A visit to Portland a few years back for Rouleur culminated in an evening in the city’s hippest cycling-themed bar – Chris King beer taps, no less – with a group of local framebuilders.
We didn’t really talk shop much that night, but I do recall one of the more established builders pointing towards a young guy at our table and saying he was the future when it came to America’s renowned city of bicycles.
Coming from one of Portland’s many builders plying their trade in fine handmade steel frames, this struck me as a ringing endorsement. The chap in question works with carbon – heresy, you’d think, coming from a confirmed metal man. But as I discovered on my trip to Oregon, they’re a magnanimous bunch, these bike builders. They appreciate excellence in their field, no matter what material you happen to be working with. So long as you’re a good guy doing good work, you’re in.
Three years later and the very same man, Ben Farver, is in the UK to talk about his Argonaut bikes. The business is building nicely, he says, getting towards his chosen “sweetspot” of 200 bikes annually, because “that’s where it is still fun for me and I can still give good value to the customer”.
Fun involves riding his bike, obviously, as he forms part of the winning team from G!RO cycles on the Hot Chillee London-Paris starting the following day. He’s as fit as he looks.
Like most of the small-scale Portland-area manufacturers, he started off working with steel. It’s a crowded market. Farver needed a way to stand out.
“I switched to carbon for equal and opposite reasons,” he says. “One was that I wanted more control over the frame design as a whole. I got frustrated with going to trade shows, being next to my fellow steel builders and it being the same bike under the paint essentially.
“And I found my niche in performance-style road. Weighing up between my steel and my carbon bike, the carbon weighs two pounds less. So it’s hard for me to be like: ‘steel is real!’ It is, but it’s not everything.
“I wanted to be able to put my carbon bike next to the latest and greatest production bike and say it’s better. And with steel, I didn’t feel I could say that.
“It is hard to make any money out of steel bikes; to make enough of them to make a lasting viable business that you can send your kids to college on. That also made me switch.”
The switch seems to be paying off. Farver won ‘Best in Show’ at the 2014 NAHBS [North American Handmade Bicycle Show], alongside the ‘Best Layup’ award, with his Di2-equipped road bike.
Does that a have a positive impact on sales? “Yes, but maybe not as much as you would think. I think of the marketing thing like an octopus – lots of things going on – but I wouldn’t call it a silver bullet.”
And how is ‘Best Layup’ judged? Aren’t the most complicated aspects of the frame’s composition hidden from view? “They look specifically at the tough parts of the frame and the cleanliness of how the pieces of carbon are cut and shown: how you resolve these complex intersections.
“I wanted the bike to look intentional. But I didn’t want to beat anyone over the head with it. Just because you can make something look like a spaceship, doesn’t mean that you should.”
Indeed. And Farver’s handiwork is a million miles away from a spaceship. It’s clean, unfussy, with no unnecessary fripperies for the sake of trying to stand out in a bunch. Class shines through without resorting to gimmickry.
Based on information from the customer – riding style, size, weight, likely usage – Farver and his team can adjust layup and geometry to produce frames “on a customer-by-customer basis. It is truly custom, from start to finish.”
Coming from a steel background proved to be the starting point when developing the first Argonaut prototype. “We did a structural analysis of all my favourite steel tubing: the True Temper S3 downtube, the 31A Columbus Life toptube. We looked at the torsional bending stiffness of those tubes and that’s what we modelled our first frame on. We built a carbon version of my favourite steel bike and rode it to see how it stacks up. We knew it was going to be lighter; we knew that the inherent vibration damping characteristics are different from steel.
“I wanted to see how it compared. So we did that, and then cut down some stiffness in different areas to get to that sweetspot.”
There’s that word “sweetspot” again. I rather like it. I rather like Ben’s bikes too, not that I’ve actually ridden one, but looking the part is half the battle for me.
Sat outside G!RO cycles with a fellow journalist, having a chinwag, a gentleman emerged from the shop to garner our professional opinions on what we had just heard and, indeed, what he had just ridden that very afternoon.
I suggested he was probably in a better position than either of us to make judgements on the Argonaut he’d been lucky enough to ride round the lanes of Surrey that day. But when it comes to deciding who to place that not inconsiderable sum of money with for your next bike purchase, it helps to buy in to the whole story. If you like what the guy is saying, connect with his backstory, like the look and like the ride, what else is there?
The man returned inside with some food for thought. I’m not sure if I convinced him one way or the other, but that wasn’t the intention.
If Farver’s Argonauts hit your sweetspot, then get in touch with him via G!RO. And that could be one more bike closer to his personal sweetspot.