Argonaut’s GR3 gravel bike combines the trademarked GravelFirst geometry with a custom rider-specific carbon layup to create what the Bend, Oregon-based frame and component builder claim to be a “rip-capable gravel bike unlike any other.” So, what does Petor Georgallou‘s time as a high schooler working at a video rental shop have to do with the Argonaut GR3? And, if he tells you he likes the bike, will you even believe him? Read on to find out…
Don’t Tell Me You Like It
A few days after my 18th birthday, which was some years ago now, I was finally allowed to fulfill my lifelong dream of working in the local video shop. Apollo was once the second largest chain of video stores in the UK after Blockbuster, but it was a lot smaller by the time I was old enough to work there. DVDs had taken over from the bulkier and more expensive VHS format, but marketing materials for films were still sent in cardboard tubes.
Netflix didn’t exist yet, but my couple of years there working part-time overlapped with the period during which the internet rendered video shops obsolete. It was a dream job for a teenager. We let all the local takeaways rent films in exchange for food, so we’d all sit in our respective shops eating pizza and watching movies on a small cashier-facing cathode ray television that sat on the counter, interrupted by only the occasional customer. During that time it wasn’t uncommon for a customer—usually one of the handfuls of cinephile regulars—would come in to ask for a recommendation, or to recommend the film they were returning. IRL conversation would be sparked; things were so culturally different. The internet wasn’t available on a mobile phone, so customers would either come in looking for a specific film or pick a film at random while they were in the shop. The arguments over which films deserved praise and which were rubbish were spectacular.
I watched a lot of films… basically, every film that came out, but not as soon as it came out. A rental DVD isn’t the same as a retail DVD. Rental DVDs were often burned onto heavier duty more scratch-resistant discs and included in their cost licensing fees to rent the disc and the film. As such, we had in the shop a number of catalogs for different distributors selling rental DVDs to video shops.
The low end was a weird catalog of budget horror movies seemingly made by students or directors who had never seen a film before, let alone worked on one, and porn that was always on offer at 3 discs for £10, which meant that renting them twice would turn a profit. Somewhere in the middle were older films re-released and re-marketed by new distribution agents that sold for around £10 each. My favorite was always Tartan Video who’d import and distribute the high end (at the time) shocking Korean and Japanese cinema. Classics like Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance or Takashi Miike’s Audition.
By contrast, mainstream Hollywood movies cost about £60 a copy, but would also rent out constantly and for more money for a couple of months. When the disc for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or The DaVinci Code came back into stock a month or so after their release, you’d call the first customer on the list waiting for the film and they’d promptly arrive that evening to rent the disc. It would be a couple of months before new films sat around long enough for me to watch them at work.
This was the first time I became aware that someone telling you they like something too much puts you off that thing. Even worse, when everyone you speak to about that thing is possessed by enthusiasm and has become an evangelical convert to said thing. “It’s the best film I’ve ever seen, you have to watch it.” You call the next customer on the list, they rent the movie and bring it back a few days later… “wow it has to be the best film of the year so far.. Have you seen it yet? You should watch it!” Then the next customer, and the next “wow the plot twist?! I never would have seen it coming, I won’t tell you too much, you have to watch it!”
By the time The Da Vinci Code had been seen by every film enthusiast in town and was sitting around in the shop long enough for me to watch it, it had already become a cliche. I couldn’t watch it because no work of cinema could ever be the singular masterpiece its craven fans claimed it to be. This is my biggest concern about reviewing the Argonaut GR3. If I’m just honest about how much I liked it and why, the review runs the risk of becoming a redundant and frankly off-putting account of a bike that couldn’t possibly be as good as I say it is. To quote Heath Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger’s 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew): “What is it with this chick? She have beer flavored nipples?”
How Good Is Too Good?
