The VanMoof S3 - A Cautionary Tale

Nov 27, 2021 14:00 · 4691 words · 23 minute read eBike VanMoof

Tl;Dr

The VanMoof S3 is a really nice eBike when it works. When it breaks its a nightmare.

The support and repair system in the UK seems to be not fit for purpose to the point where I would be vary wary of recommending a VanMoof bike to someone in the UK.

eBikes as an option for commuting are great.

Flat tires still suck.

Note: The chat interactions below are as I can recall them from memory and are condensed and paraphrased, but accurately reflect what I experienced.

The Decision

As we came out of the lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, I reevaluated my options for commuting to work. At the time it felt a bit early to be hopping back on crowded trains. Add to that rising train fares and it was the perfect time to think about my commute.

I live about 20km from central London where I work, its at the limit of what I would consider cycling. I decided, however, I would cycle but for a few factors:

  • I hate cycling up hills
  • I hate cycling into head winds
  • I hate flat tires
  • I stress about London traffic

There is no bike in the world that can really address flat tires and London traffic. I'd have to deal with flats and learn to become part of the traffic if I were to cycle.

But the other fifty percent of those problems can be eliminated by what is becoming a ubiquitous sight on London roads: The eBike!

I decided that was enough to roll the dice on an eBike.

A friend put me onto the VanMoof S3. I immediately liked the look of it. I did some research into other bikes but found the S3 seemed to be a great bike for a great price. After reading many glowing reviews from hip tech blogs and cycling aficionado's I thought this was the bike for me! Decision made, I ordered one.

Unboxing

There was a wait for the bike which was fine. I knew there was a backlog of orders and I knew it would take a month and a bit to come. It came when VanMoof said it would which was great.

Like many of these new, hop, to-cool-for-school techy companies, VanMoof went for a slick unboxing experience with nice little boxes for the tools, a clever cardboard wheel stand to hold your bike as you assemble it. The unboxing experience didn't disappoint and went as expected.

Assembly

As well as the concise and easy to follow manual, VanMoof provide slick videos online to show you how to assemble the bike. The videos make it look very easy and straight forward. Which for the most part it is.

However there is one bit that isn't as easy as it appears in the video. This is the part where you need to push the motor lead into the front fork. It takes a lot of jiggling, squeezing and pushing to get the lead into the fork nicely. I found it quite frustrating, but not a major problem.

Apart from that, the bike goes together easily and has some nice features like the security nuts for the wheels, the compact foot pump to inflate the tires with and the fact that all the tools come in the box. Even a party blower for when you are all done. A cute touch.

The App and Pairing

The VanMoof iPhone app is nicely designed, has a bunch of easy to use features to configure the bike and pairing the bike was easy. It can even be registered with Apple's FindMy network so you can track your bike down if it “goes missing”.

I must admit though, a bike that so heavily relies on a phone application tied to services run by the company makes me nervous. Not for any creepy reasons (although, yes, those bother me a bit) but because if the company goes under there is a risk that your bike becomes a less clever.

Being a telemetry geek though, I do love the data you get on each ride in the app.

First Ride

I charged the bike fully overnight before I went on my first ride as I wanted to get an idea of battery drain. So it was the morning after assembly that I got to ride the bike.

Here is where things start to go sideways with the S3.

Because of the pandemic and getting access to a bike to test ride, I hadnt actually ridden an S3 till now. This is a gamble I would not take again.

I rode the bike up the hill that we live at the foot of and found that the gears seemed to have a mind of their own and made a horrible noise when shifting. The S3 has a fancy automatic gear shifter (eShifter) which takes care of all the shifting for you. The eShifter sounds great in principle, but I believe it's the S3's biggest flaw.

As I peddled the bike there was no resistance at all and the motor was doing most of the work. I found this odd but assumed this was by design. Eventually the gears seemed to work out what they wanted to do and settled into a ratio that seemed to make sense. But the shifter continued to make a nasty noise when it did shift.

I looked on the VanMoof site and they mention a noise when shifting and suggest not peddling as hard to minimise the jarring of the shifts. I assumed that was what the issue was, even though I wasn't peddling that hard.

