Pub bikes are turning the Motor City into Pedal City

Detroit’s three cycle pubs — The HandleBar, Detroit Cycle Pub and The Michigan Pedaler — are bringing in dollars and people looking for a good time

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

On a steamy July Friday, a blue and orange 15-person bike honked its way down Monroe, turning the heads of al fresco diners. One truck behind, an aluminum bike carried a dozen pedalers waving and wooing at the bemused onlookers in Greektown.

“Sometimes you feel like the presidential motorcade because everyone is looking at you,” says Mike Gill, owner of The Michigan Pedaler.

It’s hard not to look when a bike pub pedals by. Relatively new to Detroit, The HandleBar got the pedal parties started in the city in August. The two-hour tours, typically stopping at three bar areas, proved such a success that the Detroit Cycle Pub joined the fun in November, followed by The Michigan Pedaler in March. Operating seven days a week in rain, snow and shine, the companies — totaling seven bikes, with more on the way — have been a boon for local bars.

“We’re getting more people down here than ever,” says Nick Blaszczyk, owner of the Detroit Cycle Pub. “We’re looking at 20,000 people coming to Detroit just for these cycle pub rides for the year between the three of us. That’s a lot of economic impact at the end of the day.”

For this reason, Brian Lindsay, owner of The HandleBar, doesn’t mind the friendly competition.

“A good idea doesn’t go uncopied very long,” he says. “So yeah, we’re the first, but there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

Lindsay, 35, of Ann Arbor, is a Toyota engineer by day, but by night and weekends, you’ll find him and his eight drivers leading bachelorette parties, 21st or 80th birthday parties, and co-workers bonding as they pedal 7 mph to downtown bars and snap the obligatory photo in front of Comerica Park. Next month, he’s booked tours for over 3,000 people.

“It’s a job that doesn’t feel like a job,” says Lindsay, waiting on the wood bike as 15 PricewaterhouseCoopers co-workers imbibed at Park Bar on Park one muggy Thursday after work. (Drinking on the bikes is prohibited due to a Detroit ordinance, but the owners are lobbying the city council to change that since state law allows drinking on licensed quadricycles.)

Though pedaling after a few shots sounds kind of dicey, Lindsay assures nothing unsafe happens on board. However, “what happens on The HandleBar, stays on The HandleBar,” he jokes.

Lindsay’s brother first saw the bike pub in Milwaukee five years ago and texted him a picture, saying, “We’re doing this.” The brothers thought the concept could work in Detroit, so they contacted bike builder Zwier van Laar, based near Amsterdam, where over a dozen pedal pubs cycle through the city every weekend.

Van Laar started building the bikes in 1996, originally for a pub owner who wanted to participate in the Queen’s Day parade.

“We were the first beer bike builders,” he wrote in an email. “After that, there have been some copycats, but most of them went as quickly as they came, because it’s harder than expected to build.”

Van Laar and his brother, Henk, have made 235 bikes they’ve shipped to over 30 U.S. cities, including Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Bay City. They license only one Het Fietscafe, or “The Cycle Pub,” per U.S. city, which is why The Michigan Pedaler and Detroit Cycle Pub look a little different.

Those bikes have electric assist — if riders have a few too many, they can sit back and relax. The bikes are also made in America, which was a dealbreaker for Detroit Cycle Pub’s Blaszczyk, 31, of Royal Oak. While his first two bikes were built in Oregon, the next two are being produced in Detroit. He’s also sponsored by Kid Rock’s Badass beer, which is brewed in Detroit.

Kid Rock has yet to take a tour, but retired Red Wings player Chris Chelios has hopped on board. Chelios saw the bike pedal by during a Tigers game and motioned Blaszczyk inside the parking lot of Cheli’s Chili Bar, the sports bar he owns near Comerica Park.

“He bought everyone a round of drinks, sat in the bike and had about a 20-minute conversation with people in the middle of a game day ... it was a unique experience,” says Blaszczyk, who’s company average 1,500 riders a month.

Detroit police also have some fun with the bikes.

“They’ll pull up next to it, and we’ll be like, ‘Did we do something?’ ” Lindsay says. “The cop will then call people out who aren’t pedaling.”

