- Bike Checks
Commencal's history is steeped in racing, and digging into the company's roots we find success between the tapes that predates the creation of the brand itself. Max Commencal founded Sunn, which famously rewrote the history books of DH with the help of Nicolas Vouilloz and Anne-Caro Chausson, before leaving to start the manufacturer that carries his name in 2000. That Commencal would be willing to try a more unconventional solution in the name of speed comes as no surprise, but that did nothing to diminish our curiosity as we discovered the new Supreme DH V4 in Lourdes earlier this year. Fast-forward to present day, and we were stoked to be given an opportunity to ride the new steed in its birthplace, the steeps of Andorra. That our test ride took place just a few days before the biggest showdown in mountain biking, the World Championships, were to take place only added to the stoke.
Nicolas Menard, Commencal's chief designer had been toying with the idea of a high pivot bike for quite some time. When asked to start developing the successor to the Supreme DH V3, he saw the opportunity to put his ideas to the test. Despite an initial lukewarm reception to the idea internally, Nico pursued and produced a 160-mm travel test mule that allowed the team to not only see a functioning prototype but also to make adjustments to the design and gather valuable feedback on the trail.
The "High Pivot Point" or "HPP" test mule quickly became a popular ride among the staff as well as the Team Commencal/Vallnord Riding Addiction riders, and in light of the test results obtained in the field, the green light was given to take the concept to a full-on DH bike. The most important take-away from the work on the HPP was the understanding of how the pivot point and idler pulley placement affect anti-squat and kickback numbers as well as the bike's behavior in general.
The main advantage of a high pivot point suspension layout is the rearward path of the rear wheel axle as it cycles through the travel, which in turn allows the rear wheel to roll over obstacles without hanging up and losing speed. The main drawback to the design is that unless you use an idler to reroute the chain, you create a large amount of chain growth in the system which will cause a lot of unwanted pedal kickback as the suspension goes through the stroke. Because the chainstays grow as the suspension compresses, you also have to take into consideration what effect this might have on the bike's handling. The magic ingredient is the idler pulley and its precise placement. In order to create a bike that presented the advantages of the high pivot point without taking the concept to its extreme, Commencal eventually settled for a lower pivot point placement with more contained chainstay growth, and by placing the idler pulley slightly offset to the top pivot point placement, they were able to achieve the balance between anti squat and pedal kickback they were looking for. The result should be a bike that responds well to pedal input, while not allowing chain forces to affect how the suspension is able to deal with the terrain.
The leverage ratio of the V4 rear suspension is considerably more progressive than on the V3. The goal here was to create a bike that supports the rider better in the mid-stroke, and offers lots of bottom-out resistance deep in the travel. Interestingly, the decision to increase the travel to 220-mm was not so much about looking for "just more", but rather a "reserve travel capacity" concept. The bike was mainly designed to function within the initial 200-mm of travel, with the last 20-mm only really coming into play on very heavy hits. The shock is actuated via a set of links and rockers, a system that was chosen because of its high level of configurability.
The design crew was originally concerned about the reaction of the Commencal/Vallnord World Cup Racing Team, but within just a few runs at the first test sessions in California, it became obvious that the new bike was both faster and more planted. The riders were eager to take it racing, and Nico could relax for a bit...
Well, theory and design are one thing, but it was time for us to see what all this would mean on the trail. Commencal just opened a brand new facility in Andorra, and we hooked up with Myriam Nicole's mechanic Maxime Auguin to get our test bike ready. The new workshop, housed in the basement of the new Commencal offices is a mechanic's wet dream, with 4 independent and fully equipped workstations and a shared space for machine tools and suspension work. Maxime had us ready to roll pronto.
Despite a very different design compared to its predecessors, the DH V4 looks unmistakably Commencal. The lines are aggressive and fluid, and the heavily sloping top tube and low-slung rear end make the bike look fast even when it's just sitting there.
