Located just a few miles off the highway in Tempe, Arizona, Pivot's headquarters is a modern, blue and gray industrial building that most people would pass without giving a second glance. You or I would stop, but that's because it says 'PIVOT CYCLES' on the outside in three-foot-tall letters, or maybe because we spotted some bikes through the tinted glass windows. Like many brands, there's a squeaky-clean showroom just inside the front doors, which is also where you'll find a custom-painted Phoenix DH rig, a Mach 4 SL and Trail 429, a coffee bar, and a workstation to set up demo bikes that see daily action on South Mountain that's (not coincidentally) only a few minute pedal away.
I'm not at Pivot HQ to hang out in the showroom, though. Rather, I'm here to record a podcast with founder Chris Cocalis and to see their Research and Development room where, unbeknownst to essentially anyone outside the company, they've been quietly building some of the most exotic carbon fiber frames that the world hasn't seen. To get to it, you've got to go past engineering, marketing, and the photo studio, through the tidy warehouse and assembly facility, and then past the frame quality control station until you find a set of probably locked doors that say 'Research and Development.'
So let's go for a walk and do exactly that.
From taking out the empty bike boxes at nine years old, racing BMX, and designing his own frames and bottom brackets while still in university, to founding Titus and Pivot, Chris Cocalis has had his hands on basically every aspect of the bike business. Tucked away in the back corner of the warehouse are a number of bikes from Titus, including a barely broken-in titanium hardtail that he pulled off the rack for me to get a better look at. "I was the only one who could make all of these seatstay pieces without them cracking," he says while pointing at the shapely 3" long piece of titanium that joins the pencil-thin stays to the seat tube. There's also a Moto-Lite on the second shelf, one of the earliest examples of what would eventually evolve into the trail and all-mountain species, but it's a much older – and brighter – bike that caught my eye. The first frame:
The Sun Eagle Bicycle Works Talon (pictured above) was the first frame that Chris designed, and it came to life in 1988 after he bent and broke all of the previous bikes he bought. The steel front-end used a truss layout to improve strength, while elevated chainstays solved one of the most challenging problems of the time: chainsuck, which is when the chain literally gets pulled up or down into the stays by the tire. And without needing to deal with tight clearances around the bottom bracket, elevated stays also allowed for the shorter rear-end length that everyone was looking for at the time.
It also had better-supported rear brake mounts (a common failure point back then), mounts for a frame pump, and a SIMS Snowboards decal for a headtube badge.Bladders:
Contrasting the hand-welded steel Talon are a handful of much more recent items, including half of a swingarm from a Phoenix downhill bike with its bladders still attached (main photo). These are inflated while inside the tubes to provide pressure during the molding process, then pulled out to be re-used in the next swingarm. Floating front derailleur mount:
With modern 1x drivetrains being universally adopted by anyone and everyone with common sense, it makes me feel pretty old to realize that many people reading this will have never used a front derailleur. They had many issues, but one of the most annoying was how the chain had to be pushed by just the right part of the cage, a problem on full-suspension bikes where the chain's angle changes as the bike goes through its travel. The solution? Easy, make a floating front derailleur mount that follows the chain, of course (above left). This little prototype gizmo rode on a sealed bearing bolted to the frame just above the bottom bracket, while a tiny linkage connected it to the swingarm, thereby keeping the chain and derailleur cage in a much more consistent relationship. 3D-printed frame components:
There's a hell of a lot to consider when designing a frame, and even more when it's a full-suspension bike. Sure, you can stare at a computer screen all day checking things, but there comes a point when an engineer needs to have something more tangible, which is when 3D-printing comes into the picture. Long before a welding torch is lit, complicated frame components, and sometimes even entire frames, are printed to make sure that cable ports are in the right place and everything clears whatever it's supposed to clear. Entire full-size suspension layouts are created in printed plastic, bearings are installed, cables are strung to make sure it all moves freely, and interchangeable sections (above right) are made to compare changes like different cable entry and exit points. Pivot's history:
Chris Cocalis founded Pivot Cycles in 2007, a year after leaving Titus, and the company's first bikes were the aluminum Mach 4 and Mach 5 models that used Dave Weagle's dw-link suspension system. A lot has changed in sixteen years and the catalog has a lot more bikes in it than it used to, but Pivot is still using an evolved version of the same highly efficient suspension layout on everything from their short-travel cross-country rigs to their downhill bike and even the e-bike. Notable models from every year of the company's existence are up on the front wall (main photo) of the warehouse, and the setting sun of the Arizona state flag makes multiple appearances. Shimano and Fazua motors:
Many bike companies stick to a single brand for their e-bike motors, but Pivot mixes it up by using both Shimano and Fazua powerplants. The long-travel Shuttle LT and Shuttle AM both get full-power Shimano motors, but the relatively lightweight Shuttle SL uses a quieter Fazua Ride 60 drive unit (above right) that weighs less while providing 60nm of torque from a 430 Wh battery. As you might expect, shipping and storing thousands of pounds of large batteries comes with countless regulations and safety standards, from temperature-controlled warehouses to keeping them in their fire-resistant packaging.Quality control:
