As mentioned in our ‘first look’, the Focus Mares AX 4.0 arrived at RCUK Towers on the cusp of spring.
Rather than winter miles, I was expecting to move into the summer smiles era of my cycling calendar and thought this bike would be misplaced in the conditions. It was naïve of me to expect the British weather to follow the expected seasonal regime, of course, and I battled wind and rain throughout March and early April. The Mares AX 4.0, tellingly finished in battleship grey, was the ideal bike for the weather I faced during the test period, which provided ideal conditions to form an opinion on such a bike. A blessing in disguise, perhaps?
An early glance at the Mares AX 4.0 generated a little confusion about its true intentions. A high top tube, wide bars, slack head angle and lots of tyre clearance screamed cyclo-cross bike. Conversely the mudguards, low tread tyres, compact gearing and deep section rims were more suggestive of a steed for winter training, or even a touring bike.
This identity crisis was resolved by an examination of the branding of the AX range. It’s a line of machines intended for all-round use, instead of being pigeon holed in to one category. What the German company has produced here is, upon the initial ride, a very comfortable machined that is weighted towards tarmac rather than mud, but can still be ridden along a towpath with confidence.
A 6061 aluminium frame and fork make up the chassis of the Mares AX 4.0, whose geometry is shared with models higher up the range (the 4.0 is the entry point). The combination of angles and lengths provides an incredibly stress free ride, giving any rider, in my opinion, the ability to enjoy many miles without the worry of aches and pains. A slight annoyance here was that my size nine feet sometimes caught on the chain stays when pedalling, but I must admit to being slightly ‘duck-footed’.
The low stack height and short headtube placed me in an ideal position over the front of the bike; one reflected in the handling, the AX4.0’s strongest point, which allowed me to negotiate any type of corner or bend with ease. The low handlebar position (raised from the headset by a single spacer on our test model) allowed me to stretch out, placing my weight closer to the front axle, and providing a more direct feel. Great work, Focus. Compare and contrast with the higher position typical of touring bikes.
The thought of encountering a climb on this beast instilled a small amount of fear. The result was a demonstration of how considered geometry can, to some degree, negate weight and bulk. The Mares AX4.0 climbed amicably, with my weight either planted on the saddle or over the front of the bike when dancing on the pedals. On the descents, I felt relaxed, confident that I could trust the machine beneath me to stay rubber side up, even in damp conditions.
Full Shimano Tiagra shifting (STI levers and front and rear mechs) felt smooth and sleek for a groupset towards Shimano’s entry level, but I found the STI pods extremely uncomfortable. I found the difference between these and 105 levers noticeable, with the latter far more ergonomic and lighter in feel. I could not get settled riding on the hoods even after numerous adjustments to the bars. The compact chainset suits this bike. Some may find the front chainrings a little on the small side for general road use perhaps, but I never felt over or under geared.
I’ve never been a fan of cable-operated disc brakes, and the Tektro Lyras fitted here did little to change my opinion. It took far too long to bed in the pads, and those early outings were fraught with fear of them failing at a crucial junction. Performance did improve as time went on, but a well set up caliper brake will be just as effective if not better. There also seemed to be an odd sticky layer that formed in between long gaps in stopping, which I’ve never encountered before. Rather than gradually slowing you down, the front calliper struggled in its attempts to grip the disc, causing an unnerving amount of flex in the fork. Further exploration of these pads may be needed, but this brake system did not perform well.
Along with the handling, the smoothness of the ride was a stand out trait. Even testing the Mares AX 4.0 on a rough towpath gave no real bother. Such stability could be attributed to the long wheelbase, but I believe the source of its strength is in the wheels. The Continental Cyclocross tyres seemed oddly named given the non-aggressive tread, instead offering a low level of resistance and a feeling almost of gliding. Even after some rough pot hole abuse, the Concept wheels (Focus’ house brand) are running nicely and have remained true.
The Mares AX 4.0 is definitely not a lightweight machine. We’d caution against jumping to conclusions, however. Timed comparisons with lighter machinery revealed a smaller reduction in pace than we’d expected. While the handling was admirably direct, the weight required some additional effort in leaning the bike over. It was also incredibly stable in the high winds of March, and its ability to resist being blown all over the road was welcomed.
So what do we have here? What slot does this bike fill in our riding stable?
The Focus Mares AX 4.0 is an ideal, versatile second bike. My initial reservations about a sluggish, performance-inhibiting machine were not realised. While the bike isn’t the quickest out of the gate, once up to riding pace it didn’t take the level of effort I’d anticipated to power along. After testing, I wouldn’t exclude it from fair weather riding, either. If an afternoon spent riding through one of the UK’s forests, or popping off around rougher country lines with the end goal a pub garden in mind, you’ll have the ideal tool to do so.
For an additional £100, I would choose the Mares AX 4.0 for its Shimano 105 STI levers and mechs. In the long-term, you may be grateful for the mid-level groupset, in my opinion. I’d also choose the cantilever model, over its disc-equipped sister. Someone will crack cable disc brakes, I’m sure.
Website: Focus Bikes
Sizes: 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62