Argon18 is perhaps the biggest news in triathlon at the moment. Known as the 'other' Canadian bike firm, no one really expected a bike from them right now, but their timing couldn't be better. The E119 is the only major tri bike being released in 2015 (other than the LOOK 796 Monoblade). We got a good, detailed look at the bike in Las Vegas, and our initial impression is that Argon18 has put together an excellent platform that is sure to be very popular in the coming season.
From tip to tail, this is a very well thought out machine that takes the best practices from across the industry and integrates them into an excellent, coherent package. The first thing I want to get out of the way is how well I think Argon18 has done on their proprietary components, especially the brakes and the bars. Even though we sell our own products in that category, I have no problem recognizing great work when I see it elsewhere. And the E119 is the perfect example of that. Let's start with the brakes.
Despite the relative maturity of tri bike design, brakes continue to be a sore spot for many athletes, and a headache for many bike manufacturers. Many brands simply slap on a cheap OEM product, despite the problems associated with their use. But a few brands have taken the considerable time and effort required to make a truly good integrated brake. I'm talking about Trek, Felt, Cervelo (though I'm mixed on the Maguras), and now Argon18 joins that exclusive club.
Argon18 told me that the design of these brakes required six months' effort from a dedicated engineer working exclusively on them. Having been there myself, I don't doubt it for a second. And the result was worth the effort. The front brake uses a mechanical design very much like that found in the Speed Concept, and our own Omega X. It features independent stance width adjustment, clean centerpull routing, and integrates right into the front fork. It works very well, and provides ample stopping power.
The rear brake is where things get complicated. Argon18 wanted to avoid the bottom-bracket location used on so many other bikes. To be fair, BB brakes are indeed tougher to install and adjust, based on their location and the fact that the crank obscures them to some extent. So Argon18 decided they'd integrate a brake into the seat stays. The only other bikes I can think of that do this are the Pinarello Bolide, and the new Trek Madone road bike. As in both of those cases, Argon18 managed to still use a centerpull design, avoiding any nasty exposed cables.
But due to the location and the tight space envelope, the rear brake is a very different beast from the front. First off, the cam doesn't move up and down, since there's not much room to go "up" from where it sits. So instead, it spins in place. The cam shape is such that it provides a lot of movement for the initial cable pull, then a more linear progression towards the end. That's how our Omega X works, and it means you can get away with leaving the brakes pretty wide for easier wheel changes with big tires. Or you can bring them in and just get more power for less cable pull. The brake arms, split into two pieces on the front brake, are one piece here. To achieve the same pad stance adjust, Argon18 had developed a very clever spherical roller that telescopes in and out of a threaded bore, actuaged by a small hex wrench. We have an image of that in the gallery. I actually wonder why they carry this over for the front brake, as it reduces the number of parts for the brake arm. Perhaps the engineer was a bit burned out at the time. Or perhaps it didn't meet the space envelope requirements for the front brake.
The rear brake uses two springs on this rear brake, which are both a bit weaker than the one up front, but combine to provide ample return strength. I suspect the brake will still be a bit sensitive to proper installation, as with any centerpull brake. But patience will reward the user with a very nice set of stoppers that show nothing to the wind. Again, I really applaud Argon18 for the fine work here.
For me, the front end of the bike is often the differentiating factor between a great bike and a mediocre one. And apart from brakes, that really means the bars and stem. Again, the E119 shines here. Without a closer look at the bars and actually installing one myself, I can't say for sure how the wrenching goes. But the bars look fairly simple to install and adjust. The are flippable, to provide a bit of stack height adjustment. The bikes in this picture had them in the standard "down" position, but they could be flipped to provide rise instead. That's the only adjustment you can make to the base bars, as there is no other stem or bar option available. Base bar height isn't usually considered the chief metric for tri bike fit, so the lack of bar adjustment won't matter for most riders. But if you know you're particularly sensitive to base bar stack, you'll want to research the E119 fit before taking the plunge here.
The top cover on the stem is not structural, and comes in two flavors. One is slightly lower profile and comes with the standard E119, flowing into the cable cover behind it. The one that comes with the E119+ is slightly taller, as it flows into the integrated storage box which adds a little more height than the stem and bars alone. Argon18 says each version will be available aftermarket, so the owner of one version can swap out to the other.
Pad stack is adjusted via the familiar extension spacers, and there's integrated extension angle adjustment. I didn't ask Argon18, but I'm not sure if the pads can be slammed right on top of the bars, with the extensions underneath. I don't really see a provision for that, though it could exist with additional hardware. Without that ability, the bike might be too high stack for some riders. Even with that ability, some very aggressive riders might have a hard time getting low enough.
Beyond those key elements, the bike is pretty straight down the middle. No gimmicky tube shapes, very good closure of the space envelopes between downtube/wheel/fork, vertical dropouts (yay!), wedge-style seat binder, and liberal use of truncated airfoils. Curiously, although the E119 uses the excellent Ritchey SideBinder style clamp, that clamp doesn't slide along a 10mm round rail as do other posts. That means it isn't compatible with the 10mm round accessories from XLAB and others. Instead, Ritchey created a tall hexagonal shape which they use to attach their own bottle carrier/storage unit. But that unit (and that seatpost) only come with the E119+. The standard E119 gets neither the carrier nor the hexagonal bore. Strange.
The seatpost telescopes at 78 degrees, making this a true tri bike, and meaning no one will have a hard time achieving a good saddle position on the bike. The crank is on the BB86 standard, not my favorite since it's not too friendly with 30mm spindles. I'd prefer to see BB30/PF30, or BB386EVO, or BBRight. But if you have a 24mm spindle crank that you like, it shouldn't be a deal-breaker by any means.
I really want to ride this bike. More than that, I want to build one up to see what it's really like. The Trek Speed Concept can be a notoriously difficult build, and can be tough to travel with. If there's an achilles heel to the ultra-integrated bike, it is always the ability to wrench and travel with. Pro athletes often have a manufacturer-provided mechanic who travels to key races to make sure everything's working correctly. But the age-grouper athletes don't have that luxury, and often have to become their own mechanics. This requires some intimate knowledge of the bike's ins and outs, and how the proprietary parts work. For example, the headset on the E119 requires a special tool to tighten. This tool comes with the bike, but you have to make sure to bring it with you should you ever need to fiddle with it. Forget it, and you could be out of luck on race day.
That said, I'm really excited about this bike. It's beautiful, very well designed, and I suspect it will be hugely popular this year. Check out the gallery below for more about this bike.