Among my many weaknesses is a fondness for new tech. I bought the first (PC compatible) iPod, imported and jailbroke the first iPhone from the US, the first iPad, first Apple Watch, bought a Tesla Model 3 a couple of years ago – I like new things.
The latest to grab my attention was ebikes. When I was living in Wimbledon, I readopted cycling as an amazing quick, cheap way to get exercise and get to the station for town. But having moved out to rural Buckinghamshire, I haven't dared take those wheels out because I can already see the embarassing mental explosion that will take place when I find myself in the pouring rain, moving at snail's pace up an agonisingly long hill.
Furthermore, with my second child still only 7 months old, I've been on something of a fitness "sabbatical", one might say.
So, all of this led me to take a good close look at ebikes. It feels like these devices have been around for a while in some form or another, and are even sometimes home-made, by those with the knowhow. But in recent years, a few companies have popped up to bring the kind of rounded Apple/ Tesla style product experience to this niche.
One such is VanMoof.
Ostensibly, my argument in favour was this: it's insane for me to take the car and leave it in the car park if I'm going into London and leaving my wife with small kids during her remaining mat leave. But it also feels awful to consider buying another car.
Enter stage right: Amsterdam-designed ebike with chunky battery, 23mph top speed, boost mode for hills or windy days, carrier + basket. Child seat for three year old/ human shield (more on that later.) And, perhaps most importantly: 14 day, no-questions-asked return period.
It shipped at the end of March, so with ten weeks, a couple of disasters and lots of sunny cycling under my belt, I thought I'd write up my thoughts so far.
Here's a mix of FAQs and topics to walk you through it.
How much will I use it?
Most notably: how many months of a typical British year am I realistically going biking? Optimistically I think maybe two thirds, to varying degrees – March to October.
The kicker is: if I have to find another solution for those other four months November to February, am I going to go back to the bike when I get to the other side? Or do we just go out less in the bleak mid-winter?
This brings me to a point I've been thinking about that reminds me of electric cars. Today, you have to WANT it to pay the premium and jump through some of the hoops of habit changes. Meaning: ideologically you have to believe there's a benefit in using your car less, to balance against some of the quirks and frustrations. It's not an effortless transition.
Is it safe?
I mean, I bloody hope so. There's something disarming about flying along at nearly 25mph with minimum effort on something that is still really just a pushbike, I feel strangely less vulnerable than I would if I was huffing along at 5mph. But conversely: I probably wouldn't be driving on the big fast national speed limit roads, or down dark country lanes if I was on pedal power alone.
So I'm undoubtedly in more risky situations, and I'm going faster.
But research suggests cyclists aren't dropping like flies out there:
"In 2020, 141 pedal cyclists were killed in Great Britain, whilst 4,215 were reported to be seriously injured (adjusted) and 11,938 slightly injured (adjusted)."
I can live with that level of risk.
Is the battery enough?
My 25-30 minute journey to the station uses about 20% of the battery (so let's say a typical day might spen half the battery getting there and back.) That leaves at least half the battery for zooming around London, which is absolutely tons. And all of this is using the maximum assist and the amazing Boost button which instantly gives you full power.
I was also able to take advantage of a deal where I got the £300 additional battery attachment free with my order. I tried some longer cycles with this and was barely about to make a dent on its capacity. It's not going to get you to Kathmandu but it's a hell of a booster.
Is the speed enough?
This is a bit of a tricky one to answer today. Europe has a law limiting max speeds for ebikes to 15mph, which feels absurd given you can quite easily cycle faster than that on a normal bike.
The good news is, you can buy an app called Moofer, which uses some kind of dev mode to unlock the max speed to 23mph. It also provides a "level 5" assist setting which effectively puts you on full boost the second you turn the pedal. This feels AMAZING, like you're driving a rocket ship (or, presumably, a scooter...)
The tricky bit is: VanMoof turned off some of this functionality with a recent firmware update, so Level 5 mode is dead. Fortunately, because the US allows the slightly faster speed of 20mph, you can still access that by changing your region setting on the bike, and tbh, I'm quite happy with that level. It feels like a sweet spot.
More broadly, does it feel like I'm able to easily get to nearby villages in reasonable time? Yes. Does it feel good to ride? Absolutely yes. Does it feel fast? Yes. It's a real pleasure.
How is it at lower assist levels? Absolutely no idea, I can't bring myself to use it for more than a few minutes. It's just harder and slower... If that's for you, maybe just get a bike?
Is it reliable?
