An Evening with Argonaut Cycles

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When I last crossed paths with Ben Farver of Argonaut Cycles, we were at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show and I was looking at a beautiful steel bike handcrafted by him. Fast forward 18 months and what he showed me at Shelter Half this evening was a full carbon fiber creation. Not only is it his design top to be bottom, but the bike is fully customizable both in terms of layup and sizing.

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Now, I’ve been told “fully custom carbon fiber” any number of times. That statement is usually followed by, “I purchase the tubes from Enve.” So in an effort to contain my disappointment, or get it over as quickly as possible, I asked if the tubes came from Enve.

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The answer was no.

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I didn’t do such a hot job of containing my surprise. Nothing against the builders who build with wrapped tubes—you can make a very nice frame that way—but what Farver and his partners have taken on is exceptionally difficult and requires an investment in tooling that small operations can rarely afford. The more I talked with him and learned about his outlook and his ambitions, the more wowed I was.

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It was refreshing to hear a builder speak of the work being done by Specialized, Trek and Giant, rather than bagging on them as soulless boogeymen. Ben made it clear that he wanted to take the best of the work being done by the big companies while retaining the best of the work being done by frame builders, namely custom sizing and geometry. The particular genius of his approach is that is that he can offer his clients something that neither steel frame builders  nor the big bike companies can offer: custom ride tuneability.

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I haven’t heard many guys tell me that they had done all they could in steel, that they needed a richer, more flexible palette. To say that, you either need to be an arrogant fool, or really know your shit. Ben is neither arrogant, nor a fool. In fact, in listening to him talk, you can hear the excitement for this new phase of his career to kick into high gear. He’s excited to show people what’s possible.

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Ben made it clear that light and stiff isn’t the driver for him, that ride quality, the way the bike reacts beneath the rider in terms of handling and feel.

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This visit to Shelter Half was part of a series of stops Ben has been making on a sort of mini-tour to introduce his work to a new audience. By appearance alone, I’d have to say many attendees seemed more of the fixie persuasion than the variety of roadie inclined toward custom carbon fiber. I’d have been wary that they’d be receptive to a $6k frameset, but the audience was enthusiastic and asked plenty of questions, ones heavily driven by a curiosity about the process by which Ben works with clients.

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How to achieve a level of communication that gives Ben realistic data beyond fit about just what sort of bike works for a rider is a subject he has obsessed over and he talked candidly about challenges he’s faced in the past and what he did to solve them. He’s gone as far as building a client a second bike.

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I could have talked with Ben all night. He’s more than just a craftsman. He’s a bit of a visionary, someone who has seen the possibility available in melding the best carbon fiber work out there with custom fit, geometry and layup to achieve a very particular experience on the bike. Near the end of his talk he was asked why he named his brand Argonaut. He was a history major he said and had always loved the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason and his men, he reminded the audience, were in search of the golden fleece—riches—and he sees his pursuit of building the ideal bike as a way to allow his clients to go in search of a kind of riches, the riches of experience.

 

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14 comments

  1. Scott G.

    “”Now, I’ve been told “fully custom carbon fiber” any number of times. That statement is usually followed by, “I purchase the tubes from Enve.””

    Argonaut does purchase forks from Enve, sigh.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Scott G: I see that as an entirely different proposition. Consider the fact that a great many “custom” steel frame builders build all of their frames around a single fork rake. That’s not really terrific for steering geometry. Enve offers their top-of-the-line 1.0 fork in four rakes. That’s enough to let you do anything you need geometry-wise. So that covers handling and fit. However there is a compelling reason for a small operation to buy a fork from a third party that most consumers simply don’t understand: liability insurance. Making a fork is a stunningly expensive proposition from an insurance standpoint. Some years back one fork manufacturer told me nearly half the cost of their fork at retail was insurance.

  2. dave

    I don’t get how a bike assembled out of molded sections can have custom geometry. Looking at that head tube junction, how can the head tube angle be customized without building a new mold?

  3. Rod

    @ Dave – a simple, but expensive alternative: You mould and lay-up each junction section (“carbon lugs”) individually. Heck, you could keep the moulds for posterity if you invest in them: “this connects a 2 in downtube with a tapered fork and a 1.5 in toptube at a 72.5 degree HT angle”

    All carbon is manually laid up anyway. This increases costs substantially but the process is the same.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Dave: I don’t really know how he accomplishes it, but there’s only one set of tooling and he can do a head tube angle as slack as 72 degrees and as steep as 74.5 degrees. It’s a proprietary process that they aren’t willing to talk much about, but he was clear about this much: one set of tooling and custom sizing and geometry.

  4. Scott G.

    Padraig, the number of rakes is fine, but short reach brakes and 28mm tires are a little limiting. Nice to know frame builders can be as lazy as bike fitters who put everyone on 53/39 chainsets.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I think it’s fair to observe that two years ago the interest in carbon forks that could accept 32mm tires and long reach calipers was next to nothing. Give the world a chance to catch up.

  5. Adam

    If you want to run tires >28mm and long reach calipers an Argonaut may not be the bike for you. That ENVE forks sufficiently cover the needs of this niche brands clients can’t be held against them.

  6. Hoshie99

    Thanks for highlighting Argonaut – very beautiful work.

    On the frame clearance, I think some riders have the intention of using larger tires, but for a very large core audience, 25s are considered wide, let alone 28 for a road machine.

    I think capability does not equal actual use for many. The “capability” speaks to our ambitions and dreams – ie one day I’ll do long gravel road rides. I am sure people do those rides, but I have a cross bike for those days.

    And any soul with $6k for a frame I’ll wager has whatever else in their stable they’d like as well.

    If I was upgrading my road bike, room for 28s is more than sufficient. I regular use 25 tires and I’d bet I am in the minority for my club.

    J


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I should add (and should have added earlier) that this is meant to be a straight-up road frame. Ben is looking at the possibility of producing a gravel grinder and that would be a bike distinctly different from this. If his work is to be criticized, it ought to be criticized on the merits of the design’s intent. Yes, it doesn’t have clearance for 28s and long reach calipers, which makes it a less than ideal gravel grinder. But criticizing it for something it wasn’t meant to do isn’t reasonable. If you think it’s a bad gravel grinder, you’ll be really unhappy if you use it as a mountain bike.

  7. Devin Zoller

    I think Argonaut bikes are a different take that’s done very nicely, however- it’s disingenuous to say that Ben actually builds the individual pieces that make up a frame. Having worked with I.C.E. and seen the process used to create these, it’s not my personal aesthetic to getting the custom-requirements done. He does have a very nice “look-book” on his site that shows a lot of the process if you want to know more.

    Also, what is the harm in having a company that specializes in building tubes build your tubes? They’re damn good at it (being their bread and butter and all,) and a tube built by them with a layup designed for a specific rider is exactly like changing a steel or Ti tube-set to suit a specific goal. I don’t think anybody would ever even think of criticizing RS for not drawing his own tubing- why is carbon any different?

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