While drinking around town is one of the selling points, the owners say the bikes do more than provide a good time: they attract people — and their wallets — to the city. By Lindsay’s estimate, over 80 percent of riders don’t live downtown.

“People go to these bars and drink, and that’s great and fun,” Blaszczyk says. “But for us, it’s not about that. We want to get people to the city. You go to a lot of these bars, like Checkers or Town Pump, on a Tuesday. They’re not going to be that busy normally, but then when these cycle pubs came through, their businesses just changed dramatically.”

Bookies Bar & Grille on Cass is one example. General Manager Matt Scott says the bar used to open at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, it opens at 11 a.m. those days to accommodate the bikes.

“On top of that, it drives business during nonpeak times,” he says, referencing a bike about to arrive at 3 p.m. “That’s always, at any restaurant, a good thing.”

Most bars give specials for the riders. Bookies, where The Michigan Pedaler departs, offers a $10 all-you-can-drink deal the hour before (if all pedalers take part). Punch Bowl Social on Broadway Street, where the Detroit Cycle Pub starts, reaches out to riders to offer reservations and drink packages.

“Everybody likes to see the cycle pub show up at their door,” says Punch Bowl Social’s events sales director Jason Dritsan. “(People) aren’t just coming to spend their money on the cycle pub. They’re ready to go out, drop a few dollars here, drop a few dollars there.”

Adrian Gjokaj, owner of Downtown Louie’s Lounge on Clifford, says the pub bikes have increased customers. Even better, they return, he says.

“I’ve had people make larger group reservations and come back for dinner on a separate date,” he says. “I’ve had other people come back for drinks on multiple occasions.”

It’s exactly what Bedrock wanted to see happen when Lindsay of The HandleBar called seeking a place to store the bike. Within two days, he presented in front of Bedrock Real Estate executives, who granted parking space in a garage on Farmer Street.

“I felt it was something that could be very useful to what we’re trying to do, and that’s make downtown Detroit a destination,” says Bryan Waldron, Bedrock’s director of new development. “You want people to come here and experience things they just normally don’t do.”

Besides enticing suburbanites to Detroit, Waldron says the friendly vibe of the bikes makes visitors feel more comfortable if they have “a little bit of apprehension” about the city.

Garland, Texas resident Alejandra Duarte, 30, hopped on The Michigan Pedaler with six relatives one Friday afternoon. Instead of a pub crawl, the family requested to see downtown. Driver John LaJoy blared Shakira and J.Lo (riders “go insane,” he says, when he blasts “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or “Baby Got Back”) as he steered them around Campus Martius and down Jefferson to see the riverfront. They then stopped at the Spirit of Detroit for a photo opp.

“Last time we came, there was a lot of burnt houses, but this time it looks like they’re cleaning up a lot,” Duarte says.

The Michigan Pedaler owner Gill, 47, of Bloomfield Township, says he got in the cycle pub business because he wanted to show others that Detroit is coming back.

“This seemed to be a way I could capture all that is good about the city and show it to other people,” he says, which includes nearly 300 weekly riders.

The Michigan Pedaler is expected to appear in the upcoming Comedy Central sitcom “Detroiters.” This month, Gill filmed 18 hours on the bike with stars Tim Robinson of “Saturday Night Live” and Sam Richardson of HBO’s “Veep,” both Detroit natives. Though Gill won’t spill details, he says they chose his bike for the electric assist feature.

Hopping off the pedal-powered HandleBar after a two-hour pub crawl, PwC associate Machlin Fink, 24, of Royal Oak admits he got his exercise for the day. There is one bright side, he says: “You burn off the calories you consume.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

The HandleBar

Cost: $300 ($18.75 per person) Sundays-Thursdays; $400 ($25 per person) Fri.-Sat. Two hours

Ages: Riders 18 and up. Must be at least 21 to drink on bike stops.

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Detroit Cycle Pub

Cost: $250 ($16 per person) Mondays-Thursdays; $300 ($18.75 per person) Fri.-Sun. Two hours

Ages: Riders 3 and up. Kids 3 to 12 must wear helmets.

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The Michigan Pedaler

Cost: $300 ($20 per person) Sundays-Thursdays; $350 ($23 per person) Fri.-Sat. Two hours

Ages: All ages

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