Before we even received our Argonaut frameset for review, we had the opportunity to document the build process. It made the anticipation even greater.
Now, having put hundreds of miles on it, from Florida through the mountains of western North Carolina, I have to say it’s both one of the more interesting road bikes I’ve ever ridden, and the one I’ve most wished I could hang onto.
A quick recap: Argonaut founder Ben Farver started building steel bikes years ago but realized that, as a business, custom steel was a saturated market. But he loved the ride. Lightbulb: Make a carbon bike that retained steel’s ride while taking full advantage of the material in ways that tube to tube construction can’t. The result? Full custom carbon monocoque that rides really, really well. Part of my eagerness to ride the Argonaut was because the bike just looks amazing, and this one was custom built for me. The other part was that this is one of the earliest full production frames Ben’s built, so I was quite interested to see how his knowledge of steel frame building would translate to carbon. And how he’d be able to translate my riding preferences, weight and measurements into a bike. Here’s how it went…
The majority of the frame is UD carbon, with woven carbon in a few areas to reduce vibration or add strength in tight corners.
The headtube is all woven carbon because it’s easier to cut and shape for headsets.
One of the great things about using monocoque construction is the ability to shape not just the tubes, but the way each tube flows into the other. And the Argonaut makes full use of that at just about every intersection.
The headtube’s angles flow directly into the downtube…
…which flows directly into the bottom bracket, and then up the seat tube.
The finish doesn’t hide the carbon layers, showing off the various shapes and sizes used to form each section of the frame.
There’s not a round tube to be found. Note the small bits of woven carbon in the crux of the seatstay-seat tube junction. All of the shaping is done so they can make things stiff enough without having to use oversized or reinforced round tubes, which would add weight.
The seat mast carries the seat tube’s shape all the way up, which uses a custom shaped mast topper with an ENVE clamp system for the saddle’s rails. The frame includes three spacers in the same shape as the mast that can be stacked to raise the topper’s height a bit. I raised the topper a bit (about 1/4″) without using a spacer and it didn’t slide down during riding, but they’re included if you want. They’ll provide about 2cm of extra height support.
The shape and layup and all done so Ben can customize the comfort and stiffness for each rider.
At first glance, it looks like metal dropouts…but the blue parts are all carbon. Where many brands use chunked woven carbon to press into molds, Argonaut uses UD chunks. There are metal inserts in the frame that they bolt into, and the actual dropouts are 6/4 titanium.
The paint on the dropouts did chip easily when the wind blew the frame over during photographing, so a small bottle of touch up paint would be a welcome addition.
The frame was sent to us with a Chris King PFBB30 bottom bracket and headset installed. Weight for that combo is 1,140g. We’ve weighed both of those King parts separately, which come in at 105g and ~119g (162g with the top piece & cap) respectively, so frame weight without them would be about 916g. Pretty darn good for a 58-59 equivalent frame size!
Clockwise from top, other parts are the headset top piece and cap (43g), ENVE fork (396g), seatmast (100g) and BB adapters for Shimano cranksets (23g). Put it all together and you have a frameset weight of 1,702g (3.75lbs)
ALL DRESSED UP
I tend to ride a bit more upright, so even with a slightly raised headtube, I still had a few spacers in there. Ben used the geometry and measurements from the fit I did for the Parlee Z5 we tested. Even though this was custom built for me, Ben stuck with a fairly traditional layout so it could be used by others, too…we did have to return it, after all. Being full custom, it could be built anyway you want.
Cable stops are standard, external affairs, which makes it easy to work on and lighter overall.
The rear brake cable runs just far enough under the downtube that it didn’t rub my knee and is virtually invisible from the riding position.
The bottom bracket section isn’t as big as some mega-racers these days, but looks big in comparison to the Argonaut’s smaller tubes. It’s appropriately stiff under power, standing or sitting, without feeling like a slab of marble over the bumps.
They’ll paint it any way you want, for a charge, but I really liked Argonaut’s basic blue on matte black standard paint scheme.
When reviewing a custom bike, or reading a review of one, it’s important to remember they can be built any way you want. Need a super stiff crit racer? Or a relaxed, fondo tourer? No problem. The builder should talk to you at length about your riding style, preferences and body type. The real trick is how well they’re able to take all that information and turn it into a bike that justifies the cost. Particularly a freshman builder or, as in this case, someone’s who’s just started with a new material.
My preference, which I shared with Ben over several emails and a phone conversation, was something that would be comfortable all day long but also hold up to the occasional city limits sprint. Steering should be precise without being twitchy.
