Read Part I here.
On a detail-by-detail basis the Izalco is perhaps one of the more unusual bikes I’ve ever seen. All of the cables (except for the front brake) are routed internally. The derailleur cables enter the frame at the head tube and run down channels in the down tube. The channels make noticeable bulges in the down tube. From everything I’ve seen over the years, this design feature should be terribly difficult to execute properly. The challenge is maintaining proper compaction for the carbon fiber around those tubes the cables pass through. What I’ve come to appreciate though is that frames with poor compaction have an oddly dead feeling, a sensation that’s different from a bike with deliberate vibration damping properties, such as some of the Time frames.
The Izalco doesn’t suffer that dead feeling. It’s a lively feeling bike, though not so lively as an unpainted carbon bike. So I’ve used the descriptors lively and crisp and I’ve mentioned that it’s not so stiff that it beats you up like some other carbon bikes I’ve ridden. The question is, where does that balance come from?
Part of that answer lies in details found in the top tube. The shot above is a top-down view from the saddle. The Izalco has one of the smallest (in diameter) top tubes of any carbon bike I’ve ever ridden. It’s close to round or actually round for most of its length beginning from the seat tube. Shortly before reaching the head tube it begins to swell, largely in width, less so vertically. The effect here is to counteract twisting at the head tube.
Years ago our concern with bikes was how stiff they were at the bottom bracket. It wasn’t hard to make the chain rub the front derailleur when you made a jump in the 53×19 on a steel bike. Carbon eliminated that but showed us something else that had been happening with steel bikes all along: frame twist, or lash as some called it. Tapered forks, big head tubes, big head tube-down tube junctions and swelling top tubes are all part of frame makers’ responses to that issue. It’s also why a carbon bike with a highish bottom bracket short wheelbase and not much trail can feel as neutral in handling as it does. I hated steel bikes with geometry figures like those.
Okay, on to what is one of my favorite features of the Izalco: its sizing. The Izalco isn’t a bike for midgets or giants. Okay, not to be flip about this, it won’t accommodate the absolute widest array of riders. Riders shorter than 5’4″ are probably not going to be able to ride this bike; women that tall or less so will almost certainly have to look elsewhere. And that crack about giants? That was a bit of hyperbole. Anyone taller than about 6’1″ is likely going to have an issue getting fit on this bike. So why do I like it so much? Because Focus offers the Izalco in eight sizes between its smallest size (a 52cm top tube) and its largest (a 58.8cm top tube).
Let’s put this in perspective. Most companies design their size run in 2cm increments and work out from a 56cm top tube, which is the size around which most bikes are designed. It’s also the first production sample which is why if you’ve got an engineer who’s 6’2″ things can get a little weird. So most companies would go 52, 54, 56, 58 and 60cm sizes. That’s five sizes covering a slightly broader range than what Focus offers. Their run goes like this: 52, 52.5, 53.7, 54.3, 55.5, 57, 58.2 and 58.8. Okay, so there’s no linear function that can explain those particular increments chosen, but the largest single jump in top tube length is 1.5cm, from the 55.5 to the 57 (which I’m guessing was their start size). Not another review of this bike has made mention of its eight sizes and that truly is one of its best features. I don’t care what other production carbon lines you’ve looked at, if you’ve had fit issues and aren’t shopping at petites or big and tall, the Izalco comes in a size that will fit you.
I can’t explain the asymmetric lines of the Izalco, but I must say the contours remind me of some of the finer examples of industrial engineering I’ve seen. And by the way, that K-Edge chain catcher is spec’d with the FSA compact crank. It’s a great example of Focus’ attention to detail.
Okay, back to geometry. The 3T Funda Pro fork is available in three rakes. Focus chose to spec the 43mm rake on each size. What that means is that four sizes—from the 55.5 to the 58.8—all have the same trail because they all share the same 73.5-degree head tube angle. As the sizes get smaller, the trail increases because the head tube angles get progressively slacker. The 54.3 TT gets a 72.5 HTA, the 53.7 gets a 72, the 52.5 gets a 71.5 and the 52 gets a 71.25. Going to a 45mm rake for those small sizes would seem to make sense.
My experience with the 57 was really enjoyable. Equipped with Ultegra, the bike weighed in at 16.5 lbs. It was enough heavier than most other bikes I’m riding that I noticed the extra weight when trying to accelerate for sprints on group rides and on those early ramps on longer climbs. Which is to say that I never noticed the weight, except when I noticed it and at those moments, because I was deep in the red, I’d have paid good money to lose two pounds from that bike. I’d have paid even more to drop that much or more from me as well, but I’m done with eating like a broke college student.
There’s a road in Malibu called Stunt. It’s among the many tricky descents there, but unlike the great majority of others it’s a road that sits right at the threshold of my ability. On the right day with the right bike, I can get down Stunt without touching my brakes. The Izalco is one of maybe five bikes I’ve descended Stunt on and never touched the stoppers. When I say it offers truly precise handling, I mean it’s a bike I count among a rarefied few, though that list has begun to grow.
Honestly, I’m glad they didn’t send me the sub-5 kilo Izaclo Ultimate. I’d have had to buy it.
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.