Second Ride - Practice Commute

The following weekend I decided to take the bike on my commute route to see what the range was like. I got on the bike and rode about 5km before the gears started doing strange things and the resistance on the pedals disappeared again. At this point I thought there must be a fault, but as before the bike seemed to come right. I managed to get to work fine but noticed the battery was over half drained. I thought that was a bit much and a shame because it would mean some “range anxiety” with the commute. Indeed I got back home after 40km and the bike was out of charge. Not at all what I expected!

Third Ride - Commute to Work and Disaster

The next ride was my first commute to work on the VanMoof S3. Going into work the bike seemed to have settled down and appeared to be working fine. The gears still made some odd noises but I was still thinking it was just what VanMoof mentioned in their support material.

I made it to work and the bike had used a lot less battery which was good.

The ride home began fine, but then about 1KM into the ride, taking off from a stop and an intersection there was an almighty crunch and the pedals spun free throwing me off the pedals and I very nearly got a crotch full of handlebar gooseneck.

Its a credit to the motor on the bike that I was able to get home by slowly peddling and letting the motor pull me along. The battery went dead about 500m from home, but at least it held out that long!

So after 3 rides and about 90km the bike was well and truly broken.

For the record, although I was annoyed that the bike broke mid commute, at this point I wasn't annoyed at VanMoof. These things happen. You get a faulty thing sometimes. Just bad luck. However what happens next is what a company shouldn't do when a customer has a problem.

The problem was the eShifter and hub gears. In my opinion the eShifter is a weak link on an otherwise pretty decent bike. The hub gears are fragile and you need to be careful about pedalling with any pressure at all until the automatic eShifter finishes shifting to the last gear. Because its automatic, you don't know when the shift is going to happen so you need to be super careful until its in the last gear. This is now the way VanMoof tells customers how to ride the bike. It's not an option, you have to or the gears will break.

In other words, if you pedal the bike like a “normal bike” from a stop you will risk putting too much pressure through the gears and them. I feel like this shouldn't be allowed to happen. But maybe that's just me.

I didn't feel like I put unreasonable force on the pedals when taking off and I think my gears were already broken out of the box.

Before I go into the support issues and the reasons why you probably should be careful buying a VanMoof S3 in the UK, I'd like to mention the good bit. After the support nightmare was over.

The Good bit

I got a replacement S3 bike that VanMoof finally shipped me after a many months of back and forth with support (see below).

I now ride it much more carefully than the first one and I am very wary of the eShifter and gears, which I still believe to be a weakness.

With that in mind though, the bike makes for a good commute. It functions well, the battery is very good. I use about 60% battery going to and from work (20% there as its downhill and 40% back when I am tired and there is an incline) which is nice and comfortable in terms of range.

It is a nice bike to ride and a pleasurable bike to ride. It feels sturdy and solid. Boosting away from stops makes it feel very nippy. Judicious use of the boost means hills and wind don't sap your soul.

The gears still occasionally do bizarre things, but generally the eShifter does a good job keeping the bike in the right ratio.

I really like the built in lights which are nice and large and you don't need to faff around attaching them or worrying about battery.

Sadly it took a while to get to a satisfying commute experience. Read on to find out why.

Pandemic Factors

The COVID-19 pandemic threw many spanners into the works for many businesses such that they struggled with supply chain issues, staffing and support. I realise this and I am understanding of the problems it caused. However it doesn't escape companies from the basic decent service experiences and decent communications with customers. Many companies I dealt with during the pandemic doubled down on support facilities and made their online experience much better than in the past.

Much earlier in the pandemic I ordered a chest of drawers from a furniture merchant.One that mainly did things through a traditional store. I ordered online, they responded quickly with a delivery date. The delivery date had to get moved because of driver availability, they contacted me straight away. On the day of the delivery they gave me a delivery window. I then got texts on the day because the driver was delayed due to other deliveries, texts again when they were nearby. I never had to contact them to ask ‘Where are you?’ Or wonder why they hadn't turned up when they said they would.

