Gravel bike with belt and gearbox: The Nicolai Argon GX test

Handmade in Germany, with Pinion transmission and Gates belt drive, the Nicolai Argon GX Gravelbike promises a special bikepacking adventure. In our detailed test you will find out where we have been with the noble bike and why not only we had a lot of fun...

Handmade in Germany – Nicolai meets Pinion

Welding together what belongs together

If there is something like a German “cult” bicycle manufacturer, it goes by the name of Nicolai. When you hear this name, you immediately think of wide aluminium welding beads and an unmistakable style somewhere between extremely sophisticated and a little crazy to experimental. And you think of real craftsmanship. Of spraying sparks, flying chips and oil-smeared welders. At least that’s how I feel when I think of Nicolai bikes, even a gravel bike like the one in our Nicolai Argon GX test. Perhaps it’s because I’ve known this company since I myself became addicted to the cult of two-wheeled vehicles – after all, we’re talking about almost three decades here. At the time, company founder Karl Heinz Nicolai was – like me – addicted to the punk rock charm of a new trend sport, mountain biking.

But unlike me, Kalle was equipped with the necessary technical gumption that allowed him to give form to his passion. Initially as an intern, later on contract work for other companies, but always visionary and extremely successful. The step towards his own bike workshop was the logical consequence and Kalle’s dream took more and more shape. He has had his own bike company since 1995: Nicolai. What started with two men in the garage of his parents’ house is now a well-known company with around 30 employees. Then as now, the same principle remains: from the idea to the first drawings, prototypes to the finished bike, a Nicolai bike is created one hundred percent under the same roof – now in Mehle, Lower Saxony.

Pinion has a very similar DNA, although the story is quite different. The founders of the gear manufacturer from Denkendorf, Christoph Lermen and Michael Schmitz, are also living their dream by breathing life into their vision of the perfect bicycle drive. However, they have their background in the automotive industry: the idea for the Pinion transmission originated in Porsche’s transmission development centre. Only the two of them were one step ahead of the rest of the industry, because they suspected that the future belonged not to the car but to the bicycle.

And so they decided: We want to build a bicycle gearbox that works as intuitively, precisely and wear-free as the gearbox of a sports car. Like Nicolai, Pinion can do something that most companies have long since lost: make things themselves. Pinion develops, assembles and tests and relies on regional suppliers wherever possible. Although the production of the individual transmission parts does not take place in-house at Pinion, all suppliers are from Germany. A Pinion transmission is therefore 100 percent made in Germany.

So basically it was only a matter of time before what belonged together came together: a Pinion gearbox and a Nicolai frame. And because this is actually so obvious, our test bike, the Argon GX, is also far from the first Nicolai to be equipped with gears. Nicolai has been experimenting with innovative gear solutions on mountain bikes for a long time and was one of the first manufacturers to equip its bikes with Pinion as standard. The “Argon GX”, however, is the latest addition to the Nicolai range, with an almost maintenance-free drive. Speaking of maintenance-free: In addition to Pinion, Nicolai also relies on a Gates belt drive, which of course fits perfectly with the gearbox technology.

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The protagonist in our Nicolai Argon GX test is really something special. Not only because it is equipped with a Pinion gearbox and a Gates belt drive…

Nicolai Argon GX Test: A Gravel Jack-of-all-trades?

Argon GX is the gravel bike from Nicolai. It comes in the typical Nicolai look, which is further enhanced by the classic raw look on our test bike. Voluminous tubes, precise weld beads and technical, bold milled parts speak a clear language and describe the Argon wordlessly as a super robust, extremely well thought-out and yet reasonably light bike, a true Nicolai. And the distinguishing feature of such a purchase is that it should be a long-term acquisition. A Nicolai is not out of fashion after one season, but should give you many years of enjoyment.

A new feature of the Argon is that it is now also available with a Pinion gearbox. And it is precisely this that expands the characteristics of the bicycle in a remarkable way. Because with the new “all-round worry-free drive”, the already versatile frame suddenly becomes particularly interesting for all those who ride particularly long and demanding tours and/or also want to use the bike in everyday life, for example for the way to work. This is because the Pinion/Gates drive is virtually maintenance-free and does not require chain oil. So you can ride it for thousands of kilometres without a thought for the drive and without messing up a single pair of trousers with chain grease. This turns the gravel bike into a trekking-touring-commuting-adventure bike – a real jack-of-all-trades.

