- Nicolai Argon FR
- UK designed, German built
- Industrial chic?
The manufacturer/distributor relationship is one that can work in a number of different ways. But historically, distributors that can make sensible suggestions based on their local market and manufacturers that are willing to act upon them tend to do reasonably well. Which brings us to Nicolai’s Argon FR. In 2005 Nicolai had the Argon CC XC-oriented hardtail frame in its stable – lightweight, 100mm fork, you know the kind of thing. But Nicolai UK wanted something a little more in the Cove Stiffee/Santa Cruz Chameleon mould – a bit burlier to take a longer fork. The Argon FR is the result.
Nicolai says that the FR is “a funbike that provides the same delight as a full-suspension bike but with no need for bearing maintenance and fiddly cleaning jobs.” It can take a 150mm fork and has sliding and Rohloff-friendly dropouts as well as a derailleur hanger so you can use conventional gears, a hub gear or just one gear. So does it do what it says on the tin?
All dimensions based on Medium frame
- Effective top tube length (TT) 23in
- Seat tube, centre to top (ST) 18.7in
- Chainstay (CS) 16.7in
- Head angle 68°
- Seat angle 72°
- Frame weight 2.1kg (4.62lb)
Anyone who’s even slightly familiar with Nicolai bikes will know that the company doesn’t like to make things easy for itself. Obviously, full suspension frames present lots of opportunity for cutting and welding and interesting machined bits, but just because the Argon FR is a hardtail doesn’t mean that it’s not every inch a Nicolai.
The tubing is Easton FS in the main triangle, with a mixture of 7005 and 7020 aluminium at the back. The rear end is where most of the cleverness takes place. Rather than solid forged or machined yokes at the BB and seat cluster, Nicolai CNC-machines them in two halves and then welds them together to form a hollow box, shaped to clear the tyre. From these run substantial box-section stays that meet at one of the tidier incarnations of the sliding dropout that we’ve seen.
The FR is designed to be able to run conventional derailleurs, or as a singlespeed or with a Rohloff geared hub. In derailleur mode, the sliding dropouts just allow you to tweak the chainstay length, while in single or Rohloff mode they let you get the chain tension right. The test bike came with a Rohloff, which also meant a specific left-hand dropout that incorporated a deep slot (so you don’t need an extra torque arm) as well as a disc brake mount. The frame has extra cable guides for the Rholoff’s twin-cable setup, and the result is one of the neatest installations you’ll see.
One downside of the sliding dropout arrangement is that if you find yourself having to run the axle a long way back to get your chain tensioned, the wide part of the tyre sits at the narrow part of the chainstay yoke, substantially reducing mud clearance. Depending on gear choice, you may be able to tweak the chain length to improve matters, but it seems like the sort of thing that should have been allowed for. We’re told that the imminent new version of the Argon FR will have reshaped yokes to avoid this issue.
Claimed weight for the frame is 2.1kg (4.6lb). That’s not outrageous in either direction, but it’s perhaps carrying a few more ounces than strictly necessary. That’s a lot of aluminium…
The test Argon FR was the UK distributor’s personal bikes and was set up in a kind of “medium-burly” configuration – RockShox Pike through-axle fork, 2.3in tyres, Hayes El Camino brakes, that kind of thing. The most obvious bit of spec, though, was the Rohloff internally-geared hub, offering 14 evenly-spaced ratios covering about the same range as a derailleur setup only without any sticky-out or dangly bits.
Rohloff hubs have many adherents, and we can see why. They’re reliable, they get rid of all those easily-ensnared dangly bits of transmission and there’s a certain reassuring simplicity to the notion of having 14 gears evenly spaced from low to high rather than the three overlapping ranges that a conventional derailleur setup gives you.
We have to confess to not being huge fans of them, though. Some Rohloff quirks, like being noticeably noisier (and draggier) in some gears than others, do go away as the hub runs in. That may, however, take a couple of thousand miles. Similarly, the shifting gets smoother with use, but we’ve yet to encounter a Rohloff setup that can match a good derailleur system for rapid, smooth shifting under reasonable load. A shifter option other than the rotating gripshifter would be nice, too.
