Cyclo-cross racing is big in parts of the US and has enjoyed something of a comeback in the UK in recent years too. 'Cross bikes aren't just for racing though; versatility is another reason these bikes have become so popular. Stick on some mudguards and change the tyres, and your off-road racer becomes a winter trainer or commuter.
The Focus Mares is a proper mud-blooded racing machine, but the AX 2.0 model tested here is as likely to be used for riding to work as for laps of the racetrack, so we've judged it accordingly. It comes in at well under the magic £1,000 mark but shows little sign of having been built down to a price, with an aluminium frame and Shimano 105 derailleurs.
Frame: Would have scored higher as a pure cyclo-cross racer, but with only one bottle mount and no mounts for a rack or mudguards, it's limited for commuting or long rides (6/10)
Handling: Steady and stable on the road, but comes alive when ridden hard off-road. Great fun as a racer or a play bike (8/10)
Equipment: It’s great to see Shimano 105 on a bike at this price, and the extra set of Tektro levers on the tops is useful (8/10)
Wheels: With 32 spokes in a three-cross pattern front and rear, these wheels stood up to all the abuse we could throw at them (8/10)
The new 2011 Shimano 105 shifters and derailleurs work beautifully, shifting smoothly and with precision. The new design looks great and is well ﬁnished, too, which certainly doesn’t hurt either. We can’t see any cut corners elsewhere in the spec, either.
FSA’s Gossamer chainset is the only bit of the drivetrain that doesn’t come from Shimano, and it’s a quality item. The saddle, stem and handlebar all come from Focus’s own Concept brand and we’ve got no complaints about any of them.
Value isn’t the only weapon in the Mares’ armoury – it’s quick as well as cheap. The triple-butted aluminium frame is stiff in all the right places and sends your efforts directly to the rear wheel. Stand out of the saddle and really stomp on the pedals, and the bottom bracket will ﬂex slightly, but you’d have to ride like an angry gorilla to notice.
The front end of the bike is also designed for going ape in a ’cross race. Just look how much metal there is where the head tube meets the down tube. Crank the bike over as hard as you like and there’s no loss of steering precision. The 71-degree head-tube is relatively relaxed and steady on tarmac, but off-road the balance between agility in the turns and stability when dropping down a steep bank is just about spot on.
You might want to swap the tyres for something knobblier if you plan to race through the worst winter weather though. The Continental Cyclocross Speed treads ﬁtted are designed for hard conditions, and the small shallow blocks quickly clog up when riding through mud. That said, they do ride much better on tarmac than chunkier rubber.
Shod with the right tyres it’ll be a long time before the frame or fork get blocked up with mud; there’s plenty of clearance. If the going gets too slippery or steep to ride, the Focus is easy to shoulder thanks to the ﬂattened shape of the top tube. Cables are routed along the top tube, well out of the way of mud and grime.
The Focus has Avid Shorty 4 cantilever brakes. Some owners complain of squealing from these brakes but we didn’t ﬁnd this a problem. There was some judder from the fork, although nothing alarming and certainly less than we've experienced with some ’crossers in the past. Stopping power was acceptable but not as strong as the disc brakes on some modern 'cross bikes.
As a cyclo-cross bike that majors on value the Focus makes a lot of sense, but as a ’cross-based all-rounder it isn’t so well sorted. Unlike many of its rivals, it doesn’t have mounting points for mudguards, let alone a rack. There’s also just one set of water bottle bosses – which isn't a problem in the hour-long frenzy of a cyclo-cross race, but pretty hopeless for a three-hour winter training ride. With a few simple changes to the spec, the Focus could be every bit as good to race on but so much more versatile.