Anyone who has found themself labouring up a hill or speeding along the flat will understand the importance of adjustable multi-speed gearing in cycling. Riding is made more efficient, as changing gear ratios allow the cyclist to adjust the development of forward movement of their bicycle with a resulting decrease or increase in the muscle power required to turn the drive wheel. Speed can be built and maintained on the flat, hills become easier, if not easy, to climb. And all at the flick of a switch, thanks to the pivoted, sprung cage of metal and plastic that is the derailleur. Our second object is the second style 2000 series model derailleur from the Spanish manufacturer, Zeus, introduced in 1979. It is a striking marriage of form and function that married quality engineering with a strong aesthetic that made it a true competitor to its contemporary rivals.
The origins of Zeus Industrial S.A. lie in the 1926 foundation of a machine shop by Nicolás Arregui Gallastegui in the Basque city of Eibar, an industrial centre in Northern Spain known for the manufacture of arms, naval hardware, agricultural machinery, kitchen equipment, and sewing machines. Most importantly for Arregui’s future fortunes, it was also the locus of Spanish bicycle production. From humble beginnings producing small parts, such as axle bolts and spindles, to supply local bicycle manufacturers, the company rapidly expanded to employ thirty workers. Not content with manufacturing parts alone the company began to expand its range, producing full components, frames, and ultimately complete bicycles. If Zeus’ Catalogue number 102 from 1973 is to be believed, the company was also the first to develop a derailleur based on an articulated parallelogram, a surviving prototype apparently being shown in 1971 at the Fiftieth Brussels Show.
The prototype’s whereabouts today is not known, nor does there appear to be a patent application in Arregui’s name for his reputed 1931 invention. Evidence from Spanish patents that name Arregui as the inventor imply that Zeus were not producing their own derailleur designs until at least 1941, when a patent was submitted for a design which appears to be copied from the pull-chain derailleurs produced by the French firm, Simplex. Though the available evidence suggests that Arregui did not invent the parallelogram derailleur it may be worth bearing in mind that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) had a catastrophic effect on Eibar. The city was the first to proclaim the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 and as a centre of Republican arms production came under heavy attack from Nationalist forces causing massive destruction to the city and widespread disruption to its industry. Zeus, like many other companies, was forced to divert its energies to war production.
Given the disruption caused by the war it is possible that any nascent design for a parallelogram derailleur may have been overtaken by events when in 1937 the French company, Nivex, patented its parallelogram derailleur which secured a place in history as the first to achieve significant sales. The likelihood that Arregui invented the parallelogram derailleur seems remote however, and during a decade when other Spanish inventors had submitted patents for inventions ranging from rear and front wheel hubs, bicycle stands, improvements in the manufacture of wooden wheels, brakes, military folding bicycles, horizontal bicycles, bottom bracket production, to pedals, the question must be asked why there is no evidence of a patent application for Zeus’ invention of a parallelogram derailleur.
Within months of the end of the Spanish Civil War in April 1939 Hitler’s invasion of Poland marked the beginning of five years of war in Europe and, though Spain remained neutral during the Second World War, its own post-conflict recovery, combined with the downturn in worldwide economic activity had a severe affect on Spanish industry. Shortages of fuel and materials during the war led Zeus to shift its focus on producing high end racing machines to the manufacture of a more universal range of products aimed at supporting the domestic demand for utilitarian bicycles. After 1945 Spain, never formally recognised as a non-belligerent by the Allied Powers, was the only Western European nation not to receive assistance through the Marshall Plan. Franco’s economic policy of self sufficiency led to economic stagnation. International trade was nearly non-existent leading to shortages of raw materials. Hampered by these conditions Zeus showed little capacity for innovation, instead producing a series of derailleurs and other components based on the designs of other companies including Simplex, Huret, and in particular those of the Italian company, Campagnolo.
American aid following the signing of the Pact of Madrid in 1953, together with economic reforms, and the adoption of a free market economy by Spain in 1959 saw the nation’s fortunes, and those of Zeus, begin to improve. By then Campagnolo was the clear market leader while Zeus continued to produce copies of their rival’s products. Competitive prices, quality of manufacture, and their compatibility with Campagnolo originals enabled Zeus to carve out a niche in the international market. By the 1970s the company was producing low and mid end groupsets, respectively named Alfa and Criterium, as well as its own its own range of bicycle tools, clothing, complete bicycles, and a range of frames built from Reynolds 531, Duralumin, or Duralinox tubing.
