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Every fall the leaves turn yellow and the air begins to feel crisp and cool. I wait in anticipation for this because it means one thing: Cross is coming. I love cross season. The sand, the mud, and the grass. The blistering heat of summer is a distant memory. My weekends are reserved for races, long meditative gravel rides, and singletrack adventures deep in the Colorado foothills.
Working at The Pro’s Closet I see an endless line of gorgeous cyclocross and gravel bikes parade through our doors every day. I've studied every beautiful machine and fantasized about one day completing my own dream cross build. For the last few years, I've ridden a bike befitting a broke college grad. It’s an old, beat-up aluminum Cannondale CAADX with cantilever brakes. It's dented up but it does the job well, and I'm thankful for how it's shaped me as a rider.
This year I decided that things were going to change. I was older, wiser, and not as broke, so I was itching for an upgrade. Like so many, I agonized about my choices, I solicited advice, scoured internet forums...and I loved every minute of it. I sourced my bike and all its upgrades through the shop and, for the past year, it's been the best cyclocross bike I’ve owned. This is my 2017 Focus Mares CX.
The Frame: Focus Mares CX
I chose the Focus Mares CX after several lightly used demos arrived in the shop. The Mares CX is one of the most popular cyclocross frames around and I’ve lusted after it for years. The main reason being that it’s the bike used by Jeremy Powers, one of the biggest stars in American cyclocross. If you’re a cross junkie you’ve probably watched his show Behind THE Barriers on YouTube. If not, do it. You might end up wanting a Focus Mares CX too.
The frame is not only good looking, but it’s light, stiff, and responsive. It’s my first full carbon cyclocross frame and the weight savings alone are worth the investment. Built up with pedals, my Mares CX weighs in at 17 lbs and 10 oz, just over three pounds lighter than my aluminum CAADX. It has front and rear 12mm thru-axles which use Focus’ unique R.A.T. (rapid axle technology) axles which only require a quarter turn to remove the axle, making wheel swaps a breeze.
The weight and responsiveness of the bike are noticeable. Riding it, it definitely feels like it accelerates faster and more easily than my old aluminum bike, especially on short punchy hills and when sprinting out of slow corners. The geometry is natural feeling in the dirt, with the slightly lower bottom bracket and 71° headtube helping it feel a bit more stable through fast and rough sections without losing the quick handling needed for tight switchbacks.
The frame also has ample tire clearance, giving you a huge range of tire options. I ended up using the Mares CX not only for cyclocross races but for general gravel riding as well. I raced several 100k gravel events and also did the 100 mile Dirty Kanza Half Pint where I placed 8th. When I need to get training miles in I almost always reach for the Mares CX because it just feels so comfortable and fast. It’s a bike that can truly do it all.
The Drivetrain: SRAM Force 1
I had to make a tough choice. Do I stick with a more traditional 2x drivetrain, or be adventurous and try a 1x system? Do I go Shimano or SRAM? The divisions and brand loyalties among riders are strong, and declaring for one side or the other can sometimes feel like committing to a religion.
At the shop, the two high-end options for the Mares CX were built with either a SRAM Force 1x drivetrain or an Ultegra 6800 drivetrain. I’ve been in the Shimano camp for a long time. With 11 speed road, I’ve always loved the buttery shifting and excellent reliability. But in the last couple of years, I've found myself riding SRAM more and more. When SRAM introduced 1x drivetrains to mountain bikes it was a revelation. For off-road riding, it's simplicity makes it my favorite option.
For a cyclocross bike, however, my major hesitations centered around the gear range and the steps between gears. I still chose to take the plunge and, overall, I’m extremely happy. SRAM’s Force 1 drivetrain included their Force hydraulic disc brakes, which provide a huge amount of power and great feel. I’ll likely never go back to rim brakes. In general, everything has worked flawlessly, with no dropped chains or any other issues.
The stock drivetrain setup has a 42t chainring paired with an 11-32 cassette which was decent for the majority of my riding here in Colorado. I honestly didn’t feel like the jumps between gears were noticeable, especially when on dirt. I did plenty of group rides and had no issues finding a comfortable cadence. Not having to think about shifting the front was extremely liberating, especially during races where it was just one less thing to think or worry about.
