Interview: Chris Cocalis of Pivot Cycles Part 1

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Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Damion Hickman

Chris Cocalis is the brains behind one of the most successful young brands in mountain biking, Pivot Cycles. But successful bike companies don’t sprung up like mushrooms in your fridge veggie cooler – to ride the road to the top takes decades of dedication and experience.

In our two-part interview, we chat with Chris Cocalis about his history, the birth of Pivot, mistakes, patents, the future of bikes and what he hates and loves about the industry. Read on for part 1.


Hello Chris, I assume you’re chatting to us from Pivot HQ in Phoenix, Arizona. For those of us who’ve never been, what’s it like there?

It’s a desert, highly technical terrain, rocky. This time of year we’re in monsoon, so it’s not quite as hot, but by most people’s standards still melting. It can run to 45, 46 degrees.  We get three months of semi-miserable weather but we can still ride every day, and the rest of the year it’s paradise, the perfect place to put bikes to the test.

Pivot as a brand is comparatively young, but you’ve been in the industry for a very long time. Tell us about it.

I grew up in the Chicago area and I was a total bike kid from when I was about nine years old, just hanging out in the bike store. They couldn’t get rid of me until I turned 14 and was old enough to start getting a pay cheque there.

I started racing BMX when I was 12. I grew up in the Chicago area and left in 1987 to go to university here in Arizona. In the early days of BMX we were breaking everything and as I got bigger there weren’t any pro level, pro length BMX frames, so I designed one and had a company make it for me. I added like 50mm to the top tube length which is like three frame sizes! It was a horrendous mess; you couldn’t wheelie it out of the gate. There was one behemoth on the team who loved it! But that was my first introduction to how small changes can make big differences. That was when I was in high school – so that was kind of the start of bike design for me.

All the stuff happening in mountain bikes – cranks breaking, forks folding, axles snapping – it was like 1983 in BMX all over again!

I really was a hard core BMX guy, I didn’t know much about mountain bikes at all – I came out to Arizona, got my pro license and that was my whole impetus for moving here, there were enough race tracks that I could race seven nights a week if I wanted to.

When I started working in a bike store, everybody there was a mountain biker and I immediately got into mountain biking. It was interesting; all the stuff happening in mountain bikes – cranks breaking, forks folding, axles snapping – it was like 1983 in BMX all over again! So one of the first things I did was design a bottom bracket out of titanium; used double row bearings, and moved the cups outside so there was as little spindle sticking out as possible. Anything to get it stiffer and stronger. I was converting BMX hubs to make them mountain bike hubs, because the bearings were bigger and would hold up better.

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Finding some flow in the desert. Phoenix Arizona is home to classic western USA terrain – lots of red rock, technical ascents and descents that will punish a stray wheel. Perfect for testing out new bikes.

Then in 1988 a guy stopped into a bike shop I was managing with a frame he had brazed. It was a horrible excuse for a mountain bike frame. The angles were all bad. But he knew how to braze and I got pretty interested in that and I told him I would teach him about frame geometry if he taught me how to braze.

We formed a very informal partnership, which basically meant I’d go over to his house in the evening and build bikes with him. They were an elevated chain stay bike, called the Sun Eagle Bicycle Works Talon. I still have my original one, and Dirt Rag in the US did a piece recently and found one in some bicycle museum back east – we only built like 10 of these things. But one of the ones we built we took over to Mountain Bike Action in 1988 and it ended up in a piece called Bikes of the Future; I still have a copy of it at my house. It was pretty cool, because we were in some elite company. Mantis had a couple of bikes in there and the Nishiki Alien was launched at that time too. It was neat to be in college and have an article in Mountain Bike Action.

 But one of the ones we built we took over to Mountain Bike Action in 1988 and it ended up in a piece called Bikes of the Future; I still have a copy of it at my house.

But we couldn’t get the steel elevated chainstay bike stiff enough for my liking. I wanted to change things, my friend/partner didn’t want to, so I stopped going over to his house. That was the extent of that!

In 1989 I met a guy who was a titanium welder. His wife was shopping at the grocery store next door and he stopped into thee bike store. He knew nothing about bikes but said he could make anything our of titanium; I thought he was crazy. Merlin had just launched their first titanium bikes in 1987 and my friend had one. It was cool looking bike, but it was a horrible riding, super flexy and had alignment problems – his was like frame number 12. But the idea was cool and the bike was light. So I took this guy up on his claim and we started getting together and TIG welding some stuff; titanium bar ends and titanium bar/stem combos, and eventually a titanium frame. And that was how Titus was born.