The relatively complex linkage system is partially hidden behind the crank, which in addition to helping the bike look slim also has the advantage of placing the weight as low as possible in the frame. Internal cable routing also helps give the bike a sleek appearance. Some of the frame accessories shown here are not the final versions, notably the seatstay protector and the rear fender will both evolve further on the production version, and the internal routing ports on the top tube will incorporate fork bump stops as well. As subjective as the look of a bike can be, we certainly feel that Commencal have arrived at a bike that ticks all the boxes in the aesthetics department. This was far from a foregone conclusion in light of the unconventional frame design chosen.
Our test bike was a size XL "A La Carte" model, available to custom configure and purchase from Commencal's online store (the brand operates direct-to-consumer) should you wish to replicate this exact build. It mixes the main parts of the "World Cup" build in terms of suspension, drivetrain, and wheels, while relying on Commencal's own-brand Alpha components for the cockpit and saddle.
An interesting aspect of the new bike is the multitude of adjustability features. By swapping out head tube inserts you can adjust the reach by 20-mm (that's almost a full frame size), and replaceable dropouts let you play with chainstay length but also BB height without affecting the head angle (the headtube inserts exist in different heights as well). The second set of dropouts are 5mm longer than the standard, and are what Remi Thirion runs for World Cup racing.
We rode the bike with the standard head tube insert and the shortest chainstays. After some rudimentary adjustments made to our suspension settings, it was finally time to set off up the mountain to see how the DH V4 would behave on the trails of Vallnord Bike Park.
To get a feel for the new bike, we started out with the relatively mellow "Commencal" track - a freshly constructed blue level bike park trail, funded by Commencal and shaped by Pierre-Edouard Ferry aka PEF. Berms and tables along a fairly gentle gradient are certainly not what this bike was built for, and predictably enough, this is not where we felt the most at home aboard the V4. The bike pedals well, but the slack, 62.5-degree headangle and the long travel make for a bike that needs gravity to make it work. It was no slouch on this blue trail, but we struggled initially to load up the front end and find our balance and grip on the more mellow parts of the track.
After warming up, we headed for rougher terrain to give the V4 a proper workout. It quickly became apparent that what this bike thrives on is gnar and speed. The steeper and rougher it gets, the more rewarding the ride becomes. The high pivot point is as surprising as it is pleasing in action: nail a square edge and smile at how it just disappears beneath your wheels, without much of the customary hang-up that often occurs on bikes without this rearward axle path.
In addition to the axle path special sauce, the V4's progressive leverage ratio adds an element of forgiveness to the recipe. Drops to flat, cased jumps, and harsh line choice did little to unsettle the bike. The heavy ramp up at end of the stroke gives the suspension a really bottomless feel, something we came to appreciate more and more as the difficulty level of the tracks went up. As you can tell from the graph supplied previously, the leverage ratio starts dropping off fairly sharply towards the sag, which gives the bike a lot of support already at mid stroke. Despite the long travel and supple feeling off the top, the bike remains dynamic and responds well to rider input, without ever really feeling mushy. Commencal have struck a fine balance between plushness and support, and we found ourselves enjoying a very planted feeling at the pedals that left our feet firmly in place at all times - a great benefit to flat pedal riders particularly. It made us think of a magic carpet.
Commencal are firm believers in tuning the frame stiffness to the job at hand. Stiffer is not always better when you are riding rough tracks at the limit, and even World Cup team riders benefit from a little extra forgiveness. Commencal answer this requirement by designing in a certain amount of flex in the frame and the stays, which translates to a very smooth experience in the rough, and lots of grip in off-camber situations. One of the tracks we rode several times features a long section of nasty roots on an off-camber traverse, and despite literally trying to get the bike to deflect and/or slip, we were unable to do so.
In terms of geometry, Commencal have not gone down the extra long front-centre route, and most of the numbers are on the short/conservative side. This tester (at 1m84 or 6'0) would typically ride a Large, but was perfectly at home on the XL. Note again that you can add or subtract up to a full 10-mm in either direction to the toptube/reach with the adjustable headtube inserts, and you can further lengthen the bike by 5-mm in the rear via the replaceable dropouts as well. As ridden in the standard configuration, the XL proved agile enough to be fun to ride in the bike park, only starting to struggle in really tight turns. On the subject of turns, the chainstays are very short as measured at static (425-mm), but since they grow by a full 40-mm as the suspension cycles, they end up of slightly longer than average length at the sag point (450-mm or so). The result is a very neutral rear end which favors speed and a planted feeling over snappiness and outright maneuverability.
