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.
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.
The answer was no.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.