05 April 2014

Quelle Coincidence!

Wouldn't you know it?  The other day I wrote, among other things, about aluminum frames of the recent and distant past.  So, on my way out of work last night, what should I chance to see but this?:

It is, of course, one of the most iconic aluminum frames of all:  the Vitus 979, from France.

Vitus aluminum frames were somewhat-more-refined versions of what is commonly regarded as the first modern aluminum frame:  the ALAN, from Italy.  (Alan is short for "alluminio anodizzato," Italian for "anodized aluminum.) 

While the ALAN consisted of aluminum alloy tubes bolted and bonded into thicker aluminum lugs, Vitus skipped the bolting and simply glued the frame together.  Company engineers claimed--with justification, I believe--that the bonding material Vitus used was stronger than what was found in Alan frames.  Whatever the case, I have never heard of either frame coming apart at the joints.

The ALAN was introduced in 1972; the Vitus came seven years later.  While the Italian frame gained a small if loyal following among time trialists and others who wanted to build the lightest possible bike, its French counterpart was ridden by club cyclists as well as racers.  Also, being one of the most expensive frames available at the time, it had a certain amount of snob appeal in the '80's, when it reached its peak of popularity.

Like the ALAN, the Vitus was often kitted out with the lightest or most "trick" componentry available.  For the ALAN, that meant Campagnolo Super Record gear with titanium bits.  On the other hand, Vituses were often seen with Mavic hubs and GEL-280 rims (Mavic had yet to produce a pre-built wheelset), Stronglight 106 cranks with the company's titanium bottom bracket, CLB or Speidel brakes and Huret Jubilee derailleurs.  

The Vitus set-up I described is what Jeannie Longo, whom many regard as the greatest female racer of all time, rode to victory in the Tour de France Feminin and her first Olympic win.  

The example I saw parked on the street looks like a model from around that time.  When new, the top and down tubes were anodized in a magenta-ish shade of pink, while the seat tube had more of a purplish hue.  Anodizing, especially in brighter and bolder colors, tends to fade over time; the bike in the photos doesn't have much of its original tint left.

When I see bikes like that--or a classic steel frame--I always wonder whether it's being ridden by the original owner, or whether it was inherited.  (A young man I met on the Staten Island Ferry about a year ago told me his father raced the Simoncini he was riding.)  In the case of the Vitus, or an Alan, I also wonder how much it was ridden over the years.  You see, those frames had aluminum tubes in the same diameter as Reynolds, Columbus or other steel tubes including the ones Vitus were still making at the time they produced their aluminum frames. That made for a very light, though flexy bike.  (On the other hand, it also made for a very comfortable ride over long distances and hours.)  Those factors probably explain why Longo and other female--as well as smaller male--racers rode them.

In 1992, Vitus superceded the 979 with a new model, the 992.  It featured ovoid aluminum tubes in an attempt to make the bike stiffer without resorting to large-diameter tubing, as Klein and Cannondale were employing.  Even so, the 992 was never as popular as the 979, in part because it came along just as titanium frames were becoming popular. And, of course, within a few years carbon--which Vitus helped to re-introduce during the 1980's--would take much of the market share enjoyed by tituanium and Vitus aluminum frames.

Still, whoever rides the bike I saw last night is enjoying an interesting bit of cycling history.  Somehow it's nice to know that Vitus is still making aluminum and carbon frames though, apparently, it's discontinued its maganese-molybdenum steel tubing.  However, I couldn't find information on whether or not the frames were still being made in France.  After all, Look and Time, the most venerable French carbon-fiber bikes, are now being manufactured in Asia.

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