UPDATE 2019-07-22: I made a few updates to the section “The Build”, below, and also added a couple additional notes regarding the Trail Donkey’s road-worthiness in the “Road Riding” section.

Before getting into the review itself, I think it’s important to give some context, because the type of rider one is and type of riding one does (or desires to do) is a lens that is of course going to color how one sees any given bike. Feel free to skip ahead to the next section (“Considering the Donkey”) if you just want to hurry up and get to the bike.

(Disclosure: I am just a regular customer who purchased this frameset through the usual channels with my own money. Rodeo Labs was at no point aware that I would write a review of the product.)

I’m basically a middle of the road cat 4 masters road racer who has started dipping his toes in cyclocross and gravel riding the last couple of years. When it comes to road racing, I do well in crits and flat circuit races, having a good turn of speed, but weighing in the vicinity of 190 lbs and not being quite as lean as I’d like, I’m likely to get dropped on hillier road races.

A couple of years ago, I ended up with a Trek Crossrip that I purchased in order to use as a commuter bike for my 35 mile commute into Portland. Since I could squeeze 40mm tires into that bike, I ended up giving gravel biking a try and really enjoyed being able to explore some of the less-crowded gravel logging roads that are all over the coastal range where I live. I had tried some mountain biking in the past but never really fell in love with it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like riding on trails; honestly, I just never cared for the bikes. I’ve never found flat bars comfortable for one thing, but there’s also just something ineffable about that type of bike that doesn’t appeal to me. (No judgement against folks who like them; it’s like preferring a different sort of ice cream. Nothing wrong with cherry cordial, I just would rather eat mint chocolate chip.)

That same autumn after buying the Crossrip, with the encouragement of my teammates, I decided to give cyclocross a try. I found it to be the most brutally difficult thing I’d ever done, learned how to dig deeper than I ever had before, and had an absolute blast learning how to ride my “road” bike on dirt. I also liked that in cyclocross I am not so focused on comparing my performance to other racers. Sure, moving up in the placings is a great validation of improving fitness and skills, but even when finishing toward the back end of a race, if I feel like I am improving in my bike handling and other skills, I’m having fun. As those skills continued to improve, I started incorporating more dirt trails into my gravel adventures, even taking the bike out on some of the intermediate trails at the local MTB park. I found myself wanting something a little more nimble than the Crossrip, which has a geometry geared more toward stability than quick handling.

The next bike I got was a Specialized Diverge. It was definitely more nimble in its handling, and a pretty good bike for pure gravel riding, but it ended up not being a great fit for the more dirt-oriented riding that I wanted to do, primarily because it has some of the worst toe-overlap that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t have big feet—in fact, they are on the small side—and yet even with my cleats set all the way toward my toes, I would regularly bash my tire into my feet when navigating any technical terrain. Add to that the fact that the Diverge has a really low bottom bracket and you realize that it’s purpose-built to ride well-groomed gravel roads on 700x40 tires. It shines in its sweet spot but is frustrating as soon as you step out of that box.

Now a couple of years into this type of riding, I have a much clearer idea of the type of riding I want to do and what I want out of a bike. I really enjoy long rides that incorporate a healthy dose of dirt riding that verges on mountain bike territory, so I wanted a bike that could fit big tires. I wanted something that wasn’t quite as twitchy as a cyclocross bike but with quicker steering than an endurance geometry usually offers.

Considering the Donkey

I don’t usually write long-form bike reviews, but I decided to write this one because I noticed there didn’t seem to be much experiential information available on this bike from anyone outside of Rodeo Labs; lot’s of “oh, I saw this at Sea Otter, and it looks neat,” but not a lot of “I’ve had a chance to ride this bike, and here’s what I think.” I definitely can’t claim to be an experienced bike-reviewer, but hopefully this will help someone else decide whether the Trail Donkey is the right bike for them.

Earlier this year, one of my teammates got a new bike with a funny name; it was the first Trail Donkey I’d ever seen, and I was intrigued. I went to the Rodeo Labs website to find out about the bike. The more I read, the more I liked what I was seeing—not just in the specs of the frameset itself, but also in how and why the Trail Donkey was developed. In particular, it sounded like Stephen Fitzgerald and the rest of the Rodeo Labs crew are pursuing exactly the kind of riding that I’m currently interested in, and this bike seems to be first and foremost developed and designed for them. There are numerous blog posts and videos that show them out testing and enjoying the bikes that they designed and where they talk about why they designed the frameset and brought about its current iteration.