The only weakness is the small range. It's really only an issue on long descents and climbs. On fast sections exceeding 30 mph, I felt spun out. On really long and steep climbs I sometimes wished for an easier gear. You don’t encounter these issues on most cyclocross courses so for a while I just dealt with it. But recently I’ve amassed a collection of chainrings and cassettes to adjust my gearing when necessary.
A 40t chainring and 11-36t cassette is now my go to if I need to do lots of climbing. I've also used this setup for longer rides over 100 mi to help me when I'm feeling gassed. For most high-speed local gravel races I will up the chainring to 46t to give me a bigger gear for pedaling fast on flat sections and descents. For most cross races I will stick with the stock 42t.
It’s funny that the price of the increased simplicity of 1x was the addition of a few extra pieces of equipment and complications. A 2x drivetrain likely would have covered any gearing I needed, but overall having some extra chainrings isn’t that big of a hassle, and worth it for me. I really don’t miss that front derailleur.
The Wheels: Stan’s NoTubes Avion Pro
With wheels and tires, there’s historically been only two options: clinchers or tubulars. In the past, I had two wheelsets, a cheap clincher wheelset for training, and a tubular wheelset for races. There’s really no question that tubulars are the best option for racing. Tubular tires have less rolling resistance, allow you to run extremely low pressures for extra grip and compliance and, since they lack a rim lip, you can smack the rim with less fear of dents and pinch flats.
But over the last few years, tubeless technology has improved so much that it’s coming closer and closer to rivaling tubulars as a serious option. My two big hangups with tubulars are dealing with flats and the inability to easily switch treads without multiple wheelsets. Tubeless offers an easy solution to both of these issues, with almost the same level of performance. I was already experienced with tubeless from mountain biking, so I was eager to try it on my new cross bike.
I chose to use the Stan’s NoTubes Avion Pro carbon wheelset. Of course, my dream wheelset would have been some ENVE SES 4.5 AR wheels, but I’m not made of money. The Stan’s wheels were a good deal through the shop so I jumped on them. They are 41mm deep with a wide 28mm profile. In cross racing, aerodynamics isn’t my greatest concern but the Avion wheels have a slippery shape for riding on the road, and I've found them to handle crosswinds quite well.
The Avion Pros are built with the Neo Ultimate hub. This hub spins well and uses a 6-pawl freehub with 72 points of engagement. This gives the rear wheel a fantastic buzz ( I love for my hubs to sound like a swarm of bees), and an ultra-fast 5 degrees of engagement. This allows you to get on the power sooner, which is great when riding tight cyclocross courses, responding to accelerations, and for general off-road riding.
I was able to set up all my tubeless tires easily with a floor pump, and in my experimenting was able to comfortably run pressures down into the low 30s without burping. I haven’t ventured much lower than that yet, but I’m sure lighter riders would have good results. In a year of riding, I suffered no flats and only one incident where a tread puncture caused me to lose some pressure. The sealant inside the tire stopped the leak quickly, and I was able to still ride the bike to the finish.
The carbon construction is stiff when on the pedals but, impressively, it doesn't ever beat you up. Stan's RiACT (radial impact absorbing carbon technology) is designed to take hits, smooth out bumps, and let you go faster through rough terrain. My wheels have taken some pretty intense rim strikes and still show no real signs of stress or damage. They're definitely tougher than any set of alloy wheels I've ever owned.
The Tires: Maxxis Rambler 40c
My tire of choice has usually been one of Clement’s ubiquitous treads. Their MXP tread has been the tire glued to my wheels for the past couple of years because it’s a good all-round tread for most conditions. But now that I had a tubeless wheelset, I suddenly felt free to experiment and play with different tires.
Clement (now called Donnelly Cycling) makes a tubeless MXP tire so I still had to have a set for racing purposes. Now I can easily switch it to a mud tire or a semi-slick in minutes if conditions change. More and more brands are beginning to offer tubeless cyclocross options so the list of potential treads to try is constantly growing. If I'm looking to get some road miles in on the Mares CX I'll even throw on some Hutchinson's Sector 28 tubeless road tires.
