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Stephen Fitzgerald & Rodeo Labs: The Art of Adventure

Before gravel was a thing, Stephen Fitzgerald saw beyond the road. His vision birthed Rodeo Adventure Labs, blending passion and innovation into bikes for adventure and setting new standards in cycling. We spoke about his journey from concept to trailblazing leader in bike design and beyond. Dig in.

Stephen Fitzgerald & Rodeo Labs: The Art of Adventure

In the dynamic and ever-evolving world of off-road cycling, it's rare to come across individuals and brands that redefine the essence of adventure, innovation, and community. That's precisely why my interview with Stephen Fitzgerald, the founder of Rodeo Adventure Labs, holds a special place in my journalistic journey. Based in the scenic backdrop of Lakewood, Colorado, Rodeo Labs isn't just a bike builder; it's a testament to Stephen's vision of what cycling can and should be—boundless, inclusive, and deeply rooted in the joy of exploration. Having nurtured this brand from its inception in January 2014, Stephen has steered Rodeo Labs into a beacon for cyclists who dare to venture beyond the paved roads, seeking adventures that are as unique as the bikes they ride.

My intrigue with Stephen and Rodeo Labs began not just with their innovative approach to bike design but also with their compelling narrative that resonates. With a team of 8 dedicated individuals, Rodeo Labs crafts more than just bicycles; they forge experiences that encapsulate the spirit of adventure and creativity. In this interview, we delve into Stephen's journey, uncovering the ethos that drives Rodeo Labs, the challenges they've navigated, and the aspirations that fuel their forward momentum.

What led to starting Rodeo Labs?

Previous to starting Rodeo I was an avid, even rabid amateur competitive cyclist with a background in MTB, Road, and Cyclocross. I became obsessed with bikes in junior high school and carried that passion into adulthood where it eventually brought me to start Rodeo. In late 2013 I raced with a local team in Denver, and was a member of the board of the team. The team, being the second oldest in Colorado, had an excellent history, but in the modern era had frustrated me with its strict rules and formal culture.

Bikes and bike racing were just so serious. Eventually I decided to step away from the team because my style didn’t mesh well with their culture, and I spent a couple of months deciding if I wanted to simply join another team or perhaps start something from scratch. Even though starting from scratch was intimidating, it was equally exciting because the canvas of what the team could be was completely blank, and we would be free to experiment with our own ideas and values. Rodeo Adventure Labs was the name of that new team, and straight away a small group of people in Denver got to work riding and thinking about bikes their own way. It would be another year or two before Rodeo formally became a bike company, but that same spirit that the team began with is what led us to start imagining our own take on how bikes could be designed and ridden differently.

What personal values did you bring to Rodeo Labs?

I think the strongest personal values that I brought to the team were the deep desire to create things, the desire to tell stories, and the desire to be inclusive about it all along the way. Inclusivity is a bit of a tired buzzword these days, but back in 2014, it meant that anyone was invited to be on the Rodeo Labs team—that all were welcome to join us on the Rodeo Rally rides that we hosted. From the get go, we shared our stories on the Rodeo Journal, and we talked about silly rides, races, and experimental routes that we were cooking up. At the time, the most singular thought that I had was that I wasn’t any longer a person who wanted to choose from off the shelf offerings for clubs, gear, bikes, or anything else. I wanted to make it all up for myself, and with my friends. That’s still the spirit that we operate in. There are plenty of brilliant products on the cycling market, but we want to be a part of the conversation and to help define what a good product is instead of taking someone else’s word for it.

How does RL manage to stay ahead of trends so effectively?

