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'Cross Means Do-It-All: 2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition

There was a time before gravel bikes, and cyclocross bikes were the do-it-all option for off-road dropbar adventures. One of my favorite cyclocross bikes was the stylish Focus Mares CX, and this 2017 Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition might be the prettiest one ever made.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Bikes

The 2016-2021 Focus Mares CX was one of my all-time favorite cyclocross bikes. So when this beautiful 2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition bike came through TPC, I had to pull it aside to take a closer look.

Like many cyclocross bikes, The Mares CX was a bike that could effortlessly transition between different genres. You could race a Cyclocross World Cup one weekend and Unbound Gravel the next. Best of all, it had bold Tron-esque paint that always made it immediately identifiable. To me, it was an ideal do-it-all machine. Here’s why I think the Mares CX is a modern classic.

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We Used To Ride Gravel on Cyclocross Bikes

My 2017 Focus Mares CX cyclocross bike was great on gravel. Who would have guessed. 

2017 wasn’t that long ago, but it’s the year that I really started noticing dedicated gravel bikes gaining steam. The industry was really leaning into it. The Salsa Warbird might have started the trend when it debuted in 2012. Then the 3T Exploro came in 2016. The Specialized Diverge in 2017. The Trek Checkpoint in 2018. The cycling landscape was changing fast, and gravel bikes were the future.

However, I remember wondering if a dedicated gravel bike was truly necessary. I was still racing ‘cross, and having a bike that could do both cyclocross and gravel seemed like the best option. So, in 2017, I bought a Focus Mares CX — a cyclocross bike.

That year, I rode my Mares CX at my first gravel race: Unbound Gravel (it had a different name back then). I did the shorter 100-mile version and placed 7th, one of my best-ever results. “Who needs a gravel-specific bike?” I thought.

The next year, in 2018, Ted King and Katie Keough seemed to validate my thinking by winning Unbound Gravel on the Cannondale SuperX — a cyclocross bike. 

The Focus Mares CX: The Crossover ‘Cross Bike 

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionThe Mares CX underwent a major redesign in 2016. The biggest change that most cyclocross racers noticed was the move to disc brakes, with no cantilever options available. Of course, disc brakes are great for gravel, but there were two other major changes that vastly increased the Mares’ gravel potential:

  • Increased frame compliance
  • Increase mud/tire clearance

These changes were part of Focus’ “new-school” cyclocross philosophy, which placed a greater emphasis on rider comfort.

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionThe previous generations of the Mares often felt punishingly stiff. While this maximized power transfer, it could actually slow riders down in rougher terrain and increase fatigue. The new 2016-2021 Mares CX frame used smaller tube diameters with a rounder profile and more built-in flex that helped take the edge off of rough courses.

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionThe seatstays also had a subtle curve to increase flex and absorb bumps and the legs of the Mares’ iconic “bulldog fork” (named for its brutish bulldog-like stance) were substantially slimmed down to do the same.

Compared to the previous generation, the newer Mares CX was downright cushy. But it didn’t sacrifice the lateral stiffness needed for efficient power transfer. As you can imagine, this increased compliance made the Mares particularly good for rough endurance gravel events.

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionThis compliance was complemented by an increase in tire clearance. While many cyclocross bikes of the time couldn’t fit tires wider than 35mm, the Mares CX was designed with so much mud clearance that it could comfortably fit 38-40mm gravel tires. This meant the Mares matched many dedicated gravel bikes of the era.

There were a couple more cool features. The bottom bracket had integrated ISCG-05 tabs, exactly like you’d find on a mountain bike. The Mares included a lightweight inner chain guide that prevented chain drops to the inboard side. If you wanted, you could also run a MTB-style 1x chainguide.

