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The downfall of e-bike company VanMoof has left its customers stranded

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The company that many cyclists consider the Tesla of e-bikes has gone bankrupt. VanMoof is a Dutch startup. Its bikes became famous for their sleek design, their ease of use through an app on your smartphone and their hipster appeal. But they lost money as their products often broke down. And now NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Amsterdam that the company's downfall has left its customers stranded.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: More than two-thirds of the population of Amsterdam commutes to work on two wheels. Some prefer to do it in style.

BRIAN RUETERKEMP: And I think one of the most things I really appreciate of the bike is having a boost button.

SCHMITZ: Brian Rueterkemp's favorite feature of his VanMoof bike is the boost button. When pressed, it delivers a jolt of speed to pass others on his way to work at a startup in downtown Amsterdam. He also likes its built-in alarm that alerts you via your VanMoof app when someone's messing with your bike.

RUETERKEMP: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM CHIMING)

SCHMITZ: Rueterkemp bought his VanMoof nine months ago for around $4,000. It's a sleek, powder-blue minimalist machine whose battery, motherboard, e-shifter and SIM card - yeah, these bikes use GPS - are all engineered to fit snugly inside its aluminum alloy frame. Now that VanMoof has gone bankrupt, Rueterkemp is reconsidering his purchase.

RUETERKEMP: I enjoyed it really much, and now I'm a bit scared of what's going to happen when I do have any issues because not all the parts are built anymore. So if something break, like the e-shifter, then - or you have to find another VanMoof bike who wants to share an e-shifter or you're screwed.

SCHMITZ: A few canals away at a bike repair shop, Joram Hartogs says he refuses to repair VanMoofs.

JORAM HARTOGS: Because they're impossible to repair because they're so sealed off with their own equipment that nobody else except them can fix it.

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

J HARTOGS: All bike brands have a certain standard, 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 - yeah, they want to overdesign it.

SCHMITZ: He says VanMoof's creators envisioned themselves like Apple - a unique product that would spawn its own ecosystem. But he says the company ran out of money because, unlike Apple, VanMoof products often broke. And their maintenance shops could not keep up.

TAMOR HARTOGS: The phone is ringing, like, every second. All day, it's ringing.

SCHMITZ: Bike repairman Tamor Hartogs - no relation to Joram - was a maintenance contractor of VanMoof until the company went bankrupt. With VanMoof no longer paying him to fix bikes under warranty, he's left renegotiating repairs with individual customers. Without access to VanMoof parts, he's only been able to take out the company's patented cylindrical batteries by carefully breaking them apart and installing new internal components.

T HARTOGS: I can cry in a corner, but I just thought, let's work hard, and let's make some new money.

SCHMITZ: He 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 said, quote, "I'm afraid I can't make anyone available, seeing that we're all fired except for the founders." Aside a bike lane in Amsterdam, VanMoof biker Brian Rueterkemp has a new accessory - a thick bike-lock chain he's carried around since the bankruptcy - protection against other VanMoof bike owners.

RUETERKEMP: I've heard a lot of stories that they look for bikes to get their own bike fixed and steal it - and now because you don't have any insurance anymore.

SCHMITZ: 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's listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM CHIMING)

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Amsterdam.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.