When I built my first electric bike kit back in 2012, VanMoof wasn’t even on my radar. At the time I was a student living in a quiet college town in Kentucky, and VanMoof was a Dutch company making high-end mechanical bikes. I think I had around $500 in my bank account at the time, so I was clearly not the target demographic.
Luckily I have a few more dollars in my bank account these days, and instead of living in the suburbs, I live in Brooklyn. So on paper VanMoof’s new S3 should be perfect for me; it’s an electric city bike that’s incredibly stylish, and now that the company has slashed the price a whopping $1,400 from its last model, it’s actually something I might be able to justify spending $1,998 on. In reality, though, the situation is a little more complex.
There’s a lot of competition in the “alternative transportation” space at the moment, and VanMoof’s S3 is now, after the price cut, very competitive. At around $2,000 it’s actually cheaper than a number of electric road bikes from larger brands like Trek and Cannondale. It’s even cheaper than many of the bikes you can get from a specialty outfitter like Luna Cycle. No longer do potential buyers have to choose between something affordable and something attractive.
At a glance the S3 doesn’t look terribly different than the S2, or even the original No.3. Throughout the years VanMoof has made a habit of making incremental improvements to the S series, but this time the company is taking a big bet on the new automatic, electronic gear shifter. When the company revealed this during the product announcement I was initially very skeptical; electric gear shifters aren’t new, but they’ve also never been widely adopted. I’m sure the experienced cyclists reading this will also be skeptical, but it’s important to remember that while many people do know how to ride a bike and change gears, many people don’t. For those people, the S3 is one of the most accessible bikes on the market. That said, there are caveats.
When you first look at a VanMoof, the eye is naturally drawn to the frame of the bike. It’s got a very handsome geometry: the top tube is perfectly round and perpendicular to the street. The down tube hides the battery pack, which isn’t removable, and forms a very attractive triangle with the seat tube. Even the rear triangle formed by the seat tube, chain, and seat stays has an attractive geometry to it. It just looks very good on a number of levels.
VanMoof has also put an applaudable amount of work into hiding the e-bike-ness of the S3 and its predecessors. The S3 has fewer visible wires and lines than my regular Peugeot street bike. There are no visible gears: the S3 uses an internal gear hub rear, and the chain guide fully surrounds the chain and the chainring in the front. An unbelievable amount of work has gone into making sure you never have to see the reality of how the bike works.
The handlebars on the S3 contribute to the bike's clean look considerably. It’s not uncommon for an e-bike to have four wires / lines dangling from the handlebars; two wires for the throttle and speedometer, and two lines for the front and rear brakes. It’s all very tidy.
There’s also no display attached to the handlebars, instead that’s integrated into the top tube. This leaves the handlebars completely clean save for two well-hidden buttons: a horn button on the left, and the boost button on the right. You can customize the horn noise with three options: a birthday horn, the VanMoof “submarine” sound, and a more traditional bell sound. Mine came defaulted to the horn option, and on the couple of occasions where I accidentally hit it I’ll admit, I felt like an actual clown. I recommend the regular bell.
The tires that VanMoof used on my early-model S3 are 28-inch Schwalbe Big Bens. These have a road tread, but they’re very wide and very thick. We’ll talk more about bumps in a bit, but these chubby tires are absolutely necessary for a bike that weighs 41 pounds. The mud guards that VanMoof has installed here look great, and I’m sure many of the people that are interested in the S3 will appreciate getting to work (when that’s eventually an option) without being covered in mud. I would probably change the tires for something a little knobbier just to have fun with it (I do own a Sur Ron, after all) but I’m not sure that’s possible given how close the mud guards are to the tires.
Riding the S3 feels like riding a regular bicycle, but several times easier. It’s a pedal-assist bike, meaning that you activate the motor by pedaling. There is a boost button, but you can’t just push it to move the bike from a stopped position; you have to pedal. The boost button is great, though, because once you've started it makes getting up to speed or passing someone a lot easier.
I tend to bike aggressively, even on a normal bike, so on the VanMoof I also pushed it up to top speed as fast as it would go. This left me slightly winded most of the time while riding, but I was regularly hitting 20mph between stop lights. That said, I recently had a case of what my doctor thinks was COVID-19, so my lungs aren’t in the best shape, but still I was able to get up to top speed no problem.
VanMoof's drivetrain is an interesting case: the motor is relatively small at 250-350 watts (likely to comply with European law,) and it’s a hub motor instead of a mid-drive motor, which is what many high-end bikes are using at the moment. Then the power is delivered with a regular chain to the Sturmey-Archer internally geared hub, which is also an interesting (but necessary) choice.
I would personally prefer a mid-drive bike because it makes wheel maintenance easier, but there’s nothing wrong with a hub motor, especially if you never plan on changing the bike. The gear shifting setup, on the other hand, is definitely a curveball compared to most electric bikes. A cassette of gears, which is what you normally see, allows bike makers to pack more gears onto the rear wheel, which is generally considered a good thing. Here, all the gears are packed into a cylinder inside the wheel, and there are only four of them.
While cassettes allow you to have more gears, you have to be moving for the derailleur to change from one gear to another. An internally geared hub, on the other hand, can change gears any time, which is critical for the automatic gear shifter. When you put all these pieces together, you get a system that can detect when you stop and automatically shift down, then shift up as you accelerate. It’s actually pretty amazing, and it makes using the bike dead simple.
