Breaking the Rules | An Interview with Max Commencal 25

An iconic figure in the bike industry, Max Commencal has always done things his own way. Having been around from the start makes his take on the future even more interesting.

Breaking the Rules | An Interview with Max Commencal

Max Commencal has never been one to mince his words. The founder of the brand that carries his name has roots as deep as anyone in the sport, and while some might call him stubborn or think of him as a trouble-maker, the fact is that he puts his heart and soul into making bicycles that people will enjoy riding. For Max, everything else is just a means to that end, and he has never been afraid to simply speak his mind. During our recent visit to Andorra (to attend the World Cup and test the latest Commencal DH bike), Max took us out for a ride and a chat about how things are going and where they might be headed in the future. From distribution models to new standards, here's your chance to hear directly from one of the icons of the industry.

A very hands-on boss, Max does not have a corner office with a view. His place is right in the middle of the open-floor space where he shares in the daily trials and tribulations of his closest staff.

Vital: It's been almost 4 years since you decided to move to a direct-to-consumer model. Can you tell us about how this change was perceived, and what the results have been?

Max: When we went direct, we lost our entire dealer network in 6 months. Our competitors wasted little time convincing our old partners to stop working with us altogether, so it was a very quick transition. This did not bother me, since the consequences were known to me when I took the decision. We had of course planned ahead and put in place the necessary infrastructure to support our customers, and we were able to significantly reduce our prices - mainly by cutting into the margins that were previously imposed on us by the distribution networks. The results were immediate. In fact, our worst year was the year immediately preceding our move to the direct-to-consumer model. At that time, we could clearly see that our distributors and retailers preferred to favor the big brands, with smaller brands being relegated to the back of the peloton, so to speak. There was no real space for us to occupy any more. That was our most difficult year, but once we went direct everything was back on track and we have not stopped progressing ever since.

From ACC...
...to Gee....
...to Pompon, Commencal has a rich racing heritage that they are proud to build on.

Vital: Selling directly to consumers means dealing with people who are more or less knowledgeable, and who now may not have the good will and the support of a bike shop behind them. What has been your experience with regards to dealing directly with service and warranty aspects?

Max: Well, to speak plainly, it is now about 5 to 10 times easier than when we were dealing with the shops. The vast majority of shops are run by people who are so afraid to lose their customers that every single little problem becomes a warranty issue. With the actual customers, our discussions are always in good spirits and of a more constructive and logical nature. So we have a lot less headaches now. I should also point out that our strategy is to make exceptionally reliable bikes, and we work with reputable component suppliers who each have a worldwide service network as well.

Vital: Right, so for example if a customer has an issue with a SRAM derailleur, they can have that taken care of by the local SRAM representative?

Max: Exactly. We intervene to help the customer if necessary of course, but in actual fact, whether it's Commencal or another brand, us bike manufacturers are actually not authorized to take warranty-related decisions on behalf of the OEM component brands, for example.

A well-equipped workshop if ever we saw one. In the foreground, a Supreme DH V4.2 29" mule that the crew is currently pondering whether to take to production...stay tuned!

Vital: Commencal is now expanding again, opening offices and distribution centers in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand?

Max: Well, let's just say that once you go direct, you start by losing your retailers but you also lose your distributors. The way the system is currently evolving leaves little room for multiple profit margins to be earned along the way to the consumer. Looking at how well we were doing with our direct model in Europe, our goal is now to replicate that formula around the world. Starting with our US operation, things are going spectacularly well. In some months, we are now seeing sales numbers out of our US branch that are on par with our European results. For Canada, the same pattern. It takes a while for the first pioneer customers to jump in, for people to notice you and for you to gain their trust, on average it seems to require about 9 months to one year. But again, in Canada right now for example, we are already selling 4-5 times more bikes than what our best distributor was ever able to move there, and that is set to grow by a huge factor again this year.

Design concepts are still sketched out by hand, as this allows the designers to quickly visualize what they're doing.
Just another day in the office at Commencal HQ.

Vital: Seems like your bikes correspond to the type of riding that is becoming ever more popular these days?

Max: I believe that the bikes we make are not a niche product anymore - we are the ones who are doing it right. Our bikes are made for having fun. Of course, there are still people out there with a "cyclist" mentality from 30 years ago where the goal is to suffer on a bike, but that is no longer the majority. Those guys are the niche today.

This beautiful finish is created by first polishing the whole frame to a shine, then applying masking tape over the graphics area, then working over the rest of the frame with the shot-peen. Costly, but oh so pretty - and more durable than a sticker could ever be.

It's like if we tried to make a road bike today, we could copy the best there is but the bikes would have no DNA.

