“What is Rodeo?”

That is the question I’ve received in my inbox quite a bit over the last year. It’s been a difficult question to answer quickly or clearly because the only constant I’ve been able to pin down with any certainty is that Rodeo evolved very quickly in 2014, and it’s definition seemed to be in a constant state of evolution. It has occurred to me then, over the past few months, that the most important question isn’t ‘what is Rodeo?’, it’s ‘why is Rodeo?’

That might sound a little pretentious or abstract, but bear with me just a bit. We covered a lot of ground last year. We first started the team, which spontaneously grew into a bit of a global community of three or four hundred like minded people. We put some bikes together, put our name on them, then decided they weren’t good enough for our name so we started them over from scratch. We created a surprisingly tasty energy bar which is now independent from Rodeo and on the market. We’ve beta’ed a line of really cool wheels with a really sage wheel builder. We rode up a mountain on 50lb city bikes. We started a journal for anyone to share their stories on. We took a ton of photos. We went on a bunch of rallys. We begged our way into the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race and came within spitting distance of winning. We had countless adventures. We won a bunch of road, CX, and MTB, races. We did SO many things, all related to bikes, and all under the Rodeo name. That was a lot for an informal amateur adventure team to take on in it’s freshman year, and I think that’s the part that has left people asking what exactly Rodeo is.

What does that all add up to? What IS Rodeo? Is it a team? Is it a brand? Is it a conspiracy to sell a bunch of kits? Is it a marketing machine? Is it genuine? Is it manipulative? Has it done what it originally set out to do? Some of these are questions that other people have asked about us, and all of these are questions I’ve asked myself. By many standards we’re still just a tiny bunch of people having fun and riding bikes, and by other standards we’re a run away success and are now somehow a small “thing” in the world of cycling. Either way I feel the weight of whatever it all is and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility that I’ve helped to create this happy mess and I need to gently but intentionally steer it towards being something good.

So, back to the Why. The Why creates the What and I’m pretty sure I know the Why of Rodeo at this point:

Rodeo exists because a number of different people got together and helped create a platform through which we get to participate and contribute to the world of cycling with our own ideas, styles, and voices. In this world we are so fortunate to have a choice whether we want to be consumers or creators, or both. Rodeo sees the sport of cycling as a very cool canvas for ideas and self expression and we feel strongly that we want to make something cool and occasionally beautiful on that canvas.

Everyone who starts out riding bikes starts out as a consumer. You decide you want to ride, you buy a bike and maybe some other gear, and you start riding. You survey the landscape of what is out there and you pick the things to use that best reflect who you are. What type of rider are you? MTB, road, cyclocross, touring, racing? You buy the bike that represents that style or discipline. What sort of personality do you have? Loud? Quiet? Risky? Conservative? You dress yourself in the clothes that reflect that. Maybe they are all classic black, maybe they look like a tropical bird. You’re a racer? You buy the gear that the pros test and use on the race circuits of the world. You’re a curmudgeon? You eschew trends and lightness in favor of durability and function. The cycling industry has given us a HUGE spectrum of amazing gear to select from when defining who we are as bike riders, but in general as we pick and purchase that gear we are consumers, not creators. The same concept applies to teams. When you decide you want to roll with a posse, you seek out a team that fits your style and goals. As a cyclist looking for a team in a new city, I’ve always ridden around, gotten a sense of what local teams have what vibe, and then picked one that most closely reflects me. I’ve always had to pick from what has been “on the shelf” though, and in that sense I’ve always been a consumer of what other teams had to offer.

Peder, myself, and the other people who originally started the Rodeo team decided that we wanted to start a team because we no longer wanted to simply pick from what was on the shelf. We wanted to stand back and define for ourselves who we wanted be as cyclists. There were plenty of other teams out there that we could have joined and many of them are really awesome teams. But by joining up with those teams we would simply be adopting and consuming their vision, ideas, and cultures. We wanted to create our own ideas, vision, and culture, so that’s what we did.

In the beginning we only had designs for creating a small fun-adventure-race team and community here in Denver, Colorado. We wrote up our core values, we quickly threw up a WordPress website with a $20 theme, and we invited our local friends to come along with us. I did a lot of the heavy lifting on the site and the writing because I had the most free time and I have a design and communication background. Everything came together pretty quickly and somehow ended up looking fairly slick. In retrospect things may have ended up looking TOO slick for some people’s conspiratorial brains, but that is another story.

