Pivot’s Chris Cocalis talks plus, tire tech, e-bikes, and more

Mtbr goes deep with one of the bike industry’s brightest minds

Company Spotlight Feature
Pivot front man Chris Cocalis' favorite bike is always the next one. Photo by Paul Andrews

Pivot front man Chris Cocalis’ favorite bike is always the next one. Photo by Paul Andrews

Chris Cocalis is happy to talk about lots of things: bike pricing, the future of plus bikes, long-travel 29ers, e-bikes and electronic components, tire technology, you name it. But there’s one thing he won’t talk about: His company’s plans for Interbike. That’s because Pivot, the Tempe, Arizona-based mountain bike maker Cocalis launched at Interbike in 2007, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in Las Vegas.

The first play off the number 10 came this week when Pivot announced a warranty extension to 10 years for new carbon frames. Cocalis hints he has a few more surprises up his sleeve for the show. And if there’s one thing Pivot does as well as make bikes, it’s throw parties.

Whatever happens with Pivot in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. Cocalis’ reputation for obsessiveness, attention to fit and finish, and just plain getting it right has put his company front and center among bike cognoscenti. The proof of its success is 30 percent annual growth, a headcount of 55 at Arizona headquarters, offices in Germany and Taiwan, and “we’re hiring” shingles on the mojo wire.

Chris Cocalis Interview

Pivot’s latest creation, the Mach 5.5 Carbon.

A decade ago, Cocalis’ future wasn’t so bright. When he abruptly left Titus at its apex in 2006, insiders reacted with head-scratches and dismay. It seemed a huge risk for a guy at the top of his game. Cocalis disappeared into non-compete-clause limbo, and as a testament to his missing vision and leadership, Titus eventually went dark.

The downside turned out to be greater than Cocalis could ever have anticipated. Just weeks after Pivot rolled out its new line, the subprime mortgage market cratered. With the economy swooning, most bike companies pulled back on advertising and production. Dealers went conservative on forecasts and orders. It was hunker-down time.

Was he worried?

“It actually worked to our benefit,” Cocalis recalls with a smile. “Magazines cut rates, offered us deals on multi-page spreads. It allowed our dollar to go a lot further getting the word out. By sticking to our plan, it made us seem bigger than we were.”

His reputation also proved an ally. Chris Lane, a leading Titus dealer at San Francisco-based Roaring Mouse Cycles, was quick to sign on as soon as Pivot launched. “With Chris Cocalis, good enough is never good enough,” Lane says. “I was ready to bring in whatever he came up with.” It was no surprise to Lane when Pivot announced the 10-year warranty — his shop has never had to warranty a Pivot bike.

In addition to quality, Pivot’s aggressive demo program clicks with riders. Pivot’s huge fleet means prospective customers don’t have to wait a couple of hours for a bike. As an example, a somewhat serendipitous total of 429 riders did demos recently over a two-day mountain-bike festival near Seattle. From that event, one shop sold a dozen new $6000-$8000 bikes.

Chris Cocalis Interview

The Pivot Switchblade toggles between 29er and 27.5+ wheels.

At Bothell Ski & Bike, a Seattle-area dealer which for the past four years has led the nation in Pivot single-shop sales, co-owner Greg Pergament sees evidence of a Pivot virus. “We get one guy buying a Pivot, and pretty soon a couple of his friends will come in to pick up bikes,” Pergament says. “Next thing you know, their whole riding group is on Pivots.”

Last spring, after years of being on the periphery, Pivot moved to the main row at Sea Otter, next to industry icons Specialized and Fox. Its booth was arguably the show’s busiest demo site. “We’re doing well,” says Cocalis, not given to overstatement. But, he hints, the best is yet to come in the next 10 years.

On a recent visit to Seattle, Cocalis took time out to chat with Mtbr.

Mtbr: What was it like to launch brand 10 years ago? You were an industry success story with Titus, but then you’d gone back to the drawing board.
CC: When we launched, the economy was at its highest point. People were spending money like it was water. Two weeks after Interbike, everything came crashing down, and a bunch of dealers decided it wasn’t the right time to move on a brand new bike company. But what we showed was an instant hit. We grew the first few years at a point where not everyone who wanted a Pivot could have a Pivot.

Mtbr: Was the lure your implementation of DW-Link?
CC: We actually were the last to do DW-Link of everyone out there now. Iron Horse was collapsing, Ibis already was out there, and technically Turner had launched as well.

