Podcast Episode #2: Joe Tonsager of JPaks
JPaks LLC is a boutique bikepacking bag manufacturer founded and operated by Joe Tonsager out of Denver, Colorado. Armed with an education in Industrial Design, Joe began making bike bags for his own personal use in 2010. As he describes it, “the design manufacture, putting flat pieces together into 3-dimensional objects, it was really intriguing and fun to see something come to life.” JPaks officially launched in 2012, and now fulfills orders for customers around the world with an estimated eight-week lead-time. One of JPaks’ most interesting designs is the ModPak, a full-size frame bag that converts into a half-bag for shorter trips. We visited Joe at his Denver workspace to see the bikepacking bag operation firsthand and record an episode of the Podcast.
As we pulled up to the office mid-Saturday morning, it would have been easy to miss the historic-looking whitewashed brick office had it not been for the JPaks logo emblazoned in wood and metal on the building’s facade. A few minutes later, Joe was walking us through a space that he alternates between calling “the house” and “the shop”. He’s not joking: the workspace “functions as the house as well as the shop” says Joe, who lives with his wife Kristen in the cozy, bohemian-style building in the Denver Highlands. Light floods through two large glass block windows in the front of the office, framing three commercial-grade sewing machines. Joe refers to these as “the workhorses,” each of which he describes with a passion that showcases his nature as both a diehard tinkerer and devoted craftsman. Manufacturing is only the first part of the equation, as Joe also puts the bags he builds through the wringer on his own bikepacking trips. “I tend to try to ride my stuff to the ground,” he says about his product, “I really love to see the day it dies, the zipper fails or a stitch blows out.” Joe not only takes pride in the quality of his work but also the machinery and continuous improvement to his process. As we walked through his shop, Joe would occasionally pause to highlight old prototypes, describing how his newer techniques would result in an improved seam or better durability.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joe’s passion for bikepacking extends well beyond bag making. He recently collaborated with with David Woronets of ZEN Bike Co. to craft a bikepacking hardtail that could handle the steep, rocky terrain of the Colorado front range while maintaining plenty of frame bag space through use of a high top-tube design. Joe provided geometry feedback via CAD and also used the opportunity to try out a unique bolt-in bag design. The ZEN EXP frame garnered significant interest at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and two of the sleek XL aluminum frames now reside in Joe and Kristin’s personal quiver. They rode the bikes on the Colorado trail, Denver-to-Durango, in 2016. “The very first time out with a bolt-in frame bag and bolt-in top-tube bag was unlike anything before. No shifting, no scraping, no rubbing, nothing. Just this silent ride where everything was together.” His favorite part of riding the bike? Descending. “The front end will write checks the back end can’t cash” he jokes, noting that the plus-tires help bridge the divide between a hardtail and full-suspension setup.
In 2017, Joe plans to increase his production efficiency through additional die-cutting templates while also completing new bag designs for popular bikes on the market, including the Salsa Mukluk, Woodsmoke and Cutthroat. Joe is planning trips to Italy, Florida, and even another Colorado trail adventure with his wife Kristen, this time traveling the opposite direction. When asked about what he would do differently the second time around, Joe highlighted the potential for trying different tire options and “Maybe capitalizing on some of the campsites we rode across” during their first trip on the Colorado Trail.
When he’s not working or riding, Joe donates time to a Denver non-profit bike shop, Lucky Bikes, which helps facilitate Trips for Kids Denver. The program resells donated bikes to provide kids the opportunity to earn a bike and get out to ride on local trails. “It’s such a cool thing to spread the passion and love for biking” he says of the program, “I’m super lucky to be able to spend my time down there.”
While visiting the workspace, we had the opportunity to check out a few of Joe and Kristen’s personal rides as well as projects he’s currently working on for customers – see the gallery below for more shots from our visit. We also interviewed Joe on the Dropper Post Podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or via our RSS Feed to get the latest episode delivered right to your device. To see Joe’s latest work, head to JPaks.com or follow him on Instagram at @j_paks.
Companies & Products mentioned in the episode
- ZEN Bike Co.
- North American Handmade Bicycle Show
- Lucky Bikes
- Andrew the Maker
- Becker Designs
- Porcelain Rocket