Interview: Max Commencal
By Marcus Farley | Saturday, January 3, 2009 8.00am
Big changes are in store at Commencal, with the Andorran brand's 2010 range set to include its first carbon full-suspension bike, as well as a new hardtail and a shorter-travel version of its Furious slopestyle frame. Max Commencal tells us about his future plans, past successes and what is is that makes his bikes so special.
The rise of Sunn
Max Commencal is one of the most successful downhill mountain bike designers on the planet. As founder and head designer of Sunn bicycles, he helped Nicolas Vouilloz win 10 World Championship titles. With his own namesake brand, he is continuing this trend with multiple podiums in 4X and downhill for Cedric Gracia and the Atherton family. He also happens to make some highly regarded trail bikes.
At the end of the 1970s, Max was headed for a very different future, with a background in architecture and a passion for motorbikes – he even raced in the infamous Paris-Dakar rally. But by 1980, he’d fallen in love with a different type of two-wheeler, the BMX.
In 1982 he started his first bicycle company, Sunn Bicycles, as the face of his own BMX experiments. As time progressed, Sunn entered into the world of mountain biking, garnering huge success on the World Cup circuit with the aforementioned Vouillioz, as well as becoming a successful European brand.
After 16 years at the helm, Max says he was "booted out by a shareholder with 51 percent of voting rights, who decided he wanted to take my place". Far from having regrets, he feels this experience helped him grow, both as a person and as a businessman. And, after two years of planning and design, he launched a new brand under his own name.
Max was keen that Commencal would follow two important premises – "to be a modern, strong company with a clear vision, and for it to be a buzz, and therefore something that motivates me".
The Commencal philosophy
So, what is the Commencal philosophy in a nutshell ? "That's easy," says Max. "To make bikes to have fun on, to go out and play with, instead of suffering on, with a new, modern design that contrasts with the traditional visions of the bike industry." Max feels this has been realised, both in terms of performance and looks. "We differ in design, geometry and viability," he says.
Commencal has a strong focus on making bikes that come into their own as soon as the trail heads downwards. As Max puts it, "we're only on this planet for a short period of time, so it’s best to make the most of it". The emphasis is on the enjoyment factor – "developing bikes which are more fun to ride, with a focus on downhill performance. More downhill skiing than cross-country skiing". Max adds: "The fact that we are in Andorra at the base of the ski slopes helps to reinforce this mindset."
But where do his Meta trail bikes fit into this equation, as they need to be efficient all-rounders with as much emphasis on climbing as descending?
"It's a good question," he says. "Actually, when I talk about downhill, I want to lay particular emphasis on the attitude, the style. The spirit of a downhiller is more relaxed, more playful, more modern as well."
It is something he feels UK riders understand: "British people really get this perception of a bike. They buy it to enjoy it and to have fun, more than to use it to go shopping!" Joking aside, he adds that the relaxed positioning of the Meta range is subtle enough that they remain efficient climbers, too.
In relation to aesthetics, Max says he and his team "work with a design strongly inspired from fashion and from urban/street practice (skate, etc), rather than from traditional mountain bikes."
Simple is beautiful
Max is rightly proud of the success that his Contact System suspension platform – a single pivot with a rocker-driven shock – has generated on the race scene as well as out on the trail. It mainly came about because he didn’t want to take unnecessary gambles when setting up his new Commencal brand.
"With the Contact System, we can precisely calculate the suspension geometry across the full range (Super 4, Meta, Supreme and Furious) and work with our suspension suppliers to achieve the results we are looking to get, with nothing left to chance," he says. For example, he can fine tune the suspension to be as firm or soft as needed throughout the progression curve.
But, Max is keen to point out that a good bike is more than an efficient suspension system. He says: "The bike geometry – the lengths, the angles, the bottom bracket height – all of these things contribute as much as the suspension does to the handling of the bike. The difficult part is getting that technology mix right so that we come up with a great bike. "
Basking in podium glory
Commencal team riders Rachel and Gee Atherton bagged the two top spots at this year's UCI World Championships, while their brother Dan and flamboyant Frenchman Cedric Gracia have also been great ambassadors for the brand. With such success on the downhill race circuit, surely Max is a happy man?
"Happy people are what make me the happiest! We sell fun, not just a bunch of tubing or specs," he says. "When the Athertons are jumping for joy, I'm right there with them. I'm happy when journalists are enthusiastic about us and our products. And when a bike rider buys our bike and has a blast with it, I think we're doing well."
It's clear that Max would like to keep his star riders at Commencal for as long as possible. Although he feels that "being a supplier for riders at this level is not easy, having to constantly progress, to work hard", his team’s work is a fun, rather than laborious, challenge, especially as "the Athertons are great for motivating the staff and myself to come up with even better designs".
2009 and beyond ...
Max says: "The 2009 range is already old news for us, and the 2010 range is just about finished!" Expect new bikes to hit the shops soon, including "high-end full carbon for the all-mountain range, and at least two new frames – a really fun hardtail and a 5.5in-travel Furious".
"By launching a great investment plan in carbon, we obviously aim at more than just a return in cross-country," says Max. "Full-suspension bikes have always been our favourite playground, so we are working hard to try to adapt the carbon technology to those bikes. We have made some prototypes and done lots of tests, and we are thinking of a Meta Carbon version. However, it's too early to say when it will be available for sale."
He is keen to add that the Absolut range of dirt jump bikes, which he calls "our ambassadors in the cities and dirt parks", will "not only expand, but get better through a load of small details and by the arrival of specific new components". Max is tight-lipped about "the exact secrets of the future models ", but expect BikeRadar to be first with the details when he is ready to unveil them.
Sunn expanded into BMX, cyclo-cross and road bikes, so is a similar move on the cards at Commencal? It appears not. Max is keen to state that he’s "not here to make a copy of what I did 15 years ago". He says: "We are concentrating our energy and resources into one area, and that's mountain bikes. Road, cyclo-cross and even BMX requires specialist teams, 100 percent dedicated developers and specific marketing. We don't have the resources for that, and they aren't in our plans."
Max feels that in the future people will want to buy a number of different bikes from smaller brands "with distinct identities and more specific models". He is hopeful that people will consider something from his "go anywhere, but with a smile on your lips" Meta range to his "full-on gravity and dirt jump bikes".
The first eight years of brand Commencal have been fruitful, both on and off the racetrack. This has been shaped and moulded by Max’s talents in design and branding, with particular emphasis on his ability to create something different. But equally, it is obvious that Commencal’s success is down to the fact that Max views problems to be overcome with a sense of fun, not seriousness. It’s not a bad philosophy to have, is it ?
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