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Breaking new ground: Inside bike builder Argon 18

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5 Dec 2018
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This feature was produced in association with Argon 18 and first appeared in issue 82 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Spender Photography and videography George Marshall

‘In the end, it’s a recipe, like making a cake. The cake can have too much sugar, it can be too heavy, too crumbly. If you don’t have the right recipe, the right ingredients and the right chefs, it won’t work.’

As expositions on manufacturing composite bikes go, it’s a well-worn analogy. Yet there’s something in the way the owner of Argon 18 says it that makes it sound original.

The thick French accent certainly helps, and indeed the name: Gervais Rioux, the surname pronounced like the Michelin-starred father and son.

But beyond that, it just makes sense.

You can’t determine the recipe or ingredients of a cake from eating it any more than you can determine the precise carbon fibre layup in a bike just from riding it.

It’s why Rioux challenges anyone to ride an Argon 18 and feel the difference.

But it’s also why we’ve been invited here, to find out exactly what’s happening beneath the paint.

French connection

Argon 18 is based in Montreal, Quebec, a province colonised in the 17th century by the French.

That explains Rioux’s accent, and that of his 40-plus staff.

It also goes some way to explaining how Argon 18 managed to establish itself as a drop-bar bike company in the midst of the mountain bike craze sweeping North America in the 1990s.

‘The French love road cycling,’ says Rioux. ‘I have always loved it too.

‘I started racing bikes at 12, I got my first job in a bike shop by 14, working all summer so I could afford to buy better bike parts.

‘At 16 I saw the thing that would change my life. It was 1976 and the Olympics were being held in Montreal.

‘I went to see the bike racing and that’s when I decided I would go to the Olympics one day.’

The beginning of that journey – which would see Rioux represent Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul – started with a bike made by Montreal’s most revered framebuilder at the time, Giuseppe Marinoni.

‘I went to see him for a new bike. He was a funny guy.

‘He tried to discourage me from racing, saying, “This sport is extremely hard. You should do other things.”

‘But I got my first custom bike, and also in a sense my last, because the last team I raced for – Evian-Miko – rode bikes made by Marinoni for our shop sponsor, “Argon 18”.

‘I retired in 1990 and in the fall that year the opportunity came up to buy the Argon 18 shop.

‘It was in financial difficulty, but within 48 hours of the owners coming to me, I had decided to buy it.’

Rioux still has his last race bike, which sits alongside Argon 18’s crop of current race machines in the showroom.

Incongruously metal in a sea of carbon fibre, it encapsulates the tradition and experience Rioux sees as integral to his bike company.

‘The name Argon 18 comes from the periodic table.

‘Argon is the gas they used to use to weld frames and 18 is its atomic number. So basically if you did not have argon 18, you had no bike.

‘Of course we do not use argon gas in carbon bike frame construction, but I still like this bike.

‘It reminds us that we mustn’t get lost in the future and forget what we have learned in the past.’

Much like the 16-year-old boy at the Olympics, Rioux set his sights on a seemingly impossible dream – to make Argon 18 a global bike brand with a Tour de France team. And although progress might not have been meteoric, it was nevertheless steady.

By 2002 Argon 18 had gone from selling 150 rebranded steel bikes a year to debuting its first Rioux-designed carbon road bike.

By 2008 its E114 triathlon bike had taken second in the women’s and third in the men’s races at Ironman Hawaii.

By 2015 the company had taken over NetApp-Endura to form Bora-Argon 18, claiming its first Tour de France podium that year when German rider Emanuel Buchmann took third on Stage 11.

In 2017, Argon 18 switched to supplying bikes for WorldTour team Astana. 

‘Our proudest moment was seeing Fabio Aru riding in yellow last year,’ says Rioux, who has also managed to appropriate Aru’s Gallium Pro to adorn the showroom.

Yet he is not about to rest on the company laurels, and says the future is about controlling the process.

Remote control

While Argon 18 designs its own bikes in Montreal, those designs are, like so many in the industry, produced by a contract factory in the Far East.

But as Rioux explains on our way to the testing lab, Argon 18 is very different to its rivals.

Rioux hands us over to Argon 18’s composite materials specialist, Joffrey Renaud, who elaborates.

‘Most brands just send a design to the factory and it makes the frame,’ says Renaud, who previously worked in the aerospace sector.

‘The brand designs the geometry and requests the stiffness, weight and comfort.

‘The factory has its own layup schedule, and essentially the brand hopes it gets back the frame that it wants.’

By ‘layup schedule’, Renaud means the process by which pieces of carbon fibre are cut into shapes and layered up in the moulds that comprise various parts of a bike frame.

The layup is the ‘recipe’ Rioux described, and it dictates aspects such as stiffness and weight.

It is also, says Renaud, a closely guarded secret by the factories, so not something a bike brand typically gets involved in.

‘We still have this approach with our entry-level frames. If you work with a good factory there’s nothing wrong with this model,’ says Renaud.

‘But when we’re talking high-end frames, where you are trying to save every gram and push every boundary, we realised we needed more control of the processes.

‘Otherwise it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are.

‘You’re at the mercy of the factory as to whether or not it will execute them, and to what standard.’

Redefining the approach

Argon 18 has a dual strategy for navigating the murky waters of manufacture.

First, it tests its frames in a way it believes factories in Asia don’t, can’t or won’t. Second, it creates and tests new layups with the help of the Composite Development Centre of Quebec, an independent R&D institution.

