It’s 10am on a Thursday morning in late August, I’m getting ready for a bike ride and thinking about the year so far. It’s the time of year when people start asking themselves where the summer went and why didn’t they get that thing done that they wanted to do this year.
I’ve asked that question more then once this year myself and the answer is always the same: You can never get it all done, you can only try your best.
I’m in Ouray, Colorado. For years I’ve been meaning to come here, tempted by impossibly precarious roads and mountain passes seen on Google Image Search. I swore I’d come in 2015. I re-swore I’d come in 2016. I never came. Obviously 2017 was “the year” but it too has been consumed by other things deemed more important than chasing ride fantasies. And yet, here I am, and getting here had nothing to do with finally getting my act together and making it happen.
The Grubers have come to town again, out of left field, with typhoon levels of energy and ambition. Has anyone named a typhoon “Gruber”? They should. I wasn’t expecting to see Jered and Ashley this year but a text popped up in late July.
“We’re coming”, it said. “And we’re going to shoot some Donkeys”.
Normally this statement would need explaining but considering the journal that this is posted to, it doesn’t need explaining quite so much. The Grubers would never harm a donkey. Instead Jered and Ashley were in town to shoot upcoming new bike components for SRAM and Zipp and Traildonkeys had the incredible privilege of being the bikes that those components would be hung on. Jered asked me for some location suggestions which I promptly and enthusiastically gave him. He immediately ignored them and decided that he wanted to go to Ouray, that place that I wanted to go to but could never seem to get myself to.
A typhoon doesn’t so much ask you if you want to go somewhere as much as it hits you with 140 mile per hour winds and pushes you there with brute force.
A week earlier I had no plans to go to Ouray, but all of a sudden Typhoon Gruber hit and I was blown westward from my rut in Denver towards a place that I desperately wanted to see.
2017 has been a crazy year for Rodeo. I remember sitting with Glenn in January and lining up all of our ambitious plans for what we wanted to accomplish this year on a company level. Beyond Rodeo The Company I have a very strong desire to keep Rodeo The Team at or near the top of the list of priorities. As we grow as a cycling brand I very much want to preserve our roots as a team and community because that is how Rodeo started. If we lose touch with the team and community we become just another a cycling brand focused only on commerce, and the world doesn’t really need yet another one of those.
On the company list of to-dos for the year were the following:
- Continue to get the Traildonkey out there. To raise awareness about the bike and establish enough sales to make the company stable and self supporting.
- Continue to evolve and promote the Spork (front fork) as its own product both to individual bike owners and other builders.
- Launch the Flaanimal crowd fund and hopefully if all went well put the bike into production as a bike that speaks to a different kind of rider than the Traildonkey does.
- Finish developing and launch our 2.0 wheels.
On the community side of the to-do list were the following:
- Organize at least a half dozen Rodeo Rallies with the help of the team. Rallies are grass roots organized one day adventures that are open to anyone and are always free.
- Organize our first ever multi day ride, the Rodeo Roundup. The Roundup was about upping the ante and striking out into the unknown both in terms of the place that we were to ride and also the size of the ride in terms of distance and terrain. The Roundup was open to anyone who wanted to come, with half the available spaces allotted to Rodeo team members and half reserved for non-Rodeo riders. We never want our team or community to be a clique, and the Roundup was about intentionally rolling new people into what we do.
- Keep generally doing fun and crazy rides together and keep sharing the stories on the Journal.
All of the great rides out of Ouray start with climbing. The topology of the area is staggering. If you step out onto main street there are roughly 270 degrees of cliffs rising thousands of feet straight out of downtown. One gets the sense that although humans for some reason saw fit to put a settlement here, the mountains aren’t exactly happy with the intrusion and were intent on making further incursions as difficult as possible.
For most people on a bike heading out of town the Million Dollar Highway is the direction they head. This beautiful stretch of asphalt threads through the peaks via an undulating road barely tucked into the side of the cliff. The views are huge, as are the drops if you lose concentration on the road. Million Dollar Highway heads first to Silverton, CO and then onto Durango. Both are legendary mountain towns with the latter laying claim to huge pieces of cycling history and culture.
