Over the years, we’ve done a lot with Argonaut Cycles, from documenting its first shop location to photographing its race team at the Rouge Roubaix and shooting bikes at various showcases. The brand has come a long way in that time and today, after three years of design, testing, and research, they are releasing the GR3, a next-gen custom carbon gravel bike.
While in Bend, OR, recently, Josh caught up with the Argonaut Cycles team for a tour of their facilities and sat down for an interview with founder and designer Ben Farver. The conversation covers the brand’s fully custom in-house carbon frame and component production methods and more. Below, find Argonaut’s GR3 introduction, Josh’s interview with Ben, and an extensive photo gallery detailing the Argonaut fabrication process!
Introducing the Argonaut GR3
Here’s what Argonaut had to say about the new GR3 (Gravel Racer Three)…
Argonaut Cycles continues to push the envelope of what is possible with carbon fiber in the release of the GR3. At the core of the GR3 is the GravelFirst geometry. Road bike geometry hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Cross-bike geometry hasn’t changed much in the last 15 years. Gravel geometry has changed significantly in the last five years and often in divergent ways. The first gravel bikes were cross bikes with disc brakes and tubeless tires, as are many current gravel bikes.
Born from the desire to address the needs of the modern gravel cyclist specifically, the GR3 is a major leap forward in gravel bike design, built for everything found on a typical “gravel” ride: a bit of road, a bit of smooth gravel, a bit of NOT smooth gravel, and a bit of single track. Ample tire clearance allows one to run up to a 50c tire, but with an industry best 415mm long chainstay the bike jumps at every pedal stroke and carves through every turn. The low, 75mm bottom bracket drop, and slack 68.5º front end allows you to fly downhill, skip over ruts and rip through corners faster than you ever thought possible. A PR smashing machine, the Argonaut GR3.
The core element separating a bike made by Argonaut from any other bike is the ability to custom make and tune every frame and build to address the physiology, ride style and preferred terrain. Every tube, bottom bracket, seat cluster are laid up by hand, specifically addressing the needs of the customer.
Every customer gets a custom carbon layup pattern, delivering unique ride quality through the refinement of torsional stiffness and vertical compliance. Custom bikes enable riders to reach their maximum potential by addressing their needs at the onset of the process. Argonaut bikes enable riders to feel better and ride longer.
The GR3 is meant to go fast. Professional gravel racing is the ultimate testing grounds due to the power, speeds, duration and harsh conditions found only on race day. Victories at the biggest races, as well as podiums across the country don’t lie, the GR3 is proven. After 1,000 miles of racing, Argonaut riders consistently raced against the best, proving that their US made bikes are every bit as good, if not better than some of the bikes made by the world’s biggest manufacturers.
Argonaut is proud of this fact and team rider Sarah Max can attest to the GR3’s capabilities that helped her not only win the Belgian Waffle Ride for pro women, but also enhanced her descending abilities to the point where she has seen multiple podiums atop her GR3 and racked up numerous QOM’s for downhill segments!
Pricing for the Argonaut GR3 begins at $6,500 for the frame set. Current build time is four months from the order date.
Interview with Argonaut Founder and Designer, Ben Farver
JW: What’s your background and how did you get into building bike frames?
BF: My academic background is in History. I got my BA from the University of San Diego with the intention of continuing to get my masters and doctorate and, hopefully, eventually teach at the college level. I loved going to school. But, right out of college I happened upon a sculptural welding class while living in Portland and quickly fell in love with metalworking. Juxtaposed was my love for cycling – BMX, then mountain biking as a teenager, then road riding in San Diego for something to do when the surf was flat. Throw in a little Portlandia frame builder vibe circa 2007 and you’ve got yourself a bespoke steel frame builder who thought they were blowing people’s minds with branded laser-cut dropouts.
JW: How did Argonaut come to be? What’s your philosophy/ethos that led to building custom carbon bikes in the US?
Argonaut in its present form came to be out of the realization that I was not, in fact, blowing people minds’ with branded laser cut dropouts or fancy paint jobs. The reality was that my bikes were built with the same steel tubes as everyone else. The move to carbon came from the desire to take what I loved about steel bikes, which is the smooth yet lively ride quality, and make a better, more unique bike. I wanted my bikes to be completely Argonaut rather than a True Temper bike with a cool logo.
The desire to maintain domestic production came more from a need to control every aspect of the bike rather than being able to stamp a USA flag on the bike. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for US manufacturing. But, I don’t think a product can rest on the merit of domestic production alone. The biggest opportunity I saw with carbon was making custom layup patterns that have a rider specific flex profile. That’s just not possible with an overseas manufacturing partner.
JW: What’s it like for a customer to work with your team in designing a custom frame – from sizing to paint?
