Focus Izalco Max, Part II

Focus Izalco Max, Part II

Hangin’ around
Focus offers the Izalco Max in several spec levels. At the top end there is the Izalco Max Team, which the AG2R team rides, a bike equipped with Campy Super Record and carbon Fulcrums. Then there’s the Izalco Max 1.0, a Shimano Dura-Ace Di2-equipped rig rolling on DT-Swiss wheels. My review bike was the Izalco Max 3.0. That designation—3.0—seems laughably misleading to me. It’s a $7250 bike and while many consumers will consider it far out of their league, price-wise, this thing isn’t even close to their top-of-the-line.

Within the industry Focus is known for offering a level of bike spec you usually can’t find at a given price point. Yes, $7250 is a lot of money, but it goes a long way with this bike. While similar price-point bikes might offer Ultegra and an aluminum bar and stem, this bike features SRAM Red and a carbon seatpost and stem. Such is the Izalco Max. My review bike was equipped with a SRAM Red group, Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels, Fi’zi:k Arione K:ium saddle and Cyrano R3 aluminum bar, and finished with a Focus carbon stem and seatpost. It’s a pretty strange world when that’s not only not the primo bike, but it isn’t even the runner-up. Sheesh. Sure, we can complain that this is an example of bike getting too damned expensive or we can marvel at just what you can get for seven grand. Let me put this in a bit more stark perspective: straight out of the box, this bike was 13.5 lbs. Hot damn tamales.

IMG_7419With such tiny fork blades you’d think the front end of this bike would be spongy. You’d be wrong, though.

Hardened center
When I first spied the Izalco Max at Interbike this past fall, what struck me was how little the bike had in common, from a visual standpoint, with the previous Izalco Pro I had ridden. Gone were the unusual asymmetric contours of the seat tube, the accent ribs along the down tube, the leaf-spring seat stays and bulky 3T fork. In their place was a fork so slim it looked like it couldn’t be that stiff and tube profiles that were round more often than not, not to mention less actual surface area. The frame’s most unusual feature is the pair of creases, like collarbones, that run from the head tube around to the forward portion of the top tube.

Because the diameters of the down and top tubes, as well as the fork blades, were not call-the-cardiologist corpulent, I suspected and hoped the Izalco Max 3.0 would be comfortable and maybe a bit livelier than the Izalco Pro I’d ridden previously. The answer turned out to be yes and no. Or, more accurately, no and yes.

I’m fond of comparing this relative new generation of ultra-stiff sport bikes to cars with sport-tuned suspension. Though bikes and cars have as much in common as dogs and elephants, the analogy really holds for me on a visceral level. I’ve driven a dozen or so cars with suspension so stiff that I’d frequently exclaim if I hit a speed bump with too much speed. One good “oof” can say a lot about an impact, and with some of these bikes, I find myself doing that for pavement cracks, driveway transitions and generally anything that isn’t steamroller smooth.

So stiff was the bike that it actually affected the handling on descents. While the geometry was unsurprising—5.69cm of trail with 70mm of BB drop—the combination of this level of stiffness and relatively low trail meant that any undulation in pavement while cornering could throw me off my line. This is not something I’ve experienced with the S-Works Tarmac SL4 or the Felt F1, and both those bikes are very stiff.

The Izalco Max takes the lessons of bikes like the S-Works Tarmac SL4, the Felt F1 and Cannondale SuperSix EVO and doubles-down on the kidney belt. I’m sure there are a million other ways to say this, but this bike is stiff the way Gordon Gekko was greedy—aggressively so. So thoroughly stiff is this bike that stiffness is its defining characteristic, the way what you remember about the Hope diamond is that it’s blue. Should we be surprised that a bike from a German manufacturer might be too stiff to pass earthquake-zone building codes? I don’t think so. After all, the German magazines, Tour in particular, are known for emphasizing stiffness over all other concerns and Focus is, fundamentally, a German brand.

IMG_7425It wouldn’t have killed anyone to use a bit less carbon here. I promise. 

The power of the media in this regard can be illustrated with a little talk of wine. If we get in the Wayback Machine and go back to the Presidency of Richard Nixon, high-end red wines weren’t often drinkable the day you purchased them. They were long on tannins and took forever to develop into something enjoyable. Then came Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate. Parker has a preference for more fruit-forward wines, wines you can often drink the night you bring them home from the store. Today, so influential is Parker’s million-dollar nose (that’s what it’s insured for), that his preference for these fruitier wines (sometimes derided as Kool-Aid), has changed the way wines are made throughout much of the world. The old guard decry his power, but I think his influence has resulted in wines that are more enjoyable overall. I mean, why would you make a drink from fruit that isn’t drinkable until all the fruit flavors have died?