Did he succeed? Before I could answer that, I wanted to talk to Ben in more detail about how he determines the layup for a customer and, in particular, how he determined what the layup would be for my review bike. So, after my last big ride on the bike (a 93 mile day on the Blue Ridge Parkway with -depending on whose computer we trusted- up to 13,000 feet of climbing) and before boxing it back up, Ben and I spent about 2o minutes on the phone. Here’s what he had to say:
“The bottom bracket is determined by a rider’s average 3- and 5-minute power outputs and rider weight. The headtube is pretty consistent across all frames since it’s a structural element. The seatmast layup is mostly determined by rider weight. Top tube layup is determined by how much the rider tends to pedal seated rather than standing and powering through sections, as in a crit. Counterintuitively, those that stand and crank a lot end up with a lighter, slightly less stiff top tube because it creates a lighter top section of the bike so it’s easier to whip back and forth. When standing, there’s not much connection between what’s going on at the handlebar and the unweighted saddle, so it works. On the contrary, those that mash while seated need a stiffer connection between the bars and saddle since the body is applying torque to the entire top half of the frame. Frame stiffness and frame feel come from different layups, all of it’s decided by torque and twisting numbers.”
When he first started, Farver came up with the layups and numbers by simply building a lot of bikes. He and a friend rode a lot of versions to find the baseline, modeling the layups to mimic his favorite steel frames’ flex characteristics. From there, they rode test mules that all started on the stiff end of the spectrum, dialing it back to get the feel they wanted. Once that baseline was dialed, they put a wide range of rider weights and sizes on them to figure out what changes needed to be made. In all, almost a dozen frames were built to arrive at initial standards, from which they figure out other changes based on customer input, body type and riding style.
“Some of the customization steps outside of those boundaries when necessary,” says Ben. “One customer wanted slacker geometry but tended to ride super hard, super fast for short durations. Even though he’s a smaller guy, the bike was built overly stiff to make it perform for his style of riding. And that’s the beauty of custom.”
My test bike, which is frame #15, has the bottom bracket and downtube set near the center of his bell curve in terms of bending and torsion. Farver says that’s the sweet spot for most riders. For someone lighter or less powerful, he’d reduce the stiffness slightly, using the analogy of golf shaft and speed to explain: If a shaft is too stiff for a given swing speed, it’ll feel dead and won’t give that ‘snap’ at impact. Same with the bike, if it’s too stiff, it’ll deaden the ride and feel, well, lifeless. Too soft, though, and it’ll feel noodly.
So, how did all that translate on the pavement?
Pretty darn good, though it took that last big ride and some very fast descents to really bring it all together mentally and physically.
Up until that last big ride, I’d mainly taken it around our local rolling hills and gently curved country roads around Greensboro, and the very flat, very straight roads on coastal Florida. One of my first tests of any bike is always the handlebar shimmy. The Argonaut flexed quite a bit more than other bikes, especially the much stiffer Culprit or Alchemy bikes I’d ridden. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to affect ride quality or handling on normal rides. Crit racers might find it unsuitable, but for my riding style, it seemed to lend to the overall comfort of the bike. And remember, he can make it as stiff as you want…they’re all custom.
Over the months I had the bike, every ride was a good ride. Ben seemed to nail the comfort versus performance versus weight matrix that wanted. I could hammer up the hills and down the flats for interval training, or just spin through the fields and enjoy the scenery. Cornering was stable and confident, and the rear end’s compliance (likely coming in large part from the seat mast as I could watch it move a bit similar to others’ flex posts), it tracked well and never felt noodley. Thus far, I loved everything about the bike.
Then we took it to the mountains. On the climbs, it was gold. But as the descents got faster and the turns sharper, I started to feel less confident. For the entire first half of the ride, I tried different hand and body positions to encourage it to follow my intended path. Once things got above 30mph, it just didn’t seem to work with me to get around the bends smoothly, and it only got hairier as speeds crept toward and over 40mph. It was fairly stable, it just didn’t seem to want to rail corners.
I was mentally prepared to accept the compromise between overall comfort and high speed handling. Then, on the way back down Mount Mitchell, I started pressing down hard on the drops and shifted my body weight just a bit further forward. Boom: Magic.
From then on, it was like a new bike on the descents. Putting that extra pressure on the bars -literally like I was trying to push the drops into the ground- made it fly through the corners. Suddenly, 45mph was exhilerating instead of terrifying. And I loved the bike even more.
Were I ordering an Argonaut for keeps, I’d ask Ben to make the headtube a bit stiffer, but not much. The overall compliance of the bike made it exceedingly comfortable overall and probably saved me on a few of those big descents. We hit a few cracks and potholes at 40+ mph on the Parkway, not unlike those in the top action shot, and the bike took it in stride. Some of the guys on stiffer race bikes seemed a bit more shaken by them. And, even after 93 miles and all that climbing, I felt fresher than I had any right to.
At $6,000 to $6,500, the Argonaut’s on the high end of what a custom bike goes for, but that gives you a unique take on custom carbon fiber that marries form and function to create a bike with real character. You know, kinda like a steel frame, except much lighter.
If Ben gave me an exit interview, I’d say he 99% nailed it, with only the slight lack of head tube stiffness earning the 1% penalty. Ben’s off to a fantastic start, and I suspect his ability to morph a rider’s input and measurements into a dream bike will only get better the more he builds. Do I want one? Absolutely. Would I order one? Absolutely…if I could afford it.
SIDE NOTE: If you remember, we also saw a prototype version at NAHBS. Ben says the second generation improves with the addition kevlar to soak up vibration better and with more HiMod fibers to make it lighter. It’s still not being offered officially, but they’re just starting to bring them up in conversation.