Mtbr: What about DW-Link caught your interest?
CC: At Titus we were four-bar. I’m a fan of that suspension design but also know its limitations. Kevin (Tisue) my engineer and I began building a dual-link bike. I’ve known Dave Weagle a long time and it started to look like we might infringe on his area of Instant Center patent. So I called him up and said, here’s where I’m at, is it a problem, and if we’re crossing into your backyard, will it be a problem getting a licensing deal? He said he didn’t want to do anything that would add another competitor to DW-Link in the marketplace, so I said, ok, we’ll show you where we’re at and maybe we can do something together. I didn’t know at the time anything about anti-squat, that’s not how I approach suspension design. At the beginning we had somewhat opposing views about how we would accomplish what we were after, and it took a bit of arm wrestling to get us on the same page when we did the first designs — to get his anti-squat curve and our fully active braking for the Mach 4. Our solution was to take the front derailleur, remove it from a mount to direct forging on the frame. We were the first ones to do that. We were working on next generation XTR in 2006 and so we developed the Press-fit 92 system with Shimano. Those two things with DW-Link and all the hollow forgings on the tech of the frame, there wasn’t anything like it in the market when we launched the Mach 4 and Mach 5.

Chris Cocalis Interview

Cocalis is always front and center at his company’s bike launches.

Mtbr: So you’re not afraid to take credit for press fit?
CC: It was nice to have Shimano on our side with that one. Whether you like or dislike press fit, it is the dominant system for carbon mountain bikes. Having Shimano back it, whether everyone hates them or not, they’ll move the industry in that direction.

Mtbr: Most of the time…
CC: (Laughing.) Most of the time. when it comes to frame compatibility. When it comes to which direction your derailleur shifts, not so much.

Mtbr: And integrated brakes… So how do you describe Pivot’s success?
CC: We’re one of the top three small mountain bike brands in the US. Santa Cruz is a lot bigger than us, and I’d put Yeti in our category. Ibis is a much smaller line. They’re decent but not the size of Pivot.

Mtbr: Are you aiming for Santa Cruz levels?
CC: They’re now owned by Pon, they’ve grown in global influence, and they’re lowering down certain price points. They’re in a trajectory toward bigger companies.

Mtbr: Are they your main competition, or is it the big boys like Specialized and Trek?
CC: To us they’re all competition. Our goal is always to build the best mountain bike for whatever category we enter. If you look at us in the $6000-$12,000 series, we’re very competitive with what Specialized and Trek are offering. But that’s just a small piece of their portfolio.

Chris Cocalis Interview

Pivot has even gotten in the component game.

Mtbr: What are your growth rates?
CC: We’ve grown substantially every year, more than doubling in the first years, and we continue to have 30-plus percent growth every year. We’ve got offices in Taiwan and in Germany. We’re up to 55 people at the mother ship, and we’re hiring.

Mtbr: What’s the secret to your success?
CC: We’re an engineering-based company, really product-focused. We don’t stop working on our bikes, we don’t let off the gas. We will even obsolete our own stuff in the process of pushing forward. When we issue a new release, I don’t sit back and think, well this has a four-year life. We keep pushing. We have an aggressive demo program, and a very dedicated team.

Mtbr: You’re celebrating your 10th anniversary at Interbike in September. What do you think about the move to Reno next year?
Chris Cocalis: At this point, any change is good. It’s time to be out of Vegas.

Mtbr: Why?
CC: We’ve had Outdoor Demo at Bootleg Canyon for so many years. For a lot of companies, it’s not what mountain biking is to them. It’s such gnarly terrain, no trees. It’s ball bearings on top of hardpack rock. Going to Northstar will up the experience for a lot of people, and hopefully that alone will be the draw. The Demo is more important to us than the show. People will really love Northstar. It’ll be cooler, we won’t all fry.

Mtbr: Some say Interbike’s problem isn’t the locale, it’s the time of year.
CC: It may be the end of season for retailers, but it’s got a different meaning for us in that we meet with all our dealers for the next year. We don’t follow a traditional product cycle, we launch when we’re ready with product. When Fox and Shimano or whoever shows in the spring at Sea Otter for example, the product is not really available. You’ve got vaporware till September or October. But riders see shiny new parts on Mtbr.com and say, I want that. Summer does come the same time each year. And they can’t get it, which creates frustration for us and for the dealers. October is when the weather changes, people are not riding as much, kids are back in school, dealers have time to come look at new stuff. Fall is still the best time, even with the arms race to see who can come out with new stuff earlier in the year.

