His dark ma­te­ri­als

Ben Farver made his rep­u­ta­tion build­ing steel frames in Port­land, Ore­gon, but in 2011 he swapped his braz­ing torch for pre-preg sheets and went all-in on car­bon fi­bre. He shows Cy­clist what drew him to the dark side

Cyclist - - Me And My Bike - Words JAMES SPENDER Pho­tog­ra­phy DANNY BIRD

ell me about your per­fect ride. Where would you go? That might sound like an ex­cerpt from a psy­chi­a­trist’s tran­script, but it is in fact one of 13 ques­tions Arg­onaut founder Ben Farver poses to a prospec­tive cus­tomer be­fore a con­ver­sa­tion about their new bike has even got started.

‘The ques­tion­naire paints a pic­ture of them as a cy­clist. Geom­e­try is just a small part of a cus­tom bike. A bike can only be so stiff and so light, so for me the real op­por­tu­nity in bike de­sign, and a bike’s last­ing value, is how it feels on the road,’ Farver says with an earnest smile.

It wasn’t al­ways the case that Farver looked to in­flu­ence one of his cre­ations so di­rectly. He came to frame­build­ing in a round­about way, tak­ing a met­al­work­ing course for fun af­ter com­plet­ing a de­gree study­ing his­tory. How­ever it wasn’t un­til 2007 when, in­spired by other frame­builders he’d seen in Port­land, Farver de­cided that build­ing bike frames ‘seemed like some­thing I might quite like to do’.

It turned out he was rather good at it, and he soon made a busi­ness sell­ing brazed steel frames. Yet his craft also hit some­thing of a wall. ‘I found my­self at the per­for­mance end of the mar­ket, prob­a­bly be­cause that’s what I liked to ride most. But I found my­self mak­ing very sim­i­lar bikes to a lot of other builders, be­cause we were all work­ing with the same ma­te­rial. The skill of a steel builder de­pends on how he or she picks the geom­e­try, the tube­set and the paint, but be­yond that there’s not a tremen­dous amount of dif­fer­ence be­tween bikes from one skilled builder to the next. So a need for dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and also a de­sire to progress led me to car­bon fi­bre, and when I looked I saw that no one was do­ing cus­tom blad­der­moulded frame con­struc­tion.’

That was 2011, and by 2014 Arg­onaut was scoop­ing up the Best Layup and Best in Show awards at the North Amer­i­can Hand­made Bike Show for its Gravel Racer (long be­fore the big guns turned their at­ten­tion to cy­cling’s most cur­rent trend). An­other Best Layup prize fol­lowed in 2016, ce­ment­ing Arg­onaut

as one of the most revered cus­tom car­bon frame-builders in the world. So what’s Farver do­ing that sets him apart?

Con­struct­ing the method

There are two ways to skin the car­bon cat – build­ing with pre-made tubes or build­ing with moulded pieces, of­ten re­ferred to as mono­coque. Cus­tom builders usu­ally build in the tube-to-tube style, whereas mass-pro­duced car­bon bikes come from moulds. The whys and where­fores are myr­iad: tube-to-tube is of­ten cited as a more labour-in­ten­sive and er­ror-prone process; hav­ing enough moulds to cre­ate mul­ti­ple sizes is ex­pen­sive for a small out­fit… the list goes on. For Farver, though, to get what he wants from car­bon fi­bre, the de­ci­sion is a no-brainer.

‘This bike might look tube-to-tube but it’s in the mono­coque style. It’s ex­pen­sive but it’s how to get the best out of the ma­te­rial. You can con­trol the wall thick­ness bet­ter by lay­ing up more plies in one area and fewer in an­other and in dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions, all in the same piece. That’s how you can cre­ate a bike that’s stiff when you need it to be, com­fort­able to spend all day on, dy­namic in terms of flex like a steel bike, but with­out be­ing “noodly”. And you can dial all this in for a spe­cific cus­tomer.’

Farver says the cus­tomer who owns the Arg­onaut he’s show­ing us is 6ft 1in, weighs 86kg and has a three-minute power out­put of 370W – in­for­ma­tion gleaned from the in­ter­view process.

‘He loves to climb, so I built it with a short rear end. I stiff­ened up the chain-stays but made the seat-stays and down tube more com­pli­ant. Yet for good ac­cel­er­a­tion and re­spon­sive­ness the down tube has to be stiff in other di­rec­tions, so the car­bon plies and wall thick­nesses are de­signed to be tor­sion­ally stiff but with­out the bike feel­ing harsh or be­ing heavy. There are seven or eight plies in dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions in the down tube, mak­ing the wall thick­ness 1.2mm – far thicker than a steel builder would go [usu­ally up to 0.8mm], yet this frame weighs just over 800g.’

De­spite all that, Farver be­lieves there’s still a lot more to come from car­bon fi­bre, be­cause, for one, it’s not just about car­bon fi­bre.

‘This is com­pos­ites frame fab­ri­ca­tion, of which car­bon fi­bre is a part. That’s the amaz­ing thing about com­pos­ites – the pos­si­bil­i­ties and tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ments are the­o­ret­i­cally end­less as there are so many in­gre­di­ents you can change and add, and they’ll all re­act to each other in dif­fer­ent ways. We use a Kevlar base layer in the front tri­an­gle, for ex­am­ple, which lends a tremen­dous amount to dura­bil­ity and ride qual­ity. But there are new tech­nolo­gies com­ing along all the time: boron fil­a­ments, Vec­tran, or­ganic fi­bres like flax, nan­otech­nol­ogy, graphene… the list keeps grow­ing.

‘It’s up to peo­ple like me to ex­per­i­ment, and that’s the other cool thing about the com­pos­ites in­dus­try: the sys­tem com­bi­na­tions are end­less, so re­ally cool things can come out of small shops be­cause some guy just fig­ured it out through ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.’

‘This is com­pos­ites frame fab­ri­ca­tion. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are the­o­ret­i­cally end­less as there are so many in­gre­di­ents you can change’

Arg­onaut Sram etap Rim Brake, built with Enve 2.0 fork, Enve bars, stem and seat­post, Sram etap groupset, Ee­cy­cles Ee­brakes and Enve wheels on Chris King hubs, $14,500 (ap­prox £11,200). Frame­sets from £5,950. See arg­onaut­cy­cles.com and giro­cy­cles.com for more de­tails

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