Vital: On the topic of bikes, what can you tell us about the 2018 range that you are currently preparing to launch?

Max: The 2018 range builds on the very successful  2017 range, with a lot of work put into improving details and the overall aesthetics. For us, the look of a bike should go beyond a paint job with some stickers, we love having fun with design. On that topic, all along the model year you'll discover various limited edition bikes for example. We also have some new platforms on the way, answering some fairly profound current questions like for example wheel size. 

For your eyes only...a sneak preview of the 2018 Commencal Meta AM V4.2 NZ Edition.

Drool-worthy graphics on a polished frame...
...and the small matter of a coil shock. Very enduro!

Vital: So yes, without unveiling your secrets, there is currently a lot of debate around wheel size and wheel type - for example, what do you think of 27.5 Plus?

Max: Let's start with the 29er. We were initially very curious to see how efficient a 29-inch wheel could be for descending. We were testing 29-inch DH bikes very early on, long before there were any 29er forks available BTW. It didn't take us long to figure out that the big wheel bikes were indeed faster, and our initial conviction was that bigger wheels were the way to go for racing. BUT - it's actually not true. Or at least, not to the degree we were initially imagining. And if it's true, it's not true for every size and type of rider. And if it's true, it's not true for every type of track. So today, our position is that the 27.5" bike is mature, whilst the 29er is still a bit of a rookie. And whilst it was always highly likely that the 26" bike would disappear, we don't think that could happen to the 27.5" bike. So whether it's for enduro riding or DH, there will be two wheel sizes for different riders and rider styles, and that means that for us, we will keep working on these two platforms. We will also continue to differentiate between bikes that are built for racing and performance, and those that are built more for the fun factor - each one needs to be properly optimized for the intended use case. Within all of these parameters, the 27.5+ wheel becomes very interesting for hardtails, with that extra comfort factor. After that, a lot depends on the rider. Faster, more aggressive riders will start to deform these bigger tires unless they run higher pressures, which negates all the benefits. So at the moment, after very extensive testing of everything [tires, wheels, etc] that is currently available, our preference is for tires between 2.5 and 2.6 inches wide. We'll run Plus on our hardtails, but that's it for now.

A bike for every purpose - and that includes the groms! As a proud father of 5, Max has always made sure to make rad rides even for the youngest rippers out there. This isn't really about making money, but about starting 'em early and growing the sport.

Vital: You've never been a fan of carbon bikes, and that's apparently not about to change any time soon either. Why is that?

Max: There are only good reasons to not make carbon bikes! First of all, aluminum is more "eco-responsible". Second, we do not accept the working conditions found in today's carbon bicycle manufacturing plants in China. And thirdly, choosing to work with aluminum gives us a lot more flexibility to react to changing standards etc, which allows us to always keep our range bang up to date. When a supplier proposes new technology for example, we can immediately integrate it into our line-up, even in the middle of a product year sometimes. And finally, let's not overlook the fact that a good percentage of racers still prefer aluminum today.

Max fully believes that Commencal can achieve all their design goals for any given bike without resorting to carbon. Having ridden many of them, we can't say we disagree all that much.

Vital: Earlier today, you took us for a great ride in your awesome mountains, and we couldn't help but notice that the climbs seemed a bit easier than usual...there was a motor on our bike! Now, Commencal's target market is generally made up of the "shredder" demographic, people who ride aggressively and at least for the more vocal among them would seem to be against e-bikes. What led you to decide to make an e-bike range, and how do you view this new tool?

Max: Well, it's a vast subject, and one that is certainly polarizing - which in my opinion is never a bad thing, times like these lead to great debate and the generation of new ideas. In my opinion, the people who are against e-bikes are the same people who were against lift-assisted riding. I remember back in 2004-2005, our race team was sponsored by Oxbow and they had just been bought up by Lafuma. We were still under contract, but old man Lafuma came to see me and stated categorically that "it was out of the question that we continue to sponsor a team that uses lifts to get back up the mountain!" For me, we're still fighting that same conservatism today, just on different topics. We are in favor of using lifts when you can, as we are in favor of using a motor to have more fun and suffer less, when you can. You know, we're "normal" people. We work, we go to the restaurant, maybe we have a few late nights out, and we're happy to not have to write off a ride just because we're not in peak form that day or whatever - "I'm not gonna ride today because I'll probably have a heart attack half way up". We're also stoked to be able to bring along our friends, kids, AND parents for a good day out on a bike. So yes, me, I'm 100% in favor of e-bikes.

"Now let me tell you something about these e-bikes here..." Max (on the left) dishing out a little truth, Commencal-style.