The main thing, though, is that they just don’t seem to fit our riding style. All too often we find ourselves wanting an ever-so-slightly higher or lower gear to maintain cadence, but the next available gear on the Rohloff always seems to be a bit too high or low. Clearly it’s something you’d get used to, and how noticeable it is depends a lot on what sort of trails you’re riding and how you’re riding them. Plus, of course, the Argon FR comes as a frame, so what we happen to think of the gears on the test bike is largely irrelevant anyway – we mention it here just as a data point for anyone weighing up the Rohloff/derailleur options.
No complaints about any of the other bits (although the Hayes El Camino brakes had clearly led a hard life and the front one eventually spat all its innards across the trail). The test bike was clearly set up according to one person’s individual preferences – just because they may not coincide with others certainly doesn’t reflect on the frame.
If we had to pick one word to describe the Argon FR, it’d be “solid”. This has both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, the Argon is totally unfazed by rocks, ruts or drops and inspires confidence everywhere – you can see what Nicolai means about “providing the same delight as a full-suspension bike”. On the negative side, it’s not exactly the comfiest bike in the world, and built up like the test bike can feel a little slow on the uptake on account of being on the heavy side.
While the Argon FR is billed as being able to take a range of fork lengths, upon closer investigation the range isn’t all that large. Nicolai’s stated geometry is as measured with a 130mm travel RockShox Revelation, and it doesn’t recommend going much shorter than that (the shortest fork recommended is a Fox with the same travel). Nicolai says that the frame will take up to a 150mm travel fork, but we feel that its at its best with the shorter prongs. The handy inclusion of a travel-adjustable fork on the test bike made it easy to see how it behaved with different lengths up front. Obviously handling tastes vary, but we felt that the Argon’s sweet spot was with the Pike running at about 125-130mm. A fully-extended fork would be just fine for steep stuff, but definitely something of a handful up hill or in twisty singletrack.
Given that the Argon FR feels happiest with a middling-length fork, the extra metal in there to allow it to handle a longer one starts to look a little bit redundant. Given that the more XC-oriented Argon CC will take up to a 105mm fork and is a whole pound lighter, it seems to us that there’s scope to take some weight off the FR.
We’ll admit to having to look past some of the components to get at the heart of the Argon. As specced, the test bike often felt a bit heavy and a little unwieldy and sluggish (unless we were riding off things). None of this was the frame’s fault, though. Yes, it might be carrying a bit of spare aluminium around, but that’s nothing compared to what you could bolt to it. It wouldn’t be at all hard to put together an Argon FR with a considerably lighter (but still suitably robust) build – and derailleurs – and get something nippier without compromising the solidity and accuracy of the chassis.
It’s never going to be an XC flyer, but then it’s not meant to be – Nicolai has the Argon CC for that. The FR’s a great choice for a couple of hours of techy blasting, or hitting some drops, but it wouldn’t be our first pick for a long day in the saddle.
Ups and downs
Positives: Poised, confident, versatile, lots of build options, industrial looks (if you like that kind of thing)
Negatives: A little overweight, rear tyre clearance reduced with axle in certain positions, pricey, industrial looks (if you don’t like that kind of thing)
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is pretty pricey for an aluminium hardtail. But when you look at the work that goes in to each frame, the price tag starts to make sense. You’re paying for German hand-built quality and a big choice of colours. Yes, you can get frames that’ll do a very similar job for half the money, but really we’re beyond the realms of common sense purchasing here – if you want a Nicolai, you want a Nicolai and that’s it.
Handling is great and it’s certainly confidence-inspiring, but it may be just a little too solid for some. Nicolai says that it’s “best for fun-based riding” and we’d go along with that. We’d like a bit less weight in the frame and the rear tyre clearance sorted out, though – by a happy coincidence, we’re told that those are two of the changes coming on the soon-to-arrive new version…