Surly Ghost Grappler Review: Risky Business
Just announced, the highly anticipated Surly Ghost Grappler is the brand’s first real disruptor bike in a while, a curly-bar dirt rig they define as a “dedicated drop-bar trail bike built for bikepacking excursions, singletrack sessions, and all-day dirt rides.” We’ve been riding one on chunky gravel, rugged trails, and everything in between for the last year. Find our in-depth review with loads of photos here…
After unboxing the embargoed Surly Ghost Grappler in February of last year, I propped it up against a wall, stepped back, and scratched my head, wondering, what’s Surly up to here? Is this just another reimagined Fargo or merely a variation on the en vogue drop-bar mountain bike theme? Then I reminded myself that it’s probably been in the works for a long while, studied its lines and parts a bit more, and grinned. It was about time that Surly tossed their hat into the ring—or a wrench into the spokes, rather.
It’s been a while, but during the prog bicycle renaissance that began sometime in the late aughts or early 10s, Surly took some real risks and essentially invented several interesting cycling subgenres. I would even venture to say that much of what they did helped create a culture and attract a lot of people to bikepacking, alt cycling, dirt-road touring, fat bikes, ATBing, and other eccentric styles of pedal-powered dirt shenanigans.
No doubt, 29+, the Krampus, ECR, Pugsley, Long Haul Trucker, and 1×1 all played a part in this, and each spun off new ideas, tire sizes, and even entire bike categories that were ultimately co-opted by larger companies and introduced to the mainstream. Of course, that diluted Surly’s original concepts—and maybe even blotted out their historical contributions—but I think their mission was successful. Long live risk-taking, which is one of the first things that came to mind as I was standing there admiring the oddity that is the Ghost Grappler.
- Highlights (Size L)
- Angles: 69.5° Headtube, 73° Seattube
- Reach/Stack: 444mm/641mm
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm BSA, 50mm drop
- Hub specs: 148 x 12mm (rear), 110 x 15mm (front)
- Seatpost Diameter: 30.9mm
- Max Tire Size: 29 x 2.1” or 27.5 x 2.8″
- Price: $1,899 ($799 frameset)
- Actual Weight: 29.4 pounds (13.34 kg)
So, what exactly is the Surly Ghost Grappler? A lot of folks already have some inkling or pretense. There were multiple photo leaks on Reddit, then a web page and video slip, all revealing at least the general shape and semblance of this drop-bar apparition. I posted a couple of rack and bag reviews that included ghostly hints of the frame, each with carefully placed buttery bokeh intended to disguise the Grappler. Still, someone recognized it every time and made sure to out it in the comments.
To catch up those who didn’t get the memo and haven’t had their ear to the rumor mill, the Ghost Grappler is a uniquely long, rigid-specific drop-bar bike specced with beefy 27.5” tires. It has a Surly Natch chromoly steel frame, of course, which is built around Boost-spaced 148 and 110mm wheels. It has an internally routed dropper post, all the bottle and rack mounts one might expect from Surly, and two additional pairs you might not. The Grappler has a new adjustable dropout that can be set up single speed or with an internally geared hub. It’s made for dirt touring, getting rowdy on singletrack (drop-bar style), and pretty much any other kind of riding that you can dream up in between those two disciplines. It’s an oddity that’s unlike any other bike I’ve ridden, and one that has Surly’s name all over it.
Wrestling With Words
Speaking of names, Ghost Grappler is a curious one. The low-hanging explanation might be that Surly took a page from the Ghostbusters franchise—as recorded in internet pop history, the name of the ghost-capturing gizmo box that character Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) wielded was called the “grabbing grappler.”
However, the mad hatters at Surly had something else in mind, apparently. As marketing honcho Dan Rasmusen retells it, “Ghost Grappling is a feat of strength that was created by longtime Surly employee Paul Zeigle. It has made appearances at Surly group rides and campouts over the years. Think shadow boxing, but shadow wrestling. It’s a sight to behold. We keep submitting it for an Olympic exhibition event. It keeps getting rejected.”
