An Inside Look at the New Rodeo Labs Show Pony Hardtail
Rodeo Labs just teased a prototype of their first mountain bike, so we reached out to Rodeo Labs founder, Stephen Fitzgerald, to learn more about the bikepacking-focused Rodeo Labs Show Pony and what we can expect. Find some detailed thoughts from Stephen and a peek at the prototype here…
Colorado-based Rodeo Labs is perhaps best known for their drop-bar, big tired, ride-everywhere bikes. In particular, the Rodeo Labs Trail Donkey has been taken on some truly rugged terrain, including the Kokopelli Trail, Silk Road Mountain Race, and numerous other long-distance gravel events. But at what point does the terrain call for the stability and control offered by a true mountain bike? We were curious about the thought process behind the new Show Pony prototype and reached out to Rodeo Labs founder Stephen Fitzgerald to learn more. Find his introduction below.
Words & photos by Stephen Fitzgerald (@stevetheintern)
If we at Rodeo Labs had a dollar for every time we’ve been told “get a mountain bike” or been asked “when are you going to make a mountain bike?” we would easily be rich enough to build a questionably shaped rocket and launch ourselves into space. Thankfully, nobody has given us those dollars and we’ve built no such rocket.
To some, it might even seem that Rodeo Labs has always been at war with the idea of the mountain bike because we stubbornly insist on riding our fat-tired drop-bar bikes well beyond the scope of what the majority of people think is reasonable. The truth is that we’ve always appreciated how awesome and capable mountain bikes are, we just don’t ride them because we’re obsessed with testing the limits of the multi-terrain bikes we make, not the mountain bikes other people make. My entry to the sport of cycling was exclusively through mountain bikes. In high school, I spent every penny I had building and racing mountain bikes, both XC and downhill, for the better part of a decade before stepping away from bikes altogether for a couple of years due to burnout. Drop bars brought me fresh inspiration, and I spent another decade riding mostly road, but I’ve never fallen out of love with dirt and trails.
We may not have been given enough dollars to build a rocket and launch into space, but what we have been given by our community and riders is the constant nagging and inspiration to seriously think about building not a fatter-tired drop-bar bike, but a real mountain bike. For seven years, the time hasn’t been right. More recently, in 2020, the time got more right. The lineup of the bikes we currently make is pretty mature and capable, the company is in a good spot financially, and that has left us space to imagine what might come next.
Any time we think about adding a bike to the Rodeo stable there is always the central question to be asked: Why? Why does Rodeo Labs need to make a mountain bike? Why now? Can any human even possibly count how many awesome hardtails already exist on the market? Why add to that? We could easily say that the world of mountain biking seems fine and is doing more than great without us. And that would be 100% true. But that in itself isn’t enough of a reason to stay away from MTBs. The bottom line is that some people like to look at the shelf of what is available in the MTB world and are happy to pick what they want. Other people and builders simply look at the current MTB offerings and say, “Those are all good, but we want to make something for ourselves, our way.”
Rodeo is the latter. We just want to do things ourselves, our way.
There are a few main factors that went into our decision to start work on this bike. The first is that we’re simply getting more and more into bikepacking. In 2014, nobody here at the office was remotely interested in spending the night outside with our bikes. Sorry, we weren’t cool at all. Seven years later, we’ve been knocking out bikepacking trips all year long, the Flaanimal just won the Tour Divide under Jay Petervary, and we’re super interested in supporting Ashley Carelock as she challenges herself to compete at higher and higher levels. Four of us from Rodeo are signed up for Atlas Mountain Race again this October and we’re beyond excited. We’ve sort of fallen in love with the whole mess of outside bike sleeps, and we’re only building momentum.
The Donkey and Flaanimal have both been awesome platforms for all of our bikepacking adventures and races to date. But there are many longer and more rugged bikepacking races and routes out there left to be ridden, and on some of those routes the proper bike is simply more of a hardtail MTB than a fat-tired “gravel bike.” As we bite off bigger and more interesting challenges, we want to make sure our gear is never holding back anyone’s imaginations or ambitions. As we search for that capable gear, you betcha we’re going to make sure we have a hand creating in whatever we’re riding.
The second main reason for a Rodeo MTB is simply that Rodeo the company, brand, and community are growing. More and more people are a part of our extended family and many of those people really want to ride a mountain bike with Rodeo ideas, culture, and DNA in it. This is probably something a lot of brands experience as they grow, and now we’re here too. A Rodeo, road racing bike is probably never going to happen. A Rodeo full-sus MTB makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. But a Rodeo hardtail MTB? That isn’t a very large leap from where we are already.