In a best case scenario, real trends are based on something that works well, and works better in the real world. In the worst case scenario, trends are baseless gimmicks that are dreamt up to sell us things that we don’t need, and that won’t meaningfully improve our lives or experiences. Rodeo doesn’t always stay ahead of trends, there are plenty of other people and brands that beat us to a good idea. When we are ahead of trends, it’s because we get our ideas directly from the source: we go out for rides and let the experience of riding bikes teach us about what could make that experience better. We were at the front of the birth of the modern gravel bike, and that was mostly luck, but what led us to develop bikes that are now called gravel bikes was the simple idea of wanting to introduce more variable routes into our otherwise repetitive riding regimens. We first started deviating from the tarmac and onto dirt and trails on road bikes, then we gave it a go on cyclocross bikes. Ultimately we realized that cyclocross bikes had horrible brakes, mediocre tire clearance, and fairly limiting gearing. We didn’t see “gravel” coming, we just knew that our hands were hammered at the bottom of a hill from squeezing brakes and getting battered by rocks. It’s simple logic to make your tires larger, take advantage of disc brakes, and even to incorporate MTB gearing into mixed surface riding. That sounds so obvious to type, but it wasn’t very common in 2014, and if I wanted that bike to exist, I realized that I wanted to make it for myself, so I did.

Our riding style was inspired by curiosity and boredom, and the solutions were inspired by the experiences we had while out experimenting. Those same values will always be the secret sauce for innovating at Rodeo: we need to stay curious, we need to experiment wildly, we need to give ourselves permission to try unconventional things, and we need to take what we learn from all of that and translate the best parts of what it inspires and bring them to our customers in the form of products that work very well.

Many of the brands that make up the bike industry at large tend to look laterally, at each other, for inspiration. If we only ever look laterally and swipe away inspiration from our peers, we will always be behind the curve, reacting to things that other brands had the courage to try first. If we look less laterally, and more straight ahead and forward with our nose in the wind, we have the opportunity to see good ideas first, and to make bigger contributions to state of the art and state of the culture of cycling. Fortune favors the bold!

How connected are you to the design and prototyping process?

I’m very very connected to design and prototyping, and always have been since the beginning. But what once started as my singular efforts has expanded to include an amazing internal team working on design and prototyping now, and we’re doing the best work now that we’ve ever done. I came into the industry without any product design or insider experience, so I’ve always suffered from impostor syndrome. At the same time, not having previous industry experience has allowed me to approach product and bike design from a different angle than many others. I may not have had any good habits and best practices baked in at the start, but I also didn’t have any bad habits and tired thinking baked in either.

At the start I approached bike design almost like creative direction, and as a non-engineer I still do. I didn’t have the skills to translate my ideas into CAD files and geometry tables, but as a super passionate rider who was willing to experiment and trust their riding experience, I did have strong opinions about design, function, and aesthetics. The trick was to bridge the gap in my knowledge and skill through collaboration. In the early Rodeo days, I worked 100% with external collaborators to design and bring to life our bikes and products, and it was an awesome way to get going. But as time passed, I realized more and more that the things important to Rodeo and important to me are not the same things that are important to external collaborators. Over time I’ve learned more and more that in order to create less compromised bikes, we have to take our fate entirely into our own hands and bring as much of the process in-house. Over time we hired more in-house talent, and we’ve built up a small but powerful internal team that is probably 98% responsible for every detail of every new bike we develop and release. Our volume manufacturing started in Asia and is still mostly done in Asia, but we have an in-house initiative called Project Denver which is the entire intent and focus of Rodeo Labs for our next 10 years. We’re resolved to bring as much of the frameset (and accessory) manufacturing process in-house as we possibly can, and every ounce of resources that Rodeo Labs can muster is being funneled into that. Rodeo is, in effect, currently a bike company that supports an R&D initiative to build a better bike company. If we succeed I think we will make our greatest contributions to cycling yet, and if we fall short of the absolute goal, I would still say that there is no better use for our resources and creative energy.

What do you consider a “trend” and what do you make of them?