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“C1.12”: The name stands for twelve gears, like a modern derailleur. With an even gradation of 17.7 percent and a total transmission ratio of 600 percent, the Pinion gearbox can easily hold its own against the sprocket set.
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It is virtually maintenance-free and does not require oil. This means that the Gates belt drive is clean in the truest sense of the word. It instantly qualifies any bike as the perfect commuting and everyday bike, because there are no more nasty oil streaks on your jeans!

Nicolai Argon GX Test – The route to follow

One bike, one human being, one dog – the ingredients for a great
Bikepacking adventure on the Rothaarsteig in Sauerland. If you want to know where we rode to during this test, or maybe even retrace the tour, you can find all the information on our komoot profile.

The Nicolai Argon GX Test Adventure

Bikepacking of a special kind in our lifeCYCLE Magazine #15!

Lifecycle magazine ausgabe 15

Nicolai Argon GX Test – The test bike in detail

Framework conditions

Apart from the exceptional drive, there are also a few details to report about our Nicolai Argon GX test bike. Let’s start with the tyre width – here the Nicolai is absolutely “trendy” and offers the option of mounting 700C tyres up to 45 mm wide. If you opt for 650b tyres, this is even 50 mm. The frame has various threaded eyelets for mounting two bottle cages and for routing cables and wires. Yes, exactly: this is done externally, i.e. on the outside of the frame, which additionally accommodates the concept of an easy-to-maintain adventure bike. Because if something really needs to be repaired on the road, everything is directly accessible without fumbling. By the way, the frame is designed for use with disc brakes and uses the Flat Mount 140 standard. A 142 x 12 mm thru axle is used. In order to be able to mount a belt drive, the frame has a frame lock on the rear seat stay on the drive side.

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The thick aluminium welds have always been the trademark of the bicycle manufacturer from Mehle.
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To ensure that no one forgets it, it is also milled into the chain stay.

Nicolai Argon GX Test – Equipment and Customizing

And that was almost it. What do you mean, no listing of great parts and their great features? No, because if you want to buy an Argon, you can configure it according to your wishes. Especially cool: You can even use used parts that are still lying around at home. The configuration can be done online or in person if you have special requests. Online, you can choose from all kinds of components that broadly share the Nicolai philosophy. For example, you can choose headsets from Acros, Hope or Reset – all rather small component manufacturers with a regional value chain and high quality standards.

The color is exciting: Here you can choose from countless powder coatings or opt for an anodized finish. By the way, anodizing is about the only process that is not done directly at Nicolai. Last but not least, we come to a few standard specifications: In the cheapest configuration (without extra requests), the Argon GX Pinion costs 4,125 euros. The single frame including drive costs 3,349 euros. Depending on the equipment, a total weight of less than ten kilograms should be possible. By the way, in addition to various customizing options, true custom frames are also available from Nicolai. The surcharge for custom geometry is 730 euros.

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A Pinion transmission comes with a twist grip by default. Who rides with drop bar, must live with it or invest in the alternative road grips from Cinq.
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Independent, no matter what. When it gets dark, it lacks thanks to hub dynamo and Supernova light in any case not the necessary foresight.
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The hub dynamo feeds the Supernova light, so our test bike makes us independent of daylight.

Pinion options

You have the choice of two different Pinion gearboxes. This is available as “P1.18” and “C1.12”. The first offers 18 gears, shift increments of 11.5 percent and a total gear ratio of 636 percent. At 2,700 grams, it is slightly heavier than the C.1.12, which only weighs 2,280 grams. For this, the offers only twelve gears, a gradation of 17.7 percent and a total transmission ratio of 600 percent. The Nicolai Argon GX Pi in our test is equipped with a C1.12.

