I spent some of my early years in radio in Sacramento. There were two Air Force bases in town; Mather AFB (now closed) and McClellan AFB. McClellan was a logistics and maintenance facility for a variety of military aircraft. While I was there, repairing and maintaining the F-111 was the base’s biggest job. The F-111 was a low flying bomber that gained notoriety when President Ronald Reagan dispatched a pair of them to Libya to bomb Muammar Gaddafi.
The F-111 was a formidable aircraft thanks to terrain-following radar. The radar enabled the plane to fly very low, without slamming into the side of a hill or building. The bomber’s radar system bounced a signal off the ground and the plane’s altitude was automatically adjusted allowing it to closely follow the contours of the earth.
I like to think of the Stinner Frameworks Refugio as similarly capable. Similarly, this gravel bike did an excellent job smoothly follow the ups and downs of dirt roads and trails. The Refugio’s terrain-following capabilities were front and center when I pointed it onto the Kenter Whoops. The Whoops are part of the trail system in the Santa Monica Mountains. They were built and have been maintained by the high flying types who adrenalize their rides by casting their bikes and themselves off mounds and bumps large and small. Thankfully, flinging’s one’s bike is not mandatory while descending this legendary trail. The whoops also make for a rad, point to point pump track. And for the Refugio, this was a perfect place to test my terrain-following theory.
In the Whoops, the Refugio swooped, crested and dove as if it had intel on every bump and dip ahead. I was able to keep both wheels on the ground, even over some pretty dramatic lips. I pumped and pulled that Stinner with relative ease for a drop bar bike. I really liked how this bike stayed in touch with the dirt, even when met by abrupt changes in topography. The Refugio didn’t drop any bombs, but it did keep me on target and on trail.
The Refugio’s ability to keep the rubber on the dirt also did not surprise the designer. Aaron Stinner says he loves Rally Racing and wanted the Refugio to act like a rally car in the dips and turns.
“That’s really the sensation we were going for. If you’re a road rider moving over to gravel, you’re used to riding 18-19 mph and so you want whatever terrain you’re on, you want the bike to perform for that speed and that terrain.”
My wife and I love Santa Barbara. She’s a Gaucho—a UCSB grad. We have made her college town one of our regular places for weekend getaways. The riding is terrific. Gibraltar Road, Painted Cave and Ladera Road are some the standout climbs. A group ride out of East Beach, called Sunday Worlds, is a hotly contested knockdown that includes a small section of the 101 freeway. After any ride, there’s a pit stop at Handlebar Coffee, owned and operated by former pro cyclists Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson. Great coffee poured by a terrific pair.
When you do hook up with a group, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one Stinner in the bunch. It’s the local brand, welded not far from the UCSB campus in Goleta. Stinner is Aaron Stinner, a Gaucho who is one of the few small builders in Southern California. Out of college, with a degree in bio-psychology, his plan was to build a better athlete, not build bikes. But as he explored the world of human performance he discovered that with cyclists, especially those who raced on the velodrome, a bike that was custom built produced the best results. So he learned the craft and started building frames. Just track stuff at first, and only for people he knew. But then word got around that a Gaucho was turning out some nice frames. Other riders started offering to pay for one. Stinner Frameworks was born.
Things really took off in 2012 when our own Padraig, chief judge at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, handed Stinner the Best New Builder prize. 5 year later, Stinner has a small staff, a lineup of five models and plenty of orders. He does titanium but favors Steel. The Refugio we borrowed for a month was the latter.
Aaron Stinner comes from a racing background, so even though he is mostly using steel, his aim is to achieve the qualities you’d expect from a machine meant for competition. So he keeps an eye on weight by using butted top and down tubes. The stays are tapered for weight savings and ride quality. The fork is carbon with a 12mm thru axle. Our 56 tester with pedals came in at just over 20 pounds. This bike could easily drop a couple pounds with carbon wheels and a pair of Schwalbes or Specialized Triggers.
