Max Commencal is the charismatic and passionate founder of Commencal, and one of the mountain bike industry's most driven, ideological and experienced individuals. And we mean individual - there is no one quite like him. In his time at the helm of both Sunn and Commencal, he has supported and worked alongside some of the most amazing riders this planet has ever seen: Anne Caroline-Chausson, Nico Voullioz, Cedric Gracia, Fabien Barel, the Athertons and many more.
In the coming weeks, Commencal will be making a return to Australia, with local support and sales via Pushys, so we took the opportunity to chat with Max about his experiences and (strong) opinions of where mountain biking is headed.
Who is Max Commencal and where is he happiest?
I am French but I have lived in Andorra for almost 20 years. One can say that I had two lives, one in France with SUNN and a second in Andorra with COMMENCAL.
I love sports, travelling, accompanying riders through their careers, releasing new products and shaking up the rules a bit… I love photography, film, music, competition, creation and commerce. I love working with and building my team! I also love to be at home in Andorra very much.
What was the most important moment in Commencal’s history?
It was when I started COMMENCAL. The brand was born at the end of 1998. When I was sacked by SUNN, I decided to start from scratch at 43 years old.
When I started SUNN, all alone in 1982, it was the beginning of MTB and everything had to be built up from nothing. It was almost easy. For COMMENCAL, 16 years later, we had solid competition and I admit to having had difficult times. For sure, no one would have put money on me to succeed.
Today is pretty good and I have one of the best staff teams in my business history. The average age is about 30 years old and therefore there is both maturity and experience.
Concentrating on the past is useless. We must always explore new avenues, take risks and if possible, keep on surprising.
You have had the opportunity to work with some amazing racers. Who impressed you most and why?
It has always been Anne Caroline Chausson. Her opinions are incredible, she has little or no prejudice and her insight is reliable.
For the other riders, let’s just say that winners have strong characters. That’s why they’re different and they win! They have the fire in them, the selfishness and an above all the will and motivation that sets them apart. They have confidence in themselves but that doesn’t stop them from needing attention and support.
To help them along is a privilege and I have always drawn from them the extra energy that made me push my own goals. These people are my role models!
I am also particularly fond of Remi Thirion, he deserves to be World Champion and he will be!
Thinking about this, I want to talk about all of them because I love them all!
When you started, what was your vision for the brand?
I’ve never had a long-term vision. Every season, every year must challenge us completely, whether from a commercial, product or marketing point of view.
But in general, my course of action is to be a very qualitative, innovative brand and to have a presence worldwide, not just to be a generic brand.
The majority of these stores are born through the road bike industry and therefore with limited MTB-specific industry knowledge, in particular with DH and enduro, our core disciplines within our range
What did you learn from your years at Sunn? Where do you want to go?
What I know is that you should never lose the majority share hold in your own company. Besides that, COMMENCAL is the continuity of what SUNN was. The state of mind is the same but without nostalgia and regrets! Concentrating on the past is useless. We must always explore new avenues, take risks and if possible, keep on surprising.
Tell me more about your choice to change your business from a traditional dealer model to a consumer direct model?
Contrary to popular belief, there are few small bike shops. They are often grouped under an umbrella company or a larger corporation and working with these middle-men is hell. At the end of the day, I couldn’t stand them any longer. They always shoot you down, always ask you for more, always trying to extend the terms of payment and/or want to explain your trade. All that to be branded N° 3 or 4, to fill in the gaps of their more popular, generic brands. Another trigger, the majority of these stores are born through the road bike industry and therefore with limited MTB-specific industry knowledge, in particular with DH and enduro, our core disciplines within our range. So I decided four years ago to stop working with them and to get on ourselves by selling directly to the consumer. Well, we took it because the public immediately reacted very favourably!
It was possible to drop prices significantly and customers were happy to contact us directly, talk to our engineers, our salespeople and generally be in direct contact with after-sales service and know our stock levels because they are displayed on the site.
In a nutshell, the filters were broken down between the brand, our customers and everyone else involved in the business.