If you’ve read a review of an Argonaut before, it is clear that they’re good bikes. All the reviews I’ve ever read were such glowing accounts of a perfect machine that when I was offered a bike to review, I was kind of put off. An Argonaut GR3 was kindly built to my geometry as if I were a real customer for the purposes of a fair review. I rode it like I stole it (of course I didn’t, but the thought crossed my mind) for a couple of months in wildly different conditions that could smoosh together to make a four-seasons-like review.
Ben started Argonaut in 2007 building steel bikes because he enjoyed the ride quality. Eventually, he switched to carbon, but for all the right reasons; not because it’s strong and light, but because it can be anything. With a material that can be designed to behave in any way and any direction, the opportunity to dial in and customize ride quality to an individual end user is limitless. A huge part of the appeal of the GR3 – or any Argonaut, is the fact that almost uniquely, each tube is made using a custom layup designed around the rider’s weight, geometry, and use case.
The GR3 currently comes in a range of seven “proven geometries;” while the brand doesn’t currently allow customers to tweak angles, rake or trail, it’s possible that that will be offered as an option in the future. If I’m honest, looking at the geometry and the bike ahead of time, it didn’t jump out at me as something that I might be readily into. For one, it’s a performance-centric carbon race bike, a design that’s in pretty stark contrast to my values which lay rooted in ride quality and resilience to neglect. On paper, the geometry looked too aggressively biased to riding off-road, so much so that I was pretty sure it would handle like a floppy pig on pavement. The GR3 has a pretty slack head angle at 68.5 and a more normal seat angle at 73. The 57mm of fork offset offers a high/normal-ish trail of 74.4 but with a relatively normal front center, a fairly long stem, and a bonkers short stay length of 415.
The tube shapes and diameters are modest and sensible for a modern gravel bike. The top tube/head tube junction, as well as the downtube headtube junction, share the elegantly minimal visual language of a tube-to-tube construction. The GR3 is of course lugged, and those lugs are made in-house using Argonaut’s patented process (which you can read about in Josh’s recent shop visit.) While the rest of the GR3 is pretty visually austere, it has an odd-looking bottom bracket cluster, with the modest OD’s of the seat tube and downtube almost bypassing the offset bottom bracket shell, to meet the most monstrous chainstays. The relatively ugly BB cluster is, of course, immediately forgivable because even with chainstays the diameter of a 90’s mountain bike downtube, the back end is only 415 long while clearing a 700x50c tire.
With that in mind, I can reframe “ugly” in my own mind as utilitarian. Its form follows its function, which is a definition of good design. It does what it needs to, and it does that very well. The seat stays are relatively thin, with a smaller diameter and flattened out to offer some compliance, whereas the chainstays give none.
The headset and stem are designed and made in-house. I can’t really say anything about the headset because it’s internal, so (like most headsets in 2023) it existed unseen and functioned flawlessly. Making the stem in-house is pretty remarkable. It allows elegant routing without the aesthetic compromise of just hiding the cables in an incongruous third-party stem. It’s a beautifully made thing that I can imagine takes as long to put together as the bike’s whole front triangle. It ties the frameset together seamlessly while being totally customizable in its dimensions. Combining Argonaut’s seven geometries plus a totally custom stem (and other componentry choices) means that fit shouldn’t be an issue for the majority of riders.
My one criticism of the stem is that it only has one pinch bolt that clamps the steerer. That one bolt is a chunky one, and it screws into a blind nut on the other side with a pretty wide flange, so I’m not worried about it shearing or getting damaged or anything like that. My concern is that if torqued to anything normal (which it’s not designed to be) it could slip. The bike I test rode was put together in a hurry, in a busy shop, with a lot going on, and on my first ride, it did slip. I tightened it a little but was afraid to tighten a carbon stem onto a carbon steerer as tightly as was required to stop it from slipping. After that ride, it was carbon pasted up and tightened by Rasmus at The Service Course in Girona, after which it caused no further issues.