Chris Cocalis Interview

Pivot makes dream bikes for a lot of rider types.

Mtbr: You’ve upped your demo program at a time when a lot of companies seem to be cutting back.
CC: We have the same thing going on in Germany now. We want that point of contact with Pivot to be memorable.

Mtbr: What’s in the works? You’ve shown a 29er downhill prototype at Fort William.
CC: It’s no secret that 29er DH looked like it was going to be a trend. But now it’s more a curiosity. We built our first downhill bike about a year ago and have been sitting on it waiting for the suspension side to catch up.

Mtbr: Was the fork the holdup?
CC: It was totally the fork. It just took longer than expected. At Fort William we had an existing front triangle with a custom rear triangle — aluminum with custom linkage — really to test the concept of 29 rather than how do we dial in the most perfect 29 DH bike. One of the reasons we’re going to Whistler this week is to test on different courses where 29er wheels could be faster. In a way it’s back to the original 29er days, where you could say, oh yeah, 29er wheels roll over stuff faster but this bike is shit. We’re looking at this as is it really feasible or just a fad? We’re building new rounds of prototypes that really optimize the chassis to handle 29ers.

Mtbr: Shorter pros seem to be backing off, notably Danny Hart.
CC: It’s a problem when you get shorter riders. Kevin is not as tall, and Emilie (Siegenthaler) on our pro team, she finished fourth at Mont Sainte Anne, she’s doing great on 27.5. I think it’s a bit of everybody going, yeah 29 adds this here but I lose that there. It was a problem when we went from 26 to 27.5, you go to the bigger wheel, and basically riders going in back of the saddle are getting torn off their bikes. With 29, can they get far enough back on their bike? Do they need to get as far back because even a long DH bike does not match the reach we’re running on a Firebird? Now you’ve got big wheels and if you get more rider-forward geometry, not hanging off the back wheel so far, those are things we need to test. There’s a German site, MTB-News.de, who we did a project bike for called Frankentrail, with ridiculously long geometry, to the point that a 120mm travel 29er with like a 62-63 degree head angle in a medium had a longer reach than an XL Firebird. When you put this bike into my pickup moto style with tie-downs, the rear axle was over the center line of the truck bed — about a third of a motorcycle longer!

Chris Cocalis Interview

The Arizona-based company hasn’t forgotten about the XC racer crowd.

Mtbr: Are we going to see a new wheel size?
CC: Oh I hope not.

Mtbr: Is plus on the wane?
CC: I’m a huge fan of plus. I’ve been working with Maxxis quite a bit on tire tech to allow tires to hold up better. We came up with something almost a year ago that’s just going into production now. Basically it’s stronger than Double Down casing but only 40-60 grams heavier than a 120 tpi EXO protection tire.

Mtbr: Is there a sweet spot for width?
CC: 2.8 is close. At 3.0 it starts to get a bit fat-bike’ish feeling. But at 2.6 you get into a more typical bike feel. You still get a lot of traction and cornering, and tire durability goes up a bit. With bike performance going up, riders are pushing faster and harder. But they still want light weight. You can’t cheat the tire gods too much. So 2.4, 2.5 is kind of the enduro/downhill sweet spot now, for the recreational rider anywhere from 2.6 to 2.8. When you get to 2.8 on a 29er, though, that’s just heavy.

Mtbr: Will Pivot do an e-bike?
CC: We’ll see. I never say never, and the market’s gonna go where it’s gonna go. We’re becoming a stronger player in Europe and out of dealers in Germany, e-bikes are 50 percent of mountain bike sales over $3000. They’re going to stick. Here there are a lot of access issues and a perception issue as well.

Mtbr: What about electronic components?
CC: We’re waiting for SRAM’s eTap to come on the mountain side. I know Shimano is fully invested on next-generation Di2. It’s perfect when you have it on there, but it’s expensive and a little heavier. Or it’s really light and it breaks. It’ll be awhile for widespread adoption.

Chris Cocalis Interview

From the ashes of Titus has come one of the bike industry’s fastest growing brands.

Mtbr: Riders complain about $6000 being the new normal for bike pricing. What’s your take?
CC: I’m always worried about cost. I think about it all the time, it just drives me crazy.