Not long after I met a guy called John Raider at a bike race; he was the guy who invented the Aheadset. He was a big deal in the industry. He had some ideas for a suspension bike design and he asked if I’d be willing to help him. I was, and so we started building some prototypes and he showed them to Univega and GT. Univega ended up buying the design and they wanted this high-end bike. So they came to me with an order for 175 titanium shock blocks! At this time we were building bikes in a garage and I was in my senior year at school and interviewing with accounting firms.

So suddenly there’s a fork in the road!

Yes. But my thesis director at school, he was a cyclist and my thesis project was a business plan for a bike company. And he basically encouraged me to follow my dreams, and on top of that he wanted to invest too. So he gave me $30,000. My welder friend, Mark’s, boss invested $15,000 and we rented a building up the street and before I was even out of school we were building bikes.
I wanted to build a bike that rode as well as my Fat Chance Yo Eddy. I loved the way that bike rode. It was interesting; when I’d look at all the bikes of the time, whether it be a Ritchey or a Bontrager or a Yeti, they had radically different geometry. But when you looked at the wheelbases in a medium frame, they were all hovering around 41.5 inches. That seemed to be this magic number. Our first titanium bikes, I copied the exact geometry of my Yo Eddy, but shortened the chain stays by a quarter inch and lengthened the top tube by a quarter inch. And I think it really took that bike to the next level.

I wanted to build a bike that rode as well as my Fat Chance Yo Eddy. I loved the way that bike rode.

For the first five to seven years we did a lot of OEM work for other brands. I made the downhill team bikes for Diamond Back, we did Univega bikes, Slingshot… plus we did a lot of materials work and research for out of industry manufacturers. It took about five or seven years before we started to see Santa Cruz and Intense begin out-pacing our brand, because we really did no marketing for Titus itself. Eventually we got sick of doing things for other brands for half price and not getting paid on time, so we started to focus on Titus and things really took off.

I got involved, through my connections at Univega, in the development of four-bar and Horst Link full suspension designs which carried through all my years at Titus. I started discussing some things with Horst Leitner and we ended buying some rear ends from him and then licensing that design.

And how did it all end up with Titus?

Things were starting to really develop in terms of carbon fibre, we knew it wouldn’t be long till there were full carbon frames. So we merged Titus with Vio Tec, a composites company.… That partnership was interesting. I still say to this day that it was the most expensive composites education that anyone could get. It pretty much cost me my company. Things were not going well, but they didn’t want to be bought out, so they chose to buy me out. So I left the company and took a year off – that was in 2006 – and I immediately began working on the launch of Pivot, which I did in 2007. We launched the Mach 4 and the Mach 5 simultaneously in 2007.

We wouldn’t be where we are today without Richard Cunningham. Richard was the owner of Mantis Bikes – he invented the elevated chainstay, and the idea of bolting a chromoly rear end to an aluminium front end. He really set the path for dual suspension bike design.

Moving on from the history of the brand, in terms of designers – inside or out of the bike industry – who do you look up to?

That’s a good question. There are so many, I probably don’t know most of their names. There are some people in the bike industry who when they design something that think that everybody else’s stuff sucks – but I’m not that way, I’m a true bike geek. There’s a lot of great things going and I can appreciate them.

But if we go back to the get-go, I can say we wouldn’t be where we are today without Richard Cunningham. Richard was the owner of Mantis Bikes – he invented the elevated chainstay, and the idea of bolting a chromoly rear end to an aluminium front end. He really set the path for dual suspension bike design. Obviously, Horst Leitner – his whole concept of eliminating braking forces on the suspension, it has affected the bike industry till today. And then obviously Dave Weagle too, he’s got a lot going on.

In terms of Dave Weagle, his DW Link has been part of every Pivot dual suspension bike. Did you begin working with Dave from the very outset?

No, I was working on several different suspensions designs. I love the feel of four-bar bikes, Horst Link bikes, but the stiffeness was always a problem. We’d try bigger and bigger swing arms and bearings, but it’s very hard to match the stiffness of a one-piece rear triangle. And that was one thing I was hell bent on – it had to have a stiffer back end.

