The saying “It’s hard to turn a big ship,” applies to kit companies like any other business. For that reason, those among us seeking to stand out from the peloton have sensed that Walmart will not sell what we seek. I seek innovation not from multinational corporations, but from the companies that are smaller and more flexible.
When it comes to clothing companies there are two broad classifications: the “big” brands like Assos and Rapha, and the smaller “boutique” brands like my fave Ostroy and Chaise Cycling Couture, which I’ve never worn. Thus far the big brands set the standards for quality while the boutique brands tend to be more daring with cuts and colors. You do yourself a disservice by ignoring either quality or innovation, but I do not look to the big brands for kit that is anything interesting or specialized. For unique kit, I keep my eye on smaller companies that can shift gears easily, even under load.
A perfect example just closed presale: Rodeo Adventure Labs’ Explorts. The bibs include almost every feature a rider could need in a pair of shorts: solid side pockets (mesh always looks tenuous to me, and if it’s cheap the elastic frays), three colorways, two of which are available in thermal, a visible print on the pockets to spice it up a bit, and – their most unique selling-point — quick-release buckles for easy bathroom breaks.
I had never before seen a men’s bib that was fully nature-break-friendly. We know what happens in the backs of pro pelotons when the camera politely pans away; only rarely do riders do the Dumoulin Dance. That would have been avoided with easy-off bibs, as would pre-race porta-potty panic.
That said, the final Explorts 1.0 design had extreme distance riders in mind. The brain behind the bibs and the founder of Rodeo Adventure Labs, Stephen Fitzgerald told me he got the idea after a Continental bike-packing racer told him they’ll never race in bibs again. The rider complained that wearing regular bibs during a bike-packing race was too much fuss, which meant time lost.
To be clear, Rodeo bibs were already in the making, but Stephen was able to quickly adjust his ship’s heading. While they are primarily a bike company, Rodeo Adventure Labs’ genesis and development stories are a response to the inflexibility of big ships: Rodeo Labs started out as a race team that evolved into a bike company by the people for the people.
Stephen explained his experience getting into racing was initially not great. His initial engagement with a team felt like interviewing for a corporate job that would never pay well. There was an application process; a test ride with an onboarding coordinator. Bikes are supposed to be fun, but that team experience felt like another job. Instead of staying on a team that didn’t align with his vision for a chill cycling experience, he started his own team with a group of friends. That team would eventually become Rodeo Adventure Labs, which is part company, part club, part support group.
Initially, they had larger cycling clothing companies Castelli and Rapha manufacture their bibs. Those relationships were largely inflexible: the team asked for changes to the cut and fabrics and got shot down. In response, they forged ahead with the same self-assurance they had when forming their own team. Stephen reasoned, “We make our own bikes, why not make our own kit?” He started looking for a manufacturer, ended up meeting a factory owner and “nerding-out” over fabric possibilities. This owner saw Stephen’s vision and said he would work with him on it.
Stephen rode three iterations and put 15,000 miles on the current chamois before the Explorts 1.0 went up for preorder last month. They kickstarted a women’s team in 2020, and are taking their advice on the next iteration of Explorts as well.
There are a lot of lessons to learn from Rodeo Adventure Labs and brands like theirs, (ie., build your own boat) but what I took away from it was having a framework can be great, but not when it’s too rigid. Being flexible and meeting needs where you see them is what’s necessary to support riders.
Rodeo Labs isn’t forcing anyone into anything. They’re not hard sellers; they don’t scream “you need what we make!”
“We make things for us, and we share,” Stephen said. Will the Explorts be a great fit for you? Who knows, but it’s nice to know there are options if you’re tired of the same old thing. Or if you’re doing an all-day (or several-day) ride. In case you might ever have to use the bathroom. These bibs could inspire larger, slow-reacting companies to reevaluate their offerings and, maybe in the long term, halve the pre-race porta-potty panic memes.