Rider and Rig: Ryan Santoski’s Kona Rove
In today’s Rider and Rig, we chat with Ryan Santoski at Totem Cyclery, his small, service-oriented bike shop in Denver, and check out his dreamy Kona Rove commuter/light tourer. He walks us through the build, describes what it means to run a Bonsai-Style shop, and offers some thoughts on the importance of trimming away the unessential things in life…
I never miss an opportunity to stop in to catch up with Ryan Santoski over coffee at his one-man shop when I’m visiting Denver. Nestled away in the city’s colorful Baker Historic District, Totem Cyclery may be an unassuming space from the outside, but walk through its doors and you’ll find a carefully curated feast for the eyes. Ryan’s thoughtful, no-bullshit approach to life has unquestionably spilled over into Totem’s aesthetic and offerings. He makes time for every single person who walks through his small shop’s doors, something I really appreciate and am reminded of each time I’m in. Read on for a deep dive into his ultra-practical Kona Rove and an interview with one of the most interesting people you’ve likely never heard of.
How and when did cycling become part of your life? What’s your cycling background?
Rather than wax nostalgic about childhood bicycling adventures, of which I had many – thanks mom and dad – I have a memory from my early twenties that pretty well illustrates my unconventional approach to cycling. In 2008, I descended into the dark and twisted world of unsanctioned singletrack endurance racing in Wisconsin, a place to which cycling culture is no stranger, and although my first few races were humbling vomit stains across the rolling landscape, I eventually learned how to pace myself and dial in nutrition and hydration. In the case of the six-hour Thunderdown in the Underdown, my pre-race nutrition consisted of some orange juice and a marijuana brownie on the way to the race. I was late to the start line and was still getting my kit together when the gun went off. I popped my earbuds in, caught the group rather handily, and, buoyed by the excitement of riding some of the best singletrack in the state as well as the pre-race snack, began passing the other racers. Sometime later it started raining, and it never really let up. My mind passed itself as I rode seven laps around the 12-mile course before the time cutoff. Only later did I learn that I placed first, on a rigid singlespeed in a field of geared bikes. I wouldn’t recommend it; it’s just what I did. And I’ve still never used Strava, by the way.
What kind of touring and bikepacking rides have you done?
I’ve only started gravitating toward long-format rides in recent years, despite having decades of experience in wilderness travel (and of course having done a lot of cycling). So far, I’ve done some mini-trips in Colorado on pavement and dirt, explored the San Rafael Swell in Utah – combined with some canyoneering – and recently went vision-questing on fat bikes in New Mexico. I’m excited by the possibilities. To me, bikepacking has more in common with mountaineering than with traditional cycling disciplines. Having good systems and knowing your gear is obviously important, but that’s the easy stuff. What’s most interesting to me is entering into that certain mental state as you depart on a multi-day trip, knowing you are completely reliant on yourself and what you can carry, being comfortable with the unknown and ready for anything. That can’t be taught, only learned.
I love your bike, it seems like a dream commuter and tourer. Why the Kona Rove?
Its steel frame with disc brakes and big tire clearance make it a quiver killer. I use it as my daily rider, take it on longer road/adventure rides, can load it up for touring, and rip it on gravel and dirt trails. It’s comfortable enough for all-day riding but also feels nimble and responsive – sometimes I like to go fast and it seems to react to that quite well, too.
Talk us through a few of your favorite components and accessories on the build.
The SON/Edelux Dynamo system has been my favorite upgrade, and I love the rack-mounted light. Getting the beam out in front eliminates shadow from the front wheel and I can still carry anything on the rack without interference. As far as accessories, the Sturdy Bag Designs frame bag really ties everything together – Joe is a dear friend and this was one of the first frame bags he built when starting Sturdy. Despite being courted by many other makers, I only carry two bikepacking bag brands at the shop: Sturdy and John Campbell aka Alpine Luddites out of Ouray, Colorado. I think they do some of the best work in the industry and both have personal resonance with me.
Ryan’s 2014 Kona Rove Build Highlights
- Frame and Fork: 59cm Kona Rove steel frame and fork
- Headset: FSA
- Crank Arms: White Industries G30
- Chainring: White Industries VBC 40/26
- Handlebar: Salsa Cowchipper 2
- Stem: Race Face Evolve 70mm
- Seatpost: Kona
- Saddle: Brooks C15 All-Weather
- Pedals: Answer Rove w/ HoldFast straps
- Chain: SRAM 1071
- Shifter: SRAM Apex
- Brakes: Hayes CX
- Front Wheel: Totem-built H Plus Son Hydra, Son Delux dynamo, Sapim Race spokes 2-cross 32h
- Rear Wheel: Totem-built H Plus Son Hydra, Novatech hub, Sapim Laser spokes 3-cross 28h
- Tires: Panaracer GravelKing 43
- Front Rack: Rawland Raidoverks Demiporteur
- Lights: Schmidt Edelux II
- Handlebar Bag: Sturdy Bag Designs (Minneapolis, MN)
- Frame Bag: Sturdy Bag Designs
- Saddle Bag: Revelate, soon to be swapped out for custom Alpine Luddites (Ouray, CO)
Tell us about your shop, Totem Cyclery. What led you to open it?
