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Q&A With a Cool Coloradan: Stephen Fitzgerald

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Denver-based Rodeo Adventure Labs doesn’t just build bikes. Led by founder Stephen Fitzgerald, they embark on long-distance expeditions to some of Colorado’s remotest (and most spectacular) reaches, gathering inspiration for new bikes and gear along the way.

One such adventure was the Flat Tops Roundup, a three-day, 267-mile ride through the Flat Tops Wilderness southwest of Steamboat Springs. Filmmaker and cyclist Justin Balog came along for the ride, documenting the epic ups — 19,500 feet of elevation gain, to be exact — and dramatic downs of the adventure.

Watch Justin’s full film below, and read on for a Q&A with Stephen about the Flat Tops Roundup and other Rodeo adventures.

Tell us about what you do at Rodeo Adventure Labs. What’s your mission?

Our motto is Ride, Explore, Create. That’s the most succinct way of summing up our ambition. Everything we do is borne out of passion for adventure by bike, and we make bikes to enable those adventures.

We don’t just want to be a standard bike builder, though. We also want to dedicate our time and resources to exploring Colorado and the world. The Rockies and plains of our state have more than enough inspiration to last a lifetime, and we strive to share our enthusiasm for them with as many people as possible through photography, film and writing. We can’t help but come away from our adventures inspired, and that inspiration directly informs the products that we create and bring to market.

Why do you feel it’s important to explore (and document) some of Colorado’s less-traveled areas?

For me, the answer is the genuine shock I feel when I go somewhere in Colorado that I wasn’t aware existed. Colorado is so utterly vast, so remote and so beautiful. A lot of cyclists (including myself) tend to ride in the same areas over and over. Habit and convenience form our routines. But something special happens when you smash your routine, take a genuinely uncharted turn off the highway and discover something new for yourself.

That theme of discovering for yourself is especially relevant to Rodeo. There are most likely no places in the state that haven’t been seen or touched by human hands, but the feeling that you MUST be the first person to see a new Colorado vista is not difficult to find if you just go looking.

What drew you to the Flat Tops Wilderness specifically?

The first time I went to the Flat Tops was on a family holiday trip to Trappers Lake Lodge, a tiny cluster of cabins in the middle of the Wilderness about four hours from Denver. I remember looking at the map when we were invited on the trip and seeing this huge area of the state that I knew nothing about. It boggled my mind that it was so large and so unknown to everyone that I asked about it.

I was also struck by how unique the Flat Tops are. So many people visit the Maroon Bells near Aspen, and it’s sort of the definitive Colorado vista. The Flat Tops feel equally beautiful, but more vast, more remote. I later learned that the Flat Tops are where the very idea of “wilderness” was first applied to public land. The actual wilderness area is surrounded by primitive roads that begged for exploration. This is where the “discover for yourself” idea hit me. I wanted to explore it more, and I wanted to bring friends along when I did.

What were some of the most special or rewarding experiences from the journey?

For me, the second day of the Flat Tops Roundup was easily the most special. Our cycling route took us around the entire perimeter of the Wilderness. The most remote part of our route was experienced on the very rugged, very primitive 4x4 roads that we traversed on day two. The high point of the entire journey was Blair Mountain, an 11,465-foot ridgeline that caught us totally off guard. We could see the mountain on our map but we were unprepared for the beauty of the mountain when we reached its summit and looked out over its sheer cliffs. That was a really special moment of discovery for everyone on the ride.

Also amazing was the contrast of the verdant highlands of the Flat Tops compared to the dry beauty of the Colorado River that we experienced on day three. It’s amazing how only 30 miles separated the two ecosystems, but they felt thousands of miles away.

How did the collaboration with filmmaker Justin Balog come about?

Justin is involved in an ongoing adventure project with Sportful Squadra Avventura and he also lives in Denver, where Rodeo is based. I wanted to make the Roundup a trip where we invited people who were not already part of our Rodeo team/community, and Justin was at the top of the list. Justin loved the idea of exploring somewhere new and documenting it with only the tools we could carry on our bikes; I loved the idea that when the trip was all said and done, we could look back at it through the film that he would create.

What are your goals with the film, and what do you hope people take away from seeing it?

At a high level, the goal of the trip and the film was to satisfy the “explore” and “create” parts of our motto. Being a bike company means that a lot of what we do involves commerce, but our trip was specifically about putting commerce aside and getting back to exploring and storytelling. We wanted to go find something awesome, bottle it up and bring it back to share out of pure enthusiasm for the endeavour.

What kind of gear is essential for an adventure like this one?

On any adventure, you need well-made, durable gear, and this trip was no exception. But more important than the gear, we needed a huge sense of resiliency — to be ready for whatever we encountered. We knew the roads would start and end smooth in Steamboat, but beyond that a huge portion of the route was a complete question mark. Even the Steamboat locals from Moots Cycles that came along on the trip didn’t know what we’d find out there on day two.

We did not scout the entire Flat Tops route before we started the trip, and we specifically needed to be ready to encounter huge, challenging climbs, bad weather, horrible (or non-existent) roads, scarce water and other difficult factors. We needed to carry clothing for the full spectrum, from sunshine to sleet, and we needed large, all-terrain tires and very wide-range gearing to get up those steep pitches.

Why do you choose to do what you do in Colorado?

Colorado has all of the ingredients that we feel like we need to have a well-rounded, high quality of life. Denver is large enough to have a great cultural and artistic center of gravity, but it isn’t so large as to be overwhelming. Living in a city so close to such an expansive mountain range means we have that sense of infinite exploration and adventure at our fingertips. I’ve lived in other states with exceptionally beautiful mountains and excellent cities, but they didn’t quite strike that balance that I feel Denver has in terms of scale and livability.

What’s next for Rodeo? What other spots in Colorado would you like to explore?
Just yesterday, I spent hours glued to Google Earth flying over 14,000-foot mountain ranges, high plateaus and rugged passes. When I zoomed in close enough, networks of roads and trails would appear on my screen — all connected to each other. I can barely contain my excitement. There are SO MANY options to explore.

The difficult factor right now is that so many of the routes that we want to attempt are only accessible during a two- to four-month window when the high mountain snows melt. The low-hanging fruit is easy to pick. We want to go for the difficult stuff higher up on the tree. When we do go, we’ll be sure to bring back words, images and even more films.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about what you do, or about adventure in Colorado?

I just want to re-emphasize that core point: Go find something new to you. Don’t depend on the Top 10 lists. Find a spot on the map where YOU have never been. Find a way to get there. Bring a tent, rent a cabin. Do whatever it takes. You can go around the world searching for adventure, but our state can go toe-to-toe with the best vistas I’ve seen anywhere.

Explore Rodeo Adventure Labs’ bikes and adventures at www.rodeo-labs. You can see more of filmmaker Justin Balog’s work here.

Want More?

Learn more about mountain biking in Colorado, and view a three-day itinerary along the Flat Tops Trails Scenic Byway.