REVIEW: FOCUS SAM C PRO
14th March 2017
Focus was started in 1992 by cyclocross world champion Mike Kluge (and is now owned by parent company Pon Holdings, who also own Santa Cruz bikes). Focus may be better known in Europe, but it boasts a huge range of mountain bikes from XC to enduro, as well as Road and Cyclocross, with high level teams across all disciplines. This issue we take a close look at the new carbon 160mm Sam Pro model, and after previously reviewing the aluminium version in issue 69 we were keen to see what the carbon frame could offer.
Our first look at the Sam in the flesh left us surprised - in a good way, because a photo of the bike and frame just doesn’t paint the whole picture. What you can’t see until it’s in front of you is the attention to detail, finish and the awesome top tube that widens at the head tube and makes it look super-aggressive, especially when you are sitting on the bike looking down at it. Carbon bikes always look tidy for the lack of welds, but the Focus goes a step further with hidden cables entering that oversized, jet fighter looking top tube, and tidy chainstay and down tube protectors add to its classy finish. If you have been to any bike trails or an enduro race in the last year or so you will know that sunglasses are a must due to the colours that are in style: fluoro orange, yellow and pink. These styles may be in today but it’s always hard to fault the look of a black bike, especially when you can see the carbon grain in the light. Of course, it features a 142x12 rear thru-axle and a tapered head tube. One downside is the frame is not capable of taking a water bottle inside the main triangle, so finding a hydration pack to go with your new Focus is a must.
The Pro model we reviewed is the base carbon model, with an SL and team model sharing the same frame but higher spec builds, and also the option of two aluminium models. The Pro has a spec list to match the ‘enduro’ category it sits in, with a KS Lev Integra dropper post, Pike fork up front and Sram 11 speed drive train - this being a mix of X1, X01 and XG (the cassette). Being the base model it had the usual splash of in house parts: bars, stem, seat and wheelset. Shimano M615 brakes and Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres round out the package.
GEOMETRY AND FIT
Now for a look at the geometry. It seems every time we do a review the ‘standard’ gets lower, longer and slacker. Interestingly, the carbon Sam has shorter chainstays than the aluminium model. The Sam is deceptive here as it appears to have a long back end, partly because the seatstays are not interrupted by a brace and therefore look long to the eye.
However the shortish chainstay length (430mm) is on par with most modern bikes in the same category, as is the wheel base. This means the bike overall is still fairly long, promising stability at speed. The head tube angle is 65.8 degrees, in keeping with the theme of current enduro bikes. The 75 degree seat angle is properly steep and it doesn’t get slacker as you put the seat up, unlike many bikes in this category where the seat-tube bends forward for a bit, then bends aggressively backwards. The medium size placed our 178cm test rider in a comfortable pedaling position right on top of the pedals. In some situations the Focus did feel a bit short in reach, so depending on preferences a rider around this height may also want to consider a large.
SUSPENSION SET UP
We started with the standard 25% ish sag front and rear and after the first ride only made minor changes, with a few more PSI into the rear shock reducing the sag to just over 20% and a couple of clicks of compression on the Pike leaving the bike subtle over bumps but with a slightly firmer feel, letting the rider pump the suspension and pop along the trail without too much effort.
OK, with the bike set up, let’s get to the top. Thanks to that steep seat angle, even when the Sam is dropped 30% or more into its 160mm of travel up a really steep hill the rider is right on top of the pedals, rather than falling off the back of the seat, allowing the Sam to claw its way up the steepest climbs without the rider having to fight to keep their weight forward. Technical climbs with sharp corners didn’t stop the Focus, although as is with most other bikes in the enduro category with slack head angles, it didn’t excel like a steep head angled XC whippet would. With 160mm travel and around 25% sag it’s no surprise that when you put some power down standing up out of a corner you get some power loss with the movement of the shocks, but again this was no different to other large travel trail monsters we have ridden.
The Sam has great front wheel traction, partly thanks to the Pike which has great small bump sensitivity. At the same time the forks ramp up through the travel, letting us easily lift the front wheel and pop the bike around for a responsive feel. Out the back, the Monarch RT HV at the rear did everything it was asked, but like many air shocks was susceptible to heating up on long runs and then firming up. We did a few ten minute runs where we could feel a slight decrease in sensitivity, although the Monarch did a much better job than some air shocks; however, a shock with a piggy back such as the RockShox Monarch Plus DebonAir that comes stock on the Team model would completely eliminate this issue.
Downhill the Focus could do anything we wanted it to, and most of it with complete ease. The stiffness from the carbon frame resulted in on-trail confidence, and with 160mm of travel behind you that confidence was not easily shaken. With the slacker head angle enhancing control over rougher ground the bike felt like it wanted to keep accelerating. Even though the bike could mow down a section like a tank it was still very nimble in slower sections, partly thanks to its light weight. This nimble nature was also beneficial to the cornering of the bike, and once we had the suspension sag set up right the traction was predictable and let us attack even rough corners. Despite putting the Focus on many weekend missions and a Rotorua Gravity 2W enduro we didn’t drop a chain throughout the test – Sram single-ring drivetrain win. The Frame quality and finishing remained awesome, and with the inbuilt chainstay protectors the bike was quiet on the trails. The carbon Sam was flex free, even with its long looking chain and seat stays, probably partly thanks to the ‘twin bearing’ system that the Sam uses – meaning lateral forces are being resisted by two sets of bearings rather than just one set. The swing arm bearings stayed smooth over our test.
The relatively low end Deore level brakes were OK and mainly handled all that they were tasked with, which included some very steep sections, but there was some fade on the rear brake when it got hot. The Nobby Nic tyres offered good grip in the right surface conditions, but these were a fairly hard compound version and a softer compound model would offer the rider better grip consistency across different conditions. Lastly, while they spun true throughout our riding, the in-house Concept branded wheel set had a narrower profile than many of the newer style enduro wheels we’re becoming familiar with riding. A wider rim would give the tyres better support at low pressures and ultimately more grip. With the rest of the bike giving such a confidence inspiring and capable ride, the tyres, narrow rims and slightly under-gunned brakes didn’t meet the capability of the rest of the package, which detracted from the value of its $6799 price a bit. It’s interesting to note then that the top alloy Sam model, which is almost two grand cheaper, has a better DT wheelset with 25mm inner width rims and the excellent Sram Guide R brakes. Such is the trade-off for such a beautiful carbon frame - one that would make an excellent frame upon which upgrades could be made over time.
Overall, the Sam C Pro will suit a rider who likes to tackle rough and technical tracks and would happily make it to these tracks with or without shuttle access. It excels when the going gets tough and steep and is more than capable of an enduro race or a day ride anywhere on the hill. For the price you get a full carbon frame that has been well thought out and (just as importantly!) it looks great. We’re not convinced all the spec choices on the Sam C Pro model are up to the quality of the frame, but with many models to choose from in the Sam range in both carbon and aluminium, there is a Sam model to suit any budget.
Photo Credit: Cameron Mackenzie