Million Dollar Highway wasn’t on our sights for this trip though. We were here for dirt, for rocks, for mountain passes and unrelenting gradients. Imogen, Engineer, Cinnamon, Black Bear, and Ophir passes were all on the lists of possible places to ride. These roads are legendary in the world of Jeeps, overland motorcycles, and cars that look like insects, but are not quite as often done on bikes because of their difficulty factor. If they were simply steep but paved they would be no doubt ridden frequently. But they are beyond steep and most definitely unpaved, making passage by bike unbelievably challenging. Google strapped Street View camera backpacks to trailrunners and jeeps and sent them over many of these passes but the conditions of the roads are such that we jokingly re-named the resulting imagery Google Scree View.
If the roads weren’t challenging enough on their own then the 10,000 foot to 13,000 foot elevation and resulting thin air in the area were the final ingredients dooming these roads to “rarely ridden” status. If like me you’ve ever wondered how bad the thin air on Everest could actually be, try going about 1/3 the height of Everest in the Ouray area, do something athletic, and see how you fare. I was humbled.
At the end of January we launched the Flaanimal crowd fund. The plan was simple: Try to pre sell a number of the frames in order to mitigate the risk of sinking Rodeo if we couldn’t sell enough to pay for the overall project. We asked a lot from people during the crowd fund: Buy this bike, from a new company, pay the entire cost of it in advance, then wait at least three months for the bike to be delivered – but it would only be delivered if the project hit its funding goals. Honestly, the whole thing sounds like a ridiculous ask as I write this. And yet, Flaanimal funded. We had just the right amount of awesome people who were willing to take a risk on us and make the project happen and for that I’m always going to be genuinely grateful.
As soon as Flaanimal funded we placed the production order and set our calendars for 90 days. That’s about how long things like Flaanimals take to make, we thought.
I turned my Traildonkey right, onto Main Street. Downtown Ouray was incredibly charming, lit by the morning sun, and the road up into the hills started with a mild, paved switchbacking gradient upwards. It was almost 11am by the time I was actually moving. The general rule of heading up into the mountains in Colorado is to head out early and get home early because the afternoons are the domains of thunder, lightning, hail, rain, and snow. Afternoon storms happen in the Rockies almost like clockwork and the San Juan mountains where Ouray resides are even more notorious than average for the severity and frequency of their storms. Standard wisdom states to stay home if you haven’t left earlier in the morning but I had spent most of the morning with Typhoon Gruber looking for a scouting Jeep and a late start was my all-or-nothing opportunity to get high on my bike.
Clouds loomed, rain threatened, and a few drops hit my helmet as the pavement turned to dirt. I pushed past Box Canyon, the entrance to Camp Day Road, Yankee Boy Basin, Imogen Basin, and Imogen Pass.
Late in 2016 we decided to make some improvements to our bicycle fork, the Rodeo Spork. Spork was already performing well on our bikes and was finding good homes in the retail market, but we had been receiving a fair number of requests for a modification which would add more rack and accessory mounting options to the fork. We stopped production on 1.0 and re-tooled for the 1.1 revision, fully expecting to be back up to speed within a month. We kept pre-sales of the fork active as were sales of the Traildonkey, which used the fork. We didn’t anticipate any challenges. The second eyelet was a pretty straightforward modification, until it wasn’t.
There is no single governing body regulating testing and certification of bicycle products worldwide. The EU has EN testing, the USA has the Consumer Product Safety Comission standards, and some countries have no standards at all. Any number of other testing and governing organizations exist each having a different acronym as its name. The UCI even has standards if you want their sticker and seal of approval race your bike in their ecosystem. We don’t want the UCI sticker for the record.
When developing a product you test in-house and when you are satisfied with the results you might work with a third party tester to certify the results. We work with SGS to conduct our third party testing. SGS is a massive world wide corporation with a very high reputation and offices almost everywhere. They certify everything from bicycle parts to oil drilling platforms in the North Sea. The tests for front forks vary and there are over a half dozen of them each testing a different atrribute of the fork. Twenty thousands cycles of test A, 100,000 cycles of test B, and so on. If all goes well you end up with a signed certificate from a credible party showing that your product is up to the simulated rigors of real life.