So, in 2020, we started putting pen to paper. Before we opened up any CAD programs and started drawing anything, we started with conversations at the office and conversations with mountain bike friends. Conversations turned into arguments about specs and philosophy. Arguments turned into indecision, which stopped things in their tracks. Later, we calmed down, picked up the discussions once again, and carried on. If we knew the “why” of a Rodeo mountain bike, we still didn’t know what the “what” was. To this day the “what” of this MTB project is still very much in flux, but one word we all agreed that this bike has to be is versatile. We didn’t want to make a one-trick horse.
Every bike we make is intended to be used for a range of different riding styles and conditions, sometimes to a fault. Can a bike be good on a road ride and also on dirt and trails? That was the first question I asked myself when Rodeo started in 2014, and the answer to that question was the Traildonkey. Later the Flaanimal answered the question, “Can we make a steel Traildonkey but make it even more versatile than the bike we started with?” Now that we’re working on the MTB, I also want the bike to be useful for a wide-ish range of riding, not just one thing. We wanted to make a bike that can be very fun on the trails with a dropper post and a suspension fork but also super capable, reliable, and well handling when loaded up for ultra-distance bikepacking. Those two ideas sometimes conflict with each other in terms of geometry, materials, and details, but that is the challenge we’re inspired by for this bike.
I think it’s important to stop and underscore that we are not trying to start a revolution here. Many, many bike builders are already out there today, yesterday, and years ago making bikes that do most of or everything that I’m describing here. I’m not patting myself on the back. I’m not congratulating myself for seeing the future. What I am doing is enjoying the freedom that we have as a bike brand to let our imaginations run and make things under our umbrella that put a smile on our faces. I’m also enjoying not being the principal designer of this bike. I’m enjoying watching Drew here at the office lead this project and grow as a designer in the process. When the final Rodeo Show Pony is revealed a year or so from now, certain people will say “Meh, here we go again, I’ve already seen it.” But others will appreciate the details that survive the testing process and prove themselves in the real world. They might like the materials we end up using, the design language, the capabilities, and yes, the colors that Rodeo mixes in its own unique way. We are making this bike for those people, and we are making this bike for ourselves.
To kick off the prototyping process, we’ve started with a two-pronged approach. First, we drew up CAD and worked up designs that will be produced in aluminum in Taiwan. But while we were at it, we also dovetailed into producing three steel prototypes with Mars Cycles, a USA-based frame builder who operates out of Philadelphia. Mars can build a bike a lot quicker than Taiwan these days, and his frames were a super fun local collaboration that allow us to start getting miles logged on our ideas sooner. The bikes you see in these photos (there are two) were both made by Mars based on the base project specs we sent to him. We requested specific geometry that we want to test, and features like sliding dropouts, clearance for up to 29 x 3″ tires, T47 x 92 BB shells, triple bottle mounts, fore/aft direct top tube mounts, 44mm head tubes, and geometry corrected for 120mm suspension forks (should the owner chose to run suspension). The three bikes that Mars built will go to Jay P, Jay’s Silk Road riding partner Jacob Hora, and Ashley Carelock, who will take hers to Atlas Mountain Race in October. Later, the aluminum prototypes will be built up, shown to the community, and kept at our HQ in Denver so that a broad cross-section of friends and other MTB riders can take them out, poke holes in our ideas, and sharpen the final product.
The aluminum frames will share initial geometry with these steel prototypes, but quite a lot of specific details will look very different. In addition to the aluminum frames, we’ve already drawn up CAD for a carbon fork to match the frameset but we are waiting to cut tooling and begin layup until we’ve locked geometry on the frame. We’ve got a number of concepts and features for the fork that we’re excited to show everyone once it is ready.
A lot of brands only reveal a new product when it is fully baked and ready to release. But Rodeo actually got into the bike business by showing people what ideas we were working on for the future, telling the story of our successes and failures, listening to feedback, and giving our bikes a story long before they were ever released. It’s anyone’s guess what the final production Show Pony will look like or when it will be ready for primetime, but we’re super excited to give people a peek at where we’re going next as a brand. We’re grateful to everyone who’s followed along on our journey and allowed us to travel as far as we have.
Keep an eye on Rodeo Labs Instagram (@rodeolabs) to learn more.
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