Pivot's carbon frames are manufactured in Asia but, rather than being sent to an assembly factory, they're shipped to Pivot's headquarters (or their German facility) where every single frame goes through this quality control station before making it to the assembly line. A series of different go/no-go plug gauges are used to check the tolerances at the bottom bracket and headtube, bolts are torqued correctly, and the paint is inspected before each frame meets up with a wheeled cart carrying all of the components required to turn it into a bicycle. Staff rides:
Not surprisingly, the staff parking had more than a few Pivots, but there was also this beautifully contrasting Crust Evasion (above left) built up with a Whiskey wheelset, White Industries crankset, and a wireless AXS 12-speed derailleur. Pivot's headquarters employs one hundred and twenty-five people and I watched a constant stream of them coming and going from lunch rides. There are also many designated trail days that see large groups head to South Mountain to work on the local singletrack. Maintenance in the desert is no joke and nothing like the dirt pushing that's done in the Pacific Northwest; instead of shovels and rakes, it's pickaxes, rock rolling, sunscreen, and maybe a rattlesnake or two. Building bikes:
Complete bike assembly is split up into two different areas, with e-bikes (left) and mountain bikes (right) assembled from bare frames and components being delivered on those wheeled carts. Every item is accounted for via barcodes and a scanner, from forks to brake adapters and even cables. How long does it take you to build a bike from scratch? Pivot's most involved assembly requires wiring Fox's battery-powered Live Valve suspension system, a job that might take the better part of a day for some home mechanics to get through. With plenty of practice, these guys can build an entire bike from the bare frame, including wiring Live Valve, in just an hour and a half. Research and development:
This is where most tours would end, but not ours. Instead, we're going through these swinging doors to where all of Pivot's aluminum mules, as well as the newest Grim Donut frame, are welded. There won't be any torches today, though, because we're looking at their in-house carbon fiber production facility and these are not the monocoque carbon frames you might be expecting.
Pivot isn't quite ready to reveal the finished bike yet, but the gist is carbon fiber tubes that are laid up and molded in-house before being joined with machined aluminum lugs, which are also made in the same room. The result is stunning. It's equal parts futuristic and, thanks to the polished lugs, a little bit retro-looking and nothing like Pivot's production frames. None of this is the work of a moment, of course, and Pivot has had to invest in pricey new machinery and employees with hands-on experience working with carbon to make it happen. This, despite Pivot currently having no plans to offer any of these US-made carbon frames for sale, which begs the question: Why make them in the first place?
There are a few different answers to that question, but the main reason comes down to Pivot wanting to develop new bikes quicker and under their own roof. Originally, the plan was to design and build monocoque carbon frames in-house, from first-ride prototypes all the way to them being signed off for production, but that morphed into a different process when they realized there was a more time-efficient way: molded carbon tubes joined to machined aluminum lugs.
Because they're building their own tubes, Pivot has more control over the rigidity and ride characteristics than a prototype molded overseas, and far more than a full aluminum bike. This allows them to look for the same stiffness and ride feel as a full carbon frame, but with the benefit of being able to easily alter the geometry by machining different aluminum lugs at the head, seat, and downtube junctions. Cocalis also explained that rather than waiting for an entire frame to come out of the oven, they're able to make different tubes or lugs as needed without starting over from scratch.
In order to make your own carbon fiber tubes, you first need to make the tools that you'll then use to make those tubes. For Pivot, that means baking up their own silicone mandrels inside an aluminum clamshell mold that they've also machined on-site. In basic terms, a mandrel is what the carbon sheets are laid over to provide support and internal pressure during the baking process, after which they're pulled out to leave a hollow tube. Pivot is laying up their own top, seat, and downtubes, each with its own specific shape, and that means creating silicone mandrels for each of those tubes and the molds required to make them.
The next step is to lay pieces of Toray carbon, each cut out on a plotter and trimmed as needed, over the mandrels in a time-consuming process before placing the whole thing in another mold (yes, they make this one as well) with resin and baking it in a press that they're modified to use heating elements.
The carbon tubes that come out are essentially ready to go and require no extra finishing, including the massive rectangular-shaped downtube that's pictured above. From drawing board to rideable frame, the entire process currently takes three to four weeks but Pivot is looking for efficiencies and ways to bring that down. For some perspective, the downtube on its own requires about three hours, which is probably longer than it takes to lay up an entire carbon frame in some Asian factories.
Making carbon tubes is only half of the recipe, with the lugs for each frame being made only a few feet away on a three-axis CNC machine that also creates the links and other aluminum components like the dropouts, lower shock mount, and an interesting-looking spindle with two cogs of differing size on one end.
While Pivot was happy to show me what they've been working on, they're not quite ready to reveal too much about the finished bike yet or show the world what it looks like, despite a few potato-phone photos making the rounds on the internet already. That's a bit of a shame because it is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking things I've seen in many years and is guaranteed to drop some jaws. We'll have more in the near future but, until then, you can listen to tomorrow's podcast with Chris Cocalis where he explains the hows and whys of their in-house carbon production and if they'll ever offer a production version.