All did not go smoothly with Spork 1.2. It should have, we thought, but it didn’t. There was a ghost somewhere in the design of the layup, or the tooling, or the design, or a combination of all three. No worry though, we tweaked, we revised, we sent back for testing. We did not pass again. One certain test in particular plagued us. We could not release the fork. We could also not ship any Traildonkeys with the revised fork. Rodeo the company, in effect, had no products that it could sell and ship well into the first few months of 2017.
The road up to Camp Day is quite steep. It probably averages in the 10% range for the first few miles but certain pitches hit the mid teens or even 20%. The road surface was freshly graded, soft, and loose. To get out of the saddle and apply effort to the cranks meant slipping and losing traction. Camp Day Road is hard. And yet, Camp Day Road is beautiful. The beauty is such that for me it almost completely distracted from the effort – and the weather. To be here riding in this place that I had wanted to be for so long, it was awesome. I felt challenged but I felt ready to to the work to get to the top.
We were not unprepared for the conditions in the San Juans. We had actually fitted mountain bike gearing to our Traildonkeys for this trip and the gearing was doing its job. Come at me mountains, I thought. I’m coming for you.
By late March of 2017 the Spork 1.2 still had not received it’s SGS certification. For three months we had been unable to ship almost any bikes or forks. Of those customers that had pre-ordered from us many were still holding on for delivery but many were also forced to cancel their orders and request refunds. I couldn’t blame them. I had personally advised customers time and time again that the fork was almost through re-certification only to see the ghosts continue to plague us.
“This is absurd”, I thought. One cannot run a company that does not have any income or anything to sell. I deeply hated disappointing customers. The whole scenario made me feel like a liar, a hustler even though that was never my intention.
With no income to be had, funds were running out. Time was as well. Three months is a long time to gut it out when things aren’t working. I felt desperate. Perhaps it was wiser to throw in the towel? Rodeo had been incredibly fun and incredibly rewarding but it couldn’t be a hobby. It had to work, to provide income and a living or it couldn’t go on. I set a deadline for mid April. If we weren’t shipping bikes and forks again by then I would end it and start a new chapter doing something else.
Not many people knew that this was happening. Besides notes to customers about delays only a half dozen people knew of the razors edge things were teetering on. Outwardly we had to stay positive, but inwardly I could feel it all dying and I was mentally dealing with the weight of deconstructing what had been built. It was an incredibly isolating experience. On group rides friends in the peloton would congratulate me on how awesome things were going, but they weren’t. Rodeo was possibly about to end, and that wasn’t something that you talk about freely and with a sense of pride. We kept working, we kept hoping.
As I neared Camp Bird the road flattened out. The relief from the constant climbing was wonderful. I knew that the challenge wasn’t over but the flats lasted long enough for oxygen to begin reaching starved backwaters of the body once again. I felt depleted and energized at the same time. Rain continued to pelt me but only fleetingly. Perhaps I would get swept unceremoniously back down the mountain by a wall of rain, deservedly so for starting the ride so late. Or perhaps the storm would never reach critical mass. Perhaps it was testing me, hoarding the high mountain views and summits to itself, unwilling to share if I didn’t pay the price of admission.
The flat roads soon ended and I passed through Camp Bird. Camp Bird is a still active mine but a shadow of its former self. A few modern implements are visible as are signs of activity but the ruins of the mining camp and of the homes that housed workers and management take prominence in the landscape. The fact that people came up this high, built towns and cities, and bored holes in the mountains in search of riches is an amazing testament to the power of gold and silver over our imaginations. It seems absurd; to bore shafts into entire mountains in search of tiny grains of glittering rock and yet historians say we’ve been doing it as far back as 3100 B.C. Occasionally some people succeed in the endeavor. Few get rich. Others go mad and find nothing but ruin.