“350 w00ts”

In the first few months we had SO much fun creating this team. It was (and still is) so much rewarding to be in the drivers seat of something you’ve put together. You don’t have to ask permission to try things, you don’t have to get a board to approve your ideas, you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. All you have to do is have an idea and have the time and energy to make it happen. In those first few months we made some irreverent team kits that eschewed many cycling norms and dared to be a bit over the top and dumb. We decided we were after w00ts (fun) not watts, we spoofed proper gear prep for rides by putting graphics of silly things on our pockets. We reminded ourselves to “make them hurt”, and “them” was whoever or whatever we wanted it to be. On our rides we started taking detours from our normal ride routes and discovered how fun it was to bend the traditional genres that the sport has set in place for us.  Road bikes on dirt? Yes. Cross bikes in the snow? Yes. connecting two road rides with a five mile singletrack detour? Who knew that could be so much fun?

In the process of doing all of this, a funny thing happened: People we didn’t know from all over the world asked if they could be a part of what we were doing. People would write emails saying that they’d somehow found Rodeo’s site and upon reading it they’d finally discovered a team that reflected the way that they too saw the sport. It turns out that our ideas weren’t really that novel or new. We were merely a node on the network of cyclists around the world that were looking at the sport with a big sense of fun, adventure, and creativity. The response to what we were doing was for us pretty huge and unexpected: Throughout 2014 we went from 5-10 core members of the team to a large spread out family of somewhere between 300 and 400 “members”.

“Break Some Eggs”

To say that this happened easily, efficiently, or without error would be a complete lie. As it grew, Rodeo more or less started taking over my life. I co founded the team with Peder and in the beginning we collaborated on almost every decision. But as the year went on and we picked up momentum, it became clear that Peder had a very busy full time job and I had a more flexible self-employed design practice. Within a month or two of starting Rodeo up, I told Peder that I felt like Rodeo didn’t feel like it wanted to stop at being a cycling team, and that I wanted to see where I could take it as something larger. Peder remained in a co-leadership position of the team and community that we’d created, and I was going to take the idea of Rodeo as a creative outlet as far as I could.

I should pause here and go back to “why”. If the why was that we wanted to approach cycling as creators, then it now makes sense that upon creating the team it was a natural thing to keep going with the theme.

“Om nom nom”

The team was humming along pretty well, so what other ideas were open for exploration? I think that list is potentially endless, but one of the first things we started playing with was the food that we were eating on rides. Once again we tend to eat whatever food is available on the shelves and very often we buy into the promises that sellers make on the packaging. Many of those promises come true, but many times they don’t. For instance a lot of sports food tastes awful and is difficult to eat. One particular ride early last year a handful of us started talking about the food we were eating and how it ran the gamut from awful to awesome. “Why not make our own food” someone suggested? That was a bit of a crazy idea, but it seemed like a fun project to attempt, so I called my brother who owns and runs a bakery facility with my dad and I asked him if he wanted to work with our team to try to dream up a new energy bar. He was in a creative mood as well, and within a week Trailnuggets were born. They started as a Rodeo project, and we handed them out to people on the team all over the country for feedback. To our surprise people really liked them! We kept working on them, kept handing them out, and kept feeling like the idea had a chance at making it in the real world. In August we launched the bars on the market through The Feed, and we’ve been building a tiny slice of market share ever since.

Donkey Time

At the same time we were starting the team I became interested in building a new cyclocross adventure bike for myself. I’ve relayed this story elsewhere , but to summarize, I decided to make the bike I was putting together a Rodeo bike. A few friends and team mates got wind of the project and we ended up assembling five Rodeo bikes. I named the bike the Traildonkey because, just like the team, it wasn’t just about racing, it was about adventure, blurred genres, experimentation, and creating something with my own ideas. Donkeys are multi purpose animals, great at nothing, but awesome at a little bit of everything. As we built and rode those bikes and shared our adventures with friends and the online community I was once again surprised to see that other people were interested in getting in on the action. Pretty soon people asked if they could buy the bikes. That was a very pivotal moment for me and Rodeo. It is one thing to throw a bike together for you and your friends, but it is another thing entirely to sell that bike to the public. I concluded that the principals of the Traildonkey were very cool and fun, but the bike wasn’t ready for prime time. If I was going to explore letting other people purchase this bike I need to make sure it was a great bike. Between the bike, the Trialnuggets, the team, the kits, the wheels we were building, and all of the other ideas in my head I started to feel like I needed to decide whether or not Rodeo was just a really really time intensive hobby that sucked up 80% of my time and a lot of my money, or if it was potentially some sort of small cycling related brand that could justify a shift away from my day job and into the cycling industry.

I started meeting with business minded friends and acquaintances and telling them the Rodeo story: Rowdy team becomes pseudo brand. Could it become something bigger? Should it? The feedback I received was unanimous: If Rodeo had come this far so quickly it would be a shame to let off the gas and put on the brakes. It deserved a chance to see if it could become a real company with a small seat at the table in the world of cycling.