Now, I wouldn’t say this is a problem per se, but sometimes when I was starting from a complete stop and putting a lot of load onto the pedals, the automatic transition from first gear into second happened with a mildly unsettling thunk. It felt like a chain skip, but quieter and milder. To be clear, this wasn’t actually happening, that’s just the best way I can describe it. I spoke with a VanMoof employee who told me that they’re still working with Sturmey-Archer to optimize the gear changes.
In the smartphone world, when a company says they’re going to fix something with a firmware update, it usually doesn’t happen. With the S3, I think it is at least plausible that VanMoof could improve the automatic gear shifter because there are actually settings for gear shifting in the VanMoof app. I was told not to mess with them, and I didn’t, but the fact that they’re there could mean that an improvement is possible. Still, the phenomenon that I experienced only made me raise an eyebrow, it never impacted the mechanical operation of the bike.
When it comes to the overall riding experience, I really felt the lack of front and rear suspension. I know what you’re thinking; other electric road bikes don’t have suspension either, just look at the affordable Cannondale Quick Neo SL 2. You’d be right, but the Cannondale is almost 10 pounds lighter, and that makes a big difference. Here in Brooklyn, where the streets are terrible, I was regularly shaking and jostling on the S3. The pedal assist allows you to go really fast without much effort, but that also means that you’re hitting bumps and potholes at higher speeds.
Even with the substantial price cut, these bikes still cost a lot of money. It's natural to worry about your investment being snatched off the street. When I first got my Sur Ron, for example, I was so worried about it getting stolen that I repurposed an old Android phone as a security camera. That is until I got a really thick chain and a custom insurance plan.
VanMoof's anti-theft features are thankfully far more robust: the bike has onboard cellular and bluetooth hardware (that you can read more about here) that allows VanMoof to track the bike no matter where it's taken. The company even has a YouTube series about tracking down stolen VanMoofs.
With the S3, VanMoof also increased the security of the bike itself. In the picture at the top of this section you can see the built-in kick lock. It works pretty simply: you align the back wheel with a couple of markers on the hub, then pop the lock in with your toe. This freezes the rear wheel and can be unlocked either with the app or with the secret horn button passcode.
When I picked up the bike, VanMoof's Android app wasn't working with the new S3. Don't worry, Android friends, it started working after a single software update, which is better than I expected if we're being honest. I asked a VanMoof employee whether it's possible to use the bike without the app at all and was told that yes, you can, but you need to use the app at least once to set up the bike for the first time.
I'm glad the bike can be used mostly without the app, but it's a shame that it can't be used at all without phoning home. Which brings us to:
The S3’s clean and tidy design does have tradeoffs, and one of them is modularity. You can’t take the battery out, and there are hubs in both the front and rear wheels, which will make wheel repair more cumbersome. With that in mind, I sent a number of questions to VanMoof about how the company supports its bikes, what the repair process is like, and what the company’s sustainability profile is in general. To summarize:
- VanMoof’s bikes are assembled in Taipei.
- Parts are “95% custom” and are “sourced globally.”
- VanMoof’s standard warranty is three years.
- The company still maintains all its bikes; you could get a replacement battery for the S1, for example.
- Riders that aren’t close to stores can have parts shipped to them.
This is actually far better than I expected. One specific sticking point is that VanMoof used to have a trade-in program, and when I asked about why it was discontinued, the company cited complications due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But taken in total, VanMoof enables customers to do their own repairs and seems to be doing a lot to keep its bikes on the road, and I hope that other bike manufacturers follow its lead.
The VanMoof S3 is a lot of things. It’s now one of the most affordable high-end city bikes you can buy. It’s sleek and head-turning without being too audacious. It’s innovative electronic gear shifter opens it up to an even broader market of people who kind of know how to ride a bike, but aren’t the most proficient at shifting gears.
Here's the problem with the S3: it's too big for a lot of people. I'm 5' 10" and this bike is simply too large for me. According to the CDC (PDF), the national average for men is 5' 9" so I'm not just whining about not being tall enough: the average man in this country probably won't be comfortable using this bike.
I have some ideas about what’s going on here: a 2016 study found that Dutch men are some of the tallest in the world, and VanMoof is company founded by two Dutch brothers. When I asked a US VanMoof employee whether people thought the bike was too big, they said that was feedback they’d heard before.
VanMoof does make a bike in a smaller size, it’s called the X3 and it’s pictured above. The frame has very different geometry to accommodate a much lower standover height of 28 inches (versus the 33.9 inch standover height of the S3.) It also comes with a basket mount in the front by default.
When I look at these two bikes, I see men's and women's bikes, which isn't uncommon when considered alone. But VanMoof’s website describes the X3 as a “unisex design,” as if anticipating the problematic nature of offering a man’s bike that’s too tall for most of the men on this planet, and a woman’s bike that could, in theory, pass as a man’s bike.
But this itself is confusing. If VanMoof truly has a unisex design, why doesn't it use it for both bike sizes? Why not just offer two sizes of the S3? And why does the X3 come with a basket mount in the front while the S3 doesn't?
It’s difficult not to conclude that the VanMoof S3 is a bike made by tall Dutch men, for tall Dutch men. So when I say that the VanMoof S3 isn’t for me, I mean it literally isn’t for me, and that's a real shame. It’s a great bike at a great price point, and the innovative automatic gear shifter opens it up to riders of all skill levels. But for all the accessibility points the company scores with its automatic shifter, it ends up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by making a bike only for itself.