I checked in with my teammate to make sure he would still recommend the bike after riding his for a while (an enthusiastic affirmative), and then I placed the order through their website.

Stephen personally got in touch with me about the order right away and gave me an expected shipping date in the first week of June (order was placed mid-May). We also exchanged several emails regarding my plans to build up the bike. (Rodeo Labs will do complete, custom build-outs for you, too, but I planned to do the build myself using parts from my current bike.) After confirming that my plans made sense, it was time to wait for the frameset to show up. My hope was to have the build completed in time to use the bike for the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder towards the end of June.

Unfortunately, the frame ended up shipping behind schedule as they had a whole batch hung up waiting for the painting process to be completed. Stephen and I exchanged several more emails as he updated me on the status. I did not end up having the bike in time for the event; it ended up arriving here on July 9th.

Frankly, this is just a risk you’re going to run when you buy a bike from a small company with limited production runs. If you need a bike right now, you might not be able to get a Trail Donkey. To be fair, though, I had to wait just about the same amount of time for my Trek Madone to arrive after I ordered it last year, and the fact that I was able to communicate directly with Stephen about the status of my order vs. having the whole process be completely opaque until I received a tracking number was appreciated.

I was excited when the bike finally arrived and ready to get started on the build. Unfortunately, I ran into a couple of small issues along the way. The first hurdle was that the fork had not been converted from its default configuration of 15mm thru axle to 12mm thru axle as I had requested. Since I already have three wheelsets that are 12mm, I don’t have much interest in switching to 15mm, despite the fact that it would open up the use of a wide variety of relatively inexpensive MTB wheels. I emailed Rodeo Labs to let them know about the mix-up, and they immediately responded that they were going to send out the necessary parts and the tool to switch them out.

I also sent Stephen a picture of a part of the frame where there was an imperfection in the paint job. I told him (honestly) that I was not personally worried about the small defect; I just thought he might want to know for QC purposes, particularly given the way the frames were delayed for paint in the first place. To his credit, Stephen responded that this was in fact a big deal to him, and that he was going to “send a fiery note” to the QC department. He also offered me a generous and unasked for credit as an apology. I’m 100% satisfied that he made it right with me and that he will pursue the issue to ensure it doesn’t happen to someone else.

There was a small defect in the paint job on the frameset I received, but Rodeo Labs exceeded my expectations in order to make things right when I alerted them to the issue.

The Build

My original plan had been to build up the Trail Donkey with Di2 shifting, but I ended up using the mechanical Ultegra components from the Diverge. I may still go with Di2 in the end, but I decided that I’d wait until I could get a look at the new GRX groupset from Shimano. For the most part, setting up the groupset is fairly standard, however there is one thing Rodeo Labs did with the frameset that I really appreciate: the rear derailleur cable routing goes through the seat-stay as opposed to the chain-stay. This allows the cable stop to be on the rear of the frame so that the (now quite short) segment of exposed cable is safely tucked back where it is much less likely to snag on anything that may be sticking out into a trail.

The rear cable routing not only looks tidy but also tucks the cable out of harm's way.

The other components used in the build include:

  • Jagwire Road Elite Sealed Shift Cables/Housing (This was absolutely the wrong cable housing to use for this bike, because the rear derailleur actually requires a full housing run from the shifters to the derailleur. See below.)
  • an Easton EC90 SL CINCH chainset with 47/32 rings and the power meter spindle
  • Ultegra 11-32 cassette
  • Wheels Manufacturing T47 outboard BB for 30mm spindle
  • Easton EC70 AX handlebars
  • PNW Rainier IR dropper post
  • Wolf Tooth ReMote dropper post switch
  • Rolph Prima 700c Hyalite ES Carbon wheelset
  • 50mm Panaracer Gravel King tires set up tubeless
  • Bontrager Montrose Elite saddle
  • Bontrager 80mm alloy stem that just happened to be what I had on hand that made the fit right
  • Shimano PD-ED500 pedals
  • The FSA headset and seatpost collar that are included with the frameset

I also have a set of Bontrager Aeolus 50mm wheels set up with their R4 open tubulars and latex tubes that can be used on this bike for fast, pavement-only rides.