BF: I think that the coolest thing about making one-off, from scratch bikes is that they’re so personal and that our customers have a really intimate relationship with their bike. Our build process is unique in that the customer is shepherded by different members of our team from start to finish. I design the geometry and layup, Cory, our mechanic, designs their build kit, and Erik, our art designer, brings their bike to life visually.
We have eighteen people at Argonaut HQ now, each having a critical role in the finished product. The coolest thing about our team is that everyone wants to give the best work possible to the next set of hands. Our unique build process gives the customer intimate knowledge of all the work that goes into their bike, and the entire Argonaut team ends up having a real relationship with every bike that goes out the door.
JW: Why carbon and why custom? What sets your frames apart from other brands?
BF: Carbon, because it is currently the best material out there with which to make a bicycle. The material inherently is great in terms of strength to weight ratio, but the thing that isn’t taken advantage of nearly enough is how dynamic the material can be. Using unidirectional carbon it’s possible to get the material to do so many different things at once – compliance, snappy ride feel, absorb road vibration, and be remarkably light and durable. The opportunity is huge and we still haven’t maximized it.
The thing that sets our bikes apart from other brands is that they have a rider specific layup pattern. We look at frame flex from three dimensions – vertical bending, horizontal bending, and torsional stiffness. We optimize all three of these flex characteristics for every Argonaut customer. No one else does this.
JW: Your fabrication process is extensive and intricate. Can you walk us through the aspects we observed during our shop tour, including CNC tooling, silicon molds, carbon and layup, component finishing and assembly, paint, etc.
BF: Man, that’s a big question! In short, we’ve developed specific engineering practices regarding every part of the build process with the goal of either making perfect carbon components, which is the most satisfying part to me, to the final assembly of a complete bike. It comes down to control. If you really want to put out the best product possible you have to control the process from start to finish, as in starting from the raw material and ending with a completely built bike. We source our carbon directly from the manufacturer, machine our own molds, lay up our own parts, perform our own impact and fatigue testing, and paint our own frames because that’s the only way to make a bike wholly our own and completely custom. I don’t pretend that I didn’t get into building bikes to see fancy polished lugs and artistic paint designs.
But, the thing I’m most proud of now is the quality of the carbon parts that we make, the fact that they’re custom to each bike, and the fact that everyone in our shop has an insane amount of pride in their part of the process. It makes your job pretty goddamn fun when you get to make a kickass product that you know will bring joy and pride to the person that gets to ride it. I don’t mean to dodge the details of your question here. I could wax poetic for hundreds of words about Mike and his running of our Haas or Matt and how he sprays just enough paint material to be both durable and light. At a high level the fact is that the only way to get the quality that we promise is to invest in and control every part of the fabrication process.
JW: I’ve been interested in your path to developing the RM3 road bike. How have your experience and learnings with that bike have informed/influenced development of the new GR3 gravel bike?
BF: The last iteration of the Argonaut road bike was made in collaboration with a composite company in White Salmon, WA. We had a great relationship for years, but divergent business models necessitated that I bring the composite molding aspects of the Argonaut road bike completely in-house. This was both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because the quality of the parts we were getting from White Salmon was insane, and an opportunity because observing their processes gave me insight into how to make things both more custom and more vertically integrated.
When we brought composite molding capabilities in-house in 2018, the original plan was to make the GR3 first because our road bike was already great, and I could keep getting those parts from White Salmon. However, I realized there were many things I wanted to improve in the Argonaut Spacebike, or RM2, or whatever you want to call it, and I couldn’t let our road bike get stale while we developed the GR3. Instead, we halted production of the RM2 to design a new road bike from scratch. It was super painful for a couple of years because our sales went essentially to zero, but in the end, was worth it. The RM3 is the best road bike on the market, and that wouldn’t be the case if we did things any differently.
The biggest crossover from the RM3 to the GR3 is how we’ve applied what we’ve learned about carbon layup over the last 12 years. Specifically, how to make a bike both compliant and lively at the same time and the materials best suited to do different kinds of work within the frame. It is possible to get the same flex characteristics out of high modulus and standard modulus carbon. It simply takes more material to make standard mod as stiff as high mod in a given frame section.
The RM3 is primarily made out of high-modulus carbon. High mod is great for making a light bike, but it isn’t nearly as durable as standard mod. We designed the GR3 to endure harder rock strikes and more abuse but with the same nuanced, lively ride quality as the RM3. We’re going against the common “high modulus is always better” narrative common across the industry, but for good reason. Our bikes are purpose-built, and our material choices are based on engineering and testing results. I don’t care about marketing hot words. All I care about is making the best possible bike for the intended use of the rider.
Our contributor Petor Georgallou is currently with Ben (pictured above) at the Service Course’s GiRodeo in Girona, Spain, with a GR3 where he’ll be riding it for the weekend and back at home in the UK for a longterm review. His initial report back has been that (spoiler alert!) the RM3 is “so good!”
If you have any questions you’d like Petor to address, drop them in the comments below…