In 1998 Max Commencal was left with two choices: buy back his own company that he was pushed out of, or wipe the slate clean and start afresh. “I preferred to start from zero. I didn't want to give money to those guys...” he explains having turned his back on ten years of work at Sunn, leaving him to stare at a blank canvas. He added the first brush strokes in the form of Andorran investment, which led Max away from the south of France and into the principality tucked away in the Pyrenees.
Commencal remains in Andorra some 20 years later with Max still at the helm of the office, which is within earshot of the World Cup track, although it's not likely you'll find any of the close to 60 employees in the office come race day. Racing is an integral part of day-to-day life at Commencal with them enjoying World Cup success with racing royalty like Anne-Caro, the Athertons, and of course the current crop of Commencal Vallnord racers who are a near-permanent fixture on the WC podium.
The company has gained some real momentum in recent years with Max quick to point the finger at the decision to sell direct online and cut out working with dealers in 2013: “The bike shops were more interested in the bigger brands than us...they were always asking for more and more... always asking for the cheapest bikes. So I said 'stop' I will go online and sell my bikes online” he explains before adding, “Now we have no more filters between the end consumer and us.” They've subsequently expanded into America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in quick succession, going it alone without any in-country distributors. Selling direct, of course, helps to keep the prices lower which is another way in which Commencal has got such a strong foothold in the market at the moment.
Look through the line-up and there is a distinct absence of carbon in the Commencal portfolio. They did offer the likes of the Skin, Super 4, and Meta in carbon for a few years, but after visiting the manufacturer in China, Max decided to put a stop to it all. “I was so disappointed to see the bad, bad conditions for the workers... young people with the carbon dust, with only a poor paper mask. The owner was saying 'No, it is like this'... I wasn't comfortable with that.” That was the end to carbon at Commencal, but it wasn't just the humanitarian side that leaves the company as aluminum advocates. As Max explains, a carbon mold is expensive and leaves little room to tweak and change the design, something which Commencal are constantly playing with, especially with their race team.
Life at Commencal is a family affair; it's not only Max's name above the door and on all the bikes with two of his children firmly involved in the company. It's a tightly knit bunch in the office and out of it too, their race teams seem to share the same family-like structure too, coincidentally or not... the enduro team run by the Ravanel's and the downhill team by the Ruffin's. There's plenty of faces from the office in Andorra popping up at the races across the World too, not least Max: “I like to sell bikes everywhere. I am proud to be present in America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia. I like the competition. I like to work with top riders to help them. I think it's the real DNA of the brand. Travel. Sport. Work.” They recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary and look to be in a very strong position for the next twenty. As I ask what the future holds he replies through a smile, "I'm not so young now! Honestly, I don't know... What is clear is that I enjoy what I'm doing a lot, two of my children work with me. I have a super nice team actually. I really like to work with them, to travel with them. When I come here I don't feel like I'm going to work, it's a pleasure."
Anne-Caroline Chausson and Commencal joined forces once again in 2017 after plenty of racing success in the past.
The Athertons are another name synonymous with the Commencal name and history.
A new bike starts as sketches on the table of designer Thomas Moret, after they have already decided on the goal of the new bike, whether that be something like better suspension kinematics or better geometry.
Things can then be taken to the computer where the design really starts to take shape.
A test rig that makes sure the frames coming in from Taiwan are to the correct geometry and specification.
3D printing can be done in-house which gives the engineers and designers an early opportunity to have the product in their hands, giving them a better understanding of the aesthetics and functionality while also helping them to spot any potential problems sooner.
This was the first mule that the engineers experimented with the idler on.
Another reason why Commencal like working with aluminum over carbon is the ability to quickly change and tweak frames.
In these shots are computer details on the new Meta Power.
When deciding on colours close attention is paid to make sure the various designs will suit the components they will be specced with, whether that be SRAM or Fox etc.
The colourway that the Commencal enduro and downhill team used in the 2019 season, it's now a colourway available on the 2020 bikes.
A variety of old colour samples. The grey and orange tube in the hand of product manager Matthieu Beaube is the design used on the Supreme 29 in 2018.
Various old and experimental frames and rear triangles racked up and laying dormant.
A prototype Supreme with various shock mounting positions as well as a reach adjust headset.
Just because the riders didn't race it doesn't mean they didn't try it... A Supreme in mullet mode.
The engineers will try various components themselves before deciding on the specification the production bikes will have.
The workshop handles everything from warranty requests to new bike builds and everything in between.
The Commencal Spot is a bar and restaurant directly opposite the finish of the World Cup track.
If you watched the World Cup you'll have seen how dry and dusty the conditions were in Andorra this summer. A bit of water on the pump track was essential.