The bike industry is absurd. Headlines constantly tout its decline. Amazing, vibrant companies sprout up much like high mountain wildflowers that bloom with equal charisma. The flowers fade quickly, their growing season is incredibly short at 12,000 feet. Similarly most bike companies fade quickly. What ever happened to that one brand that made that one product that blew everyone’s mind? The gossip says that they grew too fast and toppled.
So many people enter this industry out of passion, driven by the joy of the ride and the desire to “live the dream, to participate and contribute to its culture. But passion is only one leg of the stool that makes up a stable, lasting company. I don’t claim to know what make up the other two or three legs but I know that you have to be smart, you have to work hard, and maybe you have to get lucky.
I got lucky. The clouds burned off entirely. Blue sky filled Imogen Basin in front of me. The odds of making it up to the pass increased dramatically as long as my legs didn’t give out.
Rodeo Spork 1.2 finally passed testing in early April. We found the ghost and exorcised it. We carefully started production again, only completing a few forks per day due to layup and tooling that were optimized for strength, not scale. I later heard from an industry insider that he had personally witnessed twenty different forks from various brands get tested on the same test that we had difficulty with and eighteen of those forks had failed. We weren’t the only company having trouble. Making bikes is hard. Absurdly hard.
At the end of Camp Bird is a small road leading in the direction of the Imogen Basin. The direction looks correct but the road looks wrong. It is barely a road, a trail. It is brutally steep and completely made of bare rock in certain sections. I stopped to check my GPS for the location of the right road but as it turns out this non-road was in fact the right road. I laughed. Of course it was. It had to be. I put my bike in the granny gear, a 36 x 42 that on any normal ride would be comically unnecessary. For the remainder of the climb I never left my 36 x 42 and quite often the climb was so hard that even 36 x 42 was found lacking.
I huffed up that climb. The challenging gravel gradient up past Box Canyon was pedestrian by comparison. I was determined to ride as much of Imogen as possible but progress was irregular. There was no pace to settle into, no rhythm to find. I could ride 50 feet at a time, 200 feet at a time, then all notions of pride would evaporate into the thin air. I had to stop riding and stand there on the side of the road gasping. Riding in thin air is strange because it wears out your lungs but not so much your muscles. If you take a 15 second brake your body rebounds and feels as fresh as ever, but 50 feet up the mountain you are once again gasping for breath trying to find an excuse to let yourself stop. This is how I progressed up Imogen Basin.
April and May were good for Rodeo. Things started moving again. Morale increased. The Spork that almost killed us sold really well and it was quite satisfying to see it adopted onto some really cool bikes. On the community side of the equation we’d put on a number of really cool, really fun rallies not just in Colorado but also on the East coast.I went to Dirty Kanza and rode it slow, chatting with people and shooting for a documentary project I hope to complete later in the year. For me Rodeo had settled into a pleasant mid year interchange between riding bikes with friends and team mates and the happenings of the Rodeo business.
In June Rodeo officially wrote me my first paycheck, three and a half years from when we had started the team. That was a pretty special moment. I wasn’t just in the bike business, I was running a real company, a stable, productive company. We still had mountains to climb but I felt optimistic and up to the challenge.
Flaanimals were due soon and excitement was high. The crowd fund supporters by now knew that the frames were late but all of them were being awesome about it. They were excited to be included in the project and fine gutting it out for delivery. The first production frames arrived in late June, almost five months in production and two months behind schedule. Such is the world of bike manufacturing, something that I’ll never be happy about but am somehow learning to live with.
Unboxing those frames was a major “proud dad moment”. The idea had gone from team sourced conception and beta testing through delivery over the course of two and a half years, and the results were beautiful! The bike was capable, innovative, and a ton of fun to build creatively.
Something felt off though. The frames felt heavy to us when we took them from the boxes to inspect them one by one. I didn’t remember the prototypes feeling this heavy. I looked through production specs and found our target weights then I put a few frames on the scale one at a time.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I felt my face turn red. I started sweating. The production frames were very overweight. Not a little bit overweight, a lot overweight. The first thing most people do when they check out a bike is pick it up and feel the weight. It’s habit. Weight matters to a lot of people in the world of bikes and these frames were not acceptable when compared to their intended weight.
My knees grew week. I couldn’t stand. I had to sit down.