The GR3 I was sent home with had a raw carbon finish. Ordinarily this is a look I’m not really a fan of, mostly because I don’t fetishize carbon as a material, but also honestly (being a snob) I find that it’s a common aesthetic choice for low-cost mass-produced, web only, catalog road bikes. These bikes are fine: they’re often pretty capable and affordable, off-the-peg rigs that get people out and ride—which is great—but I also see them as the landfill of the future. They are often bought because they are on the cheaper side and made of a material that’s perceived to be desirable. The type of bikes that somehow only cost £200 more than the surprisingly decent groupset they’ve been built with.
Often on inexpensive “raw” finished road bikes, there are a number of fades-to-black, indicating an ugly join, poorly finished, filled with filler, and covered up. The reason the frames are painted in this way—only showing the layup of the tubes, away from any joins—is to immediately signal to their target audience that they are indeed made of carbon fiber. This is where I started to fall in love with the finish on the GR3 as seen here. The raw finish on this GR3 is conceptually different, in that it’s more similar to a raw finish on a filet-brazed steel frame. It feels like its purpose is to show all the joins and different weaves of fiber in different sections. It’s not about showing off a material, it’s instead about tastefully showing the process, and in that way, it’s really quite impressive. Like steel, carbon does need a finish to ensure its longevity, as it can degrade with UV, so the GR3 is detailed and painted with an ultra-matte Cerakote, which has a pleasingly rough texture. It’s somehow super easy to wash and hard to scratch. It’s one of a handful of raw finished carbon frames I’ve seen that I’ve really loved. That said, I do prefer the standard finish in two-tone green and orange Cerakote, for just being a wonderfully simple and understated finish that looks and feels much better in person, which is the main difference between an okay paint and an excellent paint. The finish on the GR3 is excellent.
I collected the bike from The Service Course for the Enve Girodeo. As such, most of the build kit was Enve, except for an Absolute Black seatpost (my geo meant a zero setback post and there were no zero setback Enve posts available).
Traditionally in the manufacture of Persian rugs, master rug makers at the top of their game would make one deliberate mistake, a visual joke, or deviation from the pattern. It was a superstition derived from the idea that only God is perfect, and to try to make something truly perfect is to challenge God, which is probably bad luck or something. I think this is why Argonaut fitted Campagnolo Ekar to the GR3 because, with a groupset that actually did both of the things expected of a modern groupset, the bike would have been too good. The tires were Hutchinson Touareg and I used my own SQlabs saddle which I’ll write a separate review of later.
The Campagnolo Ekar groupset looked beautiful, with an unrivaled finish and build quality; however, besides looking nice, a groupset needs to do two things, brake and shift. The brakes had all the power and modulation of servo brakes on a car. The Ekar brakes, developed in collaboration with hydraulic heavyweights Magura, are among the best I’ve ever used. With a decent squeeze, the brakes supplied more power than anyone could ever need on a bike, with buttery smooth action and impossibly precise modulation. They inspired confidence and were an utter joy to use.
I wish I could give the same high praise to the shifting—if I could reliably change gears, I’d be all over Ekar like a rash. The shifting however was an emotional rollercoaster, the first couple of rides were kind of fine. The chain ran a tad noisy on the biggest sprocket, but I shrugged that off as it being brand new, and having to wear in a bit. Shifting was snappy and felt precise, albeit with an echoingly loud clunk in one direction under load. I don’t think any brand-new groupset feels its best on the first few rides so I put this down to newness, and didn’t really consider it again for a couple of days until shifting started to become sporadic and frustratingly unreliable. “That’s no big deal,” I thought “it’s because the cable’s stretched because it’s new.” It’s the first time in a while I’ve used a new cable-operated groupset, so I twiddled the adjusters until it ran okay again, and for the rest of my stay in Girona, 95% of shifts were OK. Not wonderful, like on my 12-year-old 10-speed record groupset on my road bike, but serviceable.
