How to Break Into the Cycling Industry – Pivot’s Chris Cocalis’ Story
Welcome to the first of a new series on how to break into the cycling industry. Bikerumor was started because, well, I wanted to get into the industry. It’s a common dream amongst cyclists, and I won’t lie – It’s awesome. The people are fantastic, and everyone just loves bikes.
What I’ve found over the past 3-1/2 years of running this site is that there are a million different ways to work in the cycling industry. We’ll highlight stories that showcase the odd jobs people have found as well as the more common ones and some of the interesting ways folks have found to break in. As with most success stories, the road is often longer and more mutated than anyone imagines. Like they say, truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve found it also makes for a darn good story.
The series will, hopefully, have no end. But it’s beginning with the story of Chris Cocalis, founder of Pivot Cycles and the U.S. importer for BH Bikes. Before that he started Titus. How do you start multiple bike companies from scratch, build them into highly regarded brands and capture distribution rights for one of Europe’s most historic badges? Let’s find out…
BIKERUMOR: Who are you and what are you doing here?
COCALIS: I am the President and founder of Pivot Cycles and also BH Bikes USA. Pivot Cycles is a high end mountain bike company focusing on the very top end of high performance mountain bikes (primarily full suspension). BH Bikes is a 102 year old Spanish bicycle company with a strong history in European cycling and racing. I founded Pivot Cycles 5 years ago to introduce a new line of cutting edge mountain bikes and at the same time formed a partnership with BH bikes to help design and bring their cutting edge road bikes to North America.
We are a relatively small company (although growing fast) so I wear a lot of hats. As President, of course I handle all the general planning and overseeing the business but am really driven by the design and product development side of the business. I am a rider and love the technical side of the sport. I wake up in the morning wanting to always build a better bike.
BIKERUMOR: What was your first job or experience in the cycling industry? How did you “break” in?
My first job was at a bike shop. Actually, it wasn’t even a job at first. I was 9 years old and wanted to sign up for a bicycle maintenance and repair class through our local park district. I was too young so my mom had to get permission from the bike shop that ran the class to let me in (Mike’s Bikes in Palatine, Illinois). I must have re-enrolled in that class 3 or 4 times to the point where Wayne Mikes would start the class teaching families how to fix flat tires while I was overhauling coaster brake hubs in back. I became the shop rat, began racing BMX shortly thereafter and got my first “real” bike shop job at 15.
As far as “breaking” in, I kind of made my own path. I worked at and managed bike shops all through college, attended the USCF academy in Colorado Springs and got my USCF mechanics certification, learned how to braze from the original founder of NORBA and welded my first mountain bike frame in 1987. Even before that, I designed my own BMX frame and had someone build it for me. I was just always pushing to gain more knowledge and was never happy with my equipment. I always wanted something better. In 1988 I met a titanium welder from Allied Signal Aerospace and we built our first titanium bikes together. The two of us and another aerospace engineer founded Titus Cycles in 1991. I was the president of Titus Cycles for 17 years before selling it about 7 years ago.
BIKERUMOR: What’s your educational background?
I attended Arizona State University for the first several years in engineering and then graduated with a Bachelor of Science in accounting. (yes, accounting….that wasn’t a typo)
BIKERUMOR: After that first experience/job, what was the path to your current position?
I was a senior at ASU, managing a bike store, and building frames. At the very beginning of Titus we built some suspension proto-types for John Radar (the guy who invented the Aheadset) after meeting him at a bike race (Cactus Cup, I believe). The design worked well and he sold the concept to Univega. Univega asked that we build them 175 Titanium frames for production. At that time we were very much hand building the bikes out of the garage and were not equipped to handle that kind of production.
Plus, I was interviewing with several accounting firms to head into the real world. One of my accounting professors was an avid cyclist and was urging me to do this, not go into accounting. His name was Hal Reneau (Godspeed Hal) and he was my thesis director. My thesis was a business plan for a custom bicycle manufacturing business that could build fully custom bikes in a production like manner. Hal backed my idea and became my first investor. I graduated, rented a building, hired our first employees, and got married all in the same year, while assembling bikes at night and weekends for two different bike shops to pay the bills.
We went on to build mountain and road frames, components, and suspension systems for Diamond Back, DEAN, SyCip, Kestral, Conejo, High-Zoot, Terry, Speedgoat, Edge, LeMond and many others before really focusing on our own Titus designs. During the early years, I cut and fit all the tubes, worked on the drawings and basically did everything but the welding. I had my hands in everything from the earliest suspension innovations, to developing custom road frames for the LeMond Mercury team, and then developing metal matrix materials with a couple different manufacturers. In the last few years before leaving Titus, we developed Exogrid and Isogrid carbon technologies as well as the MaxM brand of components. Most of the high end composite work was done in house so I had a large amount of hands on experience with that as well. It all adds up to where I am today.
BIKERUMOR: What’s a normal day for you?
I travel about 5 months out of the year between spending a lot of time at the factories, trade shows, events, visiting with our customers, etc. This keeps my job pretty action packed. When I am in the office, I have meetings several days a week with all the key people, but I try and spend the most of my time on product development and production. We have a full CNC machining and production capabilities in house so we always have projects in development. We also have 3 engineer/designers and I spend a greater percentage of my time with them working on new projects.
BIKERUMOR: What are the highlights of your job?
Creating new bikes. It is what drives me. I can’t sleep when we are getting something new close to the stage where I can ride it. Whether that be an aluminum prototype, or the first new carbon frames out of the mold. I love to assemble the prototypes myself in order to check every detail. For me, the only thing more therapeutic than building a bike is riding one.
Also, I get to work with an awesome group of people. Everyone works so hard for the same goal and it’s always awesome to see how dedicated everyone is and see our team pulling together. We are only a five year old company and I would not be in the position I am in today without the other like minded cycling nuts that I work with.
BIKERUMOR: What could you do without?
Jetlag! I just got back from a trip and have been up all night (although I did sleep until 3 in the afternoon today) Incidentally, this interview is taking place in the middle of the night (although it is morning in Spain and afternoon in Asia).
BIKERUMOR: What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your path today?
You need to live it and you need to start out in a bike shop and learn from the ground up. I get a lot of resume’s from people who are going to school for design, engineering, or business and somewhere along the line they became cycling enthusiasts so they think working for a bike company would be a cool job. Well, it is a really cool job, but it is a job that requires a lot of knowledge and there are a lot of people that want to do it. If you love cycling and want to do this as a living then live it like it’s the only thing you want to do. People appreciate passion and drive, but it’s hard to resist when it comes with a healthy dose of knowledge and experience.