Focus Atlas 6.8 gravel bike review: The bike for getting lost on
What Focus' first gravel bike lacks in flair, it makes up for with quiet competence and capability.
What Focus' first gravel bike lacks in flair, it makes up for with quiet competence and capability.
At a time when many brands seem to be making gravel faster and more aero, Focus has gone the opposite way with its first gravel-specific bike: the Atlas. Focus has designed the Atlas to be a bike “to get lost” on – a bike where versatility is more important than efficiency, and getting to wide-open spaces is the goal rather than small aero gains. Simply put, Focus says the new Atlas is a fast and comfortable gravel bike offering full control and versatility.
While I had grand plans for testing out this bike’s ability to get me lost on an epic gravel adventure, the latest round of COVID restrictions spelt an end to that idea. I was still keen to test Focus’ claims that while the Atlas is not designed to be the fastest bike in any area, it is an all-round bike which will “handle everything on the way”.
Luckily, I have quite a varied list of terrain options within a short distance of home. Road riding is really the only option available in any sort of abundance, but over a few days, I can hit just about all the major surface and terrain types – maybe not in long enough sections to occupy a whole ride, and with large road sections between them, but I can still tackle all five grades of gravel, some short sections of singletrack, and a relatively tame section of downhill, albeit well beyond my ability level.
If I couldn’t actually get lost, I could at least vary the terrain enough to simulate getting lost and test the Atlas’ claimed all-round ability.
Before that though, let’s take a look at exactly what Focus has created in the Atlas and the spec on this bike.
The Atlas uses an aluminium frame with a beefy carbon fork, front and rear flat-mount disc brakes, front and rear 12 mm thru-axles (with 148 mm-wide Road Boost hub spacing on the rear), a threaded bottom bracket, and almost fully internal cable routing. The Atlas is available in four build options and five sizes – from XS to XL – and although all my bikes are either a large or 56 cm, I needed the medium Atlas.
I got the Atlas 6.8 spec level to test. With a retail price of AU$3,099 / £1,849 / €1,999, the 6.8 sits one step down from the top-of-the-range 6.9 and is decked out with a mix of Shimano GRX 600 and 800, Novatec Elite Twentyfive wheels, WTB Riddler tires, and a WTB SL8 saddle. The 6.8 also gets an unbranded aluminium finishing kit. Specifically, you get bars with a 10º flare, 116 mm reach and 74 mm drop, a 27.2 mm inline seat post, and a 90 mm x 6º stem. Finishing things off is Focus’ own-brand bar tape.
The 6.8 is offered in what Focus calls mineral green and while it may be a bit bland for some, it really grew on me and I believe it works well given the habitat this bike will be most at home in. I am a real fan of this colour scheme now.
Take a quick glance at the Atlas and you would be forgiven for thinking this is just another gravel bike much like any other, designed to give riders the option to venture on to unsurfaced roads and beaten tracks with drop bars. But in the Atlas, Focus promises you can have much more than this. It does offer the versatility you would expect from any gravel bike and is perfectly capable of tackling short and fun gravel-shredding on a Sunday followed by a commute on Monday. I was keen though to find out if it does actually have the versatility to tempt you onto singletrack and mountain bike terrain, while still being capable of carrying everything you need on a week-long bikepacking adventure.
I am pleased to confirm the Atlas truly can offer such versatility, at least on some level.
For starters, the Shimano GRX 600/800 2×11 groupset is a perfectly good choice for consistent shifting and predictable braking on rough terrain, and its reliability inspires confidence when heading off on an escape. The wide gear range offered by the 11-34T cassette and 30/46T chainrings means there should be an option for most terrain, even when weighed down with luggage. Plus, being Shimano, it is also easily worked on, which is what you want if you are venturing into the wilderness.
Turning our attention next to the tires, three of the four Atlas models are shipped with 45 mm-wide WTB Riddlers, including the 6.8 I tested. The decision to run with the 45 mm option is another indication that Focus wanted to offer a bike with all that versatility previously mentioned, rather than chasing performance or speed gains. While many riders converting from road to gravel will be happy with tires measuring 40 mm or narrower, those looking to tackle the extreme end of a gravel bike’s capabilities will need something much larger, and a 45 mm casing can open up more options to the adventurous rider while also being more stable and capable when carrying a load.
Focus has given an official tire clearance maximum of 47 mm on 700c rims and the Atlas is also compatible with 650b wheels. Only the 6.7 EQP models get the narrower 37c Riddler option.
There is also the mounting points to consider when choosing an adventure bike. While you would expect to get options for bidons and panniers on any gravel bike worth its salt, Focus has added extras all over to offer a solution for almost any adventure. You have bidon options on the seat tube, down tube (high and low option to cater for frame bags), and under the down tube. While the beefed-up fork legs also offer bidon mounting options, the primary intention here is to offer the capacity to carry up to 3 kg in carriers on both sides.