When I returned to the UK riding conditions were very different. Gravel cycling in the UK in winter is more or less an attempt to consolidate a road ride and some XC into a single ride, and for a couple of outings the shifting was adequate, but after that, it wasn’t. On my ancient 10 x 2 groupset, there’s a little wiggle room for tension to be out, if an up-shift doesn’t quite happen, you can usually just give the lever a little extra tension to hop up, without quite reaching the index point of shifting an actual gear. However, that doesn’t really work with a rear mech that has a clutch, on a 13-sprocket cassette. Going forwards shifting was unpleasant and frustratingly unreliable. Irrelative to cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment, in adverse conditions, the shifting was consistently inconsistent, which was super frustrating.
More than anything, I wished it had been spec’d with SRAM force Etap AXS which I’ve been riding since 2019, without changing anything but chains, because it would have meant the difference between a really enjoyable ride, and a fragmented and frustrating day, returning home with stained greasy fingers. Perhaps I had an unlucky bad copy, or there was some error in the assembly because I know plenty of people riding around on Ekar who seem happy with it. Super short rear ends are for sure harder on 1x groupsets, because the shorter the rear end, the harsher the angles at the extremes of the cassette.
With that in mind, I checked the technical documents supplied by Campagnolo to see if perhaps the shifting issues were in part down to the frame’s relatively extreme rear end geometry. Because 415mm must be among the shortest rear ends available, clearing a 700 x 50c tire, it is conceivable that it might be too short for a relatively wide range 1x setup. And yet, Campagnolo states 410mm to be the minimum required chainstay length. I also checked the BB width and chain line which were perfect, according to my Mitutoyo dial gauge vernier, well within the +/-0.5mm tolerance of width specified in the frame/crankset interface document. If a gravel group should ever work well with a short rear end, with its narrow Q factor and road race heritage. A few hundred meters before returning the bike (somewhat conveniently) the chain broke. I chaled this up almost certainly to the installation, as the Ekar-specific chain tool (which was until recently the only way to install an Ekar chain) seems to be out of stock everywhere. All in all the shifting wasn’t great, which was felt more acutely on a bike that was otherwise faster, more capable, and more fun than anything else I’ve ever ridden.
Standouts of the build were the wheels and tires: without trying multiple tires on wheels and wheels on tires it’s impossible to differentiate between the two, so I’ll lump them together as a lightweight and fast-rolling a combo as I’ve ever ridden. The rear wheel sang a harmony of absurd power transfer and immediacy, with the wildly short and stiff chainstays. With their low profile and densely packed knobbles, it’s unsurprising that the Hutchinson Touaregs performed flawlessly on flawless Catalan gravel.
What was surprising, however, is how well they performed on UK “gravel” in December; a chaotic melange of paved and unpaved roads interspersed with sections of mushy wet leaves, claggy mud, waterlogged grass fields, and 500m long puddles. I expected to need to change them for the bike to be even remotely usable on UK trails in December. In fact, they did a great job of not clogging up with clay and debris, while making it through all but the worst of the boggiest woods available. On the road they felt pretty great too, especially running at a slightly higher pressure than would be sensible on mixed-surface rides.
On my first couple of rides in Girona , I rode cautiously and kind of craved a dropper post, and I mentioned it to Alex from Argonaut, who I was riding with. His stance was that if you have a dropper then you might as well also have a suspension fork, both of which add weight and moving parts, and both of which would detract from the overall ride. The GR3 was designed as a pure race-centric gravel bike and those things wouldn’t make it go faster over an entire race so they were deemed unnecessary. After a couple of weeks of riding the GR3, I was inclined to agree. The moderately long, slack front end, fairly steep seat tube angle, and short stays were more than enough to confidently descend on singletrack in the UK in the winter.