Many brick and mortar companies like this pivoted successfully to use online support and ordering facilities during the pandemic, were not setup to do so to start with but did a really good job of managing customers with an entirely new way of operating. I expected a company that is already setup with an online ordering and support system like this from the beginning to be doing a much better job of it.

How Long?

VanMoof has one repair centre for the whole of greater London. I think perhaps only one for the whole of the UK. This may be ok if your company is really on the ball with the logistics and work flow. VanMoof do not appear to be totally on the ball and it makes for a difficult ownership experience if you are in the UK.

The first problem was to book a repair appointment. VanMoof provide customers with a calendar via an online form to book in a slot for repair at their one shop.

When I went to book an appointment the calendar was all blacked out apart from one appointment three months in the future. This can't be right! Surely there aren't that many faulty VanMoof bikes in London/UK? I booked it, but three months unable to ride is annoying and undermines the whole purpose for getting a bike in the first place.

Maybe it's a fault with the calendar widget or another repair option. I'll try calling them. No I won't…

Can I talk to a person please?

If you are a fancy startup with a slick website and fancy support system you really better make sure it all works in favour of the customer. VanMoof's support interaction is one of worst I have experienced.

There is no support centre to call, instead there is a chat app on the website. Which, to be honest, I often prefer. However in the case of VanMoof the chat app said “There is a 1 hour wait for an agent”. Ok, not great but I can let it idle while I do other things I suppose.

Damn! I forgot about that open chat. “Hi this is I read your comment above and need to confirm a few things” … “Are you there?” … “Chat Closed” … “Currently replying in under 1 hour” Arrrggh!

I tried a few times after that but didn't really get through for this issue. Chat wait times ranged from 30mins (actually more like and hour) to 2-3hours!

Just have an option where someone can ring you back or something. Any wait time above 30mins is probably going to result in people forgetting about the chat window and missing the person on the other end.

To be fair, on some of the chat sessions I experienced later once the person answered they would respond even if it was a bit later that you noticed there was a person there.

That said, if chat is the ONLY direct support option. Make sure it really works and works well. It's extremely frustrating when all you really want is to answer a couple of simple questions. Or worse Having to wait hours just for simple updates because there is literally no other communication forth coming.

Its really frustrating, especially when your brand new bike has just broken.

In the end I had to just keep going back to the appointment booking system and looking for earlier appointments. Which I eventually found two weeks out rather than three months. This is a really bad experience and probably really bad for VanMoof because people probably re-book and don't cancel the other appointment which adds to the problem.

Case Closed?!

I also opened an email ticket with VanMoof for the repair. The email was never answered and a few days after opening it I got a response saying “This ticket has been closed. Please let us know how satisfied you were with the support”. I did… I wasn't very satisfied.

This is another thing that really winds me up. Closing support tickets without addressing anything. No email to say ‘Here is why we closed the ticket’ nothing. Its like the support team go through the queue and close anything older than 48hrs. It smells like an overloaded and overworked support system. Not a good look.

Please tell us exactly what is wrong with your bike?

At this point I was a little annoyed and suspicious of why the support system was so overloaded and slow. But I was still mostly ok with the fault just being an unlucky break.

On the day of my appointment I took the bike into the trendy Covent Garden store and was met with a line of trendy staff.

VM: “Can you tell us what is wrong with your bike?”

Me: “The gears are broken and the pedals basically freewheel”

VM: “Ok. Is it the back wheel or the eShifter that is broken”

Me: “I have no idea. I just doesn't work and those are the symptoms.”

VM: “If you can't tell us exactly what is broken we won't really know what to fix easily”

Me “?!?!?”

Really? I am not completely in the dark to mechanical problems, but I had no idea I needed to become deeply familiar with the internals of this bike to get proper service. Surely this is what the bike mechanics do all day?

It's might be a small thing, but it really rubbed me the wrong way.

After all that they of course took it for service.

Yeah. Your bike will be done by Monday

I took the bike in on a Friday afternoon and was told the bike would probably be serviced that day. Which was awesome. I went to look around Covent Garden for the first time in 18 months.