By then Zeus was exporting to over 60 countries and claimed over 100 patents. With no apparent sense of irony their 1973 catalogue decried the similar number of patent infringements against Zeus by unscrupulous competitors. A little rich, bearing in mind that their top level Criterium range, introduced in 1969, was little more than a well made copy of Campagnolo’s 1966 Nuovo Record.
Campagnolo had launched its Super Record groupset in 1973, setting a new benchmark for high end bicycle components. Zeus’ meanwhile were developing their own high end groupset, the 2000 series. Its first component, and incidentally Zeus’ first entirely original offering, the 2000 series alloy and steel freewheel, was launched in 1972 at the Brussels Show, and was the first freewheel to allow for completely interchangeable splined cogs in any position and ratio. By 1975 Zeus was able to offer a near complete groupset. Making extensive use of titanium, components in the range were comparably priced to Super Record and were squarely aimed at the racing market as well as the affluent amateur. The 2000 series was a genuine attempt to make the best components in the world while introducing an aesthetic and branding that was Zeus’s own. The aesthetic was revamped for the second style 2000 series introduced circa 1979, of which our object, the 2000 series gold finished rear derailleur is an example.
The 2000 series was to prove relatively short lived. In 1980 Zeus replaced its Alfa range with the New Racer groupset and introduced Supercronos in 1985 to replace the 2000 series. It was a retrograde step. Neither groupset shared the stylistic qualities of the 2000 and New Racer and Supercronos were again little more than respectively copies of Campagnolo’s Nuovo Record and Super Record. The previous decade had further seen the expansion of the Japanese company Shimano into European and American markets. Its focus on technological innovation and lower prices was a challenge to the European companies who began to lose market share. The increasing popularity of mountain biking following the 1981 launch of the Specialized Stumpjumper and of BMX racing further impacted on the market for racing bicycles. While Campagnolo updated Super Record with the 1986 launch of C-Record and Shimano introduced the first successful index shifting system, the SIS, in 1984, Zeus’s last offering between 1987 and 1988 was the Cosmos. It was too little too late.
The exact details of Zeus’s demise are unclear, but it was probably in 1988-89 that the company ceased operating. The rights to the name were purchased by Orbea who though located in Mallabia from 1975 had begun life as an arms manufacturing company in Eibar and had been a local rival to Zeus making bicycles for the Spanish domestic market from the 1930’s. Wishing to trade on Zeus’ reputation Orbea used the name to market its own range of bicycles including an early foray by the company into carbon frames, a prototype of which was given to Spanish professional cyclist, Pedro Horillo, in 1992 while he was still an amateur. Orbea ceased producing their Zeus range in the mid 1990’s only to reintroduce it briefly in 1999 with the company’s last Zeus bicycles seemingly manufactured in 2002. The Zeus name was reintroduced by Orbea in 2005 as an in-house brand name for its range of carbon seatposts, stems, handlebars, and forks. From 2009 Orbea has used its own name on its forks and seatposts. Zeus lived on for a few more years emblazoned on stems and handlebars until its final demise in 2012.
During its heyday Zeus claimed some notable victories, boasting a World Road Race Champion, Harm Ottenbros who won the final sprint by centimetres from Belgian Champion Julien Stevens in 1969, an Elite World Cyclo-Cross Champion in Eric de Vlaemeinck, and an amateur World Cyclo-Cross Champion in Michel Pelchat. On the track Xaver Kurmann and Hugh Porter, now the doyen of British cycling commentators, were both World Pursuit Champions, while Bert Boom won the World Motor-Paced Championships. Elsewhere on the track riders using Zeus were victorious at all the major European six-day races. The Emperor of Herentals, Rik van Looy, won Paris-Tours, as did Noel Vantyghem. Back on the road Zeus riders claimed victories in major races including the Tour of Belgium, Tour of Flanders, Tour of Switzerland, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallone, Ghent-Wevelgem, not to mention the perhaps less famous Milk Race and the Circuit of the Mendips.