Putting it all together was a straightforward process, although I did accidentally pull out the factory-installed guide for the rear brake line and had to fish the hydraulic hose through the frame unassisted (home-bike-mechanic achievement unlocked!) I ran into a small issue with the little plate that screws into the frame to adapt the opening where the rear brake hose enters behind the head tube. I had already tightened the plate back onto the frame, and I needed to pull the hose a bit to get some slack to hammer in the little insert you put at the end of the hydraulic hose. The design of the plate is such that it seems it can snag the hose, and it ended up slicing into the plastic, outer housing and peeling off a big section. I had to re-run a new length of hose (this time making sure to not screw down the plate until I had everything connected on either end). Not a disaster, but this could be avoided if the frame plates had their edges rounded off a bit.

UPDATE 2019-07-22:

After a couple of rides, I realized that my rear shifting was getting sloppy. I looked at the derailleur and found that the back section of cable housing had pushed into the frame past the housing stop…or so I thought. I contacted Stephen to find out what I might be doing wrong, and I found out that the frame actually requires a full run of cable housing from shifter to rear derailleur; there are, in fact, no housing stops at all! You would think this would be obvious during installation, however the Jagwire Road Elite Sealed Shift Housing uses a 5mm housing instead of the more typical 4mm housing. This extra width on the cable housing was just enough to make it “stop” at the places where the cable is supposed to enter the frame, so everything seemed find during installation and for a few rides, but then all of the bouncing around and shifting caused the housing to gradually work its way through the opening in the seat stay and the shift cable became too slack.

The best part is that the plastic housing end got pushed up into the seat stay and then became firmly stuck inside the frame! After some trial, error, and a lot of cursing, I was able to remove it by inserting a straightened-out, wire coat-hanger into the opening on the top-tube near the seat post and then plunging it down the seat stay until it pushed the plastic piece out.

I installed the full housing run as I should have in the first place, and now everything is working again. I did suggest to Stephen that taping a note to the frame at the spot where the cable enters it stating that a full housing run is necessary would be an easy way to prevent someone else from doing this in the future.

First Ride - Local Gravel

The Trail Donkey 3.0 is everything I was looking for in a bike for my adventures away from paved roads.

Finally I had the bike assembled and ready to ride! I took the Donkey out for a 50 mile ride on Saturday morning that’s roughly 80% gravel with a mix of smooth, easy-riding gravel and a few gnarly washboard sections going into some tight, downhill turns as well as some long climbs. It’s far from the hardest gravel route out there, nor is it the most technical, but it’s a fun, reasonably representative route that I’ve done often enough to allow me to compare how the Trail Donkey handled it vs. my other bikes.

To put it bluntly, the Trail Donkey 3.0 is everything I was looking for in a bike for my adventures away from paved roads. The ability to clear 50mm tires and run them at a plush 15psi allowed the bumps in the road to melt away and corners to be taken confidently. Handling is crisp without feeling twitchy, and I felt connected to the ride but not beat up by it. It also has plenty of options for mounting gear to the bike frame, which means not having to carry things in my jersey pockets or on my back. Probably the highest compliment I can give the bike is that I basically didn’t much notice it while I was riding; on rides like this, your attention should be on the amazing surroundings or the fun bit of road/trail that you’re on rather than on your equipment. I’m really looking forward to more days in the donkey-saddle.

Road Riding

The Trail Donkey 3.0 is definitely not the best road bike I've ever been on, but it's not bad, either. If I could only own one bike, this one would definitely be on my short list.

One of the selling points of the Trail Donkey is that it’s intended to be a single bike that is capable of doing most kinds of riding, whether you want to race it in a cyclocross race, spend long days riding gravel, use it as a drop-bar hard-tail mountain bike, go bike-packing, or—yes—even join a fast road ride. Although I have another road bike that I’ll use for the last of those, I still wanted to test out the claim, so I swapped out the wheels for my deep, aero, road wheels with fast, 25c, 320tpi, hand-made clinchers and latex tubes, and I lowered the stem into a more aggressive position. I then headed out to do a short road loop near my house that included some climbing as well as a segment that I use for practicing my sprinting technique.

