As tends to happen in the cycling world, a visit to a friend in Santa Barbara led to a friendship being made with a couple of coffee roasters, which in turn led on to a friendship being made with their customers, and then an introduction to a well known local frame builder and a British wheel builder sharing a workshop down the road, one half of which (surprisingly not the British one) that was good friends with an old friend of mine back in the UK.
As I walked in to Aaron Stinner’s – Stinner Frameworks at Goleta on the outskirts of Santa Barbara in my initial and to date only visit to California I first remember the sound of Chris King hub freewheels being ratcheted back and forth like the tuning warm up of an orchestra. An English smile looked up from the pawls and a warm confident voice with that slow migration of an accent welcomed me and asked if I wanted a cup of tea – something I’d yearned to hear for a fortnight. With an appearance not unlike Hollywood tough guy Gary Busy, Jon Jones had a welcome homeland dry wit here in this film star paradise a bloke from London like me could start to feel a slight longing for after a while.
I was whisked upstairs to Stinner’s headquarters for an impromptu tour of a small operation with wider aspirations. As I took my post tea chaser another cup of tea, I caught glimpses of inspiration and experimentation dotted about behind sofas and propping doors open here and there. Belt driven designs, weld experiments and just decal and logo tests of the past found their place here in the brain of the machine. Former Strava man Eric, joining Aaron and I revealed plans for growth of this small joiner of tubed dreams that both showed real ambition and the belief in the ability to pull it off. I appreciate I’m no business advisor but I left that brief introduction with little doubt that this was a go-er. There was passion and belief but in that now more familiar to me Californian way there was a self confidence bigger than a Hollywood smile. And that often turns out to be the first signifier you’re talking with an American, before words are even said, they always seem to have good teeth.
Down into a small workshop on the ground floor the familiar smell of freshly welded steel hung in the air like an understood frequency of the heart of the machine. I’ve stood in the engine rooms of huge bicycle factories and one person bands alike and the common themes are often aroma and sound. Production intensity ramps up the volume of those smells and sounds of metal creation but turns down the radio in the process. And the intricacy of a smaller operation generally means a soundtrack ingredient that goes into a frame like adding a shake of cinnamon to a pancake batter. That afternoon the flavour of a Stinner frame had a taste of Johnny Cash baked into it.
Steel and Ti are made here in Goleta, Aaron having started around a decade ago building bikes for his friends in a journey that has become an award winning operation that still retains that difficult to hold onto balance of awarded success and handmade cache.
It was lunch time and we headed out to a sandwich bar/ cafe and chatted all things bike, from our respective initial Tour de France eras (mine – late eighties, his – early nineties) to which Klein paint job of which generation of Attitude took the crown. That argument can go on all night at a mountain bike race barbeque but as much as I can appreciate a Coral or Gator Fade, it’s got to be a Dolomite 1990 for me. Talk as it can varied but tended to veer naturally back into bicycles. Just as with any successful producer, designer, driver or creator in their chosen field, Stinner spoke eloquently and with focus – this was at his core a bicycle person yes and one that was confident in that surname on a downtube.
After lunch and my first experience of 3D parking cameras on a dashboard screen (other-worldly still) it was all about the paint and the palm trees. To get my latest top up of spray booth isotopes, I watched a plain undercoat blossom into a metallic kiwi fruit of a bike. And then photographed it’s freshly built production line forerunner outside in the Californian sunset.
The opportunity to make a portrait presented itself briefly in the warm early evening sunlight and a t-shirt bearing the subject’s name. Portrait made, as is often the way, by chance the preferred decisive moment presented itself seconds later as Stinner’s film star looks now off duty, glanced across the street to a proper American V8 firing up over the road while buttoning up his work shirt for a return to the welding torch for the evening.
We headed back inside past forks being finished and the last stage decals being stuck on tubes before hometime gravel rides for the metal workers and for us a Star Wars premiere for us…when in California.
My brief visit to the west coast had provided more than it’s fair share of friendships for a few days and as my oh-so-Californian 80’s 911 lift into town arrived Aaron passed his best on to our now mutual friend back home. As is often the way in life that made it feel like a small world. As is always the way in this subculture we shared, what starts with work ends as friends.