“This is absurd”. I thought. The arrival of the Flaanimals should have been cause for celebration but instead it was very possible that the overweight frame problem could sink Rodeo once again. Maybe we had no business being in the bike business. Maybe we are just passionate people who want to play bikes amongst the giants but don’t know how the game is played?
The challenge of a sustained climb is to find ways to trick myself into ignoring the effort. There is no way to get around the task before you if you want to get to the top but you can day dream your way up, or talk to riding partners should they be along, or pay attention to the scenery. You do whatever it takes to ignore the lava in your legs and lungs. I tried any trick that I could muster while heading up Imogen. I knew that Typhoon Gruber and Co would be driving up the climb in the scouting Jeep at some point and that they would inevitably catch me, so I made it a goal to get as far up as possible before they came into view. The goal motivated me. Each time I heard the echo of an engine off of the basin walls I re-focused on my effort only to find that the Jeep catching me was somebody else. I still had time to get a little higher before getting caught. If all you do is focus on the pain of the moment the joy drains from the endeavor. Make it a game. Have fun. Enjoy the ride. You’ll eventually get to the top.
It didn’t take long to discover the source of the overweight Flaanimals. We tracked it down to the butting profile – which is the variable wall thickness of the tubing used on a bike frame. An error had been made in a clean re-draw of the CAD file prior to production and the default tubing butting was inserted into the plans instead of the custom profile that we had developed.
The question now was what to do. It was determined that we had in fact approved the correct butting for production and that the error was not ours entirely. It could have been argued about who was going to suffer the most because of the mistake but instead of going down that road with our production partner we agreed to try to find a way forward that minimized the pain of the error as much as possible for both parties.
We decided that everyone who had pre-ordered a Flaanimal would be delivered the heavier frame so that they could start riding ASAP. We dubbed the overweight frame the Flaanimal HD for Heavy Duty. We then notified our crowd fund supporters that they would also later be getting a correct, lighter frame as a replacement dubbed the SL, for Somewhat Light. We couldn’t just burn our supporters by giving them a bike that didn’t match what they had waited and paid for. We had to make things right. Sometimes errors happen in the world of bikes but it is important to build a relationship and reputation with your customers, that of a company that stands behinds its products.
We also agreed not to refuse delivery of the remainder of non-sold HD production, but to instead purchase it from our manufacturing partner and sell it to consumers at a greatly reduced price. We weren’t sure if the frames would sell but we needed to also try to preserve that relationship as well. Rodeo is a very small company. There are a lot of manufacturing partners that would never give us the time of day based on our sales volume but the manufacturing partner that we work with is filled with great people, some of who have become good friends. Keeping those friendships intact was worth the risk as long as the balance of the unsold frames didn’t add up to enough to overwhelm our cash flow and render us insolvent.
The summit was not yet in view but the views had long past put me into overdrive. Once high enough in the bowl created by the surrounding mountains you can take in the expansive vistas of Imogen Basin. For me it was impossible not to be swept up in the beauty of it all. The conditions for riding a bike had continued to deteriorate with sustained pitches near 20% and the road surface turning to oft-unrideable piles of rocks and scree.
But I didn’t care about the steepness or the rocks. Few things make me feel as alive as that feeling of being among high alpine peaks. To look across at a mountain or even down at it instead of up at it and to know that you got there through your own willpower and determination is incredibly exhilarating. It isn’t a thing to brag about, it is a thing to be in awe of an be appreciative of. I love The Rockies, I love the San Juans. I love that Life, Rodeo, and Typhoon Gruber had conspired to get me here.
I remember the first time I saw Glacier Point in Yosemite over a decade ago. It was winter and I had skied out in the fading light of the day. I crested the rim of the valley and the massive rock faces loomed into view and literally took my breath away. The expansive scale of what I was staring at overwhelmed my senses and it took time to process that it was all real. I’ll never forget the feeling of that wave hitting me. It hasn’t hit me many times since but it did again for me while climbing Imogen.
