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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Bike Pub or is it the Pub Bike?

Story first appeared on wsj.com

One partier thought she had everything she needed for a recent bachelorette-party weekend here: a wad of cash, a dress for evening, makeup and hairspray.

But about an hour into the first activity, the 30-year-old merchandising assistant realized she'd made the wrong shoe choice.

The pub crawl is getting a modern exercise-conscious update.  On the rise... pedal pubs, a roving structure that lets as many as 16 people bike together between pubs.

One woman and her friends were taking a spin on a giant, four-wheeled bike with a fake beer-barrel on the front and room for 16 passengers. Variously known as a PedalPub, Party Bike or a Bar Hopper, the slow-moving behemoths are powered by 10 pedalers, who sit on stools on either side of a long, wooden bar. Most of the bikes in the U.S. are imported from the Netherlands, but U.S. competitors have gotten into the market. In the past few years, the bikes have spread to more than two dozen U.S. cities—from Minneapolis to Austin, and Portland, Ore., to Charlotte, N.C.

The bikes combine the growing interest in urban cycling with some people's unquenchable thirst for new experiences—and bar hopping. Some cities allow imbibing on the bikes, but most, including Chicago, limit alcohol consumption to a series of stops at bars along the route. A company-provided driver steers, applies the brakes and directs the riders to "Pedal! Pedal! Pedal!" when pulling through an intersection.

A 30-year-old bride-to-be said she like it as she commented, between sips of water on the 2,300-pound bike that caused people to cheer and wave, snap photos or just stare slack-jawed along the route. You can hang out like at a bar with your friends, but you're pedaling. It's totally weird.

As the group reached its first stop, some of the early smiles had begun to fade and the women's carefully made-up faces were glistening.

One woman commented that in the beginning, with all the enthusiasm and adrenaline, it was like, "Yeah, let's go," but when we got on our first hill, it was "Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?"  She said it was a lot of fun, but she definitely didn't think it was going to be that hard.

Tracy Sanchez, owner of the Party Pedaler, which, unlike the Dutch bikes has an electric motor-assist, says guests needn't have worked so hard. You actually don't have to pedal at all for it to go.

Al Boyce, a 55-year-old former software engineer in Minneapolis, first saw one of the bikes at the bottom of a humorous email about six years ago. As a leader of the Minnesota Homebrewers Association, he forwarded the image to other members. "I said we should all pitch in and buy one," he says.

A few weeks later, Eric Olson, a business professor and fellow member of the group, called Mr. Boyce suggesting they start a business based on the bike.

Now, the pair, along with Mr. Boyce's wife, own PedalPub LLC, which runs a dozen bikes in the Twin Cities and has smaller operations in Honolulu, Chicago and St. Petersburg, Fla.

They also act as an importer of the Dutch-made bikes and have signed up licensees in 21 cities since 2010. Tours in the Twin Cities are $160 to $190 an hour depending on the day of the week.

So far, a few people have stumbled or fallen off the PedalPubs, but there have been no serious injuries, Mr. Boyce says.

Last October, a group of teenagers swarmed onto a bike in Minneapolis during a night ride and made off with the cellphone of one rider. The phone was recovered nearby.

PedalPubs, which cost $38,000 including licensing fees and are solely people-powered, have attracted several competitors. Jon Pyland, owner of a metal fabricator called Atek Customs, which is relocating to Kingman, Ariz., has sold seven Party Bikes, which he modeled after a 1920s-era San Francisco streetcar. They cost about $45,000, in part because they include an electric motor.

A 43-year-old laborer in Minneapolis, decided to build his own version after seeing several PedalPubs around town. "I was like, 'What the hell is that?'" he says.

He and a welder buddy went to work in the friend's shop about three years ago. Their first creation, made of old bicycle parts, wasn't sturdy enough, he says, but he had better luck with his second model, which he dubbed "The Bar Hopper."

He says he had a pretty good business last summer in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he has a vacation home.

The only trouble is, some of the bars in the area are five miles apart, so he had to add a gasoline engine. "They would cheer when people heard that come on," he says.

This summer, the bike sat in his back yard because the insurance ran out. Now he's planning to build a third model.