This value-for-money cyclocross bike could be the N+1 answer if you want to broaden your horizons.
Photographer: Mike Blewitt Words: Imogen Smith
Founded in Germany, Focus have been around since 1992, at first bringing out a small range of mountain bikes before expanding into cyclocross, road, and the rest of it. Today, the brand makes a wide range of machines from their new road e-bikes to gravity bikes. In Australia, the German brand has a strong presence on the ’cross scene, sponsoring the Focus Attaquer race team and Team Willy Locke, with their bikes under dozens of other competitors as well.
This is because Focus has been able to offer a lot of bike for the money. The Mares AL 105 we tested, for example, boasts an up-to-date spec including Shimano hydro disc brakes and 142x12/100x12 through axles in a neat, lightweight package for $2,599. It’s not often that AMB looks at cyclocross bikes, but given our dedication to all things dirt, the Mares AL seemed worth a closer inspection.
Out of the box
The Mares AL is a slick package, with appealing looks close to the bar set by Focus’s top-of-the-line carbon CX bikes. In fact, it’s specced with the same full carbon fork as the top-of-the-line Mares. The big difference between the Mares AL and more pedigreed bikes at any ‘cross race, of course, is going to be its alloy frame, but Focus’s neat welds, internally-routed cabling, tapered steerer and detailed paint and decals do a great job of looking the business. The top tube is shaped around the specific demands of the sport, with a flat oval profile to make the bike more comfortable to shoulder. Apart from that, the tubing is shaped to minimise weight as much as possible.
It’s interesting to note that the Mares AL is built around a slightly different geometry from its carbon-fibre counterparts: with a longer headtube for a higher stack, and a shorter reach, it’s not as racy a design. There are a couple of little extras like rack and fender mounts, and the fact that the Mares AL can take up to 40c tyres, like the carbon version, that hint that the bike’s designers put versatility before pedigree. During testing it was certainly very tempting to convert the Mares AL for bike-packing adventures or off-road touring.
The neatly finished frame sports 142x12/100x12 through axles and are a highlight of the 2017 Mares AL 105, as are the Shimano RS505 hydraulic discs - as they represent the current technology for cyclocross, gravel and road disc bikes. These two features set the bike up as a great-value buy, especially for those of us who are looking at our second, third, or even fourth bike when we consider a ’cross machine. The discs performed flawlessly, with even and powerful braking on par with the reliability and feel you’d expect from XT-level brakes on your mountain bike.
A lot’s been said about the Shimano RS505 disc hood/shifter shape and size, and it’s true that they are very large and very, um, bulbous. On the road, Shimano hoods can feel huge, and I did struggle a bit to come to terms with their size and the extra length they seem to add to my cockpit (I was reluctant to swap in a shorter stem due to the possible effect on my handling).
But the fact that a large percentage of cross-racing is done in the drops meant this quibble wasn’t an issue a lot of the time - and I quite liked having the big hoods to grip hold of in the heat of battle, and on rougher trails.
The through axles are secured with Focus’s RAT system. Apart from being one of the best acronyms in cycling, the RAT system (it stands for Rapid Axle Technology) is a neat rethink of the through axle, just requiring a quarter turn to unlock the QR for speedy removal - a feature well-suited to the ultra-quick and ultra-frequent pit-stops that cyclocross demands. This fantastic RAT technology is also a feature in the Focus mountain bike range, where wheel changes can be just as much hassle, if a little less frequent.
The master of one?
It’s really tempting to buy a cyclocross bike because, on paper and in the shop window, these things do a great impersonation of The Bike That Does Everything. “You can take me off road!”, they shout. “Gravel grinding! Road miles with extra braking power! Why not singletrack!” Harbinger, as I so often am, of bad news, I’d put it to you that ’cross bikes aren’t jack-of-all-trades at all, but instead master of one: and that’s cyclocross racing.
Let me explain. ’Cross bikes suck on singletrack because they have (in case you missed it) skinny tyres and rigid forks. They often have roadie gearing so they’re quite horrible to ride up steep hills and pinches we tend to encounter on trails.
’Cross bikes suck on the road because they have a higher bottom bracket, making the steering feel twitchy, and the longer wheelbase feels pretty ponderous when you coast down a descent and into a climb because it drains a bunch of momentum.
’Cross bikes are highly-specialised machines that have evolved to suit one ecosystem - it’s made up of grassy paddocks, off-camber corners, your shoulder, and mud. That’s it.
The race test
This in mind, we took the Mares AL 105 to Rounds 2 and 3 of the National Cyclocross Series to see how she’d roll in her natural environment. I felt that the bike did suffer a bit for its taller head tube when I was pushing it through hairpin corners on grass at race pace.
While there was plenty of grip, I had to strain to get low enough to really tip the bike in, something that would have been a little easier with lower, more aggressive geometry – which the carbon frame has. That said, the bike stacked up impeccably on off-camber corners, was sure-footed and stable in slick mud (more so than a mountain bike), and provided as much comfort through rough-as-guts cow paddocks as you could possibly ask of an aluminium-framed machine with alloy rims and 33mm tyres.
Grunt and grind
The Mares AL 105 runs a double chainring (36/46) setup and an 11–28 cassette, so the lowest gear on offer here is the same as a road bike with semi-compact gearing. If, like me, you feel that lower gears would be a good option, it’s a bit of work and expense to get them up and running.
A bigger ranged cassette requires a change in rear derailleur for a longer cage, plus you’ll need to buy a new cassette, or a new chain ring for a 34t. Talk to your dealer if you’re worried about gearing. ’Cross favours a different pedalling style from mountain bike and road cycling - a lot more grunt and grind. Once you’re spinning low gears in ’cross, it’s probably faster to get off and run anyway.
There are a few basic upgrades that any new rider could make to the Mares AL 105 straight off the bat to make riding more comfortable and even a little quicker. The Performance Schwalbe X-one tyres are pretty basic, offering average grip and low puncture resistance due to a thin casing.
By swapping them out for something like a Maxxis Raze (as I did) or a superior tyre in the Schwalbe range, you will gain a bunch more grip and reassurance, not to mention puncture protection. The DT R522 rims are a quality addition to the bike and should last a long time. With narrow tubeless tape, and a valve whose lock-ring suits the narrowish apex of the rim, it should be possible to set them up tubeless.
This would allow you to run lower pressures for better grip, and with less chance of puncturing. One thing I might mention is that I felt the bike might have been better specced with a 1x11 setup to suit most Aussie ’cross courses. Again, this would be a lot of work to retrofit, so think carefully about gearing before you commit to a bike.
The Mares AL is excellent value for money with some real spec highlights, like Shimano hydraulic discs and RAT through axles. Although it might be a little bit relaxed in the geometry department for the ’cross-racing purist, it’s a versatile bike that could take a tonne of punishment and bounce back for the commute or a relaxed bike holiday adventure.
I might have said that ’cross bikes have evolved for ’cross racing, but I have to admit that the Mares AL 105 is also crying out for relaxed spins and tours of roads less travelled. It handled an extended gravel grind with grace (although I did get sick of pedalling at 40rpm on the hills) and was incredibly comfortable on bitumen thanks to huge tyres with low pressures.
While the Mares AL 105 might lack pure race pedigree, it gives back a whole lot of versatility. If you’re looking to expand from your mountain bike collection and want an N+1 bike to throw around at a few cross races and grind some gravel, the Mares AL 105 is the bike for you.
|Focus Mares AL 105|
|9.5kg (as tested)|