Retro Review: The Legendary Vitus 979
Forty years ago competitive cycling was enjoying a Golden Age. What is nostalgic now was transformative then – a fresh generation of international riders, new materials and methods for cycle manufacture, more efficient components, aero designs and specialised time trial machines.
An Icon of 1980s cycling was France's Vitus 979 frame which exemplified many of the innovations of the decade which it outlasted to become one of the most successful racing bicycles ever.
One of the last triumphs of the French racing bicycle, the 979 is instead best remembered for its participation in the globalization of the pro peloton. This was the machine that the “Foreign Legion”— Australia’s Phil Anderson, Ireland’s Sean Kelly and Colombia’s Luis Herrera— rode to tête de la course of the Continental
So pop-in a cassette of Kraftwerk's Tour de France in your Walkman, and rediscover the 1980s when the Neuf Sept Neuf and the Foreign Legion ruled pavé and peloton.
Although the first effort at an aluminium bicycle dates to 1890s, none had the strength and rigidity required of the competitive racing cycle due to ineffective means of joining the tubes by screws.
The Second World War saw enormous advances in bonding alloy in aviation and the adoption of the technology to other applications after the war. By the late 1940s, alloy components were in widespread use on racing cycles.
After TI Reynolds wrung the last ounce out of steel with its 753 tubing in the 1970s, Italy and France adopted new advances from the aerospace field in bonding alloy to finally produce an all-alloy racing frame.
In 1972 the Italian Alan led the way with a “screwed and glued” alloy frame which was the first used in pro racing.
Rival French efforts with bonded alloy frames were centered on Saint-Étienne where in 1886 where the Gauthier brothers built the first French bicycle, and the heart of the national cycle industry. One of the many companies located there was Ateliers de la Rive, makers of the Vitus brand of cycle tubing. In 1970 the Bador firm, also of Saint-Étienne, acquired a majority share of the company and under a new President, Antoine Dumas, Vitus introduced the new Super Vitus 971.
Vitus/Bador joined forces with Angenieux-CLB, Péchiney (France's leading manufacturer of alloy tubing) and America's 3M Company (leaders in adhesive technologies and products) to develop a new process of bonding alloy tubes to precast alloy components without additional screws or pins.
In 1975-76 the first prototypes were designed and built by local frame builder Roger Roche. It was Roche who developed the idea of fitting the lugs or frame ends into the tubing as a press-fit male-female joining socket. This not only reduced the labour of construction, but permitted the even flow of adhesive on the entire joint. Here was a cycle frame not only built of novel materials, but constructed in a wholly new fashion, ideally suited for mass production.
On 31 July 1978 Paule Defour (CLB) and Antoine Dumas (Bador) were awarded a French patent for a new method of dry heat activated epoxy bonding alloy tubing to slip-fit cast alloy lugs, drop-outs, bottom bracket and brake bridge made by CLB. Bador also patented a jig-based production process.
Bador assembled the frames from the outside supplied component parts and sold them as Vitus branded framesets or to the French cycle companies (and many foreign ones), cycle distributors and large retail outlets which “branded” them under their own names and fitted out by them as complete machines.
The timeless aesthetics of the Vitus 979 frame are owed to Roger Roche who turned the unique concept and materials into a perfect combination of traditional frame design and artisan craftsmanship and modern methods and materials. Finally, here was an alloy frame that didn’t seem derived from the pipefitting trade.
The Vitus 979 frame was new and distinctive. Its conventionally sized tubes gave a traditional appearance offset by the quietly contemporary shaping of the cast alloy stays and fork, all rendered in a natural satin finish and contrasting with the anodised coloured or natural alloy main tubes. The fork was especially attractive with its oversized blades designed to blend harmoniously with the head tube. The lack of painted finishes made the frame cheaper to manufacture and maintain as well as more durable.
The advantage of aluminium, its light weight, was fully achieved in the new Vitus 979 frame which weighed about 30% less than a steel one. A 59 cm (c-c) frame and fork tipped the scales at just 1.8 kg or 4 lbs. A fully fitted top-class 979 racing bike weighed about 18-19 lbs.
