The Black Forest Expert’s £1,000 recommended retail price looks pretty reasonable for an entry-level cross-country speed machine with an air fork and a smattering of Shimano XT jewellery. It's a great all-round package with plenty to offer.
Since we tested this bike, Focus have introduced their 2011 models. The Expert is no longer in the range but the Black Forest 4.0 offers a similar spec – a mix of Shimano XT/SLX transmission and Concept finishing kit, but with a different fork (RockShox Recon), wheels (DT Swiss 4450) and brakes (Tektro Draco) – for £150 less.
Ride & handling: Light, comfy and capable of efficient mile-munching
With its long, low ride position, flat bars, remote fork lockout and stubby bar ends, there’s no mistaking the Focus’s intent from the moment you climb aboard. It’s a bike built for one thing and one thing only – going fast. The good news is that, in spite of its relatively modest pricetag, the Black Forest Expert is capable of delivering on its promise.
The plain-looking frame turns out to deliver the right blend of torsional rigidity and vibration-absorbing comfort to allow both instantaneous stomp-and-go and all-day comfort – a balancing act that’s not as easy to pull off as you might think.
A full 100mm (3.9in) of smooth, easily adjustable travel up front would have been unthinkable on a speed machine a few years ago, but the combination of an easily reachable lockout and a ride position that transfers some of the rider’s weight forwards makes for a setup that’s firm when it needs to be and smoother than you’d expect through the rough stuff.
Top it all off with the very powerful climbing and sprinting stance offered by the bar ends and you’ve got a junior racer at a very tempting price. It’s not a bike for the faint-hearted though. Racy geometry makes for steering that’ll respond instantly to a dropped wrist or shoulder.
The perfect front-to-rear weight distribution will feel too front heavy to riders more accustomed to sitting up and looking at the view. But if you live to line up on the start line at the weekend – or simply want a bike for covering the miles as quickly as your legs, lungs and heart will allow – it’s a compelling option.
Frame: Stretched cockpit and nervy handling won’t be to everyone’s tastes
One thing the Germans do very well is speed. The land that invented motorways has moving fast in its blood, so it should come as little surprise that the Black Forest Expert makes no attempt to jump on passing long-travel, freeride or big-hit bandwagons.
It’s a bike designed for pedalling as fast as the rider is capable, across country. And that’s it. In keeping with this very simple, pared-down approach to mountain biking, the Focus’s stealth matt black powder-coated finish hides, well, very little.
There’s a concession to the strength, stiffness and weight advantages of hydroforming in the top and down tubes’ subtle shape-shifting from front to rear, with the down tube’s gentle rounded underside eliminating the need for an extra reinforcing gusset at the head tube junction.
The rear stays don’t throw up any curvy or multi-profile surprises, with just enough clearance at the chainstays to run a 2.3in tyre – thanks to a pair of crimps. Holding the rear wheel in place is a set of exceptionally tidy, very minimal dropouts.
Equipment: Speed-focused spec, with a versatile fork but some compromises
It’s a sign of the times that even a fast cross-country bike boasts a 100mm-travel (3.9in) fork up front. The Black Forest Expert’s RockShox Reba is easy to set up for different rider weights and riding styles, offers enough plush, well controlled travel to extend the bike’s versatility beyond raceday and boasts a bar-mounted lockout to keep unwanted bob at bay.
A decent aluminium frame and air fork swallow up a great deal of a £1,000 hardtail’s budget. There’s still plenty to like in the Black Forest’s spec, but a smattering of mid-range parts helps nudge the weight over 26lb (11.8kg). Flat bars with stubby bar ends for extra climbing and sprinting leverage give away the bike’s racing aspirations, while Focus’s own-brand Concept finishing kit provides rider contact points.
Hayes’ Stroker Trail hydraulic discs are reliable, if slightly weighty, stoppers and the Fulcrum wheelset is home to a pair of Schwalbe tyres that strike about the right compromise between grip and rolling speed. And there’s nothing to say about the SLX and XT transmission, except that it works utterly brilliantly.