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On Test: Argon 18 Arsenic, January 7, 2008
A fine Beaujolais
Montreal, Canada-based Argon 18 presents its first cyclo-cross model with the high-performance Arsenic model. Cyclingnews' Kirsten Robbins uncorked the Canadian sampler and took it on an extended tasting through autumn's classic 'cross palate to find out what the machine was made of.
Gervais Rioux became a successful cyclist starting in 1973 using a heavy bike with fat tires and a hockey helmet and ended with more those one hundred and fifty victories worldwide. In 1999, Rioux became recognized as one of Canada's leading bicycle designers with his new company, Argon 18. According to Argon 18 Sales Manager Marc-Andre Perron, the goal of the French-Canadian company is to design top products for each cycling niche.
Cyclo-cross is quickly on its way to shedding that niche label as one of the fastest-growing cycling disciplines in North America, so Argon 18 wisely took careful steps in designing its first offering for the category, the Arsenic. Argon 18 equips the Arsenic with its own '3050 HT Nano-Tech carbon' blend and proprietary carbon lugs which the company says offers a perfect blend of light weight, durability and stiffness required for the rigors of off-road riding. 'Cross-specific touches include a slightly longer wheelbase and 1cm-higher bottom bracket than the company's road geometries, and a flattened top tube for easier shouldering. Asymmetric chain stays (with Kevlar reinforcement on the drive side) supposedly improve rear end rigidity and the architecture is relatively open where they join the bottom bracket shell for mud clearance. The matching Argon 18 'cross fork follows a relatively conservative route with carbon blades and an aluminum crown and steerer tube.
"Our goal was to have a top notch cyclo-cross bike and when we started designing this frame a couple of years ago we got help from our French distributor," continued Perron. "The clearance on the rear tire was an important factor. Our goal was not to have another cross frame on the market; it was to make sure we had a stiff frame and an asymmetric chain stay. Another goal was to have a lot of power from the chain stay so along with the asymmetrical design we used Kevlar to have better transfer of power, making the rear of the bike very stiff. With these factors, I believe we have made a top notch cyclo-cross bike."
Our XS-sized tester came equipped with a blend of SRAM Rival and Force along with Mavic's top-end Ksyrium ES clincher wheelset. Argon 18 also tapped into the SRAM parts bin for the Truvativ Elite 'cross crankset and Avid Shorty 4 cantilevers, while the premium carbon handlebar and stem wore the ITM Visia logo. Topped with Argon 18's house-brand saddle and carbon post, total weight on our tester was a reasonable (but not super light) 8.4kg (18.5lb).
Time to hit the barriers
The motivation inside any cyclist would skyrocket when a cardboard box opens and a bike as good looking as the Arsenic is pulled out. Its black, red and white colour combination, artfully sculpted tubes, and woven carbon fibre top sheet certainly give an aesthetically pleasing first impression but we still had to go into the first test ride with an open mind about how well it would perform. After all, the Arsenic is the first cyclo-cross bike Argon 18 has produced, so one has to wonder how well it would work without the benefit of years of scrutiny that other well-known cyclo-cross bike manufacturers have undergone.
We first took the Arsenic out to the local park for a spin around a self-built 'cross training course that included steep hills, clusters of maple trees, some requisite barriers, and a muddy trail that eventually turned into a slow moving creek with all of the recent rain. To our delight, the first test ride report card came back with high marks: it was snappy out of our 'cross circuit's tight and sluggish corners, it was light and easy to carry on the run ups and over the barriers, and the carbon tubing also made for a relatively smooth ride over roots, rocks and jagged terrain. Throwing the Arsenic over a bony shoulder to carry up hill was comfortable due to the flattened under belly of the top tube, and it is also worth noting that the bend of the ITM Visia bar was a good match for our tester's smaller hands.
Rolling the Arsenic through the mud lap after lap made us wonder, though, if a pit bike would be warranted under particularly miserable race conditions. Argon 18 provides a reasonable amount of space between the fork blades and the chain stays but thick mud still collected to some degree.
Argon 18 offsets the Arsenic's slightly longer chain stays with a shorter front-center to yield a quick-handling wheelbase. However, toe overlap was a bit of an issue on our XS tester. Though toe overlap on shorter and quicker-handling road frames can be easily tolerated since riders typically do not pedal through tight corners on the pavement, a little extra care must be taken on the cyclo-cross circuit.
"Because it is the XS there is toe overlap," acknowledged Perron. "It is a traditional bike. It is simple for us, if you are a five foot man or women it doesn't make a difference if you are small; our geometry does not change between a man and a woman. We believe in women's saddle and bars and shifters because of small hands but not the geometry."
Components a la carte
Argon 18 has certainly made a very good first effort as our Arsenic tester offered up competent and smooth performance throughout the test period. But while its 8.4kg total weight was far from heavy, it could still stand to be lighter, especially once you consider the additional heft of mud build-up and one's weakening spirit as the hour mark approaches.
Thankfully, though, our Arsenic tester represents but one of a wide array of build possibilities. Argon 18 offers Canadian (and cross-border) shoppers complete bikes with customizable component packages that cover the range from Shimano 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace to SRAM Rival, Force and now Red or Campagnolo if you so desire. Other customers can shed grams to their heart's delight with their own build as only framesets are available elsewhere.
As such, the Arsenic could easily be many things to many people: a top-notch racer with a higher-end component package, or a solid mid-priced package. Either way, the frameset will provide a solid foundation for seasons to come.
Price: US$3949.99 (as tested)
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Images by James Huang/Cyclingnews.com