The VanMoof S3 is practical, stylish, and as close to a fully integrated e-bike as I've come across. Other e-bikes do parts better, but I’m yet to see one come as close to being the complete package as this. This integration comes with some penalties – not least weight and self-serviceability – but despite this, this bike may be a game changer.
VanMoof have become fairly well-known in London. They've had a shop in the Seven Dials for a few years and have just moved to the new Battersea power station district. They aim to be more than an e-bike; they aim to be a genuine transport alternative to cars and public transport. They have therefore focused on the entire travel experience, with probably the most important element being security.
The thing that really set the S3 apart for me is that everything to do with security is integrated. In other bikes you have some elements – some have a Dutch lock for instance – but none that I have seen has managed to integrate quite so much into one bike as standard.
This makes for a real confidence that your bike won't get nicked, to the extent where most of the time I didn't even bother with a lock when I left it outside my local supermarket. This is because it has what VanMoof call a kick lock, which prevents the bike being moved and also arms the alarm. When the alarm is armed and the bike is moved, a skull appears on the LED screen on the top tube and the bike emits a loud siren that alerts anybody around. This is deactivated if you have your phone on you or, if not, through a code that you can input through the button on the left of the handlebars.
The lock itself acts almost like a Dutch lock in that all it really does is lock the back wheel, but in reality with a bike this heavy and a loud alarm going off, this is not going to be an easy bike to steal regardless of whether it's locked to something or not.
If the bike is somehow stolen though, you can track wherever it is through Apple's Find My app, so wherever it is taken you can see it on the map. If this isn't enough, VanMoof have their own in-house team who guarantee to be able to retrieve your bike within two weeks or they will replace it for free. It is undoubtedly the most theft-proof bike I have used.
Using the bike
The VanMoof app is the only way to control the majority of the features on the bike, which makes it unlike the vast majority of other e-bikes where you have a control unit on the handlebars. This is both a blessing and a curse as you don't have the same kind of instant access to change elements of your ride – but you do have a much more expanded and user-friendly experience when you do.
Initially you set up the bike by connecting it to your phone via Bluetooth and creating an account in the VanMoof app. Your bike is then assigned to your VanMoof account meaning that only you have access to make changes to it. It also means that when your phone connects to your locked bike it will unlock it and make a fairly loud sound telling you that it has successfully connected. I found this and the unlocking sounds pretty annoying because I have a baby daughter and on more than one occasion when I had the bike in my hallway I would walk past, lights would turn on and I would get a loud powering up sound because I had my phone in my pocket. Luckily these sounds are easy to turn off in the app with a couple of toggles.
From the app screen you can also set how the bike rides, with settings from 0-4 for assist and also for gear shifting, given that the S3 has an automatic three-speed shifter. Generally I tended to use the bike at full pedal assist.
Choosing the gearing ratio you have three choices, either flat, hilly, or custom. Flat and hilly are pretty self explanatory, but custom allows you to set your gearings manually which is a cool feature. To do this you just choose at which speed you want to shift up into the gears and at which speed you want to switch down in them. Whilst riding with the automatic shifting it takes quite a bit of getting used to and I found that at the start I would find myself pedalling air as the bike shifted down unexpectedly. I got used to this in general, but there were a couple of times where this still happened.
It is worth noting that at the time of writing VanMoof have just introduced a manual shifting option where you can use the buttons on the handlebars to shift gears, on my initial rides this seems like it worked really well, but I won't have enough time in the saddle to really test this properly.
Away from the app the bike has three main points of interaction whilst riding.
On the right grip is the 'boost' button, which gives you extra assistance when needed, on the left is a bell button, and on the top tube is an LED screen that generally shows your speed and battery level. It is very minimalist, but I mostly found that it gave me everything I needed whilst riding.
One other nice element that the more nerdy (like myself) benefit from, is that if you have an Apple Watch, you can control some of the more important elements of the bike on your wrist. I can unlock the bike, set the assist level, and turn the lights on and off without needing to get out my phone, which is a nice touch.
There have been some necessary upgrades to the bikes from the previous iteration, with hydraulic brakes being the one that is one of the most noticeable. With an e-bike that is this heavy and going 17mph, having reliable and powerful brakes is essential, so upgrading from mechanical disc to hydraulic seems like a no-brainer. There is no clue about whether these are VanMoof own-brand brakes or made by another component manufacturer, but they seemed to work fine in all the conditions I tried them in.
Comfort and sizing
The bike is comfortable to ride thanks to both the huge Schwalbe Big Ben tyres and a big well padded saddle which means that you can go over most terrains and big bumps without any uncomfortable jarring bumps. I most often used this on my eight-mile commute to the office which takes me through a variety of terrains from glass smooth tarmac through to potholed road stone paths and I didn't ever feel like I should have had a different bike.
One of the interesting elements of the VanMoof business model (they basically offer two bikes, both in a single size) is that the bikes need to fit a huge variation in the size of the person riding. The S3 fits anybody between 5'8" and 6'8". To put that in context, that same bike that can be ridden by Mark Wahlberg and LeBron James. It means that the seat post needs to do a lot of work, but also means that things like standover height can be a little awkward if you are towards the lower end of that scale. On the S3 the standover height is 86cm, which in regular bike terms is what you would expect for 60cm+ sized frames. For me at 6'0" I can drop down to the floor without destroying my chances of fathering more children, but for somebody a couple of inches shorter they may struggle.