I unknowingly answered a little bit of this in the question above, but in general a “trend” is probably a concept, design, or idea that is more or less agreed on and patronized by a significant portion of a community or customer base. To me the word “trend” almost implies a temporary, non-permanent nature. Fancy new suspension design that catches on, but in not very long goes out of style? That’s a trend. Trends by their very nature don’t seem to ever last. If they did last, they would be called something else, like maybe a solution, or a timeless product.

I would love to be involved in products that aren’t trends, but that stand the test of time on their own merit. At Rodeo Labs we make it a point to celebrate earlier editions of our bikes as still-relevant and useful, not instantly obsolete when something new is released. If our bike design is driven by function, not trend, then sure a better version may ultimately emerge, but hopefully we won’t end up regretting the design choices that we made on earlier models because of short sightedness or adherence to industry trends that we blindly assumed were the best way to go.

Some trends like color and hairstyle are benign, and we can all laugh at them when they go out of style nearly instantaneously. Products brought into the world should be expected to last nearly indefinitely, otherwise we’re just creating junk and exacerbating some of the huge challenges facing humanity at large. Sometimes I see people treating “gravel” like a trend, or talking about how it’s jumped the shark because of the immense (industry, marketing) hype surrounding it. But gravel as a style of riding has nearly limitless potential to endure indefinitely—because it is so genuinely lovely to feel the crunch of rocks under your tires, or the drift of a wheel, or the thrill of navigating a technical terrain feature. Gravel has been with us for a LOT longer than most people realize, going decades back, and will persist equally long into the future.

What’s RL’s biggest hurdle?

Rodeo has all of the same hurdles that any small business faces. However, late last year I started trying to dig into the things that hold us back from really growing past being an upstart dirtbag bike company and into something more enduring. What I’ve learned, is that our own internal mindsets inside of the company are what hold us back more. If we see ourselves as small, unprofessional, and “good enough”, then we’ll never have the chance to grow into something awesome. I don’t use the word “grow” to imply scale, which I’m less interested in, but instead to grow means to continually mature and up our game in every expression of the brand. So, we’ve been doing a lot of work on ourselves in the last five months. We’re working on processes, we’re working on systems, we’re working on accountability, and we’re working on how well we execute. It is really difficult work to undertake, because our habits as a company have become very comfortable. We got pretty good at being ourselves! Maybe it’s a product of my mid-life age presently, but being who we’ve been for the last ten years isn’t enough for me anymore, and I feel the ticking clock of the time that I have left to build Rodeo into a company that expresses its culture, values, and products in a world class way. So, the work has begun to build that better version of ourselves. Our motto has long been Ride, Explore, Create, but internally we added a new word, and the new Rodeo Labs motto is Ride, Explore, Create, Better.

If we succeed at getting over the hurdle of “good enough” then you’ll continue to see more genuinely inspired and well executed products from us. You’ll also see better stories told, customers taken care of better, and you’ll see an outsized impact on how bikes are brought into the world. None of this will be all at once, but I’m very optimistic that it will.

How do you define success?

A year ago I may have tried to come up with an on-the-fly answer to that question, but in October we began writing our mission / vision statement for Rodeo, and I think it summarizes success very clearly now:

Ride. Explore. Create. Better: These are the values by which we make world class contributions to culture, storytelling, art, and whereby we bring innovative products to the world.

Success is living out the statement above. It is very intentional that the first word of our vision statement is “ride”, and it is also intentional that the idea of products (commerce) are the last things mentioned in our vision statement. If we ever put products in front of the riding that inspires them, we’ve gone off the rails.

Who (or what) is your biggest influence?

I’m not sure if I have a single biggest influence but here are some people that I admire and why:

Charles and Ray Eames: Because they were brilliant and creative problem solvers who made real contributions to humanity across a wide range of disciplines. They weren’t just one thing, they were many things, always experimenting, always evolving, and always allowing themselves to take on new challenges that they didn’t necessarily have any credentials for either way. Their body of meaningful work is so vast that it’s difficult to summarize.

