearly demonstrates this in-the-pocket philosophy with a new proximity security feature. Using Bluetooth, the Electrified S will recognize when the owner (and their phone) is nearby and then put the bike into an unlocking mode for a few seconds. Touching the center of the bike's digital display then releases the keyless e-lock mechanism allowing the owner to remove the heavy-duty locking bolt and chain. That's how it works in theory, anyway. The Touch Unlock feature was hit or miss the entire time I was in possession of the bike. I’d walk up to the bike and it just wouldn’t respond. But remember, I was using prerelease software which has already been improved since I tested it, according to Stehmann. Nevertheless, it was so frustrating that I opted for another option to unlock the bike.

Insert smart lock here.
Insert smart lock here.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge
Insert charging cable here.
Insert charging cable here.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

The new Electrified S, like the old one, can be unlocked by pulling out your phone, launching the app, and then tapping the animated padlock icon. That’s cool the first few times, but becomes laborious after awhile. Fortunately, VanMoof offers a little wireless key fob thingy — my preferred unlocking solution by far. But first I had to disable the proximity feature and close the app else the little remote wouldn't work — a combination of tasks I found to be wholly unintuitive. Stehmann admits that it programmed the bike like this on purpose. "It's a little user unfriendly," he concedes, "but done for security reasons."

“We're now a software company, too."

It's worth noting that VanMoof used to outsource its software development. In the last six months the company has hired its own iOS, Android, and backend developers. In fact, the most recent iOS and Android apps released over the last two weeks were the first to be fully developed in-house. "We're now a software company too," said Stehmann proudly.

Other new features of the 2017 Electrified S include over-the-air software updates for the bike and a tamper detection feature that will send alerts to the owner (I didn't test either of these). I also wasn’t able to test the claimed range of 60–120 kilometers (37–75 miles) because of a prerelease software glitch (see sidebar above). Before the reset I had ridden approximately 40 very aggressive kilometers with the bike showing just under a half full charge. And since my bike wasn’t stolen I also didn’t test the Peace-Of-Mind Service — VanMoof's global anti-theft service ($100 for one year, or $240 for three years) which will track and return your Electrified S anywhere in the world. You get a free replacement bike if yours can’t be recovered within two weeks.

All in all I came away deeply impressed by my week with the new Electrified S. The experience significantly expanded the radius of what I consider to be accessible by bike. If you already own a 2016 original then it's not an obvious upgrade — you should take a test ride and see for yourself if the trade-in is enough to coax you into buying. For everyone else, $4,000 (the cost of the bike plus annual theft protection) spread over 10 years works out to about a dollar a day, let's call it $2 per day for five years.

As someone who bikes every day, I really wish I hadn't done that calculation.