VanMoof adds manual gear shifting to S3 and X3 e-bikes

VanMoof has released a firmware update for its S3 and X3 e-bikes that allows for manual gear shifting. If you’re thinking that sounds like a pretty basic feature for a bicycle, you’d be right. But Vanmoof’s latest bikes have fully automatic four-gear shifters, and until now, there was no way to change gears yourself.

The automatic shifter is convenient and generally works well, but as with automatic gearboxes in cars, you do occasionally find yourself riding in a suboptimal gear. While this can normally be fixed by easing off the pedals or using the turbo boost button, it’s not always practical given factors such as terrain. VanMoof does offer settings for hilly and flat land, as well as the ability to customize at what speeds the gears shift up and down, but you’ll inevitably find yourself wanting a manual shifter every now and then.

That’s what’s been delivered with the new firmware, and I’ve been using it for a few days on my personal X3. All things considered, it works better than I expected, especially since the bikes have such a spartan control setup. You first need to activate manual shifting in the mobile app, then you’ll be able to shift up by double-tapping the turbo boost button near the right grip and shift down by performing the same action while holding down the bell button near the left grip.

The bike plays a noise out of its speaker when you change gears, which isn’t exactly the kind of feedback you’d get from a regular bike, but it does the job. I haven’t once seen the bike fail to shift when I attempted to do so, nor have I accidentally blared out a bell noise. I got used to everything pretty quickly.

The problem, though — and I accept that this is 100 percent the result of having ridden an automatic-shifting bike almost daily for more than a year at this point, and it will sound ridiculous to any regular bike rider — is that I don’t always want to have to shift gears myself. I like the automatic shifter, and it’s really just an occasional annoyance that it’d be nice to be able to override a couple of times a week. The way the manual shifting works here is that it’s either on or off all the time, so it’s not going to help you in a pinch — it’s just another way to ride the bike.

That could still be useful for a lot of people, though. If you live in a hilly city or have an awkward commute that trips up the automatic shifter, it might be worth switching to this setting at certain times. Personally, I don’t really see myself using it unless it’s ever possible to shift manually while in an automatic mode. And for people who do want to shift manually most of the time, they’d probably be better served by bikes with more conventional controls.

What I will use, however, is another new feature that comes with this firmware and lets you shift motor assist modes while in motion. Previously, you could only do this from within the app or by holding down the boost button while the bike was stationary; now, the latter method works as long as you’re not pedaling.

I shift motor assist modes quite often depending on the setting and situation — I’ll turn it down when riding with my wife and her non-e-bike, for example, or when I want to save battery power. But I usually realize I want to change when I’m actually riding the bike, so this will come in useful. It’s definitely a feature that demands caution, since you have to look down at the screen on the frame to confirm which mode you’ve switched to (there are four degrees of power assist), so I wouldn’t recommend using it on busy streets or at high speed.

Overall this is a solid feature drop for the VanMoof S3 and X3 that could make a big difference to the way people ride their bikes. The manual shifting might not get much use from me, but I’m glad to know it’s there, and it might just fix what would otherwise have been a dealbreaker for some people.