Sure, ultra-expensive halo bikes get all the attention but it’s the workhorse bikes that really do the heavy lifting – and when it comes to privateer-class cyclocross racers, the Focus Mares CX Disc 105 is one of the best we’ve tested. Don’t be put off by the hybrid hydraulic brakes on the spec sheet. This is an exceptionally well-rounded carbon race machine that’s ready to rip.
Smaller is better
Cyclocross is a funny little world when it comes to bikes. On the one hand, the countless accelerations demand a super stiff, light, and efficient chassis. But on the other, it doesn’t take long for a punishing ride quality to actually make you slower.
The new Focus Mares CX frame is a big improvement over the previous version with a much smoother ride but without losing any pace
Compared with the previous-generation Mares CX carbon ’cross platform, this latest version tones things down with smaller tube diameters and a generally more graceful profile that noticeably takes the edge off of rough courses. Whereas the older Mares CX was quite firm (but still reasonable) when things got bumpy, this one is downright cushy with a reassuringly planted and composed manner that begs you to rail corners just a little bit faster and charge through rocky sections that much harder.
That luxurious ride quality doesn’t come at the expense of speed, either. Lay down the watts and the Mares CX Disc 105 eagerly surges forward with quick reflexes and outstanding chassis stiffness. Mind you, this mid-range machine isn’t particularly feathery, posting a good-but-not-great actual weight of 8.78kg (19.36lb, size XS, without pedals) – nearly 2kg heavier than a no-holds-barred racer. Like all good bikes do, though, the Mares CX feels lighter than it is with its extra weight only becoming apparent on longer run-ups.
Nominally round tube profiles are used throughout
Disc doubters will be happy to hear that there’s no rotor rub when hammering out of the saddle. Credit likely goes not only to Focus’s trick RAT thru-axle system – which is legitimately super quick to use and secure – but to the notably asymmetric profiles of the fork blade and rear stays. Hard braking doesn’t tend to pull the bike to one side like on spindlier front ends, either.
Focus has also refined its already excellent handling. The head tube angle is now actually slightly slacker than on earlier models, for even better stability through high-speed corners, plus a refreshing absence of toe overlap on tight, low-speed ones. Despite the relaxed front end, the Mares CX doesn’t feel like it constantly wants to push through turns. It’s not as razor-sharp as steeper, more Euro-focused bikes but it’s hardly lazy when it comes to changing direction and happily flicks from edge to edge.
The asymmetric design of the fork and frame combat the uneven stresses that disc brakes produce
Speaking of European geometry, Focus has reverted a bit from its previous ultra-low bottom bracket height – something I was initially leery about as I generally subscribe myself to the throw-it-into-the-turn-and-drift-through school of thought. It’s still quite low with 65mm of drop relative to the wheel axles for plenty of stability through drift-happy cornering antics but the slightly taller centre of gravity does provide a little extra clearance so you can pedal through corners more often and stay on the gas through deep mud or sand.
While all of this makes the Mares CX a brutally efficient race bike, it also makes it just flat-out fun to ride. So much so, in fact, that it’s actually managed to rekindle my occasionally wavering love of cyclocross. Whether in a racing situation or not, this sucker is a hoot to ride.
Mud clearance is very good all around
A fantastic frame and mostly solid spec
That the Mares is so good to ride shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given the chassis that it’s built around, which borrows many of its salient features from Focus’s cutting-edge Izalco Max Disc like the aforementioned smaller tube diameters, essentially round tube profiles, a moderately tapered steerer, and oversized PF30 bottom bracket shell.
The slight curve in the seatstays lets them flex more than if they were perfectly straight
Along with those smaller tube diameters I already mentioned, Focus has given the seatstays a subtle curve from end to end that allow them to flex much more than any straight tube (particularly when they’re arranged in a triangle like on a bicycle frame). The old Mares’s bulldog-stance carbon fork has dramatically slimmed down, too, particularly up at the crown.
Whereas the Izalco Max sticks to conventional external cable routing to save weight, however, the Mares CX Disc goes with a full internal setup to better protect the lines from contamination and clean up the tube surfaces for a more secure grip when negotiating barriers and run-ups.
The fork has been slimmed down substantially from the old version for a much cushier ride quality that positively sticks to the ground
All of this is dressed up with a solid build kit.
