Argonaut RM3 review: Emotions crafted in carbon fiber
Is it possible to bottle feelings? If it is, Argonaut has injected plenty of that magical elixir into its new RM3.
Is it possible to bottle feelings? If it is, Argonaut has injected plenty of that magical elixir into its new RM3.
Argonaut’s new RM3 custom carbon fiber road bike proudly sticks a middle finger up to some of the biggest trends in the high-end road market. It isn’t trying to be the lightest, or stiffest, or most aero. If anything, a quick glance makes it come across as a bit old-school.
Much like the Specialized Aethos, Argonaut founder Ben Farver has instead focused on ride quality for the RM3, but with an extraordinarily high level of customization you won’t find from any mainstream brand. It’s not just limited to paint and build kits, either; there’s also the potential for fully custom geometry and carbon lay-ups to suit your particular handling, stiffness, and weight preferences.
All of that is wrapped up in a classic-looking package that will undoubtedly appeal to traditionalists, and with a ride quality that sets a benchmark mainstream brands would do well to target.
It’s that good.
Ben Farver founded Argonaut Cycles in 2007. Initially, he worked exclusively with steel because – like so many others – he was drawn to the ferrous material’s unique ride quality: stiff yet springy, firm yet compliant. Nevertheless, it only took until three years before he realized he could mimic much of steel’s emotive feedback in carbon fiber, which was not only much lighter, but also more tunable given its longer list of available variables like fiber type and lay-up schedules.
Unlike most carbon fiber creations that also offered custom geometry at the time, however, Farver eschewed common tube-to-tube construction in favor of a modular monocoque setup comprising nine separately molded parts: the head tube incorporated most of the top tube and the upper portion of the down tube; the upper half of the seat tube included stubs for the top tube and seatstays; the main portion of the down tube was molded together with the bottom bracket shell and lower portion of the seat tube, and included stubs for the chainstays; each seatstay and chainstay was molded separately. The dropouts were also carbon fiber, using a pivoting two-piece design to accommodate various rear triangle configurations.
Final assembly was done at Argonaut Cycles HQ in Bend, Oregon, but all of the parts were molded three hours north by Innovative Composite Engineering in White Salmon, near Portland.
Much like the Pursuit Cycles frameset I reviewed last March, or Enve’s Custom Road, the goal of this multi-piece construction method was the ability to offer custom geometry while still exploiting the structural efficiencies of a monocoque-style frame.
With the disc-only RM3, Argonaut has stuck to the modular monocoque concept, but the entire process is now done in-house. The frame component configuration has changed, too.
The top tube, down tube, and seat tube are all separate tubular elements, and the seatstays and chainstays are now made wishbone-style. Meanwhile, the seat cluster, head tube, and bottom bracket shell are all wholly separate pieces, each with molded-in stubs to facilitate the bonding of the adjoining tubes. The dropouts sport a cleaner one-piece molded construction, and titanium inserts are used for the T47 threaded bottom bracket cup and integrated headset bearings.
Throughout the frame, tube cross-sections are a lot smaller than what you’d usually find in a performance-minded road bike. The down tube, for example, is roughly the same circumference as most top tubes.
As for the fork, Argonaut says it originally set out to do their own in-house, but it turned out to be a more daunting project than anticipated so the production model is now designed in-house, but molded in Asia.
Argonaut has also switched up its manufacturing process for the RM3 as compared to its predecessor. Whereas the carbon frames were previously made with inflatable latex bladders to compress the fiber plies inside the CNC-machined aluminum clamshell molds, Argonaut is now using semi-rigid silicone rubber preforms, which Farver says produces much higher (600 psi vs. 200 psi) compaction pressures to further minimize excess resin and voids. (More details on the manufacturing process can be found here).
“For the RM2 we had one set of adjustable molds and a small library of tooling to accomplish our entire size run,” Farver explained. “The downside here was we had limitations on both size and geometry angles. The latex bladders themselves are made by a third-party using a machined bladder dipping tool, which is essentially a slightly shrunken machined aluminum version of the final finished composite part, which is dipped in a vat of latex to make the bladder. Doing custom geometries is really cost prohibitive when using latex bladders because in addition to the clamshell mold, it’s also necessary to machine a tool to make the bladder.
“The only way to make truly custom geos without limitations is to make geometry-specific tooling,” he continued. “High-pressure silicone molding yields parts with basically zero void content and no fiber wander – a much higher quality part. In addition, we can make our own silicone mandrels by 3D-printing a mandrel mold and injecting the mold with silicone. This cuts the amount of tooling needing to be CNC’d down by a third, and it’s now economical to make custom, one-off frame tooling.”