Thanks to a 44mm head tube, the Refugio uses 1 3/8-inch headset bearings.
A “stock” size Refugio in steel is $2599. The geo-chart goes 12 deep. That’s right, a dozen sizes. Yes they do custom, but there’s a $250 upcharge for the CAD work. Stinner favors tig welding for heat control, especially on thinner tubes. Other add-ons include rack and fender mounts, Di2 routing, internal rear brake routing, S&S couplers and more. Frames are made to order. Lead time is six to eight weeks.
Customers can complete their ride using Stinner’s bike build menu. It’s a mix-and-match system. Pick wheels, gears, touch points and color. The combinations are completely up to the customer.
The bike received lots of compliments on the paint. Stinner calls it matte slate green. It’s one of two stock paint options. I get why the matte/ finish is appealing. It has that “ready for anything” look. And with a nice coat of dirt on top, the Refugio took on a ruggedness that would impress Paul Bunyan. But for my eye, I like a more finished look. Give me color and a clear coat. And for a price, Stinner is happy to accommodate.
For 100 bucks more, customers can pick from any of the stock paint jobs on Stinner’s other models. Need more bling? Check out the Vault. The options are almost endless. Just watch your step, crazy color combos can put the paint price tag alone at up to $1500.
Powdercoat has a reputation of being the most durable finish but Stinner says their wet automotive paint and curing process can nearly match powdercoat’s scratch resistance. No small feat considering many of the drying agents available cannot be used in California due to environmental regulations. Like the frames themselves, paint is done in house.
I really liked having the Refugio around. I did everything on it: long road rides, bike commutes, bombed fire roads and easy single track. In the end, the Refugio felt like a bike for a rider that does 60-70 percent road and the balance on the dirt.
“People get our Refugio and its their do-all bike. It’s an extremely versatile bike. It’s a bit of a Swiss Army bike,” adds Stinner.
You might be wondering about that name; Refugio. First, the proper pronunciation is ruh-FOO-HE-oh. Although you will also hear ruh-FOO-GEE-oh and occasionally ruh-FOO-GHEE-oh. You’re probably good with any of the three unless you are in or near Santa Barbara in which case, turn that “g” into an “h”—ruh-FOO-HE-oh.
The Refugio is shown here with 35mm tires but has room for 40mm.
There is a Refugio State Beach but more importantly, there’s a Refugio Road, although calling it a road maybe stretching the very definition of the word. Refugio road climbs away from the coast, towards the Santa Ynez valley. From Stinner HQ it is six miles to the bottom. From there it is a six-mile, potholed, broken tarmac, climb followed by a three-mile, gravel descent.
“The road is in just terrible shape,” says Stinner. “You get a lot of different terrain. It kind of encompasses all of the things we wanted the bike to handle.”
Instead of returning the bike to Stinner via cardboard box and ground transport, I rode it back to the company’s hometown. It was 100 miles door to door and I the day I did it, a headwind beat on me 90 percent of the way. Our tester was kitted with mechanical Ultegra, a set of custom Jones aluminum wheels and WTB Exposure tires in 35mm. Not exactly the ideal setup for a solo century but I was able to plow through a Pacific Ocean breeze with relative ease.
About half way home, I stopped at Point Mugu Naval Weapons station. They have a static aircraft and weapons display out front. I parked for a few minutes and placed the Stinner underneath an F-14 Tomcat. As I stared at the Refugio, then up at the fighter jet, I realized that this bike—any bike—is far from a weapon of war. And maybe comparing the Refugio to a cold war era bomber is a little far-fetched. But if the battlefield is 30 miles of rough fire road, 10 miles of torn up tarmac and 60 miles of smooth pavement, I’d be perfectly fine in the cockpit of a Stinner Refugio.
Final thought: For bombing fire roads, not foreign leaders.
Action images: Shon Holderbaum