Max Commencal has never walked the path-well-trodden. Since mountain bikes first crossed the Atlantic to Europe in the mid-Eighties he has taken his own route in designing them. Whether it was introducing a BMX sensibility to their layout and kit, forging the blueprint for modern downhill bikes or producing enduro bikes the best part of a decade before it reached the mainstream consciousness, he certainly sees mountain bikes in an individual way. Today he heads the mountain bike company that he gave his surname to. We caught up with him a few days after Remi Thirion piloted one of his bikes to a spectacular victory in Andorra where the company is based and talked about his path from racing the Paris-Dakar to today. How did you first become involved in the bicycle industry?
At the beginning I was not a cyclist, I was more involved with motorbikes. I did the Paris-Dakar for the first six times it ran. I did it for the first time in December '78, so I was one of the youngest riders. After I met some people who were working in a garden equipment, selling machines to cut the grass, cut the trees, etc. But the sales of all these products were from Spring to the end of the Fall, so they were searching for a product to sell for winter and for Christmas. One of them, not me, thought to sell bicycles. He knew me from the Paris-Dakar, I was working as a journalist at the time. My first job was an architect, I did my degree, but then went into motorcycles to ride the Paris-Dakar and I helped magazines with pictures and text. It was not a very serious job, and he proposed that I take care of the Christmas bikes for him. It was under the name of, the Formula One Driver of the 70s, Jacques LaFitte. So I started to work in the bicycle industry in 1980. It is where I discovered BMX, it was a Christmas bike, but when I entered into this world, step-by-step, I became passionate about the BMX. Two years later the company was sold, they didn't want to continue the bicycles, they proposed that I continue to work with them, but I decided to work for myself, this was in 82.
My first name, for just some months, was MX France. I started to sell some bikes, I was alone, working with some people that assembled the bikes and every month I went to Italy to search for some parts and one day an Italian supplier told me he knew an English company that could be interested to buy 600 bikes! 600 BMX! Can you imagine? For me it was awesome. I prepared the best bike I could, took a flight to London and went to see this customer. At the end, he said to me "it is a white bike, is it possible to have these bikes in chrome?" I said yes. "Is it possible to have the handlebars with a special design?" I said yes. "Is it possible to have the pads with stars?" I said yes. "Is it possible to have the black tyres with the skinwalls?" I said yes. At the end he said, "can you change the name? Because 'France' is not good for sales." So I said yes, I'll think about it. I went away to my hotel, a cheap, small hotel in London for the night to prepare my new description. It was December, very cold, I was living in the south of France where it was sunnier, so I said I will call it Sunn, with the double N. And the name stuck. In the end I never sold the bikes to this guy, he never bought any, maybe it was a question of price, I don't know. But since that day I changed the name and since that day I used chrome frames. I don't remember this guys name, but for sure he helped me a lot. When did you first discover mountain bikes?
I started mountain biking in roughly 85 or 86. When I started with the BMX, immediately it was a big success. I had really good riders. I was at the races every weekend, in France, in Europe and worldwide. I had riders like Cedric Gracia, I had him when he was six years old. I can say that I'm a little bit like his father, when I went to Andorra he came with me here. It's a long story between Cedric and I. And other riders, like Christophe Leveque. It was successful, I did my first aluminium frames and we were competitive with GT! With Richard Long and Gary Turner! It was a nice moment. When I saw, in roughly 85 or 86, when I saw some American people doing what they called mountain bikes, I said, "It's not mountain biking. What they are doing are road bikes with off-road tyres. It's not mountain biking, I will show then what mountain biking is!" The first mountain bike I did was a big BMX, it was sloping, with exactly the same position you have on a BMX. Step-by-step I did mountain bikes like this, in 87, 88 and 89. And my sales were also immediately very successful because a lot of riders wanted to go off-road and to ride like a BMX and not like a road bike. I'm not sure, but I think I was the first to make sloping bikes. With a wide handlebar and with another spirit other than the road inspiration. I think, I think... Because we were coming from BMX and I think was also one of the first guys to make chromoly frames with TIG welding. All the BMX components needed to be very strong, so all my bikes using BMX technology were stronger than the bikes using traditional technology. How did the Sunn racing programme come around?
I have always been involved in racing. From the BMX side, remember, I went to all the races, I think in total we won 80 or 90 world champion titles. With my mountain bike team I was thinking it would be interesting to go with my BMX team on mountain bikes to a downhill race. We went to a downhill race and immediately it was successful. I remember, it was, maybe 83, I remember, not far from here [Andorra]... I was working in Toulouse, because it's my home town, and I went with two BMX riders and I said "Ok, today we go to the ski resort." It was in summertime. We went hiking up because we didn't like to pedal. We wanted to find out if it was possible to use a BMX like skis. We walked up the hill and we tried to descend with the BMX... I wasn't convinced! It was a disaster. I thought it should be great to practice bicycles in the mountains and, today, I see what we did there was the blueprint.