A more abstract definition I applied to it was that this bike was made for tackling a style of riding that is an apparition in itself, one that’s relatively undefined in mainstream bike culture—the art of just riding a rigid all-terrain bike over whatever the road and trail throw at you and finding new lines and style on familiar trails at your own speed and grace. Or, perhaps it has to do with the idea that it enables riders to disappear like ghosts into the woods and wilds of the world. Either way, it’s a fun one that has a hint of “ECR” to it, a name assigned to a legendary Surly bike that never really had an official acronym description, but was clearly fitting of epithets like Expedition Centric Rambler and Extreme Camping Rig.
As it happens, the way this review transpired was a little mysterious as well. Going into it, I knew nothing about the new Surly Ghost Grappler. I received it over a year ago and had no idea what I’d be unboxing when the UPS truck left it on my porch. A few weeks later, I was notified that its release was delayed by a month, which turned into several months, and then a year, all thanks to the pandemic supply chain shortage. As such, I wasn’t really in a hurry with the review, and Surly wasn’t in any rush to get it back—or to get all the specs together. That left me with no knowledge of the bike’s geometry, and I wasn’t about to pull out a ruler and try to piece it together. In short, I didn’t see any marketing materials, geometry charts, specs, or anything until after penning most of my thoughts about this bike 10 months after receiving it, just as I was boxing it up to send back. And that’s fine. I honestly enjoyed going into it blindly. All I knew is that it was a long drop-bar bike that looked rowdy, had 27.5 x 2.5” tires, and packed in some pretty nifty features.
The Long and Short
Typically, there are expectations that come with bikes I’m reviewing. Numbers such as head tube angle, chainstay length, and bottom bracket drop all have inherent meanings that you can use in an attempt to decode how it will ride. However, I also know from experience that every doctrine in bike geometry theory can essentially be tossed out the window when one tweak of an angle/length/height of a tube is juxtaposed with a nuanced tire size or another odd angle. Nothing is ever as it should be. And some bikes simply can’t be judged by the numbers. The Surly Ghost Grappler takes this to the nth degree.
One thing’s for sure: the Ghost Grappler has a long front end, which is pretty easy to see by looking at it. It also felt long, which was good for me as I’m often slightly too tall/long for size large drop-bar bikes. While one might expect it to have an ultra stretched out feeling, its relatively high stack height seems to balance it out, giving you a comfortably engaged stance.
To put its length in perspective, I later learned that the large Ghost Grappler’s 444mm reach is 40mm longer than that of the Kona Sutra ULTD, 55mm longer than the Stargazer, and 12mm longer than the Otso Fenrir, which is positioned as a ‘tween drop-bar/flat-bar bike. Surly makes no claims about flat bars, though I would love to try it and assume many people will. But the Ghost Grappler is a drop-bar bike. The stack is somewhat high, too. At 641mm, it’s about 14mm taller than the ULTD, 1mm shorter than the Otso, and 12mm shorter than the Stargazer (which is extra high). I left about 3cm of spacers under the 40mm stem, and the fit was spot on for me.
Aside from the reach, there are two unique numbers to take away from the Ghost Grappler’s geometry. One is its 720mm front center (on the large), which corresponds to its long top tube and reach. That’s long, as in XC mountain bike long. Actually, it’s only 1mm shorter than a size large Krampus (see Bike Insights comparison below)! Next is its super short 425mm rear center (aka chainstay length), which is about 25mm shorter than that of the Stargazer, 20mm shorter than the ULTD, 10mm shorter than the Krampus, and 5mm shorter than the Fenrir. That super-short rear end and ultra-long front are a magical combination on the Ghost Grappler. Together, they offer an excellent balance of stability and agility. The short stays and smaller 27.5” tires provide the nimbleness, and the long front center and fairly high trail—you get about 80mm of trail with the 50mm fork offset and 27.5 x 2.5” tires—give this bike an uncompromised level of stability.
