Looking at Vello’s network of 50 dealers across Europe and its expansion plans in Asia and the USA, it’s hard to believe that the Austrian folding bike manufacturer is only four years old. Funded through a successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaign in 2017, Vello launched its foldable bikes on the market in 2018. Since then, the company’s story has been one of steady growth and rising popularity among leisure bikers. Its latest flagship model, the Vello Bike+, integrates an electric motor onto the Red Dot award-winning design of the Vello Bike. According to the company, it’s the “world’s first self-charging folding e-bike.” That is both a true statement and a clever usage of cherry-picked adjectives.
When Vello offered me the opportunity to test a unit of the Vello Bike+ for a couple of weeks back in November, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I’ve been a single-speed bike rider for most of my adult life, and all I knew about foldable bikes is that you can conveniently fold and carry them in the Berlin metro system without forking out the money for a dedicated bike ticket. I’ve tried a Brompton in the past long enough to know that folding bikes are not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I can appreciate the elegant engineering feat of building a two-wheeler that shrinks to the size of a carry-on bag while staying sturdy and safe. In this regard, the Vello Bike+ is easy to assess as a premium product.
The attention to detail and the general quality of the materials have been evident since the first ride. So is the sturdiness of the frame and the cleverness of the folding mechanism. Mastering the folding is a matter of a few tries, although it requires more tinkering than a Brompton. The saddle post, for example, needs always to be retracted to act as a balance point for the folded bike. At the same time, the user must extend it before kicking the bicycle back together. Otherwise, it will hit against the rear wheel, blocking the unfolding. That is easily resolved with the fast-release clamp that holds the pin in place. Although quick, the process isn't as fast as lifting the bike to clamp back together.
The use of a fast-release clamp for the seat post and a screw-and-pin solution for the folding front wheel can be problematic for anyone considering buying the Vello Bike+ as a city bike. In a place like Berlin, locking a bicycle like this outside is too risky. Its parts will inevitably get stolen sooner rather than later. Sure, if you’re visiting a friend or going to a restaurant, you might have a chance to fold it and bring it with you. Alas, due to its weight (13Kg), the Bike+ is not so pleasurable to carry, especially if you’re climbing up a few flights of stairs. Its folded volume is also not negligible, with a footprint of 79cm in length and 29cm in width. It’s not that much, but I had a couple of establishments refusing to accommodate it inside, forcing me to lock it outside after stripping it from all the implements most likely to get stolen.
These are inevitable considerations for city dwellers, mainly because the Vello Bike+’ value is clear to anyone who would look at it for more than one second. The polished metal frame, double hydraulic disk brakes, Schwalbe marathon tires, the Satori alloy seat post, folding aluminum pedals, the Gates Carbon Drive belt, and the Selle Royal foam matrix saddle are clear indicators of how much a bike like that could be worth (namely, 2,990€).
What’s mainly contributing to the price tag is the less conspicuous of the bikes’ part. The rear-mounted Zehus motor that pushes the little Bike+ up to 25Km/h is seamlessly integrated into the center of the rear wheel frame. It’s surprisingly compact, considering it’s packing the drivetrain along with a computerized system, an array of sensors, and a battery that can be recharged while riding through a KERS mechanism.
Zehus (Zero Emission HUman Synergy) is a spinoff of Politecnico di Milano that had the brilliant idea to apply the principle of hybrid motors to e-bikes. While it’s already been implemented onto a plethora of bikes, from fixies to old school dutch cruisers, Vello is the first company to build it onto a foldable two-wheeler.
Riding with the help of the Zehus motor is surprisingly simple and thoroughly enjoyable. To activate the motor, the rider needs to backpedal three times. The engine can provide a gentle push that helps the rider on steeper roads or an always-on turbo boost. Modes are selected through the dedicated Zehus app via Bluetooth. The setup and the interface are easy and intuitive. It’s worth mentioning that both are tied to creating a user account on the Zehus cloud platform, though. Zehus offers a remote control that can be installed on the handlebar, which Vello sells as an optional accessory for users who wouldn't want to resort to their phone to control bike modes. The reliance on a third-party platform for electrifying its Bike+, consequently delegating consumer data to an external provider, is both a weakness and a blessing for companies like Vello. A weakness, as the brand story doesn’t translate into the digital realm, with an interface that is not properly branded and is clearly external to the company. A blessing, because Zehus’ incredibly clever solution enabled Vello to offer its KERS enhanced Bike+ with minor tweaks to an existing design and production line.
The result of this compromise is undoubtedly a net positive. Riding the Vello Bike+ with the Zehus engine is just fun. I was really surprised by how long the battery can last on a single charge thanks to the generative braking system. As long as the rider adjusts its riding style to brake with the backpedaling mechanism, the KERS system can substantially extend the declared 30-51Km range (in Turbo mode). Backpedaling is nothing like braking on a fixie, as the bike doesn’t abruptly stop by changing the pedaling direction. Instead, the Bike+ slows down to a crawl. The only downside is the gear noise produced by the backpedaling, which is ostensibly louder than the usual gear sound of a traditional bike. In the city, that’s easily drowned by street noise, whereas I can imagine that it could become slightly annoying during a ride in the countryside.
My experience with the Vello Bike+ has been a net positive. Although I would personally never spend 3000€ on a small foldable bike with an electric motor, I can absolutely appreciate the appeal that such a high-quality product can have on many old and new biking enthusiasts. The product oozes quality and attention to detail while catering to a large target market of people who want a bike that’s easy to carry and store without giving up the advantages of an e-bike. According to the friendly folks at Bicicli, the Berlin-based Vello distributor where I retrieved my test bike, the Bike+ is especially popular among high net worth older couples, who usually buy them in pairs for weekend getaways or during trips with their caravans. All things considered, and regardless of me being utterly off-target for the product, the Bike+ struck me as a testament to how electric bikes can now come under many different forms. Vello Bike+ is a successful experiment that proves how great design paired with clever engineering can redefine biking and spin it towards new exciting directions.