Steve Jobs: No, I don’t think I’m anything like him, and in many ways the guy was a spectacular asshole, but reading his biography taught me that you are allowed to have an idea, trust yourself, and be relentless enough to solve it. Reading his story taught me that you lead by example. Don’t ask people what they want, show people what is good, and what works, and offer it to them.

Elon Musk: Oh, God no not Elon Musk! He might be (1) insane, (2) some form of sociopath, (3) mean, (4) many other things, but he took on many entrenched ideas and industries and completely revolutionized them by simply being arrogant(?), smart(?), and determined enough to think that there could be a better way to approach them. His stories influence me to challenge constraints and throw out standing assumptions in a quest to invent and discover better ways to do things. I think Elon is deeply flawed, (as am I), but hot damn SpaceX made a rocket that can take off, land itself upright, refuel and refurbish, and go do it again reliably. A huge team of people made that happen, but someone had to lead that team, and that’s him.

Inside the industry I’d call out Tom Ritchey as an inspiring figure. I didn’t realize how deep and authentic his story was until I heard a podcast about it about two years ago. He was a true innovator and inventor in some very formative years of road, MTB, and the in-between, and his ideas were shaped firsthand as a rider who even still logs more than 10,000 miles a year. The guy is the real deal, and he’s stood the test of time.

Outside of cycling, what passions or hobbies do you have?

I don’t have any time for hobbies outside of cycling and Rodeo. Cycling is my non-stop job, but it is also the thing that I do for fun, and to decompress from my non-stop job. Cycling is Rodeo, and Rodeo is cycling to me. Thankfully being involved in Rodeo means that I also get to practice photography, writing, product design, graphic design, inventing, and many other rewarding things.

I do have a life outside of Rodeo. Rodeo is not a 100 hour a week job for me, it’s closer to maybe 50 hours a week. So with the rest of my life I work on staying married to my wife of 18 years, and I try to be a good dad to my three kids who are 17, 15, and 8. I think everyone in my family deserves a dad or a husband no matter how easy it would be to spend every waking moment on Rodeo stuff. I really don’t want to screw up real life outside of Rodeo because I was so busy building a company. I get the balance wrong quite often, but I work hard to try to find it again. I can’t really put into words how stretched thin I feel every single day between Rodeo and family life. There really isn’t anything left in the tank when I go to bed, but I love the feeling that if time is a non-renewable resource, I’m spending almost every second of it before I eventually kick the can.

What excites you most right now? In five years?

Related to Rodeo, Project Denver is the most exciting thing that we have going on right now, and we share very little of what we’re up to. We’re really trying to do that exercise of questioning constraints and re-imagining how to build a better bike in a better way, and I think we’re onto some viable ideas about how to do it. There are a lot of dead ends in the project, and a lot of failure, and it really eats all of the money that the company generates, but I can make three or four R&D leaps in my mind from where I sit, and if we manage to turn those ideas into reality we’ll have something really special to offer cycling, and maybe even spaces outside of cycling.

As a cyclist, I’m excited to keep riding and keep trying to grow as an athlete. Even if I’m past my absolute physical prime, I’m excited to push my mind and body to accomplish more genuinely adventurous and rewarding things on a bike. Each year I’m careful to plan large and scary rides and adventures into the calendar so that I’m never far from the edge of my own seat.

What message do you hope people take away from Rodeo Labs' story and its bikes?

I think the bike industry is defined by the grind of selling bikes as units. It’s defined by economics and capitalism and market forces like supply and demand. Rodeo is also shaped by some of those forces of nature because we are a business that wants to keep on existing, but what I really want people to take away from Rodeo is the inherent joy and passion that come from riding, experiencing, and creating bikes and cycling culture. We’re all here, in this sport, because we share the joy and the passion of that singular experience of riding a bike, and when people see Rodeo I want them to be able to feel how directly connected we are to that joy.

Thanks, Stephen.

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