For all my other riding, however, which consists of backcountry dirt and gravel roads with occasional bouts of singletrack, I've started using what is now my favorite tire: the Maxxis Rambler. I’m a Maxxis guy. Look at any mountain bike I’ve ever owned and you’ll see their big yellow letters printed on the sidewalls. So I was more than excited to try their newest gravel offering.
The Rambler is fairly lightweight, weighing just under 400g, and very wide. On my Stan's Avion wheels it measures out to just over 41mm. The tires roll very well with low knobs in the center, and taller "L" shaped blocks on the sides which give excellent cornering traction. The EXO protection version gives the sidewalls a bit more armor to protect the sidewall from tears and pinch flats.
These tires have brought me great success in multiple gravel races, including my outing at the Dirty Kanza Half Pint. I have yet to flat a pair and now use them for most of my everyday riding. I only switch them out for pavement heavy rides and cyclocross races where a more focused high-performance tire will do better.
The Pedals: HT Leopard M1
Over the years I’ve switched between Shimano’s SPD pedals and Crank Brothers’ Candy and Eggbeater pedals. I’ve had decent luck with all. But the one thing I’ve always had issues with is retention. Maybe I lack finesse or skill, but I have some magic ability to rip my foot out of the pedal at the most inopportune moments. This gets especially bad during races, where I’ll pop out after coming up short bunny hopping a barrier, or end up tripoding down a bumpy rutted out hill going 20mph.
I usually ride my SPD pedals with the tension maxed out. Even then, it’s sometimes not enough. HT pedals have changed everything for me. I’ve equipped my Mares CX with the Leopard M1 pedal. They’re a few grams lighter than Shimano’s XTR pedal, which many would consider the gold standard, and they provide an absolutely huge range of tension adjustment. I have mine set at about ¾ tension, and there’s no way my foot is coming out unless I want it to. It still feels great for dismounts, and when clicking back in they feel more or less like normal SPDs.
They clear mud about as well as Shimano SPDs do, not as well as Crank Brothers pedals, but good enough for bone-dry Colorado. They’re easy to service with the supplied tools, and so far have lasted the year without issue. The HTs are unique and cool looking too. They use their own cleat design, which some may find annoying, but I find it to be a great method for keeping everyone at the shop off my bike.
The Finishing Kit: ENVE Bar, Stem, Seatpost
I’m somewhat between frame sizes and when that’s the case I will always choose to size down. What this means is that I needed a 120mm stem to adjust my reach (the stock build comes with a 100mm). Since I needed a new stem, I decided to change out the stock handlebars and seatpost as well to have it all match. Matching your finishing componentry is good. It just makes you feel all tingly inside.
I went with ENVE’s carbon handlebar, stem, and seatpost. Why? Because ENVE is one of the leaders in carbon, and though I couldn’t afford the wheels, I still wanted to have some ENVE somewhere on my bike. The carbon construction supposedly dulls vibrations and improves ride quality, but more important to me, it just looks cool. The shallow drop of the ENVE handlebars is my ideal shape, and the matte finish of the carbon is simply beautiful.
My only complaint with these components is that ENVE’s seatpost has what is probably one of the most finicky saddle clamp designs around. It’s difficult to set up initially, but it’s all fine once it’s all in place. Have a torque wrench for properly tightening all of the titanium bolts.
The handlebars are wrapped in Fi’zi:k’s Performance 3mm tape. I like thick, cushy tape because I have dainty hands that can’t handle extended mistreatment from all the bumps and holes one encounters on seldom maintained gravel roads. It lets me ride for longer, and do so in luxury.
That's it. I may change more in the future. Who knows, bikes evolve, and there's always something interesting coming through our doors. But for now, I'm just going to go ride. I'll see you out there.
Check out our Cyclocross Collection here.
Bruce is a writer who loves getting his bikes dirty, trying new tech, and riding tough trails that make him suffer for hours at a time.