Getting Down with the Donkey

I keep mulling over the perfect Grinduro bike build. There are so many options, and that’s awesome, but choice can be a burden, too. For help, I thought I’d reach out to some experts to see what their thought are about bikes, gravel, riding and where they see the genre going.

To my mind, for a discussion about all of this, there was no better person to start with then with super bicycle-nerd and all-around-nice-guy Stephen Fitzgerald of Rodeo Labs. Anyone who knows him will not be surprised to hear that he had some really interesting things to say. Normally I would edit quite liberally for content, but I’ve pretty much left his responses intact because he has given me a lot of food for thought, not only about what kind of bicycle I want to build, but who I want to be as a person and as a person who rides a bicycle.

What’s the future of gravel?
Gravel and adventure riding is maturing pretty quickly. And that maturation is driven in a large part by the prospect of large brands finding new ways to sell bikes. We’re all going to get hammered by cliché, dumb products, and tired storylines as the voices shout over each other for attention.

This could be bad for the sport, but in spite of that I’m not really worried. Adventure riding is really based around riding your bike in new places. Seeing new things. Testing yourself in new ways. As soon as we all put our phones down, close our web browsers and get on our bikes for ourselves we can experience the appeal of it all first hand. That’ll always be fresh.

Tell us about your first memory of riding a bike. 
Does a bigwheel count? If so it would be doing burnouts in a cul-de-sac in Cincinnati, Ohio when I was very very young. If bigwheels don’t count it would be riding bikes with my brothers in Vancouver, WA. We had a big hill at the end of our street and we built a jump at the bottom of it. We had to push our bikes up the hill, then we’d flip around and nail the jump full send. Injuries resulted.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in a small city outside Portland, Oregon called Vancouver, Washington. Vancouver was a sleepy little town but that sleepiness meant that we could pretty much go as far as our legs could take us on bikes and we rode EVERYWHERE from grade school through high school.

Our parents trusted us, curfews were minimal, and bikes were freedom to go and do as we pleased. I had a paper route, which I did by bike. I made $125 per month on the route and spent 100% of it on my mountain bike. I’m sure I was the only kid doing a paper route on a mid ’90s dual suspension downhill race mountain bike.

How did you end up in the bike business?
I arrived in the bike business completely by accident. The bike ambushed me. In 2014 I started Rodeo as a bit of an un-structured anti-team. We were just some friends from Denver who were sick of the rules that governed roadie culture so we made matching kits and threw up a WordPress website to shout our exploits to the world.

The team took off a like a rocket and took over my life. I realized that Rodeo was as much a creative outlet as it was anything else. Any ideas that we had we could try. One of the first ideas was the Traildonkey, one which caused the team to become a business and has since become my full time job nearly four years later.

The Rodeo Labs Traildonkey 2.0

You seemed to have a been an early innovator for the idea of an all-around bike or a gravel bike. What was the initial response to this idea and how have you seen that evolve?
If we were an early innovator in the gravel bike space it was completely by accident. We certainly don’t claim to have invented the genre but we did start working on our bike before we knew that gravel was going to be a thing. We pursued this style of riding because in Denver’s Front Range you have some great road rides and some great dirt rides and we saw an opportunity to blend the two and to create fresh riding loops.

I’m a product of 1990s MTB culture and I fundamentally believe in attacking a trail with technical skill more than technology. In Denver in 2012-2013 we just happened to be challenging ourselves to ride bigger and bigger trails on our cyclocross bikes and we eventually found the limits to the current offerings at the time. Canti brakes just couldn’t handle Colorado trail descents. 11-28 gearing couldn’t really get you up the trail. 32mm CX tires weren’t very forgiving in rock gardens. Etcetera. Etcetera. This is why I started working on Traildonkey 1.0.

I wanted a bike that blended MTB, CX, and road genres. When I made one for myself my friends saw it and wanted one too. Then the internet saw it and after 9 months of inquiries I decided to pause my career and start from scratch with Traildonkey 2.0. The timing of it all was serendipitous.

There were plenty of other people all over the world re-discovering the freedom that can be found by ignoring traditional bike categories so interest in our Traildonkey project was high. I say re-discovering because modern day gravel and adventure riding is not dissimilar from 80s and 90s era mountain biking and “hybrid” bikes. It’s just all come back into vogue and the industry is now hyping it as the next big thing.

Is there such a thing as a one-quiver bike?
Broadly speaking, one-quiver bike is a bit of a sensationalist idea to me. Sure, you can road ride, tour, cross ride, gravel ride, and even trail ride on a modern day adventure bike, but for a large part of the cycling population that isn’t the best way to have fun.

Are you really into touring? You should get a touring bike with durability, comfort, and stability engineered into the frame.
Are you really into mountain biking? You should get a front or full suspension rig with a bunch of gears and big tires and go enjoy the mountains at maximum comfort, maximum speed, and maximum air time. Road riding or racing? You should get a bike tuned for road handling, light weight, light weight, aero considerations. CX racing? You should get a light bike with good mud clearance and cantilever brakes! (for crying out loud!)

BUT… if you are like me and you don’t care about going fastest off road, being aero on the road, you tour a week or two out of the year, and you only do a half dozen CX races per year… then yes you can do it all on one bike and you can have a lot of fun doing it. The important distinction here is that while I claim N-1 is true for myself, I do not suggest that N-1 is best for everyone.

Can you give me the spec sheet for your dream Rodeo?