Both the 6.8 model I tested and the 6.9 are delivered with a top tube bag, which has a mounting position just behind the stem. You also have the pannier and fender mounts you’d expect from an all-rounder gravel bike. Just like any other bike, you can also attach saddle, frame, and handlebar bags so, in theory, you could have seven bags and three bidons on this bike at one time. An abundance of mounting options means luggage-carrying capabilities shouldn’t be an issue regardless of how long you’re planning to be lost.
Furthermore, Focus has added its C.I.S. cockpit to the Atlas. Focus initially designed this system to offer clean and aerodynamic integrated cable routing, but for the Atlas, it has an added advantage. While having all the cables hidden is quite aesthetically pleasing, the main benefit I see is when you are mounting handlebar and frame bags. With the cables completely hidden inside the frame, handlebar bag attachment is much easier and there is no risk of damaging the frame or bags with a messy frame bag, or housing marring the paint.
What about geometry? Well, Focus has clearly gone for the versatile approach here, also. The Atlas gets a quite accessible, almost recreational fit with a tall stack figure of 596 mm on the size medium I tested. Along with a shorter stem this forces a more upright position. While a rider could opt to swap in a longer stem to give a more road-like position, it is clear Focus has gone for a geometry which should offer more comfort over longer rides. It makes sense that Focus would go for this style of fit, given that its sister company, Cervelo, is arguably already one of the market leaders in the race-focused gravel market with the Aspero.
To keep the Atlas fun and snappy for shredding or venturing into some more mountain bike-specific terrain, Focus has opted for shorter chainstay lengths – 425 mm on my test model. While shorter chainstays certainly help for my wheelie practice, there is a trade-off with front-end stability. However, the slightly longer reach Focus has added seems to have accounted for this potential issue, as it never was a cause for concern on my rides.
Sticking with the geometry to start with, I found the Atlas to be stable at higher speeds and when riding on-road sections, almost like the feeling of being sucked down a false-flat downhill, but without the speed. This is partly down to the weight (more on this later) but also the front-end geometry. The trail figure is not specifically mentioned on the geometry chart, but with a 70.5º head angle, a 50 mm fork offset, and 45 mm tires, a quick check with an online calculator tells us the Atlas has a 74 mm trail. That is on the high side and more in keeping with a hardtail mountain bike than a drop-bar bike, so although stable at speed, the steering does feel slightly sluggish. At lower speeds, the bike reacts relatively quickly and responds well to my input.
I didn’t find the more upright and relaxed position to be an issue at all, with perhaps the little extra reach compensating for this just enough. While I assumed I would have needed a longer and slammed stem to bring me closer to my road position, this wasn’t the case. To my surprise I was content enough with the position to leave a 10 mm spacer beneath the short 90 mm stem.
Being relatively fast on the roads I was able to eat up miles quite quickly, which is ideal for longer adventures. This is in no small manner thanks to the WTB Riddler tires, which are a firm favourite with many thanks to their low weight and fast-rolling nature. No doubt I also looked fast given the tan sidewalls on the Riddlers.
However, where the Shimano groupset inspired confidence heading off on a long adventure, the Riddlers had the opposite effect. I found the decision to pair lightweight tires on a bike intended to take you into the wilderness to be a bit of a mismatch. I punctured on a number of the rides, and although this was in some way down to the surfaces I was on, I still feel a more robust tire might have been better suited here. Couple this with the wet climate we have here in Northern Ireland and the resulting thicker mud and I would likely swap out the tires with something also offering a deeper tread if I was to buy the Atlas. This is specific to the environment I was riding in, though.
To achieve the huge tire clearance and short chainstays Focus utilises its Road Boost technology that was originally designed for its e-bike range. On the e-bikes, the motors result in a wider bottom bracket shell, moving the chainline further out. The Boost spacing on the rear hub in turn shifts the cassette to a wider position to maintain an optimal chainline. While this is also pretty standard on mountain bikes at this stage, it is virtually unheard of on road or gravel bikes. It is a nice solution to the tire width issue, but does mean wheel upgrade options may be limited. It also means there is no easy solution for anyone hoping to swap road or gravel wheels they currently own to the Atlas.
I have to admit a certain level of aesthetic distaste for the bars and saddle on the Atlas when I first unboxed it. Being a roadie at heart, I have never been a fan of the aesthetics of overly flared gravel bars. This wasn’t the issue with the Atlas as the drops are only mildly flared; it is more to do with the drop shape and most likely could be cured by removing the bar tape and fiddling with the lever height and bar angle a bit. The saddle didn’t strike me as my kind of choice. Saddle preference is so personal, and I tend to like thin, less cushioned, and narrower saddles with a cutout. The SL8 is a wider, well-cushioned saddle with no cutout.