After about an hour I got a call (shock! A call!), “Yeah, your bike won't be ready till Monday”. That's fine, I can come back in my lunch hour on Monday.

This was the last time I saw the bike.

Supply Chain issues

I know and appreciate there are supply chain issues because of COVID and Brexit. That's fine. But why tell me my bike will be fixed in three days when you should know that won't be the case? Then keep telling me it will be fixed in a few days. When it won't.

Benefit of the doubt, the last part that was required to fix my bike went out the door just before my bike came in and more parts were supposed to arrive Monday.

When I didn't hear from the service people on Monday, or Tuesday, I had to go back into battle with my friend support web chat. Several hours later (I am not exaggerating) I get a response. “I have checked with the shop and the bike will be done next Tuesday”. Great. Disappointing but not the end of the world.

Next Tuesday rolls around. Once again no contact. Couldn't face chat purgatory so left it. Wednesday I face the beast again: “Due to supply chain issues because of Brexit and COVID, we are struggling to get parts. Your bike will be ready NEXT week”

Here is my problem with this. For large populations (like the UK) where you only have one store, stock levels should normally be tightly managed. Because delivery times are always going to be a factor. I suspect two things happened. Firstly there were a lot of broken bikes (the issue I struck was not unique to me? A bit of poking around on forums suggested it wasn't. Not a great sign) and the supply chain was really broken.

I feel for VanMoof here. But what I really would have appreciated was an honest answer about wait times. Even if that answer is “we don't know” rather than “next week” where next week never arrives. Further more, a way to get updates that didn't involve sitting on a horrible chat session for hours.

Can I have my money back?

It wasn't the waiting for service on the bike that broke me, it was the inability to get answers. Either an answer as to when I'd have my bike or just general updates.

It seemed to me, at this point, it would be easier if I just cut my losses and got a refund.

So I asked for a refund.

VM: “Sorry we don't do refunds after 14 days”

Me: “But it was longer than 14 days just to get the bike into get serviced. I thought I was being fair.”

VM: “We don't do refunds. Your bike will be done in a week. We'll get the shop to ring you”

Me: “Pretty sure you have to give me a refund, but I'll speak to the shop”

VM: “We can offer you a loaner bike”

Me: “Oh that would be great! Thanks!”

Later that day a person from the shop rings (again shock! Withheld number so you can't ring them back though). My bike won't be done in a week, they don't know when it will be done. They have no idea why I was told otherwise… And they don't do loaner bikes.

I am beyond annoyed.

Resolution Finally

Note that all this goes on for many weeks with many laborious chat sessions. Finally I am done. Really done.

Me: “Hi, I have been waiting weeks for my bike, you keep telling me it will be done next week. I don't believe it will be and I don't know when it will be fixed. I want a bike for my commute, this bike isn't it. I want a refund please”

VM: “We don't do refunds”

Me: “Ummm, you kind of have to, by law. Your thing is not fit for purpose, I have given reasonable time for your to fix it but you haven't been able to. Can I have a refund please?”

VM:

VM: “Ok. We appreciate this is a shit situation … " (Note: that was actually what they said! I kind of appreciated it) " … But we can offer you this, wait for your repair to be completed (it will be done by the end of this week) and we will give you a gift and a rebate. Or we can ship you a new 2021 bike within 5 weeks”

Me: “Five weeks firm, or estimated?”

VM: “Firm. But your other bike will be done quicker”

Me: … I'd heard this “it will be done in a week” thing before. Not falling for that! But how much do I want to try to lean into this for a refund? Not much. …

Me: “Ok. I'll take the replacement. I kind of still want a bike”

VM: “Sure we'll ship you one now, it will arrive in 5 weeks”

The Replacement

Despite the dispatch and courier tracking transcripts being a work of fiction (oh… That's another story), the replacement actually showed up within five weeks. Great! Interestingly the supply chain seems to be fine for whole bikes. Go figure.

I unboxed it and went to work setting it up. Same as before except some of the snazzy packaging had changed to a more plain cardboard. I wonder if they are cutting costs?