The Nicolai Argon GX Test

The first impression…

The first impression is the most important, correct? As far as that is concerned, Nicolai already scores points when it comes to delivery: Every Nicolai – including our test bike – is delivered in an extremely sturdy cardboard and wooden box, which without a doubt deserves to be called a “bicycle garage”. When your Nicolai is delivered, you better make sure someone helps you carry it, because the package weighs quite a bit! And then look forward to an intact bike, because in this packaging simply nothing can be damaged by transport.

When it is then unpacked in front of you, the second first impression is at least as good. It’s a Nicolai – from A to Z! A dream bike, perfectly finished and built with attention to detail. Those weld beads, that raw look, that clean look around the drive. Anyone who loves bicycles and appreciates real craftsmanship simply has to go into raptures here. But before we get the impression of completely uncritical adulation, we’d better get the travel setup ready and get started!

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At Nicolai, safety is a top priority from start to finish. This also applies to shipping: in this wood-reinforced box, your new bike is guaranteed not to take any damage…
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Tightly lashed and protected as clean as a whistle. The only problem with this packaging: you can actually only carry the box in pairs…
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On a relatively small scale, things get tight relatively quickly. Fortunately, necessity is the mother of invention, so Wolftooth came up with a double holder for water bottles. “B-Rad Double Bottle Adapter” is the name of the good piece.

Nicolai Argon GX Test – Let’s get ready to… Bikepacking!

The plan is a nice, late-summer overnighter along the Rothaarsteig (or a gravel-compatible version of it) in the Sauerland. With us is editorial Dalmatian Sancho, which does not change much in the basic setup, however: A sleeping bag, a dog blanket, sleeping pad, a few changes of clothes, a few emergency spare parts and enough food/drink must be on the bike. Since it already gets very cold at night, sleeping bag and sleeping pad are mandatory, otherwise the luggage rather minimalist nature. Sleeping is in a previously researched wooden shelter somewhere in the Willinger Hochheide.

It doesn’t take long for everything to fit perfectly. However, two special features should not remain unmentioned. For one thing, the frame (at least in my size “medium”) is quite compact, which is why little space remained for water bottles after the frame bag was mounted. But because the dog is also thirsty, two bottles were mandatory. The “B-Rad Double Bottle Adapter” from Wolftooth has elegantly solved the problem. On the other hand, Nicolai had specially equipped our test bike with hub dynamo and front headlight, so that we were not dependent on daylight in case of doubt. However, since the light was mounted directly on the handlebars, we did not use a handlebar roller. The Pinion twist grip, whose accessibility would have been limited by a handlebar roller, also spoke for this. But as I said: Thanks to minimal luggage also so everything fit on the bike.

The riding characteristics

There are few bikes that fit me – forgive the colloquial expression – so “like ass on bucket”, as the Nicolai Argon GX test bike. This was quickly clear after the first test laps without luggage. The Argon offers a great mix of agility, smoothness and a certain “liveliness”, if the wide gravel road times becomes a narrow trail. In addition, the test bike seems to me as tailored to the body. This is no coincidence: beforehand, a Nicolai employee found out exactly who I am, how tall I am and what I intend to do with the bike. This personal advice and the experience of Nicolai is given to every customer – a Nicolai is just not a bike off the rack. By the way, it is not a super lightweight either: With 12.6 kilograms (test setup without bags), it will certainly not blow any weight weenies away.

Actually, there is only one thing I have to get used to: the thin handlebars. It was installed on our Nicolai Argon GX test bike a rather oldschool-looking handlebar with continuous 25.4 mm, which has technical reasons. Because the Pinion twist shifter is only available for this dimension. Whereby I have already arrived at the second peculiarity that takes some getting used to. I definitely have to get used to the twist grip. You simply have to think a bit ahead, because it is necessary – depending on the grip position on the handlebars – to consciously reach around to change gears. Normally one would click briefly on the shift/brake lever, now I have to reach over just on the upper link. I get used to it relatively quickly. However, it is also clear that for use on the drop bar bike a corresponding shift lever would be the more ergonomic solution, at least for those who like to ride sporty / fast and place particular emphasis on lightning-fast shifting maneuvers.