It’s a mixed experience, which I don’t think would surprise the folks at Rodeo Labs; they didn’t set out to design the best road bike, they set out to design a bike that could also be ridden on the road when that’s what you wanted to do.

The downside to this bike on the road is that, once you put on high-pressure, skinny tires (even the really nice-riding tires I used in this test, which I ran at 85f/90r psi), the ride can best be described as “a bit harsh”. In terms of road-feel, it was similar to riding the first, lower-middle-end aluminum road bike I purchased when I rediscovered cycling back in 2013. It’s not that it was terrible, but it wasn’t necessarily enjoyable either (I’m admittedly spoiled, though, as my other bike is a Madone SLR that rides like a dream.) For a ride of maybe an hour or two it would be fine, but I think that if you spent an entire day in the saddle in this configuration, you’d end up feeling a bit beat up. This could probably be mitigated to some degree by adding a more compliant, carbon seat post and stem, although I’m not about to remove the internally-routed dropper post every time I want to road-ride.

Harshness aside, the bike handled really nicely. The same stiffness that made the ride a bit harsh also meant that the power-transfer is quite efficient. Again that characteristic of being responsive without being twitchy shined through, and the bike was a pleasure to dive into turns, never feeling sloppy or out of control. On my practice sprint segment, I was able to come in just a few seconds slower than the best time that I have ridden it on my Madone, and it felt like a solid platform on which to launch a sprint effort. Aside from the off-road benefits of the shallow bottom-bracket drop, that also ends up benefiting the on-road riding. The low BB on the Diverge always made me a bit nervous about pedaling through corners if I was riding on 25mm tires, but the Trail Donkey handled this situation just fine. Again, I probably wouldn’t take this bike to race a 100-mile road race stage, but I think it would make a fairly good partner in the local crit series.

UPDATE 2019-07-22:

I chatted a bit more with Stephen after he had a chance to read the initial review, and he mentioned that when he rides his own Trail Donkey as a road bike, he generally uses slightly higher-volume tires such as a 28mm tire at 60psi as opposed to my 25mm tire at 90psi. That change would certainly have some effect on the road feel and may well be enough to overcome any of my complaints in that category. And given the TD3’s clearance, there’s no reason you couldn’t even go all the way to a 32mm slick for longer touring/commuting and make the ride even more compliant.

I’ll be sure to give it another try on the road with a higher-volume road tire and update my findings after that happens.

The Verdict

The level of personal service you get when buying a bike from Rodeo Labs is impressive. Yes, there were some hiccups along the way, but the communication was great from the start, and Stephen clearly is personally invested in making sure his customers are happy. I get the strong impression that, should I happen to encounter any issues with the frameset, Rodeo Labs will continue to provide that same level of support down the road. The Trail Donkey is a passion project, and that shows in both the thoughtful design of the frameset itself as well as in the way Rodeo Labs talks about the product and is fostering a sense of community among riders of their bikes.

I look forward to using the Trail Donkey for cyclocross this year as well as getting it out on some more technical single track soon. I’ll certainly provide an update once I’m able to do so; these are just my initial impressions after the first couple of rides. So far, however, I feel like the Trail Donkey is a great bike for the money and would recommend taking a look at it if you are in search of a capable bike that can be adapted to a wide variety of riding. In particular, I can see this bike being really useful for someone who has limited space for bike storage (perhaps you’re in a small apartment, or perhaps you are caravaning around the country) and yet wants to go on many different types of rides; additional wheelsets and tire choices take up less space than full bikes, after all. Its sweet spot seems to be toward the more adventurous end of gravel riding and XC 29er territory (probably cyclocross racing, too; I just don’t have personal experience with it in that environment yet.) However, the Trail Donkey 3.0 is also a bike that seems to be begging you to take it outside of its comfort zone. It may not be great at everything, but it is willing to try just about anything once (except for that track stuff, of course; those people are nuts. 😉)