Rodeo Adventure Labs Trail Donkey Switch-Up

Rodeo Adventure Labs Switch-Up Trail Donkey

In 2014, Stephen Fitzgerald founded Rodeo Adventure Labs with the idea of building category-defying bikes. Recently, the team launched the 4th version of their Trail Donkey and will soon be offering a variation of it called the Switch-Up—a multi-modal bike that allows riders to quickly swap between flat and drop bars. Is this the everything bike we have been waiting for? Let's find out.

At this year's Philly Bike Expo, Rodeo Adventure Labs unveiled a 4th version of its all-terrain, adventure beauty called the Trail Donkey. The TD4 is pretty much everything you'd expect from Rodeo Adventure Labs—a machine designed to do literally anything that is light, fast and with best-in-class build kit options. Hopefully, one day we'll be able to try one out and let you read our gushing words about it. However, this post isn't about the Trail Donkey 4. Well, not quite anyway.

Last week, the RL team started uploading photos to Instagram of a TD4 that was capable of “switching up” its configuration from a flat bar bike to a drop bar bike. It was appropriately called the TD4 Switch-Up and it frankly blew us out of the water. Could this actually be the everything bike we have been searching for so long for!? The N+0? The Unicorn. There are so many details on the Switch-Up and the photos generate more questions in our heads than the explanations could provide. So, we reached out to Rodeo Adventure Labs' founder Stephen Fitzgerald to ask a few questions. It turns out that Stephen is a huge proponent of the category-defying bike and was kind enough to sit down and help us understand this wonderful beast.

What exactly is the Switch-Up Donkey?

The Switch-Up Donkey was an idea that Sheldon Thompson came up with while he worked at Rodeo in 2018 or 2019. Sheldon had been looking into hydraulic quick disconnect couplers such as those used in motorcycles and posited that by using those on a versatile gravel bike you could come up with a bike that easily transitions from drop bars to flat bars with none of the fuss of brake adjustments or rebleeds. At the time it seemed like a holy grail idea: One frame with an insanely wide use spectrum depending on handlebars and tires that were mounted on it. With a bit of searching and testing Sheldon was able to make the idea real, and we took the first switch up bike to Sea Otter in 2019 where it was a big hit. People wanted to order it and wanted more information on the couplers but there was just one problem: the couplers were constantly out of stock and unavailable, and we were unable to get more for quite a long time.

The idea went dark for a few years until the advent of TD4 which has optionally integrated full internal routing. Full integrated internal routing looks super cool because it hides all of the routing inside of the handlebar, stem, and frame, but it is wildly impractical for any travel that requires disassembling the bike. Unlike traditional routing which has slack and allows handlebars and fork to be removed, integrated routing has no slack and removal is all but impossible. While mulling this we posited that those hard to find couplers would once again be a solve for this. If we built the bike with electronic shifting and used couplers for the brake lines the handlebar and fork could not only be removed for travel, but of course the drop bar to flat bar conversion would once again be a secondary benefit of the system.

Does this all sound techy? Good, because it is, but fundamentally it's about having your cake and eating it too. With couplers you can travel with a fully integrated bike, and you can also have a Switch-Up bike that allows you to easily swap handlebars to suit your mood. Thankfully, in 2022 the couplers weren't difficult to find, and within a week of having the idea pop back in our mind, we had a fully functional and complete bike ready to party on a bikepacking trip to Mexico.

How long does it take to swap between flat and drop bar modes?

There are two answers to that question:

One: With traditional routing where you are only swapping the handlebar and the routing is all external you would put the disconnects up near the stem, and to swap the bar you just quickly disconnect the brake lines, unscrew the stem faceplate bolts, put the new bar on, and re-connect everything. This would take less than five minutes.

Two: For an integrated bike where you are hiding all the brake lines inside the frame you need an access point for the couplers to live. Thankfully TD4 has a removable downtube storage hatch and we put the couplers in the downtube just inside that door opening. In this case the switch up is a bit more technical but with a little practice it takes 5-10 minutes max.

How versatile is the Switch-Up exactly?

