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Van poof! Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof goes bankrupt, leaving riders stranded

A man rides a VanMoof brand e-bike in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Aug. 17.
Piroschka van de Wouw
/
Reuters
A man rides a VanMoof brand e-bike in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Aug. 17.

AMSTERDAM — More than two-thirds of the population of Amsterdam commutes to work on two wheels, and some, like office worker Brian Rueterkemp, prefer to do it in style.

"I think one of the things I really appreciate about my bike is having a boost button," he says about his VanMoof, an electric bike that, over the years, has become a hipster accessory both in Europe and in the United States.

But the brand, considered by many bicyclists the Tesla of e-bikes, has gone bankrupt; its cofounders are in talks with outside groups to revive the failed company.

The Dutch startup's bikes have become famous for their sleek design and ease of use through a smartphone app. But VanMoof's downfall has left customers like Rueterkemp stranded.

Rueterkemp bought his VanMoof nine months ago for around $4,000, and he's ridden it nearly every day since, frequently pressing the bike's "boost" button to pass fellow commuters on his way to his startup in downtown Amsterdam.

He's also fond of the bike's built-in alarm that alerts him via the company's app whenever someone so much as nudges his bike, a sleek, powder-blue minimalist machine whose battery, motherboard, e-shifter and SIM card are all engineered to fit snugly inside its aluminum alloy frame.

"Now I'm a bit scared of what's going to happen when I do have any issues," Rueterkemp admits. "If something breaks the e-shifter, then you have to find another VanMoof biker who wants to share their e-shifter, or you're screwed."

Bicycles from the VanMoof company stand in the store at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin, Germany, in March 2022.
/ Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images
/
Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images
Bicycles from the VanMoof company stand in the store at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin, Germany, in March 2022.

Fixing a VanMoof has become one big headache

A few canals away at a bike repair shop, Joram Hartogs says he refuses to repair VanMoofs, "because they're impossible to repair."

"They're so sealed off with their own equipment that nobody else except them can fix it," he says.

Hartogs says he'll only agree to fix VanMoof tires, because the brand's engineers made it next to impossible to open the frame that contains all the parts.

"All bike brands have a certain standard," says Hartogs about VanMoof, "and they went around every standard that was available because they didn't want to do anything with regular bike parts. So now they created everything themselves, and it keeps breaking because they wanted to over-design it."

Hartogs says VanMoof's creators fancied their company to be like Apple — creating unique products that would spawn its own ecosystem — but Hartogs says the company ran out of money because, unlike Apple's products, VanMoof's specialized bikes often broke down, and their maintenance shops and generous warranty policies couldn't keep up.

"The phone is ringing like every second, all day it's ringing," complains former VanMoof maintenance contractor Tamor Hartogs (who is no relation to Joram).

With VanMoof no longer paying him to fix bikes under warranty, Tamor Hartogs is now left negotiating complicated repairs with individual customers.

Without access to VanMoof parts, he's only been able to restore e-shifters to two-speed gearshifts instead of their normal four-speed versions. He's also been reduced to taking out the company's patented cylindrical batteries from VanMoof bike frames by carefully breaking them apart and installing new internal components.

"I can cry in the corner, but I just thought, 'Let's work hard and let's make some new money,'" he says.

Hartogs knows VanMoof's creators are in talks to sell their defunct company, but he says if that happens, he doesn't think the new owners will pay his bills.

When asked for comment, VanMoof's global head of communications replied by email: "I'm afraid I can't make anyone available at the moment — seeing that we're all fired except for the founders."

Brian Rueterkemp bought his VanMoof e-bike nine months ago and is now worried about how to fix it, should he have problems. VanMoof, a brand likened to the Tesla of e-bikes, declared bankruptcy in the Netherlands in July, and customers like Rueterkemp feel left behind.
/ Rob Schmitz/ NPR
/
Rob Schmitz/ NPR
Brian Rueterkemp bought his VanMoof e-bike nine months ago and is now worried about how to fix it, should he have problems. VanMoof, a brand likened to the Tesla of e-bikes, declared bankruptcy in the Netherlands in July, and customers like Rueterkemp feel left behind.

Beside a bike lane in Amsterdam, the VanMoof biker Brian Rueterkemp has a new accessory: a thick, old-fashioned bike-lock chain he's carried around since the bankruptcy was announced: protection against other VanMoof bike owners.

"I've heard a lot of stories that they look for bikes to get their own bike fixed, and steal it," says Rueterkemp, adding that if his bike gets snatched now, there's no way to collect on his VanMoof insurance policy.

And should his bike's internal alarm go off while someone's trying to steal his bike for parts, there is no longer anyone on the other end of that VanMoof app who is listening.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.