Another advantage to bringing production completely in-house that Farver touts is quality control. Parts are not only made directly in Argonaut’s facility in Bend, but they’re tested there, too – and since there’s no longer a third-party vendor, it seems safe to assume that Argonaut has a vested interest in getting things right. According to Farver, the quality control for molded parts includes weighing the individual cut plies and finished parts to single-gram consistency, and a duplicate of every 20th frame produced is subjected to a full battery of industry-standard ISO tests that include falling mass, vertical impact, pedalling fatigue, vertical fatigue, and horizontal fatigue.
“Our effort to bring molding in-house was not just about cutting patterns and laying up parts,” Farver explained. “It was an effort comprised of all aspects of creating a best-in-class composite engineering and manufacturing facility, including CNC machining, layup engineering and design, and finally, comprehensive testing.
“The RM3 was, and continues to be, vigorously tested. Bringing impact and fatigue testing equipment in-house is a huge asset and one that no other company our size has. We also test all of the other parts on the RM3 and GR3, including the stem, seatpost, fork, and handlebar. We follow all ISO testing standards for the frame and cockpit components. The GR3 is tested to weights and heights between ‘road racing’ and mountain standards.”
The RM3 may not feature the latest in truncated NACA airfoil tube shapes, but Argonaut still hasn’t completely ignored modern trends. Despite the road intentions, there’s officially clearance for 700×35 mm rubber. The control lines are also fully internal, using a custom carbon fiber stem that’s also molded in-house. Argonaut offers that stem in 80-120 mm lengths (in 10 mm increments), while multiple steerer tube inserts allow for -7°, -3.5°, 0°, and +4° angles. The stem is compatible with any 31.8 mm-diameter handlebar with a central port, while out back, there’s a refreshingly normal 27.2 mm-diameter round seatpost.
Twelve stock “Proven” sizes are offered, with reach dimensions ranging from 358 to 399 mm. Claimed frame weights “start” at 750 g, while the matching fork is said to come in at 410 g. The stem is supposedly 135 g for a 120 mm size.
Argonaut sells the RM3 as a bare frameset (including the frame, fork, stem, and stem) for US$6,500, or in multiple build kits ranging from US$10,800 with SRAM Force eTap AXS, up to US$15,800 with Campagnolo Super Record EPS (there are no mechanical options, nor is the RM3 frame compatible with them).
Regardless of which way you go, Argonaut will tailor the tube lay-ups to your weight and power output, and there’s a wide range of stock paint options, too (think Trek Project One where you can choose various colors for a given template). Custom geometry is available for an additional US$1,250 whichever way you go, and the only limit to paint finishes is the size of your wallet.
Pricing for other regions is based on current exchange rates; Argonaut doesn’t set pricing outside of the United States.
Argonaut provided me with a 53 cm loaner built with stock geometry but tuned to my size and (middling) power, and outfitted with a SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless electronic groupset (upgraded from the factory with a CeramicSpeed OSPW oversized pulley assembly), Princeton Carbonworks Grit 4540 carbon clinchers wrapped with 28 mm-wide Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires, a Black Inc. carbon bar and seatpost, and a Fizik Antares Versus Evo R3 Adaptive 3D-printed saddle.
Total weight for my 53 cm size without pedals is a wispy 7.13 kg (15.72 lb) without pedals, and retail price is US$14,600 (which includes a pair of Arundel Mandible carbon bottle cages and a dedicated stem-based computer mount, but you have to supply your own saddle).
There’s an awful lot of hype around Argonaut bikes, and to be honest, I’d previously written off much of it as merely people convincing themselves they’d made a smart purchase or bowing to the altar of exclusivity.
But I’ll be damned.
Keeping in mind that I certainly haven’t ridden everything (not by a long shot), this RM3 may very well be the finest-riding carbon bike I’ve ever had the pleasure to toss a leg over. It is quite simply an amazing machine to experience. This thing most definitely tugs at my heartstrings.
Cruising down the road, the RM3 doesn’t so much buzz with feedback as it does gently whisper in your ear about what’s going on down at the tires. Your hands tell you when the tires start to slide a bit, and you can gauge the coarseness of the rocks in the tarmac through your chamois. On even reasonably well-paved asphalt, the RM3 doesn’t so much roll as it does float, like you’re gliding across the ground on a hovercraft instead of a bike. It’s utterly sublime to the point of being ridiculous.