And another thing with a Horst Link bike is the way it kind of rotates forward into its travel – it doesn’t have pedal kick back like a single pivot bike, but basically the suspension does rotate forward into the bump, so you can have a loss of forward momentum. One bike I’d ridden – even though I hated a lot of other things about the bike – was the Maverick. And one thing that stuck with me was the incredible square-edged bump performance. That was its shining attribute. I wanted to have that.

Of course everything in suspension is a patent minefield nowadays. So I had this design I’d settled in on that ticked all the boxes. But it looked like I could be walking through Dave Weagle’s patent backyard…

So I was working on designs that had fully active braking, gave the square-edged bump performance and stiffness that I wanted. The dual link design also had the advantage of allowing a variable wheel path. If you think of an old high pivot bike, like the old Foes Mono or an Orange – they had a great rearward wheel path, which was one of the things that made them such a great World Cup downhill bike. But you couldn’t pedal them through the bumps and if you pedalled them through a g-out you could rip the whole rear derailleur off them, just from the chain growth.

So if you could achieve that kind of wheel path, but not have it continue the whole way through the travel, then you’d be onto something. And with a dual link, you can do that.

Of course everything in suspension is a patent minefield nowadays. So I had this design I’d settled in on that ticked all the boxes. But it looked like I could be walking through Dave Weagle’s patent backyard… Dave has a couple of patents – one is an anti-squat patent, and the other is an instant centre patent. With the instant centre patent, if the instant centre of your suspension design falls within a certain box then you risk being in violation of Dave’s patent. And there are a few lawsuits going on about that at the moment. Dave’s argument would be ‘you touch my box, you violate my patent’.

I believe if someone comes up with a good idea, you don’t walk on them. So we worked together. Anyhow, Dave was adamant about anti-squat as being the most important element, and when you applied his anti-squat calculations to the pivot locations I had mapped out to achieve the suspension characteristics I wanted, they had to move quite a bit.

It was a real tug and pull – I had my heels firmly dug in one corner, he in the other – I was yelling ‘fully active braking’ and he was yelling ‘anti-squat’ and we couldn’t work out the solution. Anyhow, one day he calls me up and says, ‘I have it! But there’s one problem… there’s no place for a front derailleur’.

But I thought we could make it work. You see, I’d been involved in the development of the 2008 Shimano XTR groupset, including the press-fit 92 bottom bracket. Along with the e-type front derailleur, this gave us the ability to free up the front derailleur area; we mounted the derailleur directly to the frame and put the pivots inboard. Back in 2007, this technology, along with some of our forging techniques, this was stuff that hadn’t been done before. Combine that with the DW Link and you had a really nice product to launch with.

You’ve talked a lot about frame stiffness. Why is that so important to you?

You can take a really great design, but if things aren’t stiff enough, it’ll never succeed. Take the AMP Research – it was a phenomenal bike. But it was so flexy that it was horrible! And if companies like Titus and Intense hadn’t started making the Horst Link design stiff and burly, that great suspension concept would’ve died on the vine. If the AMP Research had been the only bike with that design, it would never have continued.

You can take a really great design, but if things aren’t stiff enough, it’ll never succeed. Take the AMP Research – it was a phenomenal bike. But it was so flexy that it was horrible!

It goes beyond just stiffness though, it becomes about ride tuning too. A bike needs to ride correctly, and not just be an ass pounder. It needs balance. A good example; There was a time back in the Titus days when all the high-end wheels were radially spoked on the non-drive side and then two-cross on the drive side. And on one of our Racer X frames I’d beefed up the linkage so much, that it was fine if you were on a right hand turn, but if you were on a left hand turn and leaning on those radial spokes, if you hit a rock it would just pick the whole bike up and wallop it! We ended up spending a lot of time tuning that link to get the right ride balance. There is definitely a point of too stiff, but there’s a balance to find.

Of all the bikes you’ve released so far, what do you think has been the most important for the development of the brand?

When we first launched, the bulk of my development time went into the Mach 4, because at Titus, the Racer X had out sold everything else three-to-one. But the world was changing, the trail bike was taking over, and so we’ve sold far more Mach 5s than Mach 4s.

Everything builds on everything, and there are a lot of elements of the Firebird that really marked it as being the start of a second generation of design for Pivot. From a commercial success standpoint, it’s those ideas and how they fed into the Mach 5.7 that really took us to the next level. With the 5.7 I think the brand became something special; it wasn’t just one bike in the line up that was unique, but the whole package.

 

Read part 2 of our interview with Chris Cocalis here.

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