I tried to set these reservations aside and just try the bike as it arrived. To my surprise, I got on swimmingly well with both bars and saddle. The extra cushioning on the saddle was welcomed on some of the grade four and five gravel sections, and I found the shape to be acceptable to my behind. The extra cushioning also made up in some way for the fact the aluminium seat post would not absorb as much road vibration as a carbon version might.
While I spent most of the time on the hoods and tops, after a bit of initial adjustment I didn’t find the drops to be as bad as expected. For me personally, these are not the bars I would choose, but they certainly didn’t upset any of my rides. Perhaps strangely for a traditional roadie, I feel the 90 mm stem used on the medium Atlas actually works quite well with the integrated cabling and chunky head tube to give an all-round very aesthetically pleasing front end.
One area of the front end I am less convinced on is the cockpit integration solution (C.I.S.), Focus’ internal cable routing system. It certainly works well for hiding the cables, opening up the front end for a bar bag and seems to be one of the simpler integrated options for routing cables through. But I am left wondering how robust it will be long term. With large gaping holes and tiny bearings, my concern is the bearings may be overly exposed and as a result, require replacing more often. Given that the cables route through the upper bearing, to replace them would require cutting cables and hoses, basically turning a small job into a very big one.
The top tube bag supplied with the 6.8 and 6.9 models is a nice thought, but the bag itself is somewhat disappointing. I found it to be too small to offer much versatility. I had initially hoped to put my phone in it, for easy access for all the Instagramming I had planned to do on my adventure. Disappointingly, this wasn’t possible as my hugely popular mid-sized phone didn’t fit. I then decided to keep my keys and a few bits of food in it.
In terms of food, the bag is limited to carrying bars or gels due to its size. However, the real issue was rattling. The bag has a solid plastic base, which when coupled with the top tube below, makes for an unbearable ratting from anything metallic in the bag. Perhaps the solid base adds to its structural rigidity for an overall better bag, but it really should have been covered in some foam or noise damping material.
At 10.8 kg (23.8 lb) for my size medium test bike, the Atlas is on the heavy side. Although given all its versatility adding features, aluminium frame, integrated cabling, etc., this is hardly surprising. To be fair, I was also surprised at the weigh-in. I would have guessed it to be in the upper 9 kg range, rather than pushing towards the 11 kg range. The weight was never overly noticeable while riding and again this is probably down to the geometry and tires Focus have opted for here.
One big issue I do have to point out is around international availability. While Focus is popular in the UK, Europe, and Australia, the brand is no longer available in the United States. In saying that, there is some good news for customers in countries where Focus is available. As this is a new bike launch and deliveries have not yet hit the shops, there should be some decent availability of this bike in the near future, something that cannot be said for many bikes in 2021. Demand from dealers is high, but once the initial orders are sold out, availability beyond that is far from guaranteed.
All in all, I found the Atlas to be exactly the kind of bike I was in search of before purchasing my Giant Tough Road a number of years ago. It’s a bike that widens your riding options, an affordable “jack of all trades” that is versatile enough to cover many jobs. The affordability and versatility also make the justification for another bike much easier.
The Atlas handled my simulated getting-lost adventure admirably. While a change of tires would have made it much more adept in the muddier and more mountain bike-specific terrain I tackled, the Atlas was perfectly happy on the wide range of gravel grades I challenged it on.
The upright position was a concern for me at first, and I considered changing stem length, but I am glad I stuck with the stock 90 mm option. The Atlas doesn’t want to be raced, and the more relaxed riding position was a gentle reminder of this. It allowed me to settle in and enjoy the ride, letting my mind wander well beyond getting the perfect line for the next bend in the road.
If speed is your desire then the Atlas won’t be for you, however in terms of comfort and enjoyment of the outdoors this could be right up your street.
It probably goes without saying but the Atlas was clearly out of its depth on the downhill trail, just like myself, but boy did we entertain in our attempt. After numerous vaults of the handlebars and slide-outs leaving me on my rear end, we decided to test the Atlas’ pushing ability. Once back on the road, the Atlas was happy to once again eat up the miles and carry me home.
Given this is Focus’ first dedicated gravel offering, it might have been tempting to stick to something a little closer to the road riders end of the gravel scale, and in attempting to be so versatile they could easily have got it terribly wrong, but they haven’t. In the Atlas, Focus has a bike that I think will meet a lot of gravel riders’ needs and is certainly on my list of bikes for whenever I do get the chance to go on that adventure and get properly lost.