Mtbr: That’s reassuring…
CC: You can build a $3500 bike today that’s way better than a $5000 bike was a few years ago. But riders still want carbon frames and wheels and lighter weights and higher performance. At $6000, for the people in the game at that level, price doesn’t seem to be a barrier. Nobody’s making a killing selling bikes at the $6000 to $10,000 level. People look at your $10,000 bike and think you can buy a limited edition KTM 450 for that. But it’s still just like a really nice Toyota. The best stuff that comes off a motorcycle showroom floor isn’t even close suspension-wise, tolerance-wise, to a Fox shock or Pike fork or bike frame tolerances. A mountain bike has to be able to jump buildings with a three-pound fork with no stiction or seal leakage. I get into taking motorcycle components apart, and you see how the upper stanchions and lower tubes fit, and how crappy the castings are, one leg is tight and the other has play. Because everything vibrates on a motorcycle and there’s all this horsepower, you don’t notice it. If that noise showed up on a bicycle, it would just be unacceptable. The bang for buck in bicycling is insanely good.

Mtbr: Any particular industry trends on the horizon?
CC: Suspension keeps getting better, frames are really good, and wheels have gotten stiffer with carbon. So now the tires are getting abused. There’s couple of companies with foam inserts and ways to damp the ride. Some of biggest leaps in the next 5 years will be in tire-rim interface technology. We have a testing ground where I can come through rock gardens and corners on plus wheels that at a certain speed I rip a brand new tire on the first run. Flat protection and tire technology is going to have to evolve to catch up with the rest of the bike.

Mtbr: How about components?
CC: It’s just a matter of time before you won’t have to sit on a seat to drop your post. You’ll hit a button and it will go down for you, so you can set up for a section as you’re coming into it. You’ll save time and be in a safer situation.

Mtbr: How close is that?
CC: Maybe a couple of years. Rider weight still gets it down the quickest. By the time you press a button and have a motor pull it, it’s not worth it.

Mtbr: You’ve helped many riders build dream bikes. What’s your dream bike?
CC: (Chuckling.) I’m never really quite satisfied. We go into a project and we evolve and evolve, and at some point we have to say it’s time to make the bike. But you’ve got 5 to 10 ideas saved up for the next project. So my dream bike never quite exists. My main goal is the older I get, I want to make bikes that will keep me at my same speed… or faster. People ask what’s your favorite bike, and I always say the next one.

To see the latest from Pivot head to www.pivotcycles.com.


Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)


About the author: Paul Andrews

Dividing his time between Seattle and Santa Cruz, career journalist Paul Andrews has more than a quarter century of mountain biking under his belt, which he wishes had a few less notches.


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  • chase says:

    Where is the Frankentrail article? I searched and it’s nowhere.
    My biggest issue with CF frames the lack of long, slack choices. Some aluminum ones (I’m riding one now and love it).

    • Paul says:

      Hey Chase, Chris tells me the article has not been published but it’s coming. Google should locate it once it’s up… ride on!

  • Mark says:

    What a visionary, thanks for the interview

  • dddd says:

    Very interesting what Chris said about the comparison of bicycle suspension to motorcycle suspension. The dirt bike suspensions are sophisticated and actually hold up to hard usage, but are much heavier and it sounds like some get away with quality issues. I agree that tires need more development to exploit width and pressure options, and with what he said about widths in general. Pivot has become a very popular brand here in Auburn, CA, even though not everyone feels like they can afford full suspension.

  • Mike R. says:

    Great interview ! :-)

    I remember Chris giving a buddy and me a tour of the Titus factory in the mid-1990′s. Even then you could tell he was TRULY a meticulous person as well as being an engineer and bike geek.

    From a Titus MotoLite to my current Pivot 429′er he’s made riding mtn bikes truly enjoyable ! :-)

  • McCool says:

    I’d take an eBike over a 29er anyday! Waiting for 26+.

  • Nick Janssen says:

    29×3 is where its at Chris. Tires aren’t too heavy. Bontrager did their homework and developed the Chupacabra 120TPI at 878.2g. I have punished one on the front for over two years and am testing one front and rear at the moment with zero sidewall tears through sharp rock gardens every week. Check out all the other 27.5plus and 29plus tire data to see that the plus bike tires don’t have to be too much heavier than other tires:
    http://www.ridealongside.com/plus-bike-data/

  • useyourbody says:

    “…stronger than Double Down casing but only 40-60 grams heavier than a 120 tpi EXO”

    The best mtb news I’ve heard all year. Esp the “going into production now” part! Probably further out than I’m hoping, but can’t wait for this game-changer to come to market.

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