Rarely has an off the peg racing bike so neatly encapsulated the age-old argument over the most important part of the machine: wheels, frame or components.
The only trouble is, the Focus Izalco doesn't offer an easy answer. This is for one simple reason: the wheels and frame are good enough not to let the groupset down. This might sound an odd statement, but the Izalco is an odd bike. Priced at a mere £1,299, it boasts a large helping of 10-speed Shimano Dura-Ace components. Since Dura-Ace is not exactly cheap, and is usually seen on cycles costing perhaps twice as much, it might be assumed that the frame, fork and wheels are simply an afterthought, with nothing to recommend them beyond the fact that they add up to a complete bike that can actually be ridden.
Not so. All three of the Focus's major components are sound, well made parts that amply demonstrate the high standards widely achieved today in low cost cycle building. The wheels in particular would not look out of place on a machine at twice the price. The frame is German made, while the FSA crankset is Taiwanese. Since all three perform at a level that would have pleased a pro team of the mid 1990s, this does not amount to serious criticism.
Perhaps it is harder to determine the market for the bike, since many potential Dura-Ace buyers will want a frame with the prestige to match. The bike combines parts from opposite ends of the price spectrum to produce a machine that is neither prestigious in its own right nor especially inexpensive in absolute terms.
Since the frame and forks are competent but unexciting, the bike feels the same way, despite the superb performance of the component group. That doesn't necessarily mean that a better frame with lesser components would add up to a nicer bike to ride, but it somehow feels that way.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that any discerning buyer would soon yearn for more from the frame and fork, and that the bike might be bought as a cheap source of Dura-Ace with a surplus budget frame left lying around. If this is the aim, then the 2006 model makes an even better buy. Priced at £250 less then the 2007 model, it has a full Dura-Ace groupset including crankset, and saves on cost through the fitment of Mavic's budget Aksium wheels. Some buyers may see it as a more attractive machine all round, especially at that kind of discount.
It would be all too easy to dismiss the Izalco simply through snobbery based on the price tag. The bike would still be attractively priced at £1,750 with an identical spec, and would surely convey a more upmarket image.
Of course, building a decent bike at a breathtaking price is nothing new to Focus. The German firm hit the headlines with the Cayo, which brought carbon fibre frame technology within reach of anyone who wanted it. The same arguments could be applied to that bike, with the same conclusion. Focus builds fine bikes for an exceptional price, which can only be applauded. Want more? Then pay more, but make sure it is for the right reason.
The fork is called Racing Fork Carbon, and apart from the fact that it has an aluminium steerer and 12k twill finishing layer to the blades deserves little comment. The frame, named the Focus Renner ('Racer' in German) and built of something called X-trolight alloy, is almost equally anonymous, as might be expected for this price. However, it is properly effective.
The beefy down tube is mostly round section, but has a hint of hydro-forming at the bottom bracket to make for a better fit with the bracket shell and seat tube. Stays, top-tube and head-tube make few concessions to elegance. The welds are neat, and made more so by being covered with a thick silver paint finish. The down-tube cable stops are well positioned for gentle cable flex during sharp steering, and the frame specification extends to a replaceable gear hanger.
Sturdy, reliable and not so unattractive, the Izalco provides a surprisingly commendable platform for high end componentry.
If handling meant just cornering and high-speed behaviour, the Izalco would score a 5. The frame's massive torsional stiffness ensures that it is stable, with neutral steering mid-corner allied to a trace of turn-in thanks to the well-balanced trail and fork rake. Even at a potter, the bike is happy. However, that same stiffness means that the ride is, if not harsh, then certainly unforgiving and slightly 'dead'. Buy an Izalco for racing, especially around a short circuit, and it will be in its element. Attempt a longer cyclo-sportive or a century ride, and expect a few aches and pains in unusual places before it's finished. Fitting 25c tyres should help; there looks to be just enough clearance.
Dura-Ace STI levers, brake callipers and front and rear gear mechs need no recommendation. For many potential purchasers they will be what this bike is all about. Since they function beautifully, buyers interested only in the Dura-Ace bits they are getting will be very happy at the price. It does not, however, include the crankset, which in many ways is the jewel in the Dura-Ace crown. Instead, the Izalco owner gets FSA's Energy crankset. Attractive enough in its own right, this design really only lacks the hollow crank arms of Shimano's finest. It boasts outboard bearings for rigidity and a fat hollow axle press-fitted into the right-hand crank. In fact both crank arms, in forged light alloy, are very stiff. Sure, they are heavier than Dura-Ace, but since the bike as a whole is very light, they do not warrant criticism.
The various Concept Extreme components that make up the finishing kit work well, especially the handlebar stem. The bars, however, feature a flattened upper section that reduces rigidity and feels strangely unergonomic. The saddle is hard to praise, but easy to swap.
Many will be more than satisfied with the Easton Circuit rims riding on Velomax hubs that come with the Izalco. Easton's T3 Twin Thread Tech system is used for the 24 spokes at the front and 28 at the rear. This means they are threaded at both ends, and are screwed directly into the hub to avoid the potential stresses associated with making a mushroom-shaped spoke head, with or without a bend. All spokes are double-butted and stainless and are built with a high tension.
The rear wheel is the more interesting; the non-drive spokes, like all those in the front wheel, lace radially into small flanges. The drive side of the hub has a large flange with cutouts, which reveal the threaded excess on the ends of the two-cross spokes. The effect of the visible thread is not pretty, and is all too reminiscent of early (late 1990s) wheels by Cane Creek. Perhaps the same length spokes are used on both sides of the wheel, and this is one way to accommodate the surplus. Although the spokes thread into the hub, they are tensioned in the usual way with nipples in the rim. On the front wheel and non-drive side rear, where tension is lower, these are light alloy. The rear drive side nipples are conventional brass, to resist the much higher tension in this side of a dished wheel.
The resulting wheelset feels strong and comfortable, if a little sluggish thanks to the weighty 28mm semi deep rim. Weight per pair is a claimed and respectable 1,650g. Schwalbe Stelvio tyres, here with a silver tread compound, have built a solid reputation and should not disappoint.
The Izalco does not have the prestigious, luxurious feel generally associated with a Dura-Ace equipped road bike. On the other hand, it is light, responsive and generally very pleasant to ride. Replace the FSA cranks with Shimano's 6600 compact Hollowtech II model at around £120, and you have something even closer to complete Dura-Ace, if that's what you want. Of course, as a Dura-Ace donor bike, it rules.