Commencal kept the top pivot point at moderate height, opting for balance between the rearward axle path and chainstay growth. As a result, the bike feels overall very "normal" except for its uncanny ability to deal with bumps and square edges. It does not require any major modification to your riding technique, nor did it present any surprising reactions. Quite to the contrary, we spent the majority of our 1.5 days of testing riding trails blind, and we grew increasingly confident as the bike was always there to bail us out when things got hairy.
Jumping the V4 turned out to be devoid of drama. We ran medium levels of rebound in the rear, and we never had any nasty kicks nor bizarre behavior as we loaded up the suspension into the take off. The V4 likes speed, and this translates to jumping as well. If you're the kind of rider who likes to cruise jumps and rely on extra pop to clear them, the V4 isn't the best choice out there. However, if you like to haul the mail and scrub every lip in sight, it will do you proud.
A final word on braking. In general, a high pivot point generates a certain extra amount of brake squat, basically causing the rear suspension to compress under braking. In the case of the V4, the pivot placement is not extremely high, and the amount of brake squat is very well controlled. We found the bike very stable under braking, with the brake squat helping add grip to the rear and also helping keep the front up when wailing on the anchors in the steep stuff. The extra grip in the rear does mean you have to grab more brake for your freeride flicks though. Commencal previously announced that a floating brake mount would be made available as an optional extra for the bike, but as it turns out, none of the team riders want one, and neither would we after riding the bike. That idea has since been canned.
Component wise, the bike we rode was pretty much flawless. The World Cup BoXXer is a pure joy to ride in rough terrain, and SRAM's X01 DH drivetrain and Code brakes round out the build at a very high level. Commencal's Alpha cockpit and saddle look and feel great, with the exception of the grips which we found distinctly lacking in comfort. Our test bike weighed in at 17.5 kgs (38.5 lbs), which is far from the lightest DH bikes out there today (although not particularly heavy either). The frame alone weighs 9.03 lbs or 4.1 kg, which is about 1 full kg more than some carbon offerings currently available (Commencal do not make any carbon bikes). Commencal are happy with what they have produced, citing durability as one major driver behind the design choices, but also rider feedback as a reason for landing at this weight. Hauling the mail down some very steep and unforgiving terrain, we could certainly see why.
Commencal set out to build a racer, and that is what they have done. The Supreme DH V4 is not a racer/freerider compromise, nor does it seek to cater directly to the park rats as many other gravity bikes will. However, it is also not as exclusive as you might expect from a pure race steed, making it easy to get along with even at less than World Cup speed as well. If you race or if your regular riding involves carrying as much speed as possible across nasty terrain, the V4 should have your full attention. If you place a premium on tackling the gnar but still want to enjoy your flow and jump trails, it will serve you well. If all you ride are super tight woods or pure jump and pump trails, you'd be better off with something a bit more poppy and agile.
We certainly expected to find something different with the DH V4. Commencal has struck a fine balance between the unique characteristics of a high pivot point suspension layout, and the behavior of a more mainstream design. The result is a bike that delivers a significant performance advantage in the rough, without feeling much different or unusual in other situations.
The 2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 is available to pre-order in Commencal.com's Euro store now, for delivery in November (US pricing and availability still TBD).
2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 Geometry
The bike we rode corresponds to an "A La Carte" build, mixing elements of the World Cup model with Commencal's own-brand Alpha components. Here are the standard models currently available for purchase as is:
2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 Origin, MSRP: 2.999 EUR, US Pricing TBD
2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 Essential, MSRP: EUR 3.499, US Pricing TBD
2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 Race Rockshox, MSRP: EUR 3.999, US Pricing TBD
2016 Commencal Supreme DH V4 World Cup, MSRP: EUR 4.999, US Pricing TBD
Feature and Photos by Johan Hjord // Action Photos by Sam Decout