  • Traildonkey 2.0 frameset
  • Easton EC70 AX bars and EC90 stem
  • Easton EC90 Cinch crankset for quick 1x chainring swaps. 40t. (and Cinch power meter because I’m a nerd)
  • TRP Hylex RS hydro levers and calipers (which have the best ergonomics and brake feel across all brands)
  • Shimano Di2 / TRP climbers switch shifting mod on left and right levers so I can shift up or down with either hand and take photos with the other
  • Shimano XTR Di2 rear derailleur
  • eThirteen 9-44 rear cassette
  • Brooks C13 cutout saddle
  • Cane Creek 110 integrated headset
  • KS LEV dropper post for getting all the way rad on the trails and also for straddling the bike flat footed at stop lights. Both uses are important
  • Rodeo 2.0 carbon wheels. 700c x 24 spoke set for road and light gravel use. 650b x 28h spoke set for bigger off road days
  • Current favorite tire changes hourly!
  • Crank Bros Candy Ti pedals. I have a love hate with Crank Bros but I love 4 sided entry even more.
  • Supacaz bar tape.

What is your definition of the perfect bike?
The definition of a dream bike is that it is the best bike that you can get. There isn’t any harm in dreaming for the best. But I will say that you can build a $3,500 Traildonkey and you can build a $9,000 Traildonkey and both bikes can pretty much do the exact same stuff at the end of the day. The amount of performance gained for the extra $5,500 is not nearly more than double what you get for $3,500. More so, if you really want to save some money and just go have fun on a bike I’ll bet you can find a really capable adventure bike down in the $1000-$2000 range.

What differentiates what you are trying to do, from what everyone else is trying to do?
Rodeo’s differentiation is our story. Our products are a genuine and validated as a result of the rides that we do and the places that we go. We share our story openly, both the successes and the failures. Even though we have a pretty small audience in the world of bikes, the people who are aware of us and do follow our story know that our brand is driven by an authentic quest for adventure.

Pound for pound, we do bigger and more adventurous riding than pretty much any other brand out there. I know that is a bold claim, but I think our Journal backs that up. We are relentless with sharing the fun and the beauty of the places we go by bike.

Our stories aren’t “content”, they are personal experiences from people like me who are out of their mind excited to be allowed to see what we see and go where we go. The bikes aren’t created by product planners, they are honed and iterated based on first hand experience and feedback from our community at large. And our brand is also based first on a team and a culture of inclusion. We welcome all riders on all brands of bikes to ride with us and be a part of what we are doing. We are not trying to overwhelm the other teams and brands in the industry, we’re simply trying to achieve sustainability and be a part of the family. If we could take our pick we’d prefer to be the red-headed stepchild.

Where do you see this whole idea of adventure riding going and is it going to kill the mountain bike or road bike market? And with so many “pros” coming over to the Gravel Grinders, is the adventure being replaced with competitive testosterone?
This is a multi layered question. It needs a few answers. I don’t have a crystal ball but here’s my guess: Adventure riding is going to keep evolving and keep maturing but I think it will have a couple of narratives. One narrative will be marketing driven. Product planners will seek to differentiate their bikes in an increasingly crowded playing field. Brands will attempt to validate their feature distinctions through sponsored content and sponsored riders.

“You need this shock, you need this drivetrain, you need these brakes, you need this geometry, you need these features. Etc Etc. Why do you need this? Because we invented it, and then we put our pro rider on it, and then they won a big race on it. You want to win big races, you want to beat your friends, you want to cause envy in your local posse. Buy our stuff.”

Marketing driven adventure riding will go where the money takes it. To the victor go the spoils. There will eventually be an adventure bike backlash. People will get tired of hearing this message. Perhaps a lot of people will move on to whatever the next big marketing thing is.

There will be other narratives though. Other narratives will be driven by the quest to see what is possible on an adventure bike, or where the bikes can take us. Those stories won’t be driven as much by gear but by the terrain, the images, and the adversity overcome. That sort of adventure riding will show a whole spectrum of creativity. It’ll be genuine. That sort of adventure riding won’t get old. We’ll all be inspired by it no matter what bike people ride. That sort of adventure riding will birth new features to overcome new challenges.

For our part Rodeo at its kernel is going to be driven by bigger and more absurd rides. We’ve all gone to the marquee gravel events and I’m sure some of us will go back but gravel is only one subset of adventure riding. We will look for new places to go, new peaks to bag, and new stories to tell.

Adventure biking won’t kill road bikes or mountain bikes. I won’t be surprised if road biking continues to contract in the USA but that is probably as much due to crowded roads and angry drivers as it is anything else. If I tell my MTB friends that my adventure bike is going to kill mountain biking they’ll laugh me in the face. If you look at the level of progression going in in mountain biking these days you know that they’ve not nearly mined the vein. As long as MTB stays inspiring and amazing it will be immune from encroachment by any other genre of bike or any other sport.

Are pros going to change the gravel or adventure riding landscape?
Yes, but that isn’t all bad. Gravel racing will get faster and faster and average joes will get further from the podium. If you need a case study look at Leadville. The pros blow the amateurs out of the water. But does that keep people away? No. Leadville keeps selling out, everyone wants to take a swing at it. The big gravel races will be like that and the small gravel races will continue to be pretty friendly and grass roots. On the adventure riding side of the spectrum I think pros will start doing more and more next level rides and we will all be inspired and entertained by their exploits.

Photography by Ashley and Jered Gruber