Pivot Cycles: A Look Inside the Bike Development Process

Lots of bike companies sweat the details, but few shed the buckets of perspiration that the dedicated folks at Pivot Cycles do.

After leaving the company’s new 27000-square-foot facility in Tempe, Arizona, my brother-in-law who accompanied me on the tour couldn’t help but muse aloud, “Chris [Cocalis] is so detail oriented and focused on doing things right… he’s definitely the guy you want to buy a bike from.”

Nodding in agreement I remarked, “I’ve toured a lot of bike-manufacturing facilities and this one is dialed.”

Working with a lean, but talented, crew in a space with plenty of room to grow, Pivot Cycles is poised to be a major player in the high-end mountain bike market. After seeing the operation first hand, it’s clear that they owe their success to the process they use to develop their bikes.

Pivot Prototype Drawing

Hand drawn sketch of the Pivot Vault.

Beginning first with hand-drawn sketches, the bike starts to take shape. The sketches are then further refined and details added. Far from a scribble on a bar room napkin, these beautiful drawings could be considered artwork by any hardcore cyclist. From there, the drawings are redrawn—digitally this time—from a side view, with Pivot Cycles founder and owner Chris Cocalis dictating the shock stroke, shock eye-to-eye length, and some rough geometry numbers and a specific riding style for the bike.

Seasoned suspension guru, Dave Weagle, then develops the suspension kinematics and locks down the pivot locations on the frame’s DW-Link suspension (for the uninitiated, DW stands for Dave Weagle). Weagle uses his engineering know-how to create a pivot location that optimizes anti-squat (how firm the suspension becomes when pedaling), initial suppleness, midstroke support, and bottom-out resistance.

Then, Pivot engineers develop digital 3D renderings and devise a layup schedule for the sheets of carbon fiber, dialing the process in through the use of finite element analysis (simulated stress testing). Next,  all of the small parts like cable guides and suspension bumpers are drawn up and prototypes are created using a 3D printer  to ensure that they achieve the desired goals of the application.

Pivot Cycles 3D Rendering

Frames are drawn in 3D for structural analysis and later, manufacturing.

Developing a working prototype is the next step, and this is the part of the tour that completely blew me away. All of the prototype development, save for heat treatment of metal protoype parts is done in-house at Pivot. Anyone familiar with the process of bike development is accustomed to seeing hacked-together, raw-aluminum prototype ‘mules’ that serve as a proof-of-concept for suspension layouts and initial geometry.

Pivot doesn’t make these. Ever.

Their first prototype in the development process is indistinguishable from a production aluminum bike; indistinguishable, in fact, from a very high-end, production aluminum bike. Moreover, this aluminum prototype is engineered to mirror the stiffness of the eventual finished carbon fiber frame so that ride characteristics are known in advance.

Pivot Phoenix Prototype

This aluminum Phoenix prototype showcases Pivot’s insane attention to detail. Perfect welds, logos machined in, powder coated, decals, and carbon matched stiffness are par for the course on all Pivot prototypes.

The attention to detail on these prototype rigs borders on ridiculous. Pivot logos and and their signature phoenix mascot are machined into the bottom bracket/lower pivot assembly. Why? Because that’s just how they operate at Pivot. The machined pieces even have chamfers for ideal weld penetration and are engineered to be as light as possible while still matching the stiffness of the finished carbon bike, even though having a light aluminum frame for prototype purposes is completely unnecessary.

I would go so far as to say that I’ve never seen an aluminum production bike with this level of insane detail. The two machined clamshell bottom bracket/lower pivot assembly halves are so over-the-top engineered, that interlocking ridges along the perimeter of the two halves ensure that the part can be assembled like two aluminum Legos!

Press the two halves together and they stay that way until you pull them apart. I should note that it takes no effort to push the parts together—they are that precise. There is a method to this madness however, the internal ridges that make this kind of fit achievable ensure that the welded joint is as strong as possible.

Pivot also develops the tooling to mass-produce their bikes in Taiwan. Sometimes this tooling is developed before the prototype in order to ensure that it is right the first time. This tooling even includes aluminum hydroform molds as well as the CNC tombstones (tools that hold parts during the machining process). Making tooling for an overseas manufacturer is incredibly rare in the bike industry, so I asked Cocalis why he goes through all the effort. “When we don’t make the tools, the factory says that the part is impossible to make; but when we show them this (pointing to the tooling and a finished part)…it makes the impossible, possible.”

Pivot Hydroforming Fixture

This hydroforming die is an example of the tooling Pivot produces for its manufacturing partners.

Cocalis closely manages the Taiwan factory, spending nine months of his first year launching Pivot Cycles to train the factory to build bikes the way that he does in Phoenix. He currently travels to Taiwan four times per year to manage production. Part of that management is ensuring that employees are full-time rather than temporary, so that they can develop the skills they need to do their job at the highest level. Chris also disallows the use of subcontractors, thereby preventing the factory from farming out parts to lower-quality producers.

Pivot Grip Prototypes

3D printing is a big part of the design process at Pivot. Check out the evolution of their new grip.

And that’s just the frames. Pivot also has their own line of components that are spec’d on their stock builds. Far from the ‘your name here’ components found on his competitor’s bikes, all of the same attention to detail that goes into a Pivot frame also goes into Pivot components, whether it is a carbon handlebar, a saddle, or even a grip. Cocalis spent months developing a lock-on Pivot grip. Finding the perfect blend of gripiness, comfort, and diameter is harder than it looks and Chris doesn’t settle for anything that doesn’t work exactly how he wants it. All of this adds up to a bike that is remarkably precise and performs at the highest level.

With all that said, the only way to truly appreciate a Pivot is to get out and ride one. Cocalis knows this and has developed a massive fleet of 120 demo bikes that are distributed across the country by multiple demo trucks. There’s a reason why mountain-bike magazine editors are calling Chris to pay for a Pivot, despite the fact that they often have a quiver full of free test bikes at their disposal.

The bikes really are that good.