Sign up for our newsletter

Vitus: Real riding through the years

In association with
8 Sep 2021

From St Etienne to Sean Kelly and a 21st century rebirth, we look at the evolution of Vitus

Every journey has a beginning. For Vitus, life began in St Etienne in 1931 with French steel tubing manufacturer Ateliers de la Rive. The company started out making Rubis and Durifort tube sets before the lighter, double-butted Vitus was introduced. High-end frame builders soon recognised Vitus’s quality and began to embrace it.

Vitus established itself as a serious force in cycling in the ’70s. Continuing to build frames in France, the company played a pivotal role in pioneering the design and manufacture of lugged and bonded aluminium frames. Lightweight, strong and robust, these frames and Vitus’s continual innovation in the area would help put the company on the map.

Cycling’s golden age

As the ’70s ticked over to the ’80s, cycling found its footing and experienced a real surge in popularity. Pro riders like Ireland’s Sean Kelly, Australia’s Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper, America’s Marianne Martin and Britain’s Graham Jones all made an impression during this era. They had one thing in common: they all rode a Vitus 979.

One of the most successful racing bikes ever built, the 979 debuted in September 1979 (hence ‘979’) at the Salon du Cycle, Paris. Aesthetically, it owes a lot to Roger Roche, a local frame builder who used modern methods and materials to turn the idea of a durable, lightweight performance bike into reality. Roche’s ‘RR’ initials, engraved on the fork crowns, seat stay caps and head tube, are a permanent reminder of his contribution.

The Vitus 979’s new and distinctive frame quickly became synonymous with Sean ‘King’ Kelly. The Irishman won nine Monument classics and 193 professional races across his remarkable career. Kelly’s dominance of ’80s cycling saw him win Paris-Nice seven years in a row, and notch up multiple victories in the Giro di Lombardia, Milan–San Remo and Paris–Roubaix.

On paper, Vitus’s Gallic flair and Kelly’s tough persona didn’t seem an obvious mix. But throughout the ’80s they forged a formidable bond. Observing Kelly’s success, writer Robin Magowan said he exhibited ‘a certain type of mentality’, one that was ‘willing to suffer, narrowly focussed, and hard, hard, hard’.

It’s something echoed by Kelly himself, who reflected on his career in a 2017 interview with CyclingTips: ‘I think in cycling you have to have a strong mentality. You need to have it to become a good bike rider, even before you become a professional cyclist. But once you turn pro, I think it does improve further. In a Tour de France, for example, when you are competing for three weeks against a lot of other athletes, that helps in itself to give you a stronger mentality, a resilience.’

Kelly’s gritty, uncompromising attitude made him a worthy world No. 1, hitting the top spot when the FICP rankings were first introduced in 1984. Many of Kelly’s wins on board a Vitus are now part of cycling folklore, and helped cement the company as the world’s largest manufacturer of aluminium bicycles.

The ’90s and a new era

Vitus took its next evolutionary leap in the early ’90s with the ZX-1. A sleek, futuristic-looking one-piece monocoque construction frame, its dynamic shape and internal cable routing showed that Vitus was again leading the way in bicycle innovation.

After a rocky few years in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the brand briefly closed its doors in 2008, before being bought by a team of engineers from Northern Ireland in 2009. The brand’s history and heritage were an ideal fit for the team’s enthusiasm and cycling vision. A figure from Vitus’s illustrious past returned, too. The new owners brought in Sean Kelly as a brand ambassador to share his racing experience and help in the construction of high performance bikes. It’s a position he still holds today.

After several years of intensive development, Vitus relaunched in 2011 with a new set of road and mountain bikes. The carbon-framed Vitesse VR featured in the road bike range, while the Nucleus range would go on to become a four-time winner of hardtail of the year.

The following year saw a limited-edition Sean Kelly signature Vitesse road bike introduced. This Vitesse’s carbon frame and fork would eventually form the basis of the bikes for the An Post–Chain Reaction UCI professional race team. In 2018 the ZX-1, Vitus’s legendary bike from the early ’90s, was reborn as a cutting-edge aero.

Vitus now 

While the Vitus brand has an impressive elite history behind it, its core purpose has always been to serve real riders. Nowadays, you won’t see Vitus in the World Tour, but you might notice its presence at your local race. From racing teams focusing on nurturing young talent to local groups putting on events to help riders get more out of their bikes, Vitus supports people and ‘real racing’ events that are making cycling more accessible. In spring 2021, the brand sponsored Team Spectra, a gender-balanced, multi-discipline race team aiming to shake up cycling. Supporting real riding is about getting everyone out cycling – especially after the restrictions of the past 18 months.

Vitus brand ambassador Helen Jenkins, a two-time world champion and triple Olympian, one of Britain’s most celebrated triathletes and an inspirational figure for a new generation of athletes, is optimistic about the future of cycling. In a recent interview with Vitus, she explained that the pandemic has encouraged people to get back on their bikes. ‘Cycling has huge momentum at the moment, even more so now due to Covid-19,’ she said. ‘The pandemic has both pushed people into cycling as a safe and clean mode of transport but has also seen people fall back in love with their unused bikes as a means of exercise.’

For Vitus, building up that cycling community is a big focus. Through Vitus’s channels and communications you’ll see celebrations of Vitus riders, the cycling they take part in – whether that’s road, MTB, gravel, cyclocross or touring – and the achievements they’ve made. This all matters immensely to the Vitus team because they’re real riders too. Some might be faster than others, but everyone shares a passion for cycling – in fact, you’ve probably come across a Vitus team member out on your weekend rides.

Rooted in a heritage of cutting-edge frame design, Vitus’s in-house R&D team works to create bikes that are easy to ride and that you can feel good about. When developing a bike, the team asks themselves a crucial question: ‘Are we making it extraordinary and are we keeping it real?’. This also means making sure bikes are affordable to the everyday rider. For example, the ZX-1 Evo and Vitesse EVO give top-level performance without an eye-watering price tag to match. And you won’t find Vitus investing in expensive elite sponsorship deals.

A love of real riding permeates everything Vitus does, from working tirelessly with the latest technologies and materials to ensuring the bikes are widely available by selling directly to riders through Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles. The mantra behind Vitus’s brand new ZX-1 EVO sums it up perfectly: ‘It’s fast, the rest is up to you.’

Explore the Vitus range