No problems putting it together. The slick and easy experience as before. Same fiddly bit with the front fork power cable hole.

I have a new bike! Out of the box it seems 100% better than before.

Can you please come and pick up your bike?

About three weeks following my replacement bike arriving I get an email from the service centre: “Your repair is done! You can come and pick it up!"

Interestingly the email said to pick it up from the Covent Garden store, but then underneath it said “remember we have moved to Vauxhall, please come pick your bike up from there” Is it Covent Garden or Vauxhall? More cost cutting moving out of the fancy Covent Garden shop?

Anyway… What? Firstly, the repair will be done within the week huh? That was three weeks ago. Looks like the replacement was a good option! Next, why wasn't the service centre told about the replacement?

Now a less scrupulous me could just go pick up the bike and have an S3 for my wife to ride! But that would not be the right thing to do. So I emailed them back…

The email auto-replied back: “Sorry, we don't monitor this email address you can't contact us this way”

Oh for goodness sake! Chat hell again? I couldn't do it… I decided just to ignore the email.

A couple of days later I get a phone call (Caller ID withheld again…):

VM: “Can you PLEASE come and pick up your bike?

Me: “Let me get this straight, you WANT me to come pick up this bike?”

VM: “Yes! Please!”

Me: “Ok, I'll come Monday”

Ok. I'll admit it, I couldn't help myself trolling just a bit. In principle they had instructed, nay insisted, that I pick up the bike right? So by rights I could just go get it and be done.

Another VanMoof person also called me again the same day. They were super insistent I come get the bike.

I still couldn't do it. I summoned the strength and got on Chatzilla and told them about the screw up.

They noticed I had two separate accounts (support accounts?) with one bike on each and they didn't link up at all. I assume they just closed the old account. They said the repaired bike would be shipped back to the warehouse. Problem solved.

We'll come get your Bike in the next week

A few weeks later I get another email from VanMoof:

“We have organised a courier to pick up your bike. A refund will be processed once the bike is received”

What the?!?

This time my friend VanMoof support chat see's me coming and I get to a person within 10 minutes. A new record!

It was sent in error apparently. Honestly, I wasn't surprised. I nearly just said “Fine come get it”.

Finally! I am a cycle to work commuter!

For the last couple of months I have been cycling into work at least twice a week (44Km round trip). The S3 handles it really well. The shifter still feels really dicey at times, but ridden carefully its a pleasure to ride and I enjoy the commute far more than I thought I would.

Not being a slave to the train timetable is great. But knowing I wont be knackered when I get to work or get home is also great. Even so it's not zero exercise because you still have to pedal. So I get to feel somewhat virtuous as well.

London traffic isn't so bad once you get used to the patterns and how to go with the flow. Electric Scooters and MoPeds are a menace, but mostly to themselves rather than me.

eBikes are everywhere. A lot of them a bit shady legally. Accelerators, going faster than the law says the should, basically electric motor cycles. Pretty sure the London cycling elite hate them all. Me on my S3 included.

Final thoughts

I really hope that if/when my bike needs a service again, VanMoof will have sorted things out and it won't be the painful experience it was. If that does happen I will be sure to report back here.

I genuinely hope they can make support better and sort out whatever the issue is with the eShifter and hub gears. If they can, then this nice bike is viable. But knowing what I know now, I would not be buying or advising anyone buys a VanMoof bike in the UK until I could be sure the servicing and support system works. I am not sure if its just my unlucky experience here, but it sure was a circus.

If you do get a VanMoof S3, be very careful how much pressure you put through the pedals when starting from a stop. Always use the boost button to get going. If you are peddling too hard when it decides to change gear, the bike will break.

Flat tires still suck

I have had a puncture and can confirm, flat tires still suck. I was worried about fixing it, but VanMoof have excellent video's on getting the rear wheel off and even how to put a tube in. It had been a while since I had done it, so not going to lie, I watched it. It wasn't quite as easy as a regular bike, but wasn't that hard either which is good.

I have filled my new tube with some green gunk called ‘Slime’ which a work colleague tells me will seal most punctures. So maybe now they won't suck quite so much!

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