The £999 Mares AX 3.0 from German company Focus combines a smart aluminium frame with a carbon fibre fork and their innovative easy-to-use thru-axles to offer a good all-rounder or first bike for someone looking to get into cyclo-cross racing.
The 50/34 compact chainset along with rack mounts points to a bike that is better suited to daily commuting than regular off-road excursion, a compromise that will appeal to some potential customers more than others.
The Mares AX 3.0 is a fun bike to ride. The geometry is well suited to the demands of cyclo-cross racing and it's also at home exploring the trails away from the hectic nature of a 'cross race. It's a fine tarmac chugger too, though for longer jaunts you'll probably want to swap for some slicker or more closely treaded tyres.
It's not that light and you do notice the weight when getting the bike up to speed off-road; you get good at maintaining momentum through the corners. The weight does provide good stability over rough ground and when bouncing over roots and rocks. It's not a bike you'll want to be shouldering too often though unless you've got a strong back.
The weight is a handicap if you're looking to race, but it's not so heavy that you won't still finish a 'cross race with a huge smile across your face. If you're aiming to do the occasional 'cross race for fun then the weight isn't a problem - I was able to finish in a respectable position when I raced the Focus.
The disc brakes are the most appealing aspect of the bike. The mechanical disc brakes are very positive in use with single finger braking providing plenty of stopping power with none of the fork judder of a cantilever setup.
While they don't have the outright power of a hydraulic setup, there is more than enough power for the slower speeds involved in cyclo-cross. Critically, once you get used to great stopping ability of the disc brakes, you'll find it really difficult to go back to a 'cross bike with canti brakes. It's a world of difference.
Handling is pleasingly direct and the steering feels sharp and responsive. It's a stiff bike and does relay a lot of vibration through to the contact points though, so it's not the most comfortable over harsh terrain. Careful setup of tyre pressure is required to dampen vibrations on rougher courses.
Frame and fork
The Mares AX 3.0 features a frame made from triple butted aluminium with a carbon fibre fork. All cables are routed internally, the gear cables entering the down tube and the rear brake entering the head tube. The front brake cable is routed externally along the rear edge of the carbon fork.
There is an externally threaded bottom bracket which offers easy serviceability, a good choice for a bike designed to be ridden through deep puddles and mud, it'll be easy to change when it needs replacing.
There are two bottle mounts and there are rack mounts on the frame, making it a good option for daily commuting if you wanted.
The most interesting aspect of the frame and fork are the axles. Gone are regular quick release axles and in their place the company's own and unique RAT (Rapid Axle Technology) thru-axles. They are extremely simple to operate, and much quicker than a regular quick release.
To remove the wheel, you simply open the lever, twist it 90 degrees, and slide it out. It's that easy. It takes a couple of goes before you get the hang of it, but once you do the action is pleasingly quick.
The axles provide very secure wheel attachment and the 15mm front axle diameter does appear to increase the front-end stiffness. Under heavy braking or pushing hard on the handlebars during out of saddle sprints, there's very little twist or flex, and no brake rub.
There is stacks of mud clearance around the tyres at both the fork and rear triangle and I never encountered any issues with clogging even riding through some very boggy trails.
Focus have spent the money wisely on the Mares AX 3.0, with decent Schwable Rocket Ron tyres a highlight. They're a good tyre for most conditions, reasonably faster on harder terrain and tarmac and enough grip for all but the sloppiest conditions. The amber sidewalls look the part too, though could be tricky to keep that way through a muddy winter.
Concept EX is a Focus own-brand label, and finds its way onto the deep-section aluminium clincher wheels, stem, handlebar, saddle and seatpost. It's all good quality kit with the saddle a comfortable shape and the handlebars providing a nice shape and reach. The wheels aren't the lightest option but are very strong and stand up to some rough riding over rocks.
Shimano's R517 mechanical disc brakes are 105 level and feature independently adjustable right and left pad clearance. That means they'll provide good disc clearance as they wear out. They calipers use a forged one-piece design to boost stiffness.
The brakes are controlled by Shimano Tiagra brake levers, which also operate the Tiagra front mech and upgraded 105 rear mech. The compact 50/34 Tiagra chainset is fine on the road and so a good choice if you're looking to use the Mares for regular commuting, but for riding off-road and competing in cyclo-cross races it's simply too big; a 46/36 chainset would be better. There is a 12-28 cassette fitted to the rear wheel.
A competent cyclo-cross bike that is well geared for riding on the road but needs a chainset swap for regular off-road riding and cyclo-cross racing. The weight is a handicap for racing but the disc brakes provide fantastic control and precise speed adjustment. There's plenty of upgrade potential in the Mares and it's a good starting bike if you're new to cyclo-cross.
Decent performance and impressive disc brakes make for a good all-rounder and first cyclo-cross bike
road.cc test report
Make and model: Focus Mares AX
Size tested: 56
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Focus Mares AX 3.0  - Focus Mares AX features the new German Focus designed and updated version of their Mares cyclo-cross bike, which is now available with either disc brakes or cantilevers. The frame and fork have been improved to an impressive weight and this is an excellent addition to any cyclo-cross rider featuring the same R.A.T. system as the Mares CX. Focus are surely leading the way now with cyclo-cross innovation and design making the MARES the benchmark. The Mares AX 3.0 features Shimano Tiagra and a Mechanical Disc Braking system by Shimano.
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Icon: Frame Frame Race Cross V2 alloy triple butted Disc
Icon: Fork Fork Mares CX P2T 10 Carbon T4 Disc
Icon: Brakes Brakes Shimano R517
Icon: Brake lever Brake lever Shimano Tiagra
Icon: Rear derailleur Rear derailleur Shimano 105
Icon: Shifter Shifter Shimano Tiagra
Icon: Crankset Crankset Shimano Tiagra
Icon: Gear ratio Gear ratio front: 50/34 rear: 12/28
Icon: Handlebar Handlebar Concept EX
Icon: Stem Stem Concept EX
Icon: Saddle Saddle Concept EX
Icon: Seatpost Seatpost Concept EX NEW
Icon: Wheelset Wheelset front/rear: Concept Disc
Icon: Tires Tires Schwalbe Rocket Ron Focus Edition
Icon: Front derailleur Front derailleur Shimano Tiagra
Frame and fork
Riding the bike
Wheels and tyres
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes.
Would you consider buying the bike? With a change of chain set, maybe.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes.
Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?
A good first cycle-cross bike ideal for much more than simply 'cross racing, but really needs a lower ratio chainset for regular off-road riding. The mechanical disc brakes and the RAT thru-axles are a real highlight of the bike and help it stand out among all the other options at this price.
About the tester
Age: 31 Height: 180 Weight: 67
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo cross, commuting, touring, mtb,
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.