A big part of your racing programme was Olivier Bossard and the scientific approach he brought to racing, how did you start working with him?
|We wanted to find out if it was possible to use a BMX like skis. We walked up the hill and we tried to descend with the BMX... I wasn't convinced! It was a disaster. I thought it should be great to practice bicycles in the mountains and, today, I see what we did there was the blueprint.|
At the end of the 80s, I started to come into the mountain bike world with my BMX thing. At the beginning of the 90s I had such a strong team for mountain bikes and we were involved in both categories, XC and downhill. We had riders like Anne-Caroline Chausson, Francois Gachet... He was coming from trials, so he was strong, he was fast and he was precise. He was a really good rider. One day I received one day, I don't remember if it was a letter or a phonecall, from a guy in Britain and he said to me, "Max, I work in a bike shop and I prepare forks." I thought this was interesting, I remember sending him a Mag 21, he took apart the fork in his shop and when he sent us the prepared fork. When Francois Gachet tested it he came back and said, "It's amazing, completely different from the standard fork." So I call this guy, Olivier Bossard, he came to work with us and work on the bikes. After it has been fantastic, we had a strong name with Sunn and anything we did was accepted. When Olivier said we must use different hubs, we must use 180 or 200mm of travel, we must... For me, I was coming from motorcycles, so I had the same thinking as Olivier. We spent a lot of money to innovate. It was our job innovate, to imagine the bikes to be more efficient using the riders and our ideas. How did you come to leave Sunn?
It's a bad story... It's a business story. To sell more I needed money, so in 88 some people entered as shareholders. I was 35% holder. It is clear that one of the other shareholders was a rich guy who wanted to take my place. But he didn't know bicycles, he'd never been to the company before. Never, not once. One day he says to me a meeting, in 98, "You go and I take your place." I was the president, so I didn't have a contract. He only had 25%, but with two other friends who had invested in the company he had 51% of the shares. He was able to do that. The company was profitable, and it was a nice place, but he wanted to make cheaper bikes. He had many other goals for the company, so I was out. Sunn have been declared bankrupt for the third time this year, is this painful for you to watch?
Yes and no. Because I don't look at the past, it's done. It belongs to my history, my knowledge, it belongs to me, but what it important is what will happen. I don't listen to old music. I prefer to imagine the future. I tried to re-buy Sunn, but I could not because it was too expensive. I didn't want to place Commencal in danger in order to buy it.
|I tried to re-buy Sunn, but I could not because it was too expensive. I didn't want to place Commencal in danger in order to buy it|
When I was put out, my lawyer... Before I hadn't really a lawyer, or someone to advise me, but at this moment I took someone. This person was proposed by a good friend of mine who knew the guy who took my place. It was the Chipie owner, we had the Sunn-Chipie team together, and he told me to see this guy as he would help me. I went to see this lawyer and he furious, he said "they are very bad people, so I will find the money, I will find people to re-buy Sunn from this person. Sunn belongs to you and I will find money to re-buy the company and the name." When he said that to me, I was 43 years old, and you are strong when you are 40 years old, immediately I said "No. I don't want to give money to these people. I'm ready to start again and in ten years, we'll see." It was a challenge for me, after this heartbreak, to say "Ok, this can happen, I feel strong enough to start again." What was the first Commencal bike?
The first Commencal bike was the Supernormal. We had no time to develop something complicated, so we did a normal bike but a superbike. It 14 years ago in 2000, it was a hardtail with a suspension fork and a riser handlebar. It was simply a bike to ride. I remember, I called one of my ex-riders, Christoph Dupouey. He didn't have a contract or a sponsor and just for fun he proposed to ride my bike for the Roc D'Azur. The Roc D'Azur in 2000, it was the first time I was presenting the range, and he won. It was a present. The Meta 6 was arguably the first enduro bike ever made, what influenced you to make a bike like this?
I never thought about this, but probably yes, with the Rocky Mountain Slayer. The Meta 6 was a very important bike for us. For the mountain bikes, the most important thing is to have fun on the bike. It has always been my philosophy, even at Sunn. In 2005 we were able to have a fun bike with long-travel suspension that you were able to pedal also. The Meta 6, was thinking to say, "Ok, if you live in a place without chairlifts, when you are at the top and get to the singletrack you can have fun. The first race I organised here in Andorra, in 2001, was the Maxiavalanche. The gondola wasn't in place and there was track to bring the bikes to the summit. It already an enduro, it was in 2001. During the period from around 2008-2010, your bikes had a lot of reliability problems, many cracked, what happened during this period?