Barge was actually the first term that came to mind on my maiden voyage with the Ghost Grappler. Once it gets going, it just wants to go. If it were a boat, you’d think it had a massive keel underneath that keeps it true and underscores that stability. To paint that in another light, it’s one of the only drop-bar bikes I’ve ridden on which I feel like I can ride no-handed down rough doubletrack. I kid you not. It’s incredibly stable. However, it’s also easy to maneuver and pick apart technical bits and obstacles. While those two traits don’t necessarily go together, the extra-long front center and long wheelbase anchor it while the smaller 27.5” tires and short chainstays provide that nimble agility.
Another analogy that came to mind while I was riding compares it to a Weeble. Anybody (most of you) who wasn’t born in the 1970s probably won’t be familiar, but as the toy’s slogan went, “Weebles wobble but they won’t fall down.” The gist of it is, the Weebles could be slung across the floor, wobbled, and moved around, but they always stayed upright due to their heavy, rounded base. The Ghost Grappler kind of felt like that to me, always keeping its forward momentum. I wouldn’t call it quick, but once it’s up to speed it just stays that way, harkening back to the party barge nickname. However, you can move it around pretty easily and it just pops right back into that stable gate. It’s an odd combination of characteristics, but it works very well.
Steel is Still Real
Digging into the frame a little further, one might expect this bike to be stiff. It’s a 100% Surly Natch Chromoly steel frame and fork, after all. It has a double-butted main triangle plus top tube and down tube gussets for added strength. And it’s Surly’s first drop-bar bike with Boost spacing and thru-axles—using Surly’s Gnot-Boost spacing in the rear end, so you can fit either 142 or 148 hubs. That’s a lot of metal and material. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the frame is. I wouldn’t say it’s nearly as compliant and limber as most gravel bikes, but it does a fairly good job of taming the bumps and vibrations that are part and parcel with dirt and gravel.
By comparison, I’d actually say it might feel a little more comfortable than the ULTD and a bit stiffer than the Stargazer. Actually, a buddy of mine rode it and said it was the most comfortable rigid off-road bike he’s ever ridden. I think Surly made some good tubing decisions that contribute to this. The straight 1-1/8″ headtube probably helps, as do the slender seat stays and mid-sized seat tube that fits a 30.9mm seat post. The large volume 27.5 x 2.5” tires don’t hurt, either. Teravail Ehlines are pretty comfortable tires. Speaking of, the Ghost Grappler frame has clearance for 29 x 2.1” tires, too. They claim 2.8” is the max width for the 27.5” variety, and as you can see in these photos, I think that’d be pretty tight. Something like 27.5 x 2.4-2.6” tires would be ideal.
On the (Skinny) Trail
Dissecting Surly’s elevator pitch for this bike—a dedicated drop-bar trail bike built for bikepacking excursions, singletrack sessions, and all-day dirt rides—there are some interesting things to unpack. First off, they call it a “drop-bar trail bike.” Generally, “trail bike” is a fairly niche designation given to mountain bikes that are a step above XC but not quite as burly or aggressive as enduro. I don’t think Surly was trying to wedge the Grappler into that particular niche, but you get the point: this isn’t ain’t no gravel bike.
I rode the Grappler on all types of trails, from rugged singletrack to gravel, to pavement, and everything in between. If I had to pick a place where it shines, it would be a wide range of rough doubletrack. It’s super comfortable in that zone, and of course, just wants to keep rolling, barreling over everything confidently and tirelessly. On the other hand, it’s a blast on singletrack too. On one occasion, I tackled a 12-mile bit of technical singletrack, trying to discern how it handled. I kept forgetting to think about it, honestly. It just reacts and remains composed yet interesting to ride in that element, turning familiar trails into a new world to be discovered.