Exactly such a solution is available – at least theoretically – from Cinq: The component label from travel bike specialist Tout Terrain has its own Pinion dropbar lever in the program (the “Shift:R Road”). Practically, however, it is hardly possible for end users to get hold of such a combo at the moment. The supply chain situation in the bicycle industry is currently so tight that Tour Terrain can just about meet the demand for their own bikes. Nevertheless, an exciting option as soon as the market eases again somewhat. The handlebar has another peculiarity: It is divisible in the middle. Only then is the mounting of the twist grip possible, because you would otherwise never get over the bend of the handlebars.

Apart from the shifting process that takes a bit of getting used to, the Pinion transmission behaves extremely inconspicuously. Most gears are seated quickly and almost silently, although the gearshift is based on a completely different principle than we are used to: Here, no chain jumps from one sprocket to the other, but different gears of a real transmission mesh with each other. Once the gear is in place, however, you don’t notice any of that anymore: The drive purrs along like a kitten and I quickly forget that something is different here than usual. By the way, this “forgetting” is the most pleasant part of the Pinion drive, for which the combined Gates belt is not entirely innocent. On the road, you simply don’t need to waste a single thought on it. The entire system is not only virtually noiseless, but also virtually maintenance-free: Nothing adjusts, basically nothing can rattle, and nothing needs to be oiled. Especially on long journeys, this is worth its weight in gold, especially when the weather is not so good and rain or dirt come along.

Of course, even a Pinion transmission needs a little love now and then. However, this is limited to simple cleaning work and an oil change every 10,000 kilometers – no comparison to a conventional chain drive. Apart from that, the Pinion transmission has a few more advantages compared to a derailleur or a hub gear, which are mainly due to the fact that the switching technology is optimally placed in the bike. By this I mean, on the one hand, the fact that the entire weight of the gearshift sits at the lowest, most central point in the frame, which is not only theoretically conducive to good handling of the bike. On the other hand, in relatively “risky” places are no longer components that can break: No rear derailleur can break off more, no derailleur hanger can bend more and under the frame or at the rear no more shift cables run, which can drag or tear off the frame. By the way, this is of course also visually incredibly “clean”.

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Just enjoy and squeeze the last power out of your calves…!

In everyday life

Of course, our Nicolai Argon GX test bike was not only allowed to prove itself during my beastly good bikepacking adventure, but also show in everyday life, what is in it. And here it quickly becomes clear: As versatile, easy to maintain and fun as Nicolai’s Argon GX is in “adventure mode”, it also proves itself particularly well in everyday use. It’s just insanely pleasant to be able to rely on such a low-maintenance system. No gearshift that can be adjusted, no chain that has not been oiled again and which now creaks nastily the whole way. And – a small detail, but a great effect – no more oily streaks on your pants because you once again forgot to sift your sock over your good jeans before getting on your bike to go shopping. It becomes even more relaxed, because the wheel has a hub dynamo and with it always own light. In this case, only in front, but it would be easy to mount a rear light as well. At the latest in winter, when it gets light late and dark early, this is a detail that no one wants to miss once they have had the pleasure.

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In Sauerland, people think for themselves. You rarely park your bike in such style elsewhere…

Nicolai Argon GX Test – Our conclusion

Our Nicolai Argon GX Test Bike is a bike you can rely on for many years. An Argon GX Pinion still puts a good portion on top. Above all, it again expands the range of applications enormously. From a sporty gravel bike with good all-round genes becomes a total everyday gravel commuting travel adventure bike. A bike for all occasions, handmade in Germany, according to the highest quality standards and an approach that I would describe as exemplary sustainability.

  • handmade in Germany
  • absolutely sophisticated frame construction
  • Ideal mix of lightweight construction and stability
  • Absolutely easy to clean drive
  • ideal weight distribution of the drive components or central position of the Pinion gearbox
  • low-maintenance and clean belt drive
  • Pleasant driving characteristics, very good all-round properties
  • Very suitable for everyday use
  • Custom frame option and many customizing possibilities
  • German manufacture with completely “natural” sustainability concept
  • Our Nicolai Argon GX test bike is not a bike for weight weenies
  • Twist shifter takes some getting used to
  • Twist shifter requires a 25.4 mm handlebar with round profile

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