Armed with these bits of information, Argon 18 can see how a frame is performing and take steps to redesign it in areas it sees as lacking.

It can then go to a factory to make its case.

It’s this data that allows the company to influence and control the manufacturing process in a way many brands can’t.

To illustrate this, Renaud shows us a bike covered in strain gauges that has clearly been ridden outdoors, and then points towards a second bike loaded with weights on the handlebars and saddle and sitting on what might best be described as a vibrating table.

‘We used to use a rolling road but we found it wasn’t quite right, so we built this table using the same equipment used in 4D cinemas to make the seats vibrate,’ says Renaud.

‘The idea is that we can use the first bike to record the stresses and strains on a bike under real riding conditions and can then use that data to simulate those conditions in the lab.

‘We then measure the acceleration on the saddle and stem using accelerometers, and the deformation of parts of the bike such as the handlebars and seatpost.

‘Less power recorded at those contact points means less vibration – so more comfort for the rider.

‘When you compare this to the power that’s going in from the vibration of the wheels, you can see what a frame is doing in terms of comfort.

‘Simply observing a seat tube flexing more than last year’s model does not translate into your bike being more comfortable. Vertical compliance is linked to comfort, but it is in no way directly proportional.’

It’s by putting frames through such tests that Argon 18 is able to build up a detailed, scientific picture of how a carbon fibre frame performs beyond basic fatigue tests – flexing a frame tens of thousands of times before it fails or exceeds test standards.

‘Right now the limit, for example the absolute lightest frame you can make, is defined by the factories in Asia,’ says Renaud.

‘But this doesn’t mean that what they can make is the absolute lightest possible, and the reason is simply that although they have a huge amount of knowledge of frame fabrication, a lot of it is from experience, not science, and a lot of that is driven by what a factory sees as possible for mass producing frames.

‘We are now challenging those limitations, and our factory is listening.’

Appliance of science

Our tour concludes with a visit to the Composite Development Centre of Quebec – or CDCQ – on the outskirts of Montreal.

We’re led into a clean room, into which is wheeled a familiar-looking block of steel on a trolley.

‘This is one of the moulds we called back from our Asian factory to experiment with,’ says Renaud.

‘It’s from a frame we made in 2008. Back when this mould was in production it was making frames that were 1,200g.

‘We convinced the factory to share its original layup with us, and through our research have been able to optimise their layup to produce a frame with better characteristics but that weighs 760g.’

The equipment on show here is somewhat different to what a factory would use – the front triangle mould, for example, is too large for the heat presses at the CDCQ, so Renaud and his team have devised a way of applying heat via dozens of cylindrical heating elements inserted into holes in the mould.

For reasons such as this, creating a frame in Montreal takes Argon 18 around a week, compared to one day in its Asian factory.

Nonetheless, the processes are similar enough that if Renaud can do it here, it gives Argon 18 strong enough ground on which to start controlling – if not dictating – materials, methods and layups previously decided upon by its factory.

Renaud is tight-lipped as to precisely how he’s shaved more than 400g from a frame just by tweaking materials and layup, although he does point out that ‘a pre-preg carbon fibre ply is around 0.075mm and the thinnest tube wall on this frame is 0.4mm, so a front triangle like this has around 300 individual pieces of pre-preg to play with.’

However, he is more open about the system in which Argon 18 is working – and trying to work smarter in.

‘What it really comes down to is this: we are fighting the old model, where we would go to a factory and say, “Hey, this limit here, you can skip that and go higher,” and they reply, “It is not possible,” and we just have to accept it.

‘Instead we are now in a position where we can demonstrate – and prove – what is possible.

‘It means we can convince the factory to push the limits, and that means we can make better bikes.’

Back at company headquarters, Rioux has one more thing to show us.

It’s a track bike for the Danish Olympic squad as ridden at the Olympics in Rio two years ago, and it was designed from the ground up by Argon 18.

Since then, other countries’ Olympic cycling teams have approached Argon 18 for bikes, with Rioux reckoning on ‘four or five’ partnerships in the offing.

‘Track bikes are a great form of advertisement. The camera follows them round and round, the logos are big. But still it is a bit sad for us,’ Rioux says wistfully.

‘You cannot see inside our frames. Instead people just see the shape, the paint, the components, and the brands that stand out – they have the bright colours, the gimmicks.

‘But I didn’t set out to be a marketing company that sells bikes. I set out to make the best bikes for bike riders.

‘We didn’t invent the bike, but we can offer the best solutions.’

Visit Argon 18 to find out more about the brand's bikes and manufacturing processes

Elemental Argon

Three of Argon 18’s finest creations


Dark Matter

The Dark Matter benefits from Argon 18’s new design approach.

An increased understanding of tube shapes and layups helped produce a bike the company claims is at once aggressive and exceptionally robust and comfortable, thanks in part to a highly raked fork and seatstays designed to flex and dissipate shocks.

Electron

‘It’s important for me that Argon 18 has a presence in track and triathlon, not just road,’ says Gervais Rioux.

‘The Electron was designed for the Danish track team, which rode it in the 2016 Rio Olympics [where it garnered two bronze medals]. For the next Olympics maybe five teams will be on our track bikes.’

Gallium Pro

Argon 18’s stripped-down flagship racer weighs just 759g (frame, claimed) and features a proprietary 3D fit system that affords three head tube heights per size without the need for spacers.

The bottom bracket is lower than most (75mm drop vs 68mm), which Rioux says makes this bike exceptionally stable.

Visit Argon 18 to find out more about the brand's bikes and manufacturing processes