On the other hand, I found myself gripping the bars a little tighter on steep technical obstacles, both going up and coming down. I felt like I hesitated a little too much on these bits, which I mostly ultimately attributed to the narrower drop bars. But I also wondered if the Grappler’s rather high bottom bracket played a part in this. As mentioned, it’s quite stable, but I also felt a little at odds with parts of the trail that require moves and jukes to avoid certain death. After a while, I simply gritted my teeth and rode through it, never once regretting that I did. That said, YouTube host Neil Beltchenko also tested the Ghost Grappler and didn’t have the same findings. As he put it, “I felt at home, felt like a trail bike. I tested it on some really steep switchbacks and some tough obstacles and it felt very grounded to me despite that high BB.” Otherwise, the Grappler descends extremely confidently and I found that it climbs pretty well, with excellent traction and fairly quick handling.
The build kit Surly specced on the Ghost Grappler is a little unexpected—namely, their choice of a Microshift Advent X 10-speed drivetrain. It’s actually pretty cool, however. Obviously, it doesn’t have the leg-friendly cadence transitions you get from a 12-speed cassette, but it works fairly well and has a wide 436% gear range and a granny gear with 18.6 gear inches. That’s a pretty great range for loaded bikepacking on a drop-bar bike. And, the fact that it has the dropper actuation setup on the left lever is an excellent feature. You can also swap out the drop-bar levers for the AdventX mountain shifter if you want to switch to flat bars and use the same derailleur and cassette.
- Frame Natch tubing, double-butted / TIG welded, E.D. coated
- Fork Natch tubing, double-butted tapered, TIG welded, E.D. coated
- Rear Hub Novatec 12x148mm, 32h
- Front Hub Novatec 15x110mm, 32h
- Rims WTB ST i40 TCS
- Tires Teravail Ehline, 27.5 x 2.5″, 60tpi
- Crankset Samox 2PCS Boost 32t
- Rear Derailleur Microshift M6205
- Cassette Microshift 11-48t
- Chain KMC X10
- Shifters Microshift SB-M100, AdventX Dual Control Levers
- Seatpost TransX YSP15, 30.9, 100mm travel
- Handlebar Salsa Cowchipper 31.8
- Stem Promax DA-296, 31.8
- Grip Tape Cork Black
- Headset Cane Creek 40
- Saddle WTB Volt 142
- Bottom Bracket Samox BSA 24
- Brakes Tektro Mira MD-C400
- Rotors Tektro Light Wave 180/160
The rest of the build kit was generally fine. I wish they’d have specced it with a longer dropper post, however. The 125mm Trans-X wasn’t quite enough for me, and I’d have preferred a 150 or 175, even. The wheels and tires were good (I love the Ehlines), although I think I’d choose slightly smaller rims instead of the i40s they specced. Rims with a 35mm internal width would be sufficient, and that might shave a little weight off the 29.4-pound build. Also, since this was a pre-production bike, it had different handlebars than the Cowchippers mentioned in the build above. Mine had relatively narrow Woodchippers, which were fun to get reacquainted with, but I think wider Cowchippers will better fit the bike. According to Surly, the Large will come with 460mm Cowchippers. The other sizes are as follows: the XL will come with the 480mm version, Medium 440, Small 420, and XS will get 400mm bars. Generally speaking, I think it’s a pretty solid build kit that’s fairly durable and reliable.
While Out Bikepacking
Other than the elevator pitch I mentioned earlier, I also just saw that Surly tossed out this little byline stating that the Grappler is for “hitting the most aggressive bikepacking trails.” That’s an interesting choice of words. It’s certainly not an enduro bike, and it’s not suspension-corrected, so there’s no chance of it morphing into an aggressive mountain bike. An aggressive ATB, perhaps. I appreciate that, however. It is what it is. And the non-suspension-corrected frame and short 420mm fork length allow the Ghost Grappler to retain a massive triangle. Even the wedge bag I had made for it was huge. It also has all the mounts you could ask for, including a four-pack on each fork blade, a three-pack on each side of the downtube, and one on the seat tube. It has rack and fender mounts, too.
