Many know the beer. But do you know the bikes?
by Jeremy Zoss
If you’re reading The Growler, you probably know a lot about Surly Brewing. After all, the brewery has gone from a start-Let’s make one thing crystal clear right away: Surly Brewing and Surly Bikes are entirely separate beasts. It is not a single company that makes both beer and bikes, although Surly Bikes’ Tsar of Anti-Social Media Bob Pavlica said he’s asked that all the time. Surly Bikes is a division of Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the Bloomington-based bicycle wholesaler that is one of the true powerhouses of the cycling industry. QPB owns several bike brands, is the exclusive distributer or many others and partners with even more. But even with so many brands under its belt, in the late 1990s QPB employees Wakeman Massie, Dave Gray, Hurl Everstone and Josh Yablon saw a niche that could be filled. Up to one of the biggest names in Minnesota beer in only a few short years. You’ve no doubt heard about the “The Surly Bill” that kickstarted the taproom boom around the state. But what you might not know is there is another home-grown Minnesota brand that bears the Surly name, and its following is every bit as fanatical as the Surly Nation.“It started in 1998, 99 by a couple guys who worked at Quality Bicycle Products who wanted to ride a single-speed mountain bike and there was nothing around,” said Pavlica. “Nobody was making anything. They wanted a steel bike. Everything was aluminum at the time.”
The group approached the owner of QPB about making a single-speed mountain bike, and he agreed. Surly’s first bike was born and dubbed the Rat Race. That bike was later renamed the One By One, and not long after, Surly started offering a selection of bike parts. Then came the Cross-Check road bike and the Karate Monkey trail bike. In the early years, Surly was best known for its single-speed bikes, but these days it is better known for a style of bike it helped pioneer, the “fat bike.”
Fat bikes are instantly recognizable for their wide, oversized tires designed for all-terrain riding. Surly didn’t invent the fat bike category, but it helped popularize them with bikes like the Pugsley and Moonlander. “There were people making them, but they were kind of one-offs or customs,” said Pavlica. “There weren’t rims or tires available until we really got into it and exploded that into the mainstream.” Now, Surly owns the machines that manufacture fat bike tires, and most brands that build fat bikes use Surly tires.
Pavlica said the reason for the exploding popularity of fat bikes is simple. “They’re damn fun to ride,” he said. “In the apocalypse or a zombie attack, I think the Pugsley would be the bike I’d grab. I know I can load that thing down with just about everything I need and ride it just about everywhere I need to. And it’s fun. I’m usually smiling when I’m riding it.”
Riders around the world must feel the same way. The brand sells its bikes in all 50 states, as well as Europe, Japan, Russia and more, and its global distribution is growing all the time. Pavlica said the brand is hugely popular in Japan and has recently exploded in popularity in Norway. Bike shops in Africa and South America are also interested in stocking the bikes.
Late this year, Surly will go back to its roots with the release of its latest ride, the Krampus mountain bike. Early next year, Surly will break loose from its space in QBP headquarters and open a standalone office somewhere in Minneapolis. While it won’t sell the bikes, Pavlica said the new Surly office will be open to the public so riders can come in, chat with the Surly crew and even test out some of the new bikes.
Despite having a much wider reach than Surly Brewing, many people here in Minnesota still don’t know about Surly Bikes. The two companies, however, have been talking since before the launch of the beer. Pavlica said Surly Brewing’s Omar Ansari reached out to Surly Bikes before launching the brewery to make sure there would be no conflict.
“They met with our lawyer and came to a gentleman’s agreement,” said Pavlica. “We like to play nice with everyone, despite the name. We dig people and we dig beer. It’s a cool name. We like the name, why shouldn’t they?”
The terms of the agreement are simple. The beer company always uses the name “Surly Brewing” on merchandise and advertising, while the bike company can use the name “Surly” on its own. Surly Brewing stays away from bike-related merchandise like jerseys and steers clear of sponsoring biking events. The arrangement has worked just fine so far, even though some members of the craft beer crowd still haven’t caught onto the distinction between the two.
“If I go into Chicago Lake Liquors wearing a plain old Surly T-shirt, people will come up to me and ask if I work for Surly,” said Pavlica. “I say yes, they say ‘Hey man, I love your beer!’ I’m like ‘No man, I work for the bike company.’ They’re like ‘I had no idea there was a bike company.’ But it’s cool.”
Pavlica said the two companies do talk occasionally and are working out a time for the employees of Surly Bikes to take a tour of the Surly Brewery. Of course, with two busy companies, it hasn’t been easy finding a time when everyone is available to meet up. At least, that’s the official explanation for why the tour hasn’t happened yet. Pavlica has another theory.
“We think they’re afraid we’re going to drink them under the table,” he said with a laugh.
Illustration by Phil Juliano, Photo by Joe Alton