So I went for it. Starting in September 2014 I decided that the “why” of Rodeo was to keep creating in any way possible as long as I could stay true to the core values that we as a team started with. I started working with really great collaborators to make sure that the ideas that I had were done well. On the team side there is a small handful of guys who spread the work load, give input, and provide excellent gut checks on continuing to build the community of the team. On the bike side I found an amazing set of engineers and manufacturers to completely re-imagine the Traildonkey bike and bring it to market this year. On the wheel side I’ve worked with Steve at Magnetic Wheel Co to imagine and develop wheels that we want to build and ride. My brother and dad and sister are Bakeworks, and they make the Trailnuggets. Castelli lets us make the clothing we want to ride in and suffers through my overly complicated designs without complaint. Business minded friends watch my back and help me avoid stupid decisions as much as possible. Phillip and the Elevation Cycles Denver crew provide real bike industry input and experience and help me make connections along the way. Team mates in Colorado, Alabama, New England, California, Oregon, Germany, Japan, the UK, Austria, Norway, Australia, and dozens of other places provide friendship, community, encouragement, and even off the record legal suggestions just to make sure I don’t do something really really stupid in the saddle. This list of supporting credits in the Lab is extremely long, and even though I’m at the tip of the spear on a lot of what we are doing, I have no problem saying “We” when talking about what Rodeo does because nothing Rodeo has done has been a solo effort, it’s taken a team of amazing people at every step along the way.

Rodeo Adventure Labs has for me become a true expression of it’s name in ways I never anticipated. It IS a laboratory for ideas, it IS a huge adventure, it IS a good old fashioned Rodeo and I might even get tossed off the bucking horse (or donkey) a few times while trying to ride it. While we are at it, I hope Rodeo is and becomes more of a platform for more people to let their imaginations loose and share their ideas. A small platform has been built and there is room on it for more people to participate. Great things happen when people collaborate , recreate, and create together, and at the end of the day that is the “why” of Rodeo.

What next?

If you are still reading this and not now fast asleep, you are a true endurance athlete. You may also find yourself wondering what’s next. The answer to that won’t really fit in this already overly long post, but short term there are a few things on the front burners.

1. The team. The team has had a great start but it has room to improve and do things better. The concept of a global team is an abstract one. If you let anyone anywhere join your team, how can you make sure that everyone can feel involved? How do you make sure people don’t get left out? How do you make sure the word “team” doesn’t end up being a false promise. Those are really important questions on my mind, and ones that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Team is at the very center of what we do. We started there and it’ll always be the most important thing about Rodeo. I hope that in the coming year we find ways to make the experience of being on this team a richer thing for everyone. Hope we encourage involvement, encourage a sense of ownership for the members, and encourage the sense that the team is a platform for everyone to build on.

2. Traildonkey. Traildonkey 2.0 is going to hit the market in roughly a month as a brand new adventure oriented frame set and bike. It’s 100% Rodeo bike and 100% Rodeo ideas. It’ll start small. Initially it will be pre-order only, but we very much want to grow it from there. Alongside Traildonkey we will be releasing wheel sets for non Donkey riders as well. The goal will top shelf specs and performance within reach of the majority of the cycling market. Later down the road we will release the Unsinglespeed steel Traildonkey, a versatile steel bike that shares 80% of it’s design with the carbon Traildonkey, but with a twist. The hope with all of this gear is that we offer really well thought out, well engineered, beautifully designed things that are platforms on which people can experience the core values of the team itself: Speed, friendship, style, adventure, and fun.Our bikes aren’t the best bike for everyone, and we will never promise that they are, but we hope they connect with riders who see the sport similarly to us. We hope to find our niche in the bike industry and use our bikes to tell amazing stories of two wheeled awesomeness.

3. Trailnuggets have been spun off into their own company and continue to grow nicely. The decision to separate them from Rodeo was done so that we wouldn’t feel like we were using the team as a captive audience and customer base when promoting and selling the bars. Rodeo and Trailnuggets started together, but it’s better that they be allowed to grow on independent tracks. We hope to continue to make really really great tasting bars that perform the simple function of being delicious, healthy, and packed with energy to take us all over the world.

4. Other things. The world Laboratory is a huge part of our name and what we are doing. There are a bunch of small experiments happening in the lab even now. I’m playing with my ideas and I’m collaborating with other people on their ideas. The goal of the Lab is to foster a culture of experimenting with things we want to try in the world of cycling, be that products, designs, one-offs, or anything else that we think would be authentic and cool. Maybe some day the lab will turn into a full featured physical shop space where we can design and fabricate and test things out in the real world. Until then it exists in my office in Denver, at a local bike shop, overseas facilities of some very talented engineers, somewhere in Portland, and in our collective heads.

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this. I hope I’ve pulled back the curtain and answered some outstanding questions. I hope to see you all out there and more importantly ride with as many of you as possible soon. If you have any other questions, shoot me an email or a phone call. As you’ve just experienced, I could go on about this all day.

Giddyup!

Stephen Fitzgerald

Founder, Rodeo Adventure Labs