Even more impressive is that the ethereal ride quality somehow gets better with increasing speed.
There’s a fast run-in back into town with a big shoulder, very few side streets or traffic lights, and it’s slightly downhill. There’s often a mild cross/tailwind, too. When you’re feeling good, you can easily rip the entire stretch holding 50 km/h (31 mph). It’s a fantastic way to end a ride. The only downside is the pavement is coarse, and there’s no shortage of potholes and cracks from the previous winter.
But on the RM3, none of that is an issue. Granted, I wouldn’t max out the tire clearance and underbike the hell out of it, mind you, but the way it absolutely levels uglier road defects (even at normal inflation pressures) is astounding. Even smoother dirt roads (with the right tires) are like floating on air.
Stiffness-wise, the RM3 isn’t contending to occupy the top step. It’s reassuringly solid at the bottom bracket when putting in a big effort, and the front end is likewise very resistant to twisting when torquing the bars. But whereas an uber-stiff machine has that telltale twinge of immediacy to it in its reactions, the RM3 is more subtle. It flexes just a hair before steeling itself to counter the applied forces, but yet I wouldn’t say the movement is akin to softness. It’s more like the springiness and liveliness often touted in good steel or titanium frames. There’s some flex, yes, but I’d argue that it’s good flex.
I dare say this is a bike even Jan Heine would love.
Keep in mind that my ride experience is a result of how Farver thought this particular RM3 should ride based on my body weight and power output. If you wanted it even stiffer or softer, that’s obviously a possibility, but at least based on my experience, whatever he targeted for me felt just right.
Handling-wise, Argonaut’s “Proven” geometry feels about spot-on to me, at least through the lens of a high-end road racing-style bike. The trail dimension makes for quick and agile steering, but it’s not so quick that it’s nervous, nor is there so much rake (at least in my frame size) that there’s an annoying amount of wheel flop. And while the wheelbase and front center are both more on the compact end of the spectrum, they’re somewhat offset by the slightly lower-than-typical bottom bracket height so it still feels stable and planted when rocketing down fast descents.
In terms of fit, the RM3 is very much a traditional road racer, at least in terms of reach. It’s a tad shorter than I’d prefer myself, but only by a few millimeters, and still well within my comfort window. The stack is arguably on the taller side, though still very reasonable – and it’s worth pointing out most RM3 owners probably aren’t going to be using it for racing, so an ultra-aggressive position perhaps isn’t even warranted here.
And have I mentioned yet how pretty this thing is? Given the proliferation of aero/pseudo-aero/hyper-aero/kinda-sorta-aero bikes on the market, the more traditional profile and tube shapes of the RM3 is a refreshing outlier. The top tube is sloping, but only modestly so, the seatstays attach to the seat tube where Eddy Merckx intended, and there are no weird curves or bulges or nips or tucks. For the most part (I’ll get to that in a minute), it all just looks right.
Speaking of modern carbon bikes that buck a lot of trends, the question will invariably come up of how the RM3 compares to the Specialized Aethos. Overall, they’re very similar, but not so similar that they can’t be distinguished from each other in terms of how they feel on the road.
At least in my opinion – and in my frame size – the Aethos feels a touch stiffer to me overall: a tad less sway at the bottom bracket, perhaps just a hint more solid at the bars. But it’s also a little stiffer in terms of ride quality. That Aethos is excellent in that sense, but this RM3 is on another level.
Argonaut has nailed all the important stuff here, as far as I can tell, but some of the details could stand some refinement.
Not surprisingly, I take some issue with the control line routing. Farver likely feels like it has no choice in going fully hidden here – and he’s probably right, at least in terms of market appeal – but there are nevertheless some missteps. While an increasing number of brands are moving to hidden rather than fully internal routing, everything on the RM3 runs through the inside of the bar, then into the stem via a central port before taking a downward turn along the (thankfully) round steerer tube and through the oversized upper headset bearing.
It’s hardly an uncommon configuration, but it still turns anything aside from a stem angle change into an hours-long ordeal. This is a trend that simply can’t go away soon enough.
I can also hear the rear brake hose rubbing on the inside of the frame at more extreme bar angles, and it also rattled inside the down tube. I can’t say if that rubbing would be problematic over time, although I will say it’s nonetheless concerning given how much frame damage I’ve seen over the years from conventionally routed lines (and, making matters worse, this damage would be dangerously hidden away inside the frame). Farver says he hasn’t tested for long-term wear, although to his credit, I haven’t heard of any other brand looking into this the way I think it should be, either (and the issue is hardly limited to Argonaut).
