Most manufacturers have jumped onto the enduro bandwagon with a 650b-wheeled, slack-angled 150-160mm travel machine. But Focus has (literally) stretched the accepted boundaries with the geometry on its all-new SAM. So is it a step too far, or the shape of things to come?
Frame and equipment: uphill struggles
There’s no ignoring the geometry. First glance suggests a bike that’s somehow had the ‘panoramic’ button pressed at some crucial point in the design process. The 65-degree head angle is the slackest we’ve ever ridden outside a full-on downhill bike, and the front centre (distance from front to bottom bracket) is similarly stretched out. Add a short stem and a super-steep seat angle that shoves your weight forward, and those flat bars feel like they’re sitting in your lap.
The high bottom bracket perches you up on the extended, hydroform gusset-reinforced seat-tube, and the front wheel’s sticking way out in front when you look down, creating obvious parallels with Mondraker’s radical XR geometry. Focus uses a traditional stem – 60mm here – instead of Mondraker’s startling zero-reach one, but otherwise the company is pushing the envelope notably hard.
Concept ex 740mm flat bars and 60mm stem sort the cockpit: concept ex 740mm flat bars and 60mm stem sort the cockpit Russell Burton / Future Publishing
Concept EX 740mm flat bars and 60mm stem sort the ultra-short cockpit
The super-sticky Schwalbe Hans Dampf TrailStar tyres at both ends – in 650b sizes, of course – almost physically glue the bike to the ground, although the SAM 3.0’s affordable price and inevitably weighty componentry have something to do with that too. Add the restricted breathing space and strain on your back from the short riding position, and you’ll be begging for an uplift. There were times at the end of long winter plough fests when we almost got off and pushed on the flat.
On the bright side the Magura rear shock (we didn’t know it had started doing them again either) and driver link mean totally stable pedalling manners, even in the small ring. There’s three-position low speed compression on the Fox 34 Float fork to keep things solid if you stand up to stoke the pedals round.
The super steep, 75-degree seat angle stops the front wheel waving in the air on technical climbs, though there are still times when it feels like you’re chasing a wheelbarrow round corners rather than steering a bike. At least the high bottom bracket (with 7mm drop) means better ground clearance than most bikes, so you can keep the power on over any step-ups or rock heaps that are in your way.
KS dropper post uses a crotch-grab lever : ks dropper post uses a crotch-grab lever Russell Burton / Future Publishing
KS dropper post uses a crotch-grab lever – and that seat angle forces you all the way forward
It’s definitely worth persevering to the top. A quick ‘rodeo grab’ for the release lever under the saddle drops it out of the way so you can get your weight back and low. With the front wheel way out front, straight-line stability is massive, and it laughs at random rockeries or any other attempt by the trail to trip the bike up. It lets you take a more ignorant attitude to incoming trail trauma, and the further testing progressed the harder we rode it… and the more the SAM relished it.
Ride and handling: top of the drops
While the hefty front wheel has to be muscled into the air rather than popped up easily, the SAM is well balanced and composed off drops. It shoves into turns easily too, and while it’s not as totally planted as it would be with a lower bottom bracket, its sheer length (and those 650b wheels) keep it confidently surefooted.
The combination of a really obvious mid-stroke catch in the fork and easier rear end compression also effectively slackens and lowers the bike through corners. This helps disguise a fair amount of chainstay axis rotation when you really get it sideways… Precision fans might grumble, but a bit of rear wheel steer can actually fire you out tighter than expected once you learn to harness it. The TrailStar Hans Dampfs that are such a struggle on the climbs are a licence to take the lairiest lines on the way down too. You can leave braking to the last minute, or just leave it altogether.
The Magura MT2 brakes are consistently controlled and reliable if you do need to suddenly haul on the anchors – but like most sub-£100 stoppers, they’re workmanlike rather than super-communicative in feel.
The post-mount rear brake is nestled out of harm’s way: the post-mount rear brake is nestled out of harm’s way Russell Burton / Future Publishing
The post-mount rear brake is nestled out of harm’s way
The clutch-damped mech and chain device mean there’s no worry about the chain flying off, and the low central pivot means no pull back through the pedals however hard you slam into stuff.
Of all the kit that keeps the SAM 3.0 surprisingly affordable for a big travel bike, the biggest surprise has to be the Magura shock. German hydraulic specialist Magura has been making suspension forks for decades, and has dabbled in rear dampers on and off too. It’s been a few years since we saw our last Magura rear shock, so we were on the cynical side of curious about its performance.
We needn’t have worried though, as while there’s a definite reluctance to get moving at first, it’s a characteristic that actually works really well with this design to combat pedalling bob. The soft compound tyres rode over any subtle traction worries that came our way too, no doubt aided by the extra rollover smoothness of the 650b wheels in comparison to 26in. The Magura’s mid-stroke control is smooth without being mushy, and nothing nasty happens either when you bottom it out or when it’s on its way back up again.
The only obvious glitch is a sideways stumble as the rear end twists if you land it slightly sideways, but it was never enough to put us into the bushes.
It’s a mark of how good the rear shock is that the Fox fork is the part of the suspension that lets the team down. It feels constipated and hard to push past the middle of its stroke unless you’re really accurate in balancing the air spring pressure against the compression damping.
Seeing the magura shock was a… shock, but surprisingly the fox fork was the weak link: seeing the magura shock was a… shock, but surprisingly the fox fork was the weak link Russell Burton / Future Publishing
Seeing the Magura shock was a… shock, but surprisingly the Fox fork was the weak link
It’s something Fox tuners Mojo can solve easily as part of your first fork service, so it’s not a deal breaker – this is an otherwise well-equipped and impressively sorted bike for the money.
High weight, super-sticky tyres and very short riding position make the SAM a pig to pedal uphill, and it’s not exactly agile when it comes to twisty cross-country singletrack either. Get it to the top of a serious descent though and it soon makes all the effort worthwhile.
There’s a bit of rear end twist if you push it really hard, and the fork would seriously benefit from a retune to remove some mid-stroke constipation, but the super-slack steering and impressively sorted rear suspension create what’s a top-value sawn-off shotgun of a bike; one that’s happy blasting the local black runs into dust.