Monday, April 13, 2015

Zeus Bikes and Components

Basically dead-ringers for Campagnolo Record pedals,
these Zeus Gran Sport pedals feature aluminum cages. 
While going through a box containing some of my old components, I rediscovered this old pair of Zeus pedals that I had purchased years ago for another project, then didn't end up using. They got put away and were forgotten. They're a little dirty, but basically unused. I'm thinking about putting them to use soon.

Zeus was an interesting enigma of a bicycle and component company. There are a number of legends that surround the brand, though it's difficult to parse fact from fiction. They were probably best known as one of several companies making knockoff Campagnolo parts, but they also tried to earn a reputation for innovation, though the results were sometimes mixed. They were one of the few companies anywhere that made not only bike components, but also complete bicycles, including frames. They also made frame fittings, such as dropouts and fork crowns. Back in the '70s one could buy a bike with the Zeus name on the frame, as well as on virtually all the components -- and they were all actually made by Zeus (unlike, say, a Schwinn with "Schwinn-Approved" components, which were re-branded from other companies).

Later iterations of the Zeus pedals would have more of an
"hourglass" shape, and featured titanium spindles and cages!
Zeus was founded in 1926 in the Basque region of Spain, originally making small parts and components, and later frames and complete bicycles. I've read more than once that Zeus claimed to have designed the first parallelogram derailleur in the early 30s, long before Campagnolo, and even before the Nivex of 1938. It's an awesome legend -- but good luck finding any actual evidence to support it. Frank Berto, in his book The Dancing Chain, concludes that it was a corporate myth. Maybe somebody at Zeus made some pencil sketches in a notebook of such a thing, but they certainly didn't make or sell any parallelogram derailleurs prior to the 1950s, when they introduced a faithful copy of the Campagnolo Gran Sport, which they named . . . the Gran Sport. Throughout the '60s and early part of the '70s, the company copied Campy designs almost religiously. Other companies did the same, but the parts from Zeus were at least better than most copies.

A heavily drilled Zeus 2000 crankset, from a mid-70s advertisement.
The arms on later versions wouldn't be drilled completely through. 
In the late 1970s, Zeus got into the drillium craze like nobody else. Their 2000 line of components featured a crank that was milled and drilled outrageously. The rings were just peppered with holes, and the arms were slotted all the way through! The ads called them "ultra-light yet dependable," but I wonder how dependable they were. I read a review of the parts in an old issue of Bicycling where they said the crank could be visibly flexed under hard pedaling. The arms on later versions would be drilled part-way, but not all the way through. The drillium theme carried through to other components as well, including derailleurs, and brake levers.

One area where Zeus tried to out-Campy Campagnolo was in the use of Titanium. As mentioned, they were making pedals with titanium spindles and cages. Their 2000 model derailleur used titanium pivot bolts. The bottom bracket was all titanium (spindle, cups, and bolts), and the hubs used titanium axles and quick releases.

The basic design of the Zeus 2000 derailleur still owed a lot to Campagnolo. Zeus claimed that it was lighter than Super Record, though from what I've read, it was actually about the same, or slightly more. However, its pivot body sections were steel, so it's surprising that it was even close. The upper pivot bolt was titanium (why not the lower?), and as you can see, the pulley cage was heavily drilled. (photo from Classic Rendezvous)
An ad from Bicycling magazine, circa 1980. Notice the crank is not drilled all the way through anymore. According to the ad, the bottom bracket was all titanium, as were the hub axle and quick release. The crank used a smaller BCD than Campy, and could accept chainrings as small as 36 teeth. Also shown in the ad is the alloy freewheel, which preceded the Campagnolo version by a decade.
I had to search through a lot of old magazines to find an ad for one of Zeus' complete bicycles, but here's one from 1980. The Zeus Victoria was probably a nice enough racer in its day for someone on a budget who was trying like hell not to buy Japanese. The "New Racer" components were a lower-cost group, and fairly crude compared with similar priced options from SunTour and Shimano of the time. No mention in the ad about what the frame was built with, but the bike was fully equipped with Zeus parts -- even the frame pump (yes, they made a pump, too -- basically a knockoff of the Silca Imperio).

I still think the Zeus track fork-end is one of the
best looking ones out there. Much more graceful
than the Campy version.
Unfortunately for Zeus, embracing drillium and titanium weren't seen as innovative enough in the face of very serious competition coming from Japan in the late 70s and early 80s. The company tried to revamp their derailleurs and other components cosmetically, but in their basic architecture, they were still little more than copies of Campy designs that could trace their heritage back to 1950. Just imagine how they looked -- and performed -- compared to an indexing Dura Ace, or a SunTour Superbe Pro in the mid 80s?

By the end of the 1980s, Zeus was apparently finished, though the name was purchased by fellow-Spanish company Orbea, which still uses the Zeus name for things like stems and seat posts for their carbon-fiber framed racing bicycles.