What are some of the challenges of being direct consumers?
There are not really any additional challenges compared to all the other means of distribution. You have to be serious, helpful and have the products to back it up which are top quality, reliable. It made us up our game because you have to be faultless. So listen, if you don’t do quality, don’t go direct.
Explain how things will work here in Australia? Will bikes be warehoused here, and what about aftersales service / warranty support?
Australia is far away, particularly far from Andorra so we had to find a partner organisation on site that could accommodate stock, ship quickly and have a team of specialists. We chose to work with Pushys who are particularly well established and organised in this country. Together we chose an Australian brand manager who’s passionate about the brand and our bikes.
Although we are far away, the discussions with the Andorran office will be daily. The guys from Pushys will come to Andorra as much as possible and vice-versa. The Pushys team will participate in the R&D and it’s possible that we will make a limited series exclusive for Australia.
What makes the difference with the traditional distribution of other brands is that it will be our stock, it will be our website and we will apply the same rates as in Europe, Canada and the US. The customer price point advantage will be the same as elsewhere.
Since the bikes are produced in Taiwan, it is also likely that Australia will have the new products before Europe and the US!
As for the after-sales logistics, stock will be on site at Pushys in Brisbane and if necessary, we will also be able to ship parts from our other stocks. We will also stock parts for older models, which refer back to when we were working with distributors.
Customer satisfaction is our top priority.
Mountain biking should not be about suffering on the bike, there’s the road for that.
Which people or brands, either inside or outside the bike industry, are you most inspired by?
Very good question. Honestly, I liked the competition with other brands of bikes when they still belonged to their founders, when they still had their originality. There was inspiration and challenge when we met at races. I think for example at Cannondale, GT (during the BMX boom) or Santa Cruz. Today, big corporations own them and we feel that the soul of the adventurer who created them has disappeared.
Fortunately for us, component manufacturers have brilliant engineers and they are real creators and true enthusiasts. It is always a pleasure to meet them, to rub shoulders with them. At SRAM, RockShox, FOX, Shimano, Spank, E-thirteen and more, I forget… there are plenty of exciting and inspiring people.
Do you think mountain biking has reached maturity yet?
No, not yet and far from it. Mountain biking should not be about suffering on the bike, there’s the road for that. Riding should be fun, being in the great outdoors, exploring, travelling, playing sports, riding with friends, family, kids… There is also the arrival of electric assistance which will make climbing less extreme and just more desirable.
On today’s bikes, it’s still too rough and bumpy and although we have made great progress so far, there is still a long way to go.
Carbon is disgusting and dangerous for the workers who produce it, it is not recyclable, it prevents acceptation of the new standards without reinvesting in all the moulds… in short, it’s just bad
What is the best thing you’ve ever created, and why?
Created, I do not know but I don’t regret the decision not to make carbon frames. Carbon is disgusting and dangerous for the workers who produce it, it is not recyclable, it prevents acceptation of the new standards without reinvesting in all the moulds… in short, it’s just bad. Not to mention that many riders who rode the two will tell you that if they have the choice between a very good aluminium frame and a top carbon frame, they will choose aluminium. It’s more comfortable, livelier and generally more pleasant to ride. The delusion is that often, one assimilates carbon as high-end and alu, low-end. This is stupid.
Anyway, I’m happy with my decision.
If you could go back to the very start of mountain biking and change one thing, what would it be?
I would not change anything. The path was magnificent and the evolution went in the right direction. It’s just a shame that MTB is too tied up in the world of cycling. This genre of environment is very conservative and has often slowed down developments.
City bikes and MTB do not have the same DNA.
Where will your next ride be?
In Andorra, very fast! With PEF (our rider of the Red Bull Rampage), we build trails and I push to make it also easy. I do not want it to be an extreme sport. I want to see lots of new faces, lots of kids, girls and beginners. All skiers are potential riders and the day we have as many riders in the mountains in summer as we do skiers in the winter, we will have won our challenge. Not before.
Since there are many more mountains and “rideable” countryside than “skiable”, we have not finished enjoying!