There's another new 170mm enduro bike out, and it's proof that appearances can be deceptive
Enduro race bike, super all-mountain tool or bike park toy? Before we tell you where this new Focus Sam sits in the Venn diagram, let’s look at the details.
Focus Sam need to know
- 170mm travel and 27.5in wheels
- Lightweight carbon frame saves 400g over previous version
- Two model range, starting at £3,599 for carbon/alloy frame with SRAM GX Eagle
There’s a curious contradiction in the sales pitch for the new Focus Sam. On one hand the press release specifically refers to it as an enduro bike and a ‘flat-out ripper’ in one breath, but something called a ‘super all-mountain’ model in another. With a generous 170mm of claimed travel, it also walks into a veritable lion’s den of longer travel rigs, such as the recently released Whyte G170 and Scott Ransom. And yet the bike’s publicity video and imagery features two riders known not for their speed against the clock, but their style, skills, tricks and voracious appetite for having fun on two wheels – namely Olly Wilkins and Geoff Gulevich. So what is it?
Welcome to the FOLD
If the headline act is the ample 170mm of travel, the real story is the FOLD suspension design. This signature Focus design marries a one-piece swingarm with a single pivot and two interlocking links that drive the shock. Using the two links lets Focus manipulate the leverage exerted on the shock during different phases of the travel to end up with a system that takes little force to drop into the sag zone (around 30 per cent of travel), but from that point on, increasingly greater inputs are required to achieve full travel. By moving to the FOLD design, Focus has freed up space in the main triangle compared to the Sam’s predecessor. As a result, there’s now room for a bottle cage. And you could carry 400ml of water without a weight penalty too, because the new frame is a claimed 400g lighter (size medium).
Focus has taken the opportunity to refresh the geometry, too. There are only three frame sizes (small, medium and large) compared to the old model’s four, which is mildly disappointing, as the sizing is not as progressive as some and some taller riders will be ostracised as a result. And only the size large frame has really grown much, with 10mm added to the reach.
The head tube has been reclined just a touch, from 65.5° to 64.8°, while the chainstays have been trimmed by a miniscule 2mm. We’re talking nips and tucks really, as only the BB height (5mm lower than the old bike) and the seat tube lengths (15mm and 30mm lower on medium and large frames) change significantly.
It’s a baby steps approach that ensures the Sam’s shape is pretty conservative, but Focus is unapologetic about this, explaining that it never wanted to end up at the fringes of geometry and sizing. And flying in the face of fashion, there are no flip chips, 29er compatibility, or even talk of big volume tyres.
The Sam menu is also surprisingly simple. Just two models are offered: the 9.9 that we rode, with full carbon frame, SRAM GX Eagle, RockShox Lyrik RC2 fork and Super Deluxe RCT shock; and the 8.9 with carbon front triangle, alloy swingarm, GX Eagle and Fox 36 Rhythm fork and Van shock (£3,499).
If you’ve got this far you’re probably thinking the new Sam sounds like a pretty unremarkable bike. It’s well endowed with travel, but it’s not pushing the envelope of sizing and geometry, there are no multi-function gadgets, the handling can’t be customised and it won’t take a compendium of wheel sizes. Even the matt black paint job feels a little, dare I say it, magnolia.
But there’s something about this bike that delivers above anything you can read into the spec sheet and the geometry chart. Like when some unremarkable shop assistant steps onto the stage at X Factor and melts the crowd with the voice of an angel. It’s a seriously fun bike, and superbly intuitive to ride, such that it took me mere milliseconds to feel comfortable on, and confident enough to chase Geoff Gulevich himself down blind jump lines at autobahn speeds at the launch in Germany.
With a relatively average wheelbase length and short chainstays, it was easy to instigate effortless and rapid direction changes – helped by the bike’s overall lack of weight. It absolutely loves back wheel too, and – with a couple of caveats – can be pumped and jumped with precision and amplitude. I say caveats, because we found the RockShox Super Deluxe shock blew through its travel too readily, even running less than the recommended 30 per cent sag, so would definitely benefit from an extra air can spacer if you’re heavier than 70kg or like a more aggressive spring curve.
Niggles or not, the Sam and I quickly bonded, and it began to remind me of another bike that turns every trail into a skate park; the Santa Cruz Nomad. Guess what? Both of these bikes share almost identical geometry in size large, and, cue spooky music, hail from the same Pon Holdings stable.
The small print
With an uplift running and only smooth, fast, bike park trails at our disposal there are two big holes in my first impressions of the new Sam; namely its climbing ability and suspension performance in rough terrain. From what little ascending I did do, it certainly felt efficient under power and didn’t seem to bob much at all but I wouldn’t call that a thorough test. Equally I did notice a slight lack of sensitivity from the Fold system and a bit of suspension stiffening under braking, but I’d need to ride the bike more to definitively comment on either observation.
Criticisms? Well, all the early production test bikes came without guides for the internal cable routing, so they rattled noticeably. Instead of the correct 45mm stems, they had all been fitted with 55mm versions, which were too long. While the handlebars are 780mm wide, the outer flanges of the Race Face grips effectively reduce the width to 760mm, so I’d recommend swapping otherwise you’re basically increasing your chances of snagging a tree for no leverage benefit. Finally, the press fit BB will definitely put some people off.
Focus has created a bit of a sleeper with the new Sam, then. Nothing about it particularly stands out from the crowd, or screams ‘look at me’. In the cutthroat big bike market, it’ll be easily overlooked. But this is a bike that lets the riding do the talking. It’s a hugely entertaining machine at a very competitive price. A bike I’d happy to take on an all-mountain adventure, or race an enduro on, but one that really feels at home putting smiles on faces in the bike park.