Now, the elephant in the room: those unique seat stay mounts, which are essentially two pairs of rack mounts that double as pairs of bottle bosses. With those, you can fit seven bottle cages on the frame and fork, should the need arise. Perhaps Surly saw this hack from 2016 (or Joe’s from 2011) and decided to run with it. It’s a clever solution that I expect would come in handy for a route like the Baja Divide or an epic trip across South Africa, both rides that this bike would be great for. In full transparency, I didn’t really use these mounts except for getting some photos, but I’d expect them to work fine with some solid bottle cages, as did my hack in Africa. One thing to note is that the cable routing for the rear derailleur is in the way of the drive-side cage mounts, running right between them. There’s not really another good way to route it with the AdventX derailleur, either, so you’d need to add washers or spacers to get around this. The same goes for mounting a rack, which Neil tried and was able to do using a couple of washers.
As far as riding loaded, the Ghost Grappler is another one of those bikes that simply gets better with additional weight. As mentioned, it’s not an overly stiff or harsh riding bike, but it’s not the most supple either. The added load further softens bumps and vibrations—a trait that’s pretty common to steel bikes with touring-weight tubesets—and doesn’t get noodly as a result. It also seems to maintain its sure-footedness and handling with a load, too.
- Model/Size Tested: Surly Ghost Grappler, Size Large
- Actual Weight (w/o pedals): 29.4 pounds (13.34 kg)
- Place of Manufacture: Taiwan
- Price: $1,899 ($799 frameset)
- Sizes Available: XS, S, M, L, XL
- Manufacturer’s Details: SurlyBikes.com
- Unique mix of stability, maneuverability, and comfortable long-ride geometry
- LOOONNNGG front end provides options for flat bars or a better fit if you’re between sizes
- Large frame bag space and plenty of mounts and provisions
- Unique implementation of rear bottle mounts, handy for desert routes
- Good value, considering today’s market
- It’s not light, although it’s not too heavy
- I found that the high BB makes it feel a little timid on steep, gnarly terrain
- I wish they offered it with flat bars and stock 29er wheels and tires
In recent years, I’ve attempted to speculate what Surly would do next, why they ditched the ECR, and why they hadn’t released an eccentric drop-bar dirt bicycle of their own, since that’s the current de rigueur. I also wondered how these decisions are made within the QBP ecosystem and why the Gorilla Monsoon wasn’t a Surly. The Ghost Grappler pretty much answered those questions. It’s a bike that’s uniquely Surly, very well-conceived, and doesn’t crossover any of the other bikes in their lineup—or many other bikes in other brands’ lineups, for that matter.
If you didn’t read between the lines in the wordy review above, I really liked this bike, as did Neil. It’s a super fun platform with a genius set of decisions made in its construction, including tire size, frame details, and a geometry that properly blends a long front center with short chainstays and other angles and measurements that add up to a fun, comfortable, and stable bike. In true Surly fashion, it’s heavy, and there are a few wishes left on the table, but these certainly won’t derail its intent or success.
Who’s The Ghost Grappler For?
With that, I think the best way to close out this review is to discuss who the Ghost Grappler is for. My feeling is that it will either fit people looking for one bike that perfectly meets their niche set of needs or folks in the market for a third bike to mix things up. For me, I think it would make a good third bike next to a full-suspension mountain bike and a hardtail. Although I ride gravel bikes on occasion, I prefer to be on trails and rough stuff. The Ghost Grappler can do all of that, but more importantly, it’s one of those bikes that you can pedal on trails that you usually ride on a mountain bike, and it transforms them into a whole new world of different lines and new ways of approaching them.
For those looking for a quiver-killing single bike for relatively slow and methodical off-road riding, I think it could be that, too. It handles all types of dirt extremely well, yet still kind of “drives itself” on gravel roads, remaining comfortable and easy to pedal for long rides. With all that’s been said in 3,750 words here, in the end, I think it lives up to Surly’s claim as a “dedicated drop-bar trail bike built for bikepacking excursions, singletrack sessions, and all-day dirt rides,” so folks will just have to figure out if that combo fits them.
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