Sticking to a rigid fork and conventional seat post meant that it also wasn’t a total pig on the road as I’d expected. There was for sure quite a lot of wheel flop at very low speeds but this accounts for a minuscule proportion of road riding. I first had the subconscious realization—while sailing over rocks like they didn’t even exist in Girona—that aside from the stays the frame was actually pretty flexy. This notion didn’t crystalize until I went out for a road ride in Buckinghamshire, where the hills are relatively small but unforgivingly steep. It just flexes nicely. I don’t even know what that means “it flexes nicely” but it’s more unusual to be able to significantly flex a carbon race bike than it is to significantly flex a bike that feels nice to ride.
Hauling myself up a short steep hill, I felt some flex (that I didn’t love) in the handlebars and some flex through the frame, which didn’t bother me while climbing, because it didn’t feel like it was soaking up my effort. Descending, cornering, and riding over lumpy things all felt great, at least part of which I put down to the frame flexing in a kind of moderate and comfortable way. In a familiar way, as if the tubes were laid up by someone who appreciates the ride quality of steel or titanium bikes. Flex is a measurable parameter, so it feels silly to say “it felt good” because how much flex feels good? And in which direction and in what way, under what circumstances? It’s absurd to say it flexes nicely when I can’t quantify nice flex, but at the same time, as a non-competitive rider interested in ride quality, although I was riding a bike designed exclusively for competition, feeling good is kind of the only thing that’s important.
Looking at a drawing of this bike and then riding it taught me that perhaps I don’t really know anything about geometry. I didn’t expect a relatively normal length front center bike with a super slack head angle and a 100mm long stem to be the super fast, ultra sure-footed dream ride that it was. I really REALLY liked this bike a lot and had a really hard time giving it back. I’ve thought a lot about what my expectations of the GR3 were and why I liked it so much. Trying to articulate exactly what you like about something can become too cerebral and drawn out, so I’ll conclude with an excerpt from my email exchange with Ben Farver, because it’s the most honest and immediate reaction to the bike, which in many ways says a lot more than a super analytical review:
I’m checking in to find out how you’re liking the bike and when you might be finished with your review. Also, did you and your partner have the baby yet?
Hope this finds you well. I had such a blast hanging out in Girona, which seems like forever ago.
I might tone it down a bit [for the actual review] but holy fuck it’s fucking amazing. I love it. I didn’t want to give it back but Jack made me. Can I just have one for free for no reason? I could just ride it and give nothing in return. Would that be ok? It’s the best gravel bike I’ve ever ridden, and one of the best bikes I’ve ever ridden. It feels like a bit of a pig on the road at less than 10 miles per hour- like it has too much trail and loads of wheel flop and feels rubbish. But who cares about going less than 10mph on the road? Really? The trade-off is that faster than that, it feels fine and I can ride stuff I didn’t think I could. It’s pretty fast on the road, really fast on the grav grav…. And single track…. And in boggy English woods…. And just like… mountain bike trails.
It’s the least wooden-feeling carbon frame I’ve ridden – like; a lot of similar bikes just feel a bit dead behind the eyes- so it’s refreshing that I can significantly flex the frame, because it’s not insanely inhumanely stiff, except for the chain stays which are short and stiff AF, so power transfer is amazing while being comfy and having some feel everywhere else.
I wish I’d gone for the OG Bike-fit [from Tony Corke at Spoon Customs] that I sent over that was my error. I didn’t like the bars, they were flexi but not in a nice way, and road drops aren’t the one on that bike. Initially, I fed back wanting a dropper, Maybee I’m over that. The joy of a long-term review. Ekar was an emotional rollercoaster. The brakes are AMAZING but….[REDACTED]…. I want one. It’s been gone for like 6 hours and I miss it.
- A splendid gravel bike; one of the best I’ve ridden.
- Climbs and descends very well.
- Custom layup helps you ride faster and have more fun!
- Costly because of the manufacturing process.
- Makes riding other bikes less fun.
- It’s so good that it makes it tricky not to pick holes in anything attached to it (Ekar).
- No good for riding on the road at 5 mph (if that’s what you’re into).