We're going to keep building our brand identify with our style of riding and our type of bikes - playful bikes built to perform on the descents and made for having fun.

Vital: E-bikes open a new dimension of riding, with more fun on the uphills and longer rides, but they are also "real" mountain bikes. Your new full suspension e-bike is made for people who ride aggressively, who know their sport - in short, for people who shred. So in the long run, is the motor just another option in the vast catalog of technology that is available to any rider? Better brakes, better suspension, better transmissions, a motor/no motor - is this what it will come down to, or is this also a whole new market or market segment opening up?

Max: For us, we don't see a difference. When your average rider buys a saddle that costs $200 because it weighs 30 grams less, it's to make it easier to get back up the hill. It's the same approach. We've always wanted bikes that climb better, as we've always wanted bikes that descend better. With e-bikes, we've found something to help us get up the hill, and we can optimize the geometry and use our suspension knowledge for better performance on the descent. It's another accessory. Today, we shift with cables, but tomorrow, if we shift with Bluetooth or whatever, we're not going to talk about it. To me, it's the same thing. And, to go back to your previous question, if we're building a brand identity we're not going to build it on whether we have an e-bike or not, we're going to keep building it with our style of riding and our type of bikes - playful bikes built to perform on the descents and made for having fun.

Born in the mountains and built for shredding, Commencal's take on the e-enduro bike.
The heart of the beast.

Vital: What is your message to the people who live in markets where e-bikes are seen to threaten trail access? For example, will you be selling your e-bikes in the US?

Max: Yes, we will market our e-bikes in the US. It's still the same topic. The bike industry is full of conservatism, these are the same people who voice their negative opinions about every new standard and who fight tooth and nails against any change. But you can't fight these advances. To speak clearly, we are all 100% against people riding motorcycles on bike trails, as this causes massive trail destruction not to mention noise pollution, but this is not at all the case with e-bikes. Put Julien Absalon or Nino Schurter on your trail, they probably develop more power than average Joe on his e-bike. This isn't the real question. I think that today, we should all be happy to see more people get into the sport. The more people we can get on bikes, the better the industry will do. When we sell bigger quantities of product, prices will drop. As competition between brands increases, better technology becomes accessible to more people. The more people we get out on the trail, the better - trail building and legislation will follow. Trying to put both your feet on the brake pedal to conserve a sense of "propriety" over the sport is unfortunate and not smart.

Max has been around a while, but he still shreds! After this scenic photo op, we continued to follow Max down some proper steep secret Andorran trails that we couldn't shoot on, but believe us when we say that neither Max nor his e-bike had any trouble with that trail either...

Vital: So that train has left the station?

Max: Yes! But what is interesting to me is that e-bikes are probably not all that well suited to competition. Racing e-bikes opens the door to motor tuning etc. For a brand like us, e-bike competitions might be interesting for product testing purposes, to take a product to the ultimate limit to see when it will fail. But the competition in itself is not interesting. There is no point to putting Nicolas Vouilloz or Anne-Caroline Chausson on e-bikes to go race, for one because they have nothing left to prove but also because this isn't the goal here. E-bikes are for recreational riding.

Vital: Looking at how good bikes have become these days, even when compared to just 3 or 4 years ago, we're always tempted to say "that's it, it can't get much better now, can it?" We now have 170mm enduro bikes that weigh 13kg, that will climb any mountain and go back down almost like a DH bike which seems like the holy grail, but at the same time, we KNOW that we're not done yet. How do you see the future, for mountain bikes in general and Commencal in particular?

Max: We all thought that with a 160mm fork, a dropper post, a 1x transmission, good brakes and decent geometry that's about it. Done and dusted. The mountain bike is finally mature, a bit like a road bike that doesn't see a very spectacular evolution from year to year. Many new brands thought "hey it's easy to make a good mountain bike!" and jumped on the bandwagon. But the truth is that look at what's going on: slightly bigger tires, more space for shocks, slightly stiffer wheels, and suddenly you have boost and metric standards. Our tires are now growing in width as well. So in actual fact, we've not stopped evolving. This will continue. When it comes to "cycling passion", which is the market we're in, it's sport for passionate people served by passionate brands. I believe you can't just play this one by feel. It's like if we tried to make a road bike today, we could copy the best there is but the bikes would have no DNA. As a gravity brand lucky enough to be able to ride all year round here in Andorra, we are not scared by what's coming, we're attracted to it. We're always on the lookout for a better way to do things, and as long as I've got such a talented team around me, we'll continue making better bikes.


To keep up with Commencal, head on over to www.commencal.com.

Photos and interview by Johan Hjord (action photos by Nico Brizin)

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