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
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