Bikes are harder to review than wines and deserve more than 30 words and a numeric score, if only because most bottles of wine don’t cost half of what an entry-level road bike does. Really, who’s going to make a multi-thousand-dollar purchase after reading the equivalent of a TV Guide entry? However, that hasn’t stopped the population’s desire for easy answers and the willingness of some of the media to boil a bike down to a few numbers based on weights hung on a frame that isn’t being pedaled.

I wasn’t sure if the folks at Focus were going to be willing to discuss this point, but when I asked if Tour‘s testing protocols influenced the design of the Izalco Max, the answer was so candid it was almost surprising. They admitted that Tour had an influence on the bike’s design but also added that their sponsorship of Ag2r resulted in considerable rider feedback that led them to this design. The fact that this bike doesn’t have internally run cables was driven by the fact that the Ag2r mechanics hate internally routed cables. It’s a remarkable statement about Focus’ regard for the people who work on their bikes. I mean, when was the last time anyone listened to a bike mechanic?

Bottom line: there are belts of Scotch that wish they were this stiff. This is a German bike designed for the German media and pros whose wattage on recovery rides look like your interval workouts.

What separates the Izalco Max from other bikes in this weight class isn’t that it’s noticeably stiffer in torsion than other rides. If it’s stiffer, it’s not distinctly so. However, vertically, this bike is easily the stiffest non-aero carbon fiber frame I’ve ridden. That’s saying something. It might even buck more than a Columbus Max frameset, which is like claiming you know someone more bloodthirsty than Hannibal Lecter. It’s not quite a selling point.

Supposing I was a rich guy racing masters and had the incendiary sprint of someone on Low-T therapy. And say I was riding nothing but industrial park crits with smooth asphalt. Because masters races are rarely more than 45 minutes, this bike would be as no-brainer as maple syrup on pancakes. My only possible concern about its performance would be how it would track in corners with anything but smooth pavement. Technically, this bike is a pretty fine achievement, but something deep within its Teutonic heart could could chill magma. It’s a bike that was built by numbers and misses an essential element of my favorite road bikes, bikes that have been sold by the thousands. For the life of me, the Izalco Max was fun only under acceleration and I just don’t do enough of that to make owning this thing worthwhile. This is the hot date who hugs you just long enough to be polite.

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10 comments

  1. Les.B.

    You didn’t mention whether or not this bike is stiff [bad joke].

    The stiffest frame I’ve tried is BMC’s stiff-most road bike, the SLR01. Are you able to compare the two? From your description I would guess that the Felt is a lot stiffer, however the SLR01 let me feel each little piece of gravel on the road.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Les.B: I’ve not done big miles on that BMC model but I have ridden it. In a word, or two, no contest.

  2. gpeng05

    The question is, how does it ride compared to last year’s top of the line model, the Izalco Team SL? I might have a personal interest in that question…


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Gpeng05: I can’t speak to that. The last Focus I rode was earlier than that and significantly different.

  3. Bryin

    $7250 does not buy Ultegra equipped bikes… it buys Dura Ace/Red bikes. Cannondale sells a Red bike for well under $5k and it is every bit the bike the equal of the Focus except for the wheels. If you are going to review bikes please try to be more accurate. O

  4. Paulo

    Interesting review – I have an Izalco Max, or the frame anyway as a warranty replacement for a 2014 Izalco Pro, and whilst I would not call it anything other than stiff, I don’t find it uncomfortable or hard to control. In fact my first real ride n it was 102 miles and it was pretty good.

    It climbs like a demon, but maybe I just like stiff bikes, what I can say is that it is more comfortable than my aluminum-framed winter hack…


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Paulo: There are a lot of factors that can play into how stiff a bike is perceived to be. Tire choice (make, model and width), frame size and even saddle choice can all make a big difference. I expect I’d feel different about this bike had I ridden the 58 with 25mm tires. Bear in mind, I’m not saying this is a bad bike. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, but it was just too much of a good thing. That eighth imperial IPA, when a big night is two.

  5. jb

    Couple of thoughts (on Nixon and wine, not on bikes): It’s a matter of historical fact that during his presidency, Nixon and wife Pat served wine in red velvet bags. For their guests, the bags contained decent third-growth juice; for the Nixons, it was Latour, DRC, etc. performing this trick has ever since been known in the wine industry as the “tricky Dick”.

    In terms of new-school v. old-school wines: I dunno. I mean, I make wine professionally, and while I agree that there are way more drinkable wines now than there were, say, thirty years ago, I also lament the loss of wines that require patience, and reward with profundity, grace, clarity, and beauty…

    Bike to bikes, then…

    Regards,

    jb

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