The Vitus 979 featured an aggressive geometry with 74° head/74° seat angles, a resilient short rake (1 9/16") fork, short 16" chain stays and vertical drop-outs giving a wheelbase of just 38.5" and making for an exceptionally light handling machine. Provision was made for Allen recessed bolt short reach (38-47) brakes. This was all very forward thinking in 1979 and enabled adoption of the same alloy castings on later carbon fibre models.
FLEX & FAULTS
Characteristic of the 979 was the inherent flex of the duralinox tubing which was conventional metric size and less laterally strong than steel tubing. This was more apparent in larger frame sizes and most frames were made 59 cm and smaller. But this also gave it superb dampening qualities on bad road surfaces, making it popular on grueling day events like the Paris-Roubaix and the spring classics.
… Phil Anderson was the first Australian to wear the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France, riding a PX-10DU
(the Peugeot 979 model)...
What proved remarkably effective was the glue bonding although in hard competitive cycling, most teams replaced the frames each season. And it was said that powerful sprinters like Sean Kelly swapped out his Vitus frames every month or so before they "got soft".
The original alloy steerer tube, prone to vibration in hard braking, was replaced by steel by the early 1980s. One weakness of the original design, the cracking of the alloy "ears" for the seat post binder bolt, led to redesign of the seat post lug in 1985 to incorporate an internal grub screw to hold a newly designed 25 mm seat post.
The Vitus 979 was introduced in September 1979 at the Salon du Cycle, Paris, so yes, the 979 came out in 9.79! Motobecane, Peugeot and Bertin were among the first to offer it badged and sold as complete machines such as the Motobecane Prolight and Peugeot PX-10DU.
...Vitus created two aero models in 1982 by shaping the seat and down tubes to achieve an aerodynamic profile with an oval ("Arcor") or lozenge ("Losange") contour...
The 979 was an unqualified success. In 1984, annual production hit a high of 17,000 frames a year and that May the 50,000th frame left the Bador factory. In all, over 145,000 were manufactured by the time production finally ended in 1997.
VARIATIONS ON A VITUS THEME
Further enshrining the 979 into the 1980s era was its figuring in the “aero” craze. Vitus created two aero models in 1982 by shaping the seat and down tubes to achieve an aerodynamic profile with an oval ("Arcor") or lozenge ("Losange") contour and the seat stays were flattened to give an aero profile. These, however, were not successful and only produced for a few years.
By the mid 1980s, the 979 was available in a ladies frame model as well as “lo pro” time trial designs for road or track.
The 979 paved the way for bonded Vitus frames incorporating carbon fibre, first in the main triangle (Vitus Plus Carbone in autumn 1983), then all nine tubes (Vitus Plus+9 in 1986) which the same cast alloy components of the 979.
A new design, the 992, with an integral headset and ovalised aero Duralinox tubing, was introduced in September 1991.
The Vitus 979 was the first dominate non steel frame in pro racing. Ridden to its first professional win by Herman Van Springel on 18 May 1980 (Paris-Bordeaux) and its last by Sean Kelly on 20 April 1988 (Ghent-Wvelgam), the 979 proved itself with more wins than any single racing cycle for over eight years.
FOREIGN LEGION FLAGSHIP
If the 979 is remembered today, it’s mainly as being the mount of choice of cycling’s “Foreign Legion”, the new crop of international riders that burst on the Continental racing circuit in the early ‘eighties, including:
• Phil Anderson (Australia) 1981-1982 (Peugeot)
The first Australian to wear the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France, 7 July 1981, riding a PX-10DU (the Peugeot 979 model).
• Sean Kelly (Ireland) 1982-1988 (France-Loire, KAS)
The greatest Vitus champion who won 80% of his victories riding the 979 including seven wins Paris-Nice, 33 total wins alone in 1984 including Paris-Roubaix and most of the spring classics.
•Luis Herrera (Colombia) 1984 (Varta-Café Colombia)
Riding a 979, the first non European and amateur rider to win a stage of the Tour de France 16 July 1984 Stage 17.
•Marianne Martin 1984 (U.S. National Team)
The first American and first woman to win the Tour de France Feminine in July 1984 riding a 979.
Model: Year 1987
Groupset: Shimano Sante
Finish: Brushed Alloy
Price: Whatever a dedicated enthusiast / collector will pay.