Focus is one of those bike brands that has fascinated me since they first appeared on my radar five or so years ago. The company is more than 15 years old and was started by a German PRO mountain biker, Mike Kluge. He was one of the gods of cross country back in the early ’90s. It’s possible I ran across the early mountain bikes, but if I did, they didn’t stay in the database.
It was the sponsorship of the German Milram Team that made me really take notice. There are literally dozens of brands around the world that offer an incredible range of bicycles but they do no in-house engineering. What that means is that they have product managers who design bikes a la carte, picking options off a menu, beginning with frame material and geometry and finishing with every part detail down to cable housing. Send them graphic files for your decals and what you end up with is your bike. A good example of this in the U.S. is Jamis; a popular French one is Go Sport.
I raise this point because with Focus I wasn’t sure at first if they fell into this category or not. I took my first serious look at the line in 2008 and saw frame shapes that demonstrated quite clearly they weren’t buying open-mold designs. I was intrigued.
The Izalco is unusual in that its frame design is asymmetric at the bottom bracket. A small rib runs down the center of the seat tube (not asymmetric) and then curls to the left (from the rider’s POV) toward the crank (very asymmetric). I’ve been told this is meant to counteract twisting forces exerted on the frame as a result of torque that comes from the drivetrain. I have to confess that I’m a bit suspicious of the real necessity of this particular design feature for most riders. That said, I’m aware that an engineer with one prominent American manufacturer told me how when one of the giants of the Euro peloton rode their TT frame you could see the rear triangle flex in the direction of the drivetrain. That expression of wattage notwithstanding, my concern about asymmetric designs is just how necessary they are.
The Izalco is easily one of the most exciting bikes I rode this year. This bike handled with the precision I’ve come to expect from a top design. As I’ve mentioned, when I review a bike I make sure to do a few rides up to Malibu and take it on the canyon roads there. I recognize that very few places in the U.S. have roads as challenging these; I go for two reasons:
- When I push a bike here, so long as it performs well, I know it will perform for you even if you’re 200 lbs. and put out 1200 watts in a sprint.
- It’s a helluva a lot of fun.
At a point when most companies are designing their own forks for use with their frames, I’ve noticed this 3T fork on bikes from several manufacturers. There’s a good reason why: It provided plenty of stiffness when the bike was leaned over in turns. But stiffness isn’t an arbitrary improvement that can be applied to any bike. What I can say from experience is that if a fork flexes side-to-side the bike won’t track well in corners and that whole “confident handling” thing goes out the window faster than a housefly. The easiest way to illustrate this is by taking a turn with 60 psi in your front tire. Once you get into that range of pressure, the sidewall of the tire starts to squirm and occasionally buckle under hard cornering. It’s a slightly more extreme version of what happens when a fork flexes side-to-side. Trust me, you won’t like it.
The Izalco Pro is a few rungs down the ladder from their ne plus ultra Izalco Ultimate. The carbon used in the layup varies a bit, but the two bikes use the same mold and the Pro gets the same 3T Funda fork as the Izalco Team. What I rode was the Izalco Pro 3.0, the least expensive of the pro series of bikes. This was without doubt the best riding and most intelligently spec’d $2700 [update: this price is what I've seen on the Internet; the suggested retail for the bike is $4040] carbon fiber bike I’ve ever encountered. I could probably conclude the review with that previous sentence, but it’s worth telling you a bit more about why.
As I mentioned, the 3T fork is stiff laterally. It gives the bike crisp handling. The mungo BB area pictured above combines a BB30 bottom bracket with seemingly more carbon fiber than can be found in the hood of a tuner car. But like designs were seeing from Cervelo, Specialized and others, the seatstays on the Izalco have the wispy appearance of bridge supports. I’ve been on carbon fiber bikes that were stiff to the point of being harsh; I can recall notable examples from Look and Orbea, models that have (thankfully) been discontinued.
So how can Focus offer so much bike for so little money? Well, that’s one of the brand’s real selling points. Parts spec is more an art than a science. It’s less about what you pick than how you negotiate, and whoever serves as Focus’ road product manager is quite the negotiator.
Stay tuned for Part II.