Focus’s range of cyclocross bikes contains two models: the all-carbon Mares CX and the alloy-framed Mares AX. Buying a ’cross bike offers a lot of advantages to non-’crossers – their toughness makes them great commuter machines and light touring all-rounders – and the AX 3.0 is a perfect example: a steed that performs swiftly on the tarmac, but also has qualities that a standard road bike can’t match.
At this price bracket you’re not going to get a lightweight race machine for easy shouldering over the rough, but with the AX 3.0 you’re also not getting race-ratio gearing. A typical ’cross bike for competition would have a 46/36 chainset; the AX 3.0 offers a wider spread with a 50/34 compact. And while its 10kg weight might make it more of a burden to carry, it’s less of an issue on a long-distance commute over rutted roads – which is when you’ll appreciate the bike’s strength and comfort.
The AX 3.0’s nimble feel makes any venture on road fun, as you can flick it around obstacles, such as errant texting pedestrians crossing the road without looking. The Schwalbe Rocket Rons, with their small-block treads, aren’t as fast as slicks, but they’re still pretty rapid, and you can easily hold 20mph without undue buzz or road noise.
Focus’s RAT thru-axles give a solid connection between hub and dropout
It’s on the trail that this bike really comes into its own, though, its balanced yet exciting and reactive handling allowing you to go ever faster through the dirt. In fact, we were happy to take it on steep sections we had no right to be on – trails we’d normally only tackle with a hardtail or full-suspension cross-country mountain bike. Okay, we’ve got a few battle scars, but such is our confidence in the Mares' handling that we’ll accept the wounds.
The bike's thru-axles play a notable part in that ride quality. Rarer than rocking horse manure until recently, as more road bikes now come with disc brakes, they offer a more solid connection between the dropouts and hubs, preventing brake rotor rub and judder. Here, Shimano’s R517 brakes perform smoothly, positively and are easy to modulate, and the Focus-designed RAT thru-axles lock the wheel securely but only take a quarter turn of the quick release to undo and remove. It’s faster than a standard quick release – you don’t have to unwind the skewer – and you also don’t have to release the brake to remove the wheel.
The Mares' balanced yet snappy handling demands that you head for the rough stuff
The AX 3.0’s kit is what you’d expect for this kind of money, with the saddle and super-compact bar being well shaped, and the rack mounts adding to its commuting credentials. The bike also overcomes any lazy national stereotypes – this German bike categorically ‘fun’, which is what a cyclocross bike should be all about. Whether blasting through the woods or the urban jungle, we can’t recall many rides that offer this much enjoyment for the price.