Focus wisely sticks to Shimano’s outstanding 105 group for the drivetrain, including the shifters, derailleurs, and even the cassette. Although the chain and crankset are non-series Shimano bits, they still work just as well (albeit with a bit more weight in the case of the solid-forged alloy crank). While the bottom bracket shell is built around the PF30 format, Focus fills the frame with threaded adapters and a genuine Shimano bearings and cups. A threaded conversion system such as from Praxis, Enduro, or Wheels Manufacturing would be preferable but admittedly, all of those are likely too expensive to include as stock equipment.
The full Shimano drivetrain shifts just as you'd expect – perfectly
Regardless, gear ratios are suitably ’cross-specific with 46/36t chainrings up front and a pleasantly wide 11-28t spread out back.
Savvy shoppers will note that the Mares skips over a full Shimano hydraulic disc brake setup for TRP’s HY/RD hybrid mechanical/hydraulic calipers but you shouldn’t fret. As previous experience has demonstrated, the HY/RDs give up little to full hydraulic disc brakes anywhere it matters with ample power, excellent control, and the same self-adjusting feature that automatically compensates for pad wear. Lever feel isn’t quite as good but even that isn’t far off – and that gap would close even more if you were to switch to a compressionless housing such as Yokozuna Reaction.
Nope, the TRP HY/RD brakes are not fully hydraulic – but they're hydraulic where it counts, and most importantly, they work nearly as well
Rolling stock consists of A-Class tubeless-compatible alloy wheels wrapped with Schwalbe Rocket Ron rubber. The combo is a little weighty – particularly since the faux-cotton clinchers use cheap steel beads – but easily sets up tubeless with excellent bead retention. Even pressures as low as 30psi are reliably secure (at least for this 70kg test rider) and the tyre’s squared-off profile really lets you lean hard into turns but still with very low rolling resistance.
More concerning than the rotating weight were the occasional pops emanating from the rear hub under load – often a sign of an impending freehub body failure. Even if it does hold up long-term, the freehub engages disappointingly slowly. Otherwise, it does the job just fine.
The steel-beaded Schwalbe treads and A-Class alloy clincher wheels are a little heavy but they work well and set up tubeless very reliably
It’s a similar story for the Focus-branded alloy cockpit components. The two-bolt seatpost head holds tight while the compact-bend handlebar is comfortable to grab from a number of different positions. The saddle, however, is literally a pain in the ass with padding that’s far too firm for the task at hand.
Good bones to build on
Minor complaints aside, the Focus Mares CX Disc 105 is a pretty fantastic setup for the money. While there are some niggles surrounding the spec, the core of the bike is flat-out awesome with a great ride and handling characteristics, a performance-minded feel, and a top-shelf frame you’d be happy to hang nicer parts on as your budget allows.
Add in some decent tubular wheels and tyres and you certainly wouldn’t be able to blame the bike if you have a bad race weekend. The stuff that really matters is already baked right into the chassis design – all you have to do is add some legs and lungs.
Just add legs, lungs, and heart
- Frame: Focus Mares CC P2T 10 Carbon Disc
- Fork: Focus Mares CX P2T 10 Carbon T4 Disc
- Headset: FSA ZS, 1 1/8-to-1 1/4in tapered
- Stem: Concept EX
- Handlebar: Concept EX
- Tape: Concept cork
- Front brake: TRP HY/RD with 160mm rotor
- Rear brake: TRP HY/RD with 160mm rotor
- Brake levers: Shimano 105 STI Dual Control ST-5800
- Front derailleur: Shimano 105 FD-5800
- Rear derailleur: Shimano 105 RD-5800
- Shift levers: Shimano 105 STI Dual Control ST-5800
- Cassette: Shimano 105 CS-5800, 11-28T
- Chain: Shimano CS-HG600
- Crankset: Shimano FC-RS500, 46/36T
- Bottom bracket: Shimano threaded with SRAM PF30 adapters
- Pedals: n/a
- Wheelset: A-Class CEX CD 4.0 DB
- Front tyre: Schwalbe Rocket Ron Focus Edition, 700x33c
- Rear tyre: Schwalbe Rocket Ron Focus Edition, 700x33c
- Saddle: Concept EX
- Seatpost: Concept EX
For more information, visit www.focus-bikes.com.