the fun of gravel riding
In my quest for comfort, I sometimes forget that even the best comfort without the fun of riding is worth nothing. Dark Matter gravel bike from Argon 18 reminded me what gravel riding is all about. Yes, it is definitely not the comfiest gravel bike out there but for sure, one of the most fun to ride!
Argon 18 is a brand that is associated with racing bikes or triathlon. So it is sometimes overlooked by those who look for an everyday gravel bike. I found the Dark Matter gravel bike by accident just by looking for the comfiest gravel bikes. It was mentioned there because of its unique fork, that is shaped like old steel forks were shaped (bent forward rather than towards the rider). Some of the reviewers were even saying that you can see the fork bending under the load which should translate into a very comfy front end of the bike. But no, you can’t see the fork bending just by putting force onto the handlebar. At least I could not see it, mostly because the tire itself (even inflated to very hight psi air pressure) will flex first. But you don’t have to see the real flex to feel the increased comfort coming from this fork. I did a fork shootout recently (LINK) where I compared Argon’s 18 bent fork with Lauf Grit SL fork, Jamis Renegade ECO fork and OPEN U-turn GavelPlus fork and indeed, even with only 390 mm of length (and the longer the fork, the comfier it should be, at least in theory), it performed very well, even beating Lauf Grit SL fork on a fast gravel route. So yes, the unique shape of this fork translates into a comfy ride, but on the other hand, a straight fork from OPEN offers very similar level of performance, so you should always remember that shape of the fork is important, but the carbon layup is also crucial for the performance, not only of the fork but the frame itself.
How comfortable is the frame?
When I was interviewing Martin Faubert, the chief designer at Argon 18, I learned that the Dark Matter frame was designed to provide not only stiffness and good aerodynamics where needed, but also compliance for improved ride quality. On this YouTube clip (link) you can see how the Krypton frame (on which Dark Matter frame is based) is flexing under the load. The design choices like low cross-section between seat stays and the seat tube and the special shape of the seat stays itself should promote a lot of flex and by this, increase the overall comfort. But in reality, my tests showed that much of this improved compliance is negated by a rather long seat tube that does not leave a lot of seat post exposed and by this limits the flex that you can get from solutions like my Ergon CF3 flexing seatpost (which works best when there is a lot of seat post exposed). This was crystal clear when I was comparing the results of Ergon CF3 + Brooks C17 saddle combo between my benchmark bike and Dark Matter bike (my benchmark bike has a much shorter seat tube and thus allows for much more flex at the seat post level). This was a very informative lesson that simply shows that the lowest hanging fruit in terms of comfort is always at the level of a seat post (the more exposed it is the more flex it can provide whereas the flex at the level of seat tube or seat stays will be always harder to achieve because you have to also think about the overall frame stiffness). But this not mean that the rear of Dark Matter is overly harsh. No, it just means that to radically improve the rear end comfort you will need the solution like Redshift suspension seatpost which works equally well no matter how exposed the seat post is. You can even say, that the Redshift suspension seatpost is like a great comfort equalizer that makes almost every gravel bike similarly comfortable.
How does it ride?
One of my first rides on Dark Matter bike was after long rainy days which created mud everywhere. And this tricky conditions allowed me to quickly learn the true nature of this bike. This is a fun bike to ride. Really fun! I don’t know what exactly makes this bike so much fun but the confidence you have on it combined with quick, but not too quick handling makes for a very playful ride. It is like riding a rear-wheel-drive BMW car on a wet track. Beautifully balanced and a great fun. Maybe this is thanks to a rather steep head angle (72 degrees) combined with 49 mm fork rake (on an M sized frame). Maybe, it has something to do with a rather short chainstay (428 mm) and a modest BB drop (70 mm) that does not make the bike brutally planted like Specialized Diverge with 85 mm BB drop. Maybe it is the combination of all things mentioned above but the truth is that Argon 18 created something special in terms of handling. Especially when you consider that all of this playfulness does not come at a cost of nervous and unsafe fast descends. The only thing that I would worry about is putting a 650b wheels on this bike (the handling could become too fast ruining this fine balance) but when you take into consideration that this bike will not take more than 47mm 650b tire, there is no real temptation to experiment with a wider, 650b tires. At least for me and maybe this is another thing that helped Argon 18 find the right handling formula for Dark Matter bike – just focus on one wheel size!
So it was love from the first sight?
Not really. The first thing that I noticed was how high the front end of this bike was. Then I remembered that Argon 18 invented something called the 3D+ system that makes spacers obsolete. It is a system that allows you to increase the handlebar height by 15 mm or 30 mm without losing the stiffness and handling precision that you normally lose by using spacers (this is possible due to the fact that 3D+ works like a head tube extension and by this, maintains the head tube stiffness). The beauty of this system lies also in the possibility of adding an extra 30 mm of spacers on top of the 3D+ so in total you can rise the handlebar by whooping 60 mm (whereas by just using spacer you can safely achieve only 30 mm of rise). But I don’t think that you will ever need the 60 mm rise on a Dark Matter bike because it comes with a rather tall head tube in the first place. On my M sized test bike, the head tube measured 17,1 cm. And unfortunately, my test bike arrived with the 3D+ system set for a 30 mm rise. This means that the headtube effectively measured over 20 cm. This is a lot for M sized gravel bike and in the territory of a very tall Specialized Diverge (which is tall mainly because of its Future Shock front end suspension). For me it was too high. Combine this with my eternal issue of being in-between sizes of bike frame (in this occasion between S and M) and I needed to do two things: first I changed the stem for a shorter one (90 mm instead of 100 mm) and then I slammed it down to -6 degree to compensate for the high front end of the bike. After those two changes, I could focus on the ride without any discomfort coming from the riding position.