Aside from that, the saddle is easy to adjust with a security hex key via an integrated seat clamp. I found that I needed to secure this more tightly than I expected as on the first three rides I needed to stop and retighten as the seat post began to slip. However, after I had tightened it beyond what I normally would, I didn't find any issues with it.
Self repair and components
The two key selling points of the VanMoof are the integrations it has and the security it offers. This naturally means that most of the elements of the bike are made exclusively for VanMoof, so doing any kind of DIY on the bike is much more difficult than almost any other bike I have used in the past. You can't even change a tyre without a specific tool to remove the security bolts on each wheel.
However, it is entirely understandable why this is the case. The bike has been made to be super secure, so if you could remove the battery, take off the wheels, or remove anything easily, then the bike instantly becomes far less secure. Through making the bike difficult to work on yourself, VanMoof are also making it considerably more secure. It is the same philosophy used by Apple for their MacBooks – they can create something that lasts for longer, works more effectively, and is more secure than their competitors because they have built every component of it.
For some this will be a big turn-off, but for those who are looking for simplicity and having a bike that does everything without needing to worry too much about it, this is ideal. In my opinion it makes it something beyond an electric bike, it becomes almost a more self-sufficient form of electric vehicle that doesn't require anything else beyond occasional charging.
Range, weight, and performance
The 21kg S3 boasts a 504Wh battery which powers a 250W front hub motor. At the top setting this gives you a claimed 39 miles on a single charge, which is slightly more than what I found. My 8.3-mile ride to work (which includes a 14% hill) used 22% of the battery. I could use the bike for four commutes with some battery left, but not enough for another journey. Given how hilly the last couple of miles of that journey is, VanMoof’s stated range is probably fair.
There is no getting around that this is below average though. The BMC AlpenChallenge that Ian looked at in April, for instance, got nearly double that – although it is a much less integrated and more expensive bike.
When going uphill I was particularly grateful for the boost button which meant that I could really zip up hills without any kind of effort at all, in fact according to my Apple Watch, I just about got 30 mins of exercise after cycling for around one hour. Given that 30 minutes of fairly easy walking normally fills my 30-minute quota, this shows exactly how much assistance this bike gives you.
The motor picks up quickly, which was particularly important for me as when I hit a steep hill on this thing, if I didn't have the boost button I would be likely to either blow out a knee getting to the top or, more likely, just tip sideways. However, the motor is pretty loud and you really notice it especially at higher speeds. It isn't a significant drawback, but something noticeable against other e-bikes.
As this is a heavy bike at 21kg, you also need this boost to get up anything steeper than a bridge and I would not consider trying to do any journey over around 20 minutes without any assistance as, despite being a relatively smooth ride, unless you are riding on pan flat terrain this would be pretty exhausting. To put this in perspective, the Santander Bikes in London that are famously heavy are only 19kg.
One part of the bike that is a little impractical but understandable is that the battery is entirely integrated into the frame, meaning that charging must be done in situ, you cannot take the battery out and charge it by itself. This is a little annoying, but again something that has been done with integration and security in mind. You would struggle to make a battery lock completely theft proof, but unless you want to cut open the bike to get it, you can't access the S3’s battery. If you cannot remove the battery, you cannot stop it being tracked, you cannot unlock it, and you cannot stop the alarm going off.
It is a little irritating if, like me, you don't have any outside power, but this is not a bug, it's a feature that enables some of the most important elements of the bike.
Coming in at £1,998, the S3 represents very good value for money compared to other less smart e-bikes. The closest competitor would be the Cowboy 3 that John looked at recently. This comes in £71 more expensive and does not have close to the same kind of security and integration. The Kinesis Lyfe is £302 more expensive and weighs 5kg less, but lacks many of the smart elements of the S3.
At sub-2k this represents very good value for money for the initial purchase, but much like Apple's model, you are pretty much tied in to their service systems, which aren't cheap. Three years’ cover requires a £550 outlay at purchase. However, at £2.5k for a bike this smart and with the levels of integration it has, plus servicing, this is still a good price.
Overall I was really impressed by the S3. It may be heavy and the range isn't quite as good as others on the market, but these can be forgiven because this feels like more than a bike with a motor; it feels like a leap forward in terms of travel. The security element alone means that one of the bugbears of cycling is removed. I don't have to take a D-lock wherever I go or find a space in a bike park, I can leave this wherever I like and it won't be nicked.
There are definitely elements of the bike that are a bit annoying, but these often form the foundations for some of the stronger aspects. The fact I can't easily do DIY fixes on the bike whilst out and about are a key part of making it difficult for thieves to take parts. The fact that I can't remove the battery and need to charge it by bringing the bike inside means that it can always be tracked and the alarm will always go off.
As far as electric bikes go, you can find bikes that go further, are lighter, and are probably more comfortable. As far as a form of personal transport that makes every day travel easy, it is almost unrivalled.