When talking with vintage bike enthusiasts, you'll find that some people get fairly passionate about Zeus, and some get bristly at the suggestion that they just made Campy knockoffs. Some will tell legends of how Campagnolo contracted with Zeus to make some of their components (I've heard the same said of other companies that copied Campagnolo designs, like Ofmega), or that Zeus supplied the titanium pieces that Campagnolo used in their Super Record parts, or that Zeus would have been much bigger and better known than Campagnolo if not for the Spanish Civil War (there could actually be something to that one, but nobody will ever know). But that's what I mean when I call Zeus an enigma of a bicycle company. There are lots of stories, but it's hard to find any real evidence to support them. Ultimately, they are remembered (by those who remember them) mostly as one of the better Campy copies, with the occasional dash of flair that set them apart from the others.

13 comments:

  1. While Zeus was best known for Campy knock-offs, they made other interesting components.

    One was a crankset that had the same bolt pattern as the Stronlight 49D or the Specialites TA Pro-Vis 5 (a.k.a. Cyclotouriste). In 1969 and 1970, the Raleigh Competition came with this crankset as original equipment. ( In fact, some Raleigh Competitions, Internationals and Professionals from the late '60's and early '70's were built with Zeus dropouts.)

    Another interesting component was their centerpull brake. It looks like a more refined version of the Weinmann Vainqueur or Universal 61, with allen bolts (instead of hexagonal ones) at the pivots and tire guides like the ones found on higher-quality sidepulls of the time.

    While the notion that Zeus invented the parallelogram derailleur is probably, as you say, a "corporate myth", I think they were the first company to make hubs and pedal bodies in the "hourglass" shape other companies copied through the late'70's and '80's.

    While I never rode any of their stuff, I sorta miss Zeus.

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    1. I've seen those center pull brakes you mention, and they are pretty nice. I had both a Pro and an International from about 1970, but both of them had Campy dropouts. I didn't know that some of them had Zeus parts, but I guess I'm not surprised. From what I understand about the business in those days, specs could often change within a model year and without notice based on supply, and that probably became more so as the bike boom started taking off in the early 70s.

      Thanks for the extra info and insight!

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    2. One of my old riding buddies rode an International (at least, I think it was) from that period built from Reynolds 531 tubing and Zeus dropouts. It had a full Campy gruppo except for the brakes, which were Weinmann centerpulls.

      I remember it because it was the first bike I saw with Zeus dropouts, and he pointed them out to me.

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  2. Sorry if I double post, I'm just trying to figure out log ins. I have had the pleasure to ride two Zeus groups in my younger years -- 2000, 2001. They never performed as well as campy or even the simplex/stronglight/maillard drivetrain (among the top two train combos, in my book). But I keep my old Zeus components around and use them from time to time in a retro build as my way of staying connected to great cycling heritage. Thanks for the great history. :)

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  3. I've just acquired an *almost* complete Zeus Pista. I've chased down a Zeus chainring and hub set. Even my cig and locating are Zeus. Always want to know more, but currently wondering who made the saddle. It is stamped on the side "Made Exclusively for Zeus". It looks like a Unicantor, but I'm not sure. Any ideas? I'm not sure if I'll get a notification if there's a response, so please email if you know.

    zlvasquez@yahoo

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    1. There was one saddle maker in Spain that I'm aware of - called Arius. It's very likely that they made the saddles for Zeus. There are a couple of Zeus saddles pictured on the VeloBase.com website - one of which is called the Pista, and looks a lot like what you described.

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    2. Hello! The Spanish company Arius made Zeus saddles. I am restoring a bike Zeus with titanium components. Thanks for the story! https://flickr.com/photos/84892076@N06/sets/72157666069571686

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  4. My first racing/touring bike was a Zeus Competition - I raced it for 2 years as a Junior, then rode it across the US on Bikecentennial. It was a solid, well-built, reliable machine. Sadly, I sold it soon after, having physically outgrown it. You're right - many who have had a Zeus are passionate about them, and I'm about to get a "new" one to restore!

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    1. Strangely enough so am i,is yours in the UK? Chris.

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  5. Hello everyone! I am looking for a zeus pista frameset. Does anyone know where to get one? My girlfriend has a nice and restored Zeus 2000 road bike in Reynolds 531 tubbing and I would like to find her bike a proper friend. Thanks!

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  6. I have a Zeus frame (Reynolds 531 tubing) for sale. I also have a Brooks saddle and Cinelli components. For pricing email me at ralphdevane@msn.com

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  7. I have a vintage wool jersey from the Super Ser racing team. Any idea what this is worth? Relatively distant cousins in Spain owned Super Ser (and are currently owners of the Conor/WRC bicycle company there) and gave this to me when I was 11-13 yrs old... Normally would keep it but, frankly, it's not something that many in my family of non-bicyclists (and not close to family in Spain) would care about.

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