The Best Factory-Built CX Racing Bike On The Market
It's been five years now since Focus entered the North American market, leading at the time with a Team Milram sponsorship, no bikes under 52cm, and a website almost entirely in German. This little shop was the first to introduce the marquee to Chicagoland, and one of the only non-chain stores in the country to focus on Focus. It's been interesting to watch the brand's perception evolve stateside. At the time a subsidiary of Derby Cycle Werke, which also owned Raleigh and a number of other large bicycle companies - Focus is now under the umbrella ofPon Holdings, a massive conglomerate with controlling shares of Cervelo, Gazelle, Porsche, and Volkswagen. Sponsorships later went to Vanderkitten, Jelly Belly, AG2R, and the various iterations of the Rapha cyclocross squad. Five years on, the brand still lacks a cohesive marketing message. Five years on, name recognition is decent among the tiny sliver of the marketplace familiar with obscure racing teams - and a non-starter in the mainstream. Five years on, the product lineup has evolved ever so slightly (smaller sizes are available in many models, paint schemes are getting more colorful) yet remains unapologetically Euro. There are days when I ask myself why I stick with Focus. And then there are days like today, when I have a chance to build one up and toodle around on it for a bit, and then I remember why.
Focus isn't a luxury brand. It's not Colnago or Parlee or Pinarello. Focus does make bikes that are just as nice and every few years releases a halo model or three, but one typically doesn't pay a 30% price premium for the (admittedly mundane) Focus logo. But neither is focus a value-oriented brand. It's not Fuji or Jamis or Masi. You won't find any Sora-equipped bikes in the lineup. It doesn't necessarily make the bikes any better, but all of its frames are designed and engineered in-house, rather than rebadging Kinesis/Dengfu frames and slapping on some decals in order to hit a price point. Here in the U.S. Focus is, and probably always will be, a bit of a niche brand. But what niche, exactly?
One value that I share with Focus is the non-negotiable belief that performance oriented geometry and proper fit trump everything. These things trump weight, aerodynamics, build kit quality, and sick paint. If a bike doesn't fit properly, if your front-center distance isn't right, if the angles aren't appropriately aggressive - you'll still be able to go fast, but you won't have as much fun, and you won't get as rad. Every single bike in the Focus lineup is designed around this idea. And that even includes the tall head-tubed Ergo (gran fondo road bike) models. This is probably my biggest criticism of the majority of entry and mid-level bikes on the market. The handling is simply dumbed-down - which is surely a smart thing for the likes of Giant, Trek, Specialized, or any brand wanting to sell hundreds of thousands of bikes. Because you don't actually *race* a $1,500 bike, right?
Focus has done a lot of dumb things over the years. Like eliminate its excellent aluminum road bikes from the lineup. Like lose the best marketing manager in the industry. Like embrace discs a *little* too much. But it's easy to criticize from a distance, and it's certainly no small task to remain relevant and profitable in today's crowded marketplace. And thankfully, the 2014 Focus Cyclocross lineup is pretty good.
Focus only sells a few hundred cyclocross bikes each year, a fact that mystifies me, considering the years of Rapha-Focus sponsorship and the fact that Jeremy Powers won nationals on one. But it is what it is, and it is one of the things that owners actually tend to like. They tend to like that their bikes are easily recognizable, but are usually the only ones in a given race. It's kind of odd, in fact, to attend UCI races and see more Focus Mares in the two pro fields than all others combined.
One thing that's historically been true of Focus cyclocross bikes is that they were difficult to fit all but the most athletic, flexible individuals. This was due to their long reach and low stack, particularly on the smaller sizes. For 2014, this has been addressed, with much more proportional geometries, and a massively improved XS frame size. The head tube lengths on the larger sizes have been increased in order to reduce the use of spacers, but the angles and wheelbase remain tight and racy.
My favorite bike in the lineup this year is the Mares AX 2.0. It's only a tubular wheelset away from perfection. And while $2,100 will buy an "entry level" carbon model from other companies, every penny here goes towards practical performance: a light and super responsive (and durable) butted aluminum frame, Shimano's workhorse Ultegra drivetrain, and a lightened and improved Focus carbon fork. Most importantly, the AX 2.0 is one of the last remaining cantilever-equipped race-level aluminum cross bikes on the market. And that means something.
It means that you'll be able to buy used tubulars for pennies on the dollar in the coming years, as your buddies all switch to disc. It means that your bike will be on average, over a kilogram lighter than its disc equivalent. It means that you'll probably already have all the knowledge and tools needed to work on the bikes at home. It means that you'll likely be able to swap wheels between your road and cross bike, should the need arise. It means that, as long as you use good pads, and know how to properly set up your brakes, they'll stop just fine, and modulate really well. And at least for the time being, you'll be able to watch European races on pirated Sporza feeds, and see all the folks on the front using cantis, and feel a silly smugness.
And so if you have $2,100 and are looking for a great bike, consider the Focus AX 2.0. Which is not to say you should look no further. But if you want light, stiff, fast, and durable - and can't find/don't want a used Lobster, this might just be the ticket.
P.S. If you buy one (or any new bike) here in Tativille this season, I'll pay your entry fees to any races you attend on the USA Cycling Pro Cyclocross Calendar.
P.P.S. Did I mention that the new Tativille LIFETIME FRAME WARRANTY now covers Focus? Because it does.