We never had reliability with risks for the riders, but it was more a production problem. Maybe, five or six years ago the quality of the aluminium is not as good as it is today. We depend on the technology, we, and all the others, do not make our own aluminium. This problem of reliability existed for us, but today reliability is the most important thing for us. With the new Meta, and we have built more than 20,000 frames, not one has broken. If someone has had a problem with a new generation Meta, he can write on your website. You can ask Pierre-Edouard Ferry [Commencals pro freerider who regularly competes at Rampage], he has six bikes and he has never broke one. Sometimes we are a little bit heavier than the others, but for us reliability is the most important thing. At the Andorroa World Cup this year, you started working with Olivier Bossard for the first time in fifteen years, the last time you two worked together you were quite successful...
With Olivier we have spent nights and nights and nights fifteen years ago to understand the suspension. He is the boss, haha. But I think I understand him, probably because of my studies I am more mathematics-orientated, so I understand when he speaks. To explain a problem is one thing, but to propose a solution is another, so it's really a pleasure to see. It was nice this weekend to come back. For fifteen years we haven't worked like that, we have worked with Fox, Rock Shox and Manitou, but not like we did with Olivier. It was fun this weekend. We have decided to come back next year with a bigger team, with a proper structure to work again like we did before. With the suspension, with our riders, because it's important. We have some ideas about what we can do... It will be special. The decision has been taken. Today there is no carbon in the Commencal range, in today's market that seems unusual.
It's... It's complicated. We have produced Metas and hardtail frames in carbon in 2007-2008. I went to China to visit these factories. It was a shock for me, because the conditions were a disaster. The workers were working on frames with only paper masks. Kids, I say kids, but they are not kids because they are 18 or 20, are working there weaving the carbon fibre. It's dangerous. When you speak with their boss, he says, "in my factory you don't stay too long because your life might only be five years." So they work six months and they change. All the suppliers are asking for cheaper and cheaper carbon frames. When I came back, believe me, I was not comfortable. I said, I will lose sales, but I do not want to produce carbon. We produce aluminium frames, strong frames, it's a game and we are not there to... kill... only because we want to save 300g weight. So I said, "No, I don't want to produce carbon." I have produced carbon in Toulouse for Nico Vouilloz and Cedric Gracia, 15 or 20 years ago. But it was made in a room with no air in it, with people wearing protective equipment, and it's very expensive. In China, for me... I do not want to communicate on this, I only talk about this because you asked about it. I don't say that all factories are the same, maybe some are cleaner, but, for the moment... And we are working on some other technologies, you will see next year or the year after... With carbon you cannot repair it, you cannot recycle it. Too many bad things. Recently you seem to have put more emphasis in the online side of your business, is this a direction you're going to follow further for the future?
We have done this for two reasons. First one is that for small brands like us it's more and more difficult to work with the shops. The big brands, the majors, try to take all the space in the shops. They say, "You don't need Commencal to sell an enduro bike, we also do an enduro bike." They say,"You don't need Commencal to sell a DH bike, we also do a DH bike." They propose better and better conditions, better margins if they work with a full-space for them. It's not that they don't want us, but they prefer to focus on less suppliers. Second reason is that before the internet dealers and big chainstores had the monopoly for the distribution. You had to accept their conditions. If they said they want this margin, or for a chainstore they want to have this percentage for the supply, they want four percent for this payment, two or three percent for advertising, at the end you were totally without any margin. Also, they were pushing you to make bikes cheap. This monopoly, with the internet, has disappeared. We can sell without this network. They didn't want us and I saw the opportunity of the internet. I said, "Ok, we will be small." We continue to work with many dealers, but it's different. For sure, their margin is not so big, but we offer them other advantages. They don't need to have a lot of stock, we don't oblige them to make pre-orders. They can work comfortably and maybe this year we work with more than last year. But it's interesting, because now they are not obliged to work with us. Since we started to do sales online our business has increased. We did, in 2012, the best year since we existed, Sunn years included.
We know that with our style, our differences, our identity, we will never be big or generalist. Our position is not to be strong in one country, but to be in many, many countries. So, we are not big in France, we are not big in Spain, we are not big in Russia, we are not big in Korea, we are not big Japan... But we are on all continents, everywhere. The majority of the people like the big brands, like Specialized or the others, but some people like our bikes. It's enough for a small company with 30 people. We like this position because we can continue to make what we like.www.commencal.com