Generally people run a 10-20mm shorter stem with their flat bar setup than they would on the same frame that typically has drop bars on it. This would vary rider to rider. Keep in mind you don't end up with a pure mountain bike the minute you slap flat bars on a frame with gravel geometry, but flat bars on a gravel frame are wildly fun, especially in rowdy trail conditions or when running a singlespeed and wanting that extra handlebar leverage that flat bars provide. We already have a fair number people running AXS 1x12 bikes who are quickly removing the rear derailleur and converting the bike to singlespeed mode, so adding the option of swapping on any handlebar you want all of a sudden means your bike options become phenomenally flexible with just a single frame. Flat bar SS CX racer on Sunday, fast skinny tire drop bar road mode on Tuesday, and super fat tire flat bar geared bikepacking bike the following weekend, each do-able with about 5-10 minutes of downtime between swaps? That's pretty cool stuff to me.

flat bar three quarter

Some people will ask “why bother just get a cx bike and a MTB and a road bike”, but I think pushing the boundaries of what a single frameset is capable of is a really cool exploration, and the ideas bear out in real life use, which I can say because I put many many, miles on the first Switch-Up Donkey including racing it in the MTB race at Sea Otter and going on fast road bike rides with it the next week, and taking it to Unbound a few months later. Already on the 2.0 I've done a bunch of commuting on it, some fast road riding, and I just got back from a week of bikepacking in Mexico on it. During that time I've already lost count of how many times I've used the disconnects with no leaks, bubbles, or brake issues to speak of.

Has anyone else ever attempted a multi-modal bike in this fashion?

We've never seen anyone else put this concept into rideable form, but that doesn't mean nobody else has tried or succeeded. If they have, we would love to see how they build theirs! Based on the feedback we get online from these bikes we know a bunch of people would LIKE to do this to their bikes, but there seems to be a lot of hesitation on going out, doing the research, and making it happen.

Those colors. What can you tell us about them?

This bike came together from idea to a trip through Mexico in about a week, so there wasn't much time to do a new color layout for the bike. Thankfully, I had designed something for some refurb frames that are sitting in our internal paint queue. We never seem to get around to completing those frames because customer bikes keep rolling through. So when I needed a quick paint layout for this Switch-Up build, I stole it from those bikes and the team here hustled hard to get one of our black prototype TD4s prepped and painted in time for the trip.

You color the derailleur cage and front Absolute Black front chain ring? Absolute Yellow?

Those parts were just the chef's kiss of the build. A lot of time spent custom painting bikes and bike parts is prep time, but chainrings and derailleur cages are comparatively simple, so as long as the yellow color was being loaded into the spray gun for the frame it was pretty easy to sandblast the cage and chainring and get them coated as well. Those parts get pretty dirty and worn fairly quickly, but it's worth it for the big reveal!

What exactly is Cerakote?

Cerakote is a funny material. It is a thin film ceramic coating which means tiny, tiny ceramic particles are the actual pigment and color, and those are suspended in a liquid polymer. You spray the mixture on the bike and bake off the polymer mostly leaving only the ceramic behind. The coating is about ⅙ the thickness of liquid paint, and pound for pound quite durable. It isn't alien technology and it isn't impervious to wear and tear so care must still be taken with it. However, we enjoy offering it as an option on our bikes and we like that it is both made in Oregon and has a far, far lower environmental footprint than liquid paint. One of the only byproducts from manufacturing the polymer is sold off to local farmers as crop fertilizer. Wild stuff!

Those sliding dropouts are next level. How do they work and why are they awesome?

The dropouts are something that we're quite proud of with the TD4 design. We wanted to carry over the sliding dropout function from our Flaanimal bikes because they allow for wider tire clearances and native singlespeed builds with our frames. But we wanted to make them simpler, lighter, and more elegant on TD4 so we worked quite hard simplifying AND making the assembly more robust at the same time. With the TD4 system we managed to gain even more tire clearance and slider range than we have with Flaanimal, and the assembly is simpler to adjust. Most bike owners will probably never adjust or play with their sliding dropouts, but for those that do we think they will love the functionality of this design.

What is happening with that dropper lever? Button?

The dropper button actuates the Rock Shox Reverb dropper post out back. We figured that on a Switch-Up bike you would definitely want a dropper in flat bar mode, but might not in road or drop bar mode, so we chose a wireless dropper instead of a wired one for this build. In drop bar mode the dropper is actuated by a dual press of the AXS shifters, or if you don't want a dropper in that mode just have a second seatpost / seat to keep things simple and shave a half pound from the bike. The flat bar dropper button is mounted on a 3d printed blip mount that we made in-house.

Can we buy a Switch-Up Trail Donkey? How much and where? (take my money)

Short answer: Yes. You just have to ask when you're ordering and configuring one of our bikes.Long answer: Yes, but keep in mind the additional cost of a second set of handlebars, two complete sets of coupler lines, grips, brake levers, needles, olives and a bunch of other small things that will add up surprisingly quickly. We still need to add up what a Switch-Up option would add to a standard build but I would imagine it would be $400-$600 depending on parts used. We'll add the option to our official offering once we add it all up and have the website updated.

Thanks, Stephen.