The test results (in terms of comfort)
Dark Matter that I was testing was equipped with a very good and comfortable FSA K-Force carbon seatpos (it is especially good with high-frequency micro-vibrations). On top of the seatpost was a Prologo Scratch RS saddle which proved to be quite nice to sit on. Yet, this combination was making the rear only modestly comfortable. Switching to my Ergon CF3 seatpost and Brooks C17 saddle improved things a little bit but, like I already mentioned, a long seat tube limited the compliance of my seatpost quite a bit, especially on a bumpy forest road. Only when I put the Redshift suspension seatpost on this bike (with an SQ Lab 612 Active saddle) I was able to reach great levels of comfort (the same level as on my benchmark bike equipped with the same seatpost and saddle combination).
The front end of this bike was proving to be quite comfortable. The fork itself was better at the compliance game than my Jamis Eco compliance fork but I believe that on a bumpy forest route the benefits of the fork were somehow negated by the increased stiffness of a massive carbon head tube combined with a 3D+ system). When I put a 50 mm Soma Cazadero 700c tire (run at 21 psi) I was able to improve the front end comfort by 7,5% but still my benchmark bike with Soma Cazadero 42c tires (25 psi), Lauf Grit SL suspension fork and Redshift Suspension stem (stiff setup with orange and green elastomers) was absorbing vibrations better by 14,5%. But on a fast gravel road, Argon 18 Dark Matter with 50c Soma Cazadero tire at front (21 psi) was even slightly better at absorbing vibrations than my benchmark bike! Not bad, not bad at all for a gravel racer!
The last thing worth noticing when we are talking about comfort is that the stock Challenge GravelGrinder 700x42c tires offered a high level of comfort itself (they were noticeably better than GravelKing SK and in the same ballpark as my Cazadero tires). That is why I decided to test the comfort of this bike based on its stock tires and I really appreciate the fact that Dark Matter is offered with such comfy tires so there is no real need for upgrading them.
Carbon is fast.
I learned that by testing GT Grade 2020 and Specialized Diverge 2020. Dark Matter is also very fast, but my subjective feeling was that I could accelerate a tad faster on a Diverge (which is on top of my list of the most power-efficient gravel bikes). Maybe this was the result of a shorter chainstay of a Specialized bike? Or maybe due to the fact that the BB area of Diverge is really huge and thus stiffer? It most certainly was not caused by the wheels because Dark Matter came with rather light and expensive HED Ardennes GP Plus wheels (Diverge was using slightly heavier DT Swiss R470 db wheels). The HED wheelset was OK in terms of inner width (21 mm) but it was not delivered to me as a tubeless-ready setup which is odd for a gravel bike nowadays (but, of course, you can make them tubeless with additional tape and tubeless valves).
1x drive is here to stay on a gravel bike.
Before Dark Matter, I had only experience with 2x drive trains and I thought that I really need the small gaps between gears. But what I really needed was the simplicity that comes with a 1x drive. I usually ride alone, in my own rhythm and I can easily find it on 1x drive. Dark Matter that I tested was from 2019 and it was using SRAM Force 1x groupset (2020 model is using GRX groupset). It performed well during my testing although I needed some time to adjust to DoubleTab gear change where everything is done by pushing just one shifter. Would I choose SRAM over Shimano 1x GRX? I don’t know yet but I am currently testing an electric gravel bike with Shimano GRX so I will make a separate article in near future regarding that topic.
The flared handlebar is just a hype. At least for me.
Now almost every gravel bike comes with a flared handlebar. And not a modestly flared handlebar but a handlebar with a flare at least 12 degrees. Dark Matter from 2019 is equipped with an FSA Adventure Compact handlebar with a 12 degree of flare. It has a nice flatten top section but the flare itself makes the shifters angled and I don’t like the feel of it. And I don’t fully buy the added benefit of wider drops for more safe handling on descends because I feel properly safe with much less flared handlebar. But hey, this is me and I can understand if the majority of you want more flared handlebars.
Would I buy it?
Argon 18 Dark Matter makes a very good first impression that stays with you and makes you ride more just for the share fun and enjoyment of gravel riding. It’s fast and it is comfortable enough (fork offers a lot of compliance and you can easily mount a 700x50mm tire if you still want more comfort there, and at the back, you can always use something like Redshift suspension seatpost to achieve a very high level of comfort). So it can easily be your only bike you will ever need. But the long seat tube that forces me to use only something like Redshift suspension seatpost is a significant limitation in my opinion and I still need a bike, that will allow me to ride with my son. So answering the question: for the sheer fun of ride yes, but only if I could afford having two gravel bikes instead of one…