When the Surly Ghost Grappler was announced in February of 2022 I was intrigued. It was a weird mix of mountain bike, gravel bike, and… something else. The geometry was strange and foreign to me, but the chonky tires screamed “THIS BIKE IS FUN!” Billed as a “drop bar mountain bike” I just wasn’t sure what to make of the bike, and after reading some reviews I decided that it probably wasn’t a bike for me, but I’d love to give it a try sometime.
Fast forward to July and I noticed that Spokengear bikes in Two Harbors, MN had some Ghost Grapplers in stock. We were going to be somewhat close to the area so I decided that if they were still listed online when we were heading back from our vacation, I’d stop by and give it a test.
In the meantime I had gotten more exposure to the category of ATB’s (All Terrain Bikes) and started to think that maybe the Grappler had something going for it that I didn’t quite understand yet. Additionally, I had participated in my first gravel race on my Salsa Vaya, and although I had a great time, I noticed I wasn’t feeling confident on the gravel descents. The Vaya is a great bike, but I often found myself not feeling as stable as I wanted to be. Perhaps the Ghost Grappler could solve that too?
Of course you can guess how this story is wrapping up. I got to Spokengear, tried out the bike, ate some breakfast with my wife at Cedar Coffee Company (attached to the bike shop), then bought the bike and brought it home. Right from the initial ride I could tell that this geometry was something different and special, and I was having fun discovering what it had to offer.
A week later I took it on a 50 mile pavement tour and have racked up another 350 since then. So what am I liking so far? What are the quirks? Let’s dive in.
What do I like?
So what took this bike from an interesting curiosity to ending up in my garage? Three things put it over the edge for me.
First and foremost, this bike is stable. With a 69.5° head tube angle and 50mm fork offset the trail lands close to 80mm. That’s solidly in rigid mountain bike territory. Compared to the 64mm trail on my Vaya I instantly could feel the added stability with the longer front end. This bike feels planted.
I haven’t had too many gravel adventures with it yet, but the few rides that I’ve had have been incredibly fun. In October we did an adventure at St. Croix State Park and the bike felt great on the downhills, and was also able to tackle some gnarly off-road trail that resembled more of a horse trail (still bike approved trail FYI). The 2.5” tires chewed up anything I threw at it just fine, and I always felt in complete control of the bike.
I’m not the most nimble of runner or rider and so anything a bike can do to make me feel more stable is a win. The Grappler is perfect for building my confidence.
I wasn’t sure how to phrase this section, but jumpy is the best word I can come up with. When you push down on the pedals the response is quick. At 425mm the rear chainstay is pretty short for bikes that normally fit into the “gravel” or “touring” categories. However, that shorter chainstay gives the bike a punchy and nimble feeling that many other gravel bikes lack (in my opinion anyway). The longer front end helps to mitigate the issues with a short chainstay and keep the bike planted, yet very maneuverable.
If you’re familiar with the Rodeo Labs Flaanimal, this is a similar design, but the Grappler is even a tad more aggressive on the front.
Finally, of course I need to tout the phrase “steel is real”. I’m a steel junkie, and being a Surly, the Grappler fits the bill nicely. Not too much to say here, but if you’re a steel fanatic, then you know what I’m talking about.
What’s not the greatest?
Overall, there isn’t much I don’t like about the Ghost Grappler. The drivetrain is the capable, but heavy, AdventX from microSHIFT. It’s basic and utilitarian, but it gets the job done. If I was building from frame I would have probably gone Shimano SLX, but that also increases the cost quite a bit.
One advantage of the AdventX drivetrain is the ability to swap from drop bars to flat bars without investing in a new derailleur. Before winter I put on some Moloko bars with the appropriate shifters and brakes. I haven’t had much time before the snow to test it out, but I’ll report back on if this is a superior setup for this bike. I know a fair number of folks really like flat bars on the Grappler.
One other small complaint about the stock build is the bar tape. It’s basic, but thin and unimpressive. Maybe it’s just me, but the stock tape feels like an afterthought and somewhat cheap. It’s obviously not too big a deal because I haven’t re-wrapped the bars yet, but every time I get on, I notice it.
Unfortunately, the Grappler is not suspension corrected, and so it’s not possible to put on a front suspension fork. I’m sure there’s some design choices that make this an obvious decision (I’m not a frame designer), but when you have a bike that is so capable off-road, it feels like a miss.
Finally, this isn’t a lightweight bike. My size small comes in around 31 pounds vs. the 27 pounds for my Vaya. Both are steel bikes, but it’s quite obvious that the Grappler is a thicker and heavier duty frame than the Vaya. This means the Grappler is probably more suited to tougher terrain, but that comes at a cost in lightness. However, it would probably be easy to shed some pounds by removing the dropper post and going with some lighter and smaller wheels. I’ve kept the 2.5” Ehlines on the bike because they’re so much fun, but lighter tires wouldn’t be hard to find.
Is this bike for you?
One of the best indicators of how well you like a bike is how often you reach for it when you go out for a ride. Without me even realizing it I’m finding myself grabbing the Grappler for most of my (non-winter) rides. It’s not always intentional either. I just find myself going into the garage and grabbing the Grappler instead of the Vaya without a second thought. That’s probably the highest praise you can give a bike.
Yet, the Grappler might not be for everyone. This is certainly an ATB bike and you feel it. It likes to get rowdy. It’s not light and fast. But it is stable and fun. As someone who is not a competitive cyclist, I’m less concerned about having the fastest bike around, and more concerned with comfort and confidence. As a back-of-the-pack type of rider, the Ghost Grappler is an great fit for me. It does everything I ask it to do, and I feel great doing it.
I’m excited that I took a chance and gave the Grappler a test. It challenged my first inclinations of reading about the bike, and I’m happy I moved past that. This is a great bike, and I’m really happy with what it can do. I foresee many years of happy riding, no matter the trail.