There's a lot of horror stories online about reliability issues and nightmares dealing with customer service. I do feel there's a kind of confirmation bias with this on the internet where it's usually the most dissatisfied restaurant diner/ tech user who wants to write 1500 words about the bad experience they have had.
In my case, I'd describe the situation as an interestin clash between analogue and digital. Bikes feel like an anachronism – with all the chains and clicking, it's like a clockwork relic. And layered over this is a little computer managing things like automatic gear changes.
This is the central challenge of pricey ebikes: can you get the software and hardware working together to turn what's still an ancient mechanism into something that feels like an iPhone?
With VanMoof, I think the answer is: mostly.
The most common issue I encounter is around gears. Sometimes the bike will try and shift gear and it feels like the chain has slipped off. If this happens on a roundabout on a fast country road, this feels really unsafe, leaving you spinning your feet around with no resistance, but still motivating the motor (it's strange how reassuring that feeling of resistance is to your sense of control.)
The most irritating experience I had was a day when the bike just fully turned off its motor and refused to give me any power. Stuck in a nearby town, with several lengthy inclines between me and home, the only thing that got me through without an episode of rapid, violent dismantlement was a quick pub stop to calm down.
The official app wasn't clear about the solution, but a little googling and reddit revealed the problem: sometimes the SIM card rattles loose from its position inside the long cylindrical computer within the bike. Bit frustratin taking the bike apart to get to it, but otherwise thankful it wasn't one of the bigger issues I've heard about online.
Can I use it to ship the kids around?
I quickly noticed there seemed to be a lot of child carriers for sale second hand in near new condition... Naturally my first suspicion was that kids are obviously not thrilled by the experience, so I approached the transplant of my 3 year old with a little care.
Turns out there was no need. First journey she was yelling to go faster and laughing and loving it. On maybe out third trip she literally fell asleep on the back.
Your mileage may (literally) vary, but I can't wait to take her to pre-school on this thing as the mornings get warmer.
What if it gets stolen?
The security is hilarious. Apple Find My is built in, so I can see where it is on my phone at any time. You kick a lock on the wheel and the slightest touch sets off the most obnoxious noise with a flashing skull on the bike's body. This escalates throuhg two more levels of constant noise before basically being deactivated (I assume in similar manner to what happened when my SIM was dislodged.)
If that wasn't enough, I've also gone for three years of their insurance offering. If someone steals my bike, they will send their Bike Hunters team to go and find it. If they can't, they'll give me a new one.
About as good as it gets, I'd say.
Is it good value?
My order total was about £2600, including:
- The bike - £2150 for the smaller X3 model (thinking it's easier to lug around.)
- 3 years of the anti-theft insurance
- Front basket (will happily carry my full backpack with bungies)
- Rear carrier (tbh don't know what this would really give me, if it wasn't for next item...)
- Rear pannier bag - nice, waterproof, good for holding accessories or my MacBook for a quick trip.
- Serious ABUS folding lock
- (And the free £300 battery pack)
It's not cheap. And this is where we come back to the points about use case (avoiding buying a second car with small kids) and motivation (wanting to use the car less generally.)
Equally, every time I take it into London, I'm saving a £14 travelcard. Assuming (conservatively) I go into London a minimum of 6 times a month across these 8 months, that's over £670 saved. The true total is quite likely more.
And the charging cost? Even with rising energy prices, my Octopus Go tarrif is still just 7.5p per KW overnight. The battery is 0.5KW. Unless I've done the maths hugely wrong, it's basically negligible.
What are the worst bits?
In no particular order:
- The seat doesn't feel like world's most comfortable. Journeys tend to be short, so it's not a huge bother, but there's nothing spectacular with it.
- It turns out you can't have both the battery pack and a child seat attached on the smaller X3 model. That was frustrating to find out after return period had passed but ultimately I didn't pay for the extra battery and am not relying on it. If I was, I might be peeved, to say the least.
- When it does have an episode with gears, I sometimes have to resest it by holding the button. It's quick, but it then often sets the light to always on and changes my preferences, which can be frustrating when you're just trying to get somewhere.
The bottom line
When I'm zipping along with my daughter on the back on the way to a cafe on sunny day, it's an absolute joy. And I'm always aware that really I'm stretching it to the limit. This is quite plainly an urban bike – and if we still lived in Wimbledon, or somewhere like that, it would be an utter dream machine.
It's not for everyone, it's not for every situation. But if you have the inclination to find its sweet spot, I do believe there's something in the ebike "model" that could provide a really amazingly compelling transport option for many many normal people.
And with a 14 day trial, maybe it's worth a go.