We put the remaining production run of HD Flaanimals on sale only a week before I left for Ouray. I felt a massive sense of dread as I typed up the details and why of the sale on our website. How would people react? Were our mistakes proof that the bike industry is best left to the major brands? Or is there room for tiny brands to struggle up the peaks and attempt to be a part of the overall culture and discussion? I asked myself that question a lot this year. The bike industry is ridiculously tough and uninviting. I’m OK with that. We got here through our own willpower, determination, and the generosity of friends and is incredibly exhilarating to be here. We’ll stay and enjoy the view and the experience for as long as we can. Hopefully indefinitely.
I launched the Flaanimal HD sale with a click, bought a few ads so that people would see it, and I waited.
Typhoon Gruber hit shortly after and I soon found myself among friends and peaks in Ouray, unsure of the outcome of Flaanimal or of Rodeo’s fate.
The final pitches in the last mile before you gain Imogen Pass are easily the hardest. You enter a small valley with a tiny descent and immediately the pitches rear up increasingly and the going gets slower than ever. At this point I was off my bike 50% of the time just walking. My gearing and lungs now completely insufficient for the challenge. The bike progressed upward through stubbornness, not fitness. The Grubers had long since caught and passed me on their scouting run and we all had a great laugh as they did so, marveling at how much easier and fun the car made it all seem. Other Jeeps and motorbikes would occasionally crawl by shouting words of support and flashing thumbs up along the way which was greatly appreciated.
As I shuffled up a particularly steep section of road (now a certifiable double track trail of small boulders) I could barely push my bike. I stopped. I heaved for air.
“This is ridiculous”. I thought to myself. “A bike has no business here”. I was very happy to be to be attempting this climb but very willing to admit that I’d bit off a bit too much. The point of riding a bike up this hill wasn’t that it was a good idea and would be non-stop fun. The point was to see if it was possible and to gain the satisfaction that only comes from achieving the goal.
Adventure is that, I think: The journey to determine what is possible. 95% of my riding is generally unadventurous and often mundane. I ride the same roads and same loops as everyone else and I’m happy to do it. When the possibility of adventure presents itself, even at the price of discomfort, I’m excited to give it a shot. I don’t revel in the difficult parts of it, I just try to get through those and find the gold in the experience. The gold is the exhilaration, the memories, the time spent with friends, and the ability to look back at any moment of the experience and remember very vividly what it was like to be there. The mundane parts of life are quickly forgotten. The absurd parts of life cannot be.
The higher you get up Imogen the more endless your view becomes. An increasing number of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks come into view and give you the sense that the world is very much still wild and untamed, and anything is possible for someone crazy enough to strike out into it. I don’t think that these sensations are common to everyone. They are rarefied. They make the ridiculous endeavors more than worth it. They make them some of the best experiences that we have.
Upon my return to Denver I was overwhelmed to see that almost every overweight Flaanimal 3.0 that we had put on sale had sold. The bikes had found a home. On a personal level it made me happy to see that our handiwork would be ridden and adventured on. On an economic level it meant that once again Rodeo would survive the crisis. We would be able to pay our manufacturing partner for the frames and we would be able to order new, improved replacement (Flaanimal 4.0) frames for our crowd fund supporters as well. In the world of disasters this was as close as it comes to a win / win.
I stood on the summit of Imogen pass deeply happy and deeply relieved. The day shone radiant around me. The surrounding peaks were no longer imposing. Despite the ridiculous task of getting here nobody could argue that I didn’t deserve to be here. At the bottom of the climb Jeeps and motorcycles scowled at me, but at the top of the climb they welcomed me as one of the gang, a fraternity of high mountain wheeled adventurers. We exchanged thoughts on the road conditions and cautioned each other about the descent.
Rodeo still has a long way to go as a company. I’m no longer naive enough to think that we won’t encounter wave after wave of hurdles as we continue on this journey that we are on, but 2017 has given me a huge sense of perspective that comes from living through struggles. I’ve seen the peaks from eye level now, we’ve stood among them. At the end of the day Rodeo is still a tiny company and we still live most of the time in the valleys, but the next time Typhoon Gruber hits and I get an invite to go climbing again I won’t hesitate. The view from the top makes it all worth it.