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition RAT AxleThe clever R.A.T. axle. Photo: Focus Bikes

The dropouts also used Focus’ unique R.A.T. (rapid axle technology) system. These nifty axles were billed as “the fastest thru-axle in the world.” Instead of threading the thru-axle, it engaged and released with a quarter-turn so you could remove or install it in seconds. Why it never caught on, I’m not sure. I did need adaptors to attach a Burley trailer and my wheel-on trainer, but otherwise, I loved it. 

Aspire Racing and the LTD Rapha Edition Mares

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition Ellen NobleEllen Noble hopping barriers on the Mares CX. Photo: Rapha

In 2017, American cyclocross racers on the Aspire Racing Team — Jeremy Powers, Ellen Noble, and Spencer Petrov — were using the Focus Mares CX to duke it out with the best racers in the US and Europe. Focus and Rapha had been two of Powers’ long-time sponsors, and this 2017 Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition features the same livery used by his short-lived team.

I have always loved the pinstripe designs used on the Mares CX. But the Rapha Edition took it to the next level for me with its classy Neapolitan colors. It reminds me of the early days of TPC when I was listing bikes for sale on eBay while watching Jeremy Powers in his Behind the Barriers series.

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition Jeremy PowersJeremy "J-Pow" Powers in action on the Mares CX. Photo: Rapha

At the time, the Mares CX was my dream bike, and watching Jeremy Powers shredding on Mares was one of the main reasons I bought one. I never managed to snag a Rapha Edition frame for myself (and this one if too big for me), but I think it will always be the coolest Mares of them all.   

Why Isn’t the Mares CX Still Around?

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionTragically, Focus no longer makes the Mares CX, or any cyclocross bike for that matter. At this point, gravel bikes have completely usurped cyclocross bikes in the consumer market. Why?

One problem is that many gravel riders want more tire clearance (45-50mm). Sure, Focus could have increased the Mares’ max tire clearance like Specialized did with the Crux, but maybe it’d be a waste to add more material to the frame when the UCI limits tires to 33mm wide for cyclocross races. This points to what might be the main reason bikes like the Mares CX are dying out. Cyclocross bikes need to be good for cyclocross racing.

The tire clearance needs of cyclocross and gravel bikes are different, but more importantly, the geometry needs are very different too. Cyclocross bikes have higher bottom brackets, lower stack heights, and straight top tubes with higher standover heights. They’re made to pedal through slow and tight corners and to shoulder while running. On long and rough gravel rides, stability and comfort are more important, so lower bottom brackets and higher stack heights are preferred. 

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionAs gravel has evolved, the two disciplines and their bikes have diverged massively. Cyclocross bikes are still around, but they’re usually only ridden by dedicated cyclocross racers. Ultimately, I became more interested in racing gravel myself and sold my Mares CX to try a gravel-specific bike. I haven’t owned a cyclocross bike since.

Can you still use a cyclocross bike as a gravel bike? Heck yeah. I LOVED my Mares. It was one of the best bikes I ever owned. In fact, some may prefer riding gravel on cyclocross bikes because they feel more agile and racey. I bought my current gravel bike because I missed the aggressive and low stack height of my Mares.

While my tastes and needs have changed, I will always remember the Mares CX as one of the most versatile machines I ever owned. And it has a special place in my heart because it’s the bike that first brought me into the world of gravel.

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The Build

2017 Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha EditionYear: 2018
Frame: Focus Mares CX LTD Rapha Edition
Size: Medium
Weight: 16 lbs 9 oz
Shifters: SRAM Red eTap
Front Derailleur: SRAM Red eTap
Rear Derailleur: SRAM Red eTap
Brakes: SRAM Red eTap HRD
Crankset: SRAM Red Carbon, 46/36t, 172.5mm
Cassette: SRAM PG-1130, 11-28t
Chain: KMC
Handlebars: ​​Zipp Service Course SL 80 Alloy
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL Alloy
Seatpost: Zipp Service Course SL Alloy
Saddle: Specialized Oura
Wheels: Stan’s NoTube Crest MK3
Tires: Challenge Strada Bianca Pro Series TLR, 36mm

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