As for the down tube rattling, Farver says my test bike was, unfortunately, built without the foam liner that should have been installed.
I also took issue with the wedge-type seatpost binder, which not only detracted from the RM3’s otherwise clean lines, but also just didn’t work all that well. Farver has thankfully since switched to a conventional slotted seat tube and an external aluminum collar.
The stem cap feels like an oversight. Much like some Specialized stems of yesteryear, the RM3 stem is designed to offer four different angles by swapping steerer tube sleeves. However, Argonaut uses the same headset cap for all of them, so the usual hole is more of a slot here, leaving an unsightly gap. I’d rather see dedicated caps here, especially given the ultra-premium price point.
Finally, there’s the curious issue of the rear thru-axle threads. While I appreciate that they’re replaceable in the event of damage, they’re also awkwardly proportioned, almost like a cap used in shipping that should be removed upon assembly. Surely this can be done more cleanly, no?
Since Argonaut sells the RM3 with a range of build kits, I won’t bother to go into detail on the SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless groupset attached to my test sample, as nothing has changed my previous thoughts on it. It shifts well, the lever ergonomics are excellent (and yes, I like the big hump up top), and aside from not being to shorten the lever throw as much as I’d prefer, the hydraulic disc brakes still provide ample power and control. And while the CeramicSpeed OSPW upgrade may not make or break anything here, it’s a nice upgrade that provides a measurable (albeit small) drivetrain friction advantage and doesn’t detract from the shifting performance. Fine by me.
One thing to note: my bike arrived with a Red power meter crank, but that’s not stock.
Up top, the single-bolt Black Inc. carbon fiber seatpost is a bit finicky to adjust (as are most seatposts with a cylindrical head design, in my experience), but it holds fine. And up front, the matching bar has a perfectly agreeable bend (though Argonaut’s spec sheet now calls out a Deda Superzero model). Generally speaking, it seems like good stuff.
More interesting are the Princeton CarbonWorks Grit 4540 carbon wheels. My prior experience with the company’s Wake 6560 road wheels was a revelation, with heaps of tangible speed and superb crosswind performance. That thankfully hasn’t changed here, but the Grit 4540’s 21 mm inner width is a lot more progressive than the Wake’s more modest 18 mm figure, and the 30 mm external width is a better match for the 28-30 mm tires I expect most people will run on their RM3. The Ineos road team likely has good reasons for choosing to race on Princeton CarbonWorks wheels, and given the size of the company, finances probably aren’t one of them.
Lots of ink has been spilled over the RM3’s eye-watering price. Yep, it costs a hell of a lot of money, and I’m not going to remotely pretend it isn’t.
That said, I think it’s also important to be realistic in terms of comparisons. Let’s come back to that Aethos. In top-end S-Works trim, the frameset (including seatpost and headset) costs US$5,500. Relatively speaking, that’s not too far off of the RM3’s US$6,500 asking price, which doesn’t include a seatpost, but it does include a stem (length of your choosing), as well as a computer mount. That doesn’t even take into account the included semi-custom paint and the individually-tuned tubing lay-up, either. And considering what goes into it, the fact you can get fully custom geometry for another US$1,250 actually seems quite fair.
So no, the RM3 isn’t inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination. But in my opinion, just screaming about how expensive it is is a cop-out that doesn’t fully account for the general landscape. If anything, people shouldn’t be asking why the RM3 is so expensive, but rather why off-the-shelf production models from big brands cost as much as they do – and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on.
It’s smart of Argonaut to decide not to go toe-to-toe with the big brands in terms of things like weight and aerodynamics. The simple fact of the matter is that those bigger brands have a lot more money to devote to various aspects of research and development. It’s a losing battle.
Argonaut is instead chasing after the more emotional – and far more elusive, in my opinion – connection a rider has with their bike. What it feels like. How it communicates with you. How it handles. That curiously vague sensation of oneness between person and machine.
Numbers-focused riders looking to eke out every last marginal gain probably won’t give the Argonaut RM3 much of a second look. On paper, it just doesn’t make sense in that way. But if you head out the door in search of that elusively blissful and zoned-out feeling of flying across the earth for hours on end, I dare say you’ll find it here.
More information can be found at www.argonautcycles.com.