Popular business wisdom would surmise that this is the perfect opportunity to give readers a sales pitch, to really polish up the thing and place it on a pedestal. Never mind what’s been selling. I’m more interested in being honest about what Totem is and what it isn’t. To me, the shop is an extension of my path and a place to practice a craft, which I consider both bike repair and wheelbuilding to be. If you’ll permit me, I might even call it an artform. I think I probably have more in common with ye-olde-village-blacksmith than with the bicycle superstores of today’s marketplace. I don’t sell bikes, save for some one-off customs and special orders/requests, and I don’t sell apparel other than Totem t-shirts. I’ve never seen myself as the person to convince someone else to buy into a lifestyle or activity. When someone comes in with their bike, I’ll mention what I like about it and how it could run better, rather than urging to buy a new one. I’m very competent at servicing bicycles, and I’ll gladly service yours for money.
I noticed the motto Ride Here Now on your new water bottles. Where’d that come from and what’s the meaning behind it?
It could be that I’m simply advising people to ride to the shop – there’s an address on the bottles, after all. Or it could be that you picked up on something else. For me, it’s important to be aware of how riding a bike in any capacity makes me feel, rather than how it has been marketed or perpetuated to look (or what I should expect to feel). I recently redesigned my logo, and although the final version is very simplified, the original concept was inspired by some images from Be Here Now, a 1971 artwork-disguised-as-book on meditation and self-awareness, ultimately a call to consciousness. This goal-oriented world demands results, and that is perpetuated constantly through most forms of human output. The pressure to succeed according to someone else’s terms is unrelenting. But what about our individual exigencies and capacities? Ride Here Now is a concept I try to practice daily, the act of simplifying and cutting away the unessential to get to the heart of the thing, whatever that thing may be. The process and style of such matters; paying attention to our immediate surroundings equally so.
What are you up to when you’re not wrenching on or riding bikes?
Climbing and mountaineering (counter)culture has been deeply embedded in my psyche since I was a kid, and may even be closer to my heart than cycling; certainly more pure. I wouldn’t dare monetize or commodify it as I have seemingly done with cycling. I’m not as much drawn to these pursuits as sporting competition or social outlets, but rather to seek altered states of mind in the ecstatic beauty and terror of the natural Earth. Some of my best experiences have been on foot in the mountains. I also come from an art and music background, which still informs a lot of what I do. It’s all connected.
What’s it like running a small, brick and mortar bike shop in Denver in 2018?
Not only is it a lot of fun, but I’m constantly surprised by the varied challenges and unexpected rewards that come along with it. I’m lucky to have some amazing clientele and like-minded neighbors. The size of the shop is hard to ignore – my workspace is smaller than most home workshops. In attempting to describe the shop, I’ve referred to Totem interchangeably as both Alpine-Style – which in the context of mountaineering means attempting the greatest task with the least amount of resources – and Bonsai-Style, referring to the long-term cultivation and shaping of a small yet very resilient living thing. I prefer to keep a low profile – in fact, the muted response to this feature will likely cure my ego of any notions of becoming a public figure. I prefer to avoid labels and tag lines, using the flexibility of being unseen or unknown to find new ways to be completely free. “The consumer wants consistency,” someone once said. If we’re using the original definition of consumer, then yes, they’ll continue to seek and consume what has already been known to satiate the Hunger. “When are you going to expand?” is a common question. “When is the second location coming?” Well, what if my definition of expansion is different than yours? What if I choose to rebel against the American concept that bigger equals better? I might expand the shop, or I might burn it to the ground. For me this is process-based, and that process is fluid.
Are there any other bikes in your stable?
My all-steel roster includes a 2012 Kona Honzo hardtail trail bike that has been powder-coated black and customized extensively, and also a late-90s Trek hardtail that I spray-painted brown and turned into an urban bomber with a Swobo riser crossbar, CETMA front rack, and Maxxis Hookworm tires.
Simply put, I prefer to do more with less. I can go touring with any of these, and they all eat dirt.
Lastly, any dream tours on your bucket list? Where and why?
I’d like to ride the Colorado Trail before it’s owned by Vail Resorts. I could definitely go get lost for a few weeks in the American Southwest with a trailer full of climbing gear; the desert resonates with me in very different ways than the mountains do. Argentina because Cerro Torre. Norway for the waterfalls and Trollveggen. Come to think of it, I should probably close the shop this winter to go search for a better-informed answer to that question.
Find Totem Cyclery online at TotemCyclery.com, on Instagram @totem.cyclery, and in person at 8 West Ellsworth Ave in sunny Denver, Colorado. And when you make it there, Metropolis Coffee just next door is highly recommended!