Victories also came in the major Spanish races, most notably with Pedro Delgado’s 1985 Vuelta d’Espana win while riding for Seat-Orbea. Significantly Zeus never claimed a victory in any of the other major tours, despite rumours that Spanish great, Luis Ocaña, won the Tour de France riding with Zeus components. Ocaña may well have won the Vuelta with Zeus components in 1970 when he was riding for the Basque team, Fagor (coincidentally a company within the Mondragon Corporation, a co-operative federation which also includes Orbea), but by 1973 when he won the Tour, Ocaña was signed to Bic who rode on bicycles from French firm, Motobecane, whose contemporary retail bicycle range included no Zeus parts, with their top-level offering equipped with a Campagnolo groupset, TTT handlebars and stem, a Sedis chain, and Super Champion wheels. While the team’s bikes were specially made it seems highly unlikely that Motobecane would have preferred Zeus for its pro-team bikes given its existing arrangements with Campagnolo.
Two years after his Tour victory Ocaña signed for the Spanish team Superser-Zeus, perhaps the best known of the many teams sponsored by Zeus. The team was equipped with Zeus bicycles complete with 2000 series components. Ocaña, however, insisted on using Campagnolo during the 1975 Vuelta, a snub to Zeus which nearly saw the workers come out in protest to block the Urkiola Pass which was located some 30 kilometres by road from the company’s headquarters in Eibar. The strike did not ultimately take place, Zeus’s management presumably not wanting to disrupt the Vuelta during the potentially decisive stage 16 when two Superser-Zeus riders, Ocaña and Agustín Tamames, were both in a strong position to take the overall victory. In the event Tamames rode away from Ocaña on the Urkiola and secured the Vuelta in the final time trial at San Sebastian.
Ocaña’s clear preference for Campagnolo, to the point where he was willing to offend his own sponsor, can only serve to further quash any suggestion that he won the Tour riding with Zeus components. It also points to one of the reasons why Zeus was to ultimately founder. Between 1968 and 1998 the Tour was won by riders equipped with Campagnolo in every year apart from 1983 when Laurent Fignon (Renault-Elf Gitane) won riding a Gitane equipped with Simplex, and 1989, when Greg Lemond (ADR) won riding a Mavic equipped Botecchia. Unlike Campagnolo, Zeus never achieved the reputation or market penetration enjoyed by their leading rival in the top echelons of professional cycling. Typically it was the smaller second and third flight teams who adopted Zeus, no doubt in part due to the limitations of their budgets and the affordability of Zeus in comparison to Campagnolo.
Hampered by the weak Spanish economy for much of its existence Zeus’ strategy of copying the work of other companies left it playing catch-up to its rivals at a time when it was arguably already too far behind. By 1970, with companies such as Triplex, yet another Basque component manufacturer from the Eibar region, competing in the market for low to mid-end Campagnolo imitations, with Campagnolo dominating the high-end market, and with Shimano and SunTour beginning to make inroads in Europe, Zeus found itself in a highly competitive market in which it lacked both market share and a unique selling point. Presumably this was the underlying driver behind the introduction of the 2000 series from 1972 onwards.
Sadly, the innovative approach to design and the attempt to create a unique aesthetic for the brand seen in the 2000 series was not continued as Zeus returned in the 1980’s to reproducing what were in effect versions of Campagnolo. Had Zeus continued the approach they had begun with the 2000 series their fortunes may perhaps have been different. Though Zeus never gained the status and market share they clearly hoped to achieve they should be remembered as an important player in the world of bicycle manufacturing, not least as the only company in the last 44 years to produce a range of complete bicycles that incorporated the company’s own frames and components.
A lovingly restored SuperSer Zeus bicycle can be found with other Zeus bicycles on Veloclassics
My original intention when I decided to make the Zeus 2000 derailleur the inspiration for this blog entry was to write about the history of the development of the derailleur. It quickly became apparent to me that this is a subject about which others have written in far more detail and with greater insight and authority than I could ever offer.
For those interested in the subject I’d recommend Frank J. Berto’s The Dancing Chain: History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle which is now in its 4th edition. A briefer overview may be found in Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Both are in print and will hopefully also be available through your local library service.
The web offers its usual mix of resources of varying quality. I would heartily recommend Disraeli Gears, a wonderful web museum devoted to derailleurs, the creator of which I would to thank here for their kind permission to use the photograph of the Zeus 2000 derailleur.
It also became quickly apparent that an accurate and thorough history of Zeus Industrial S. A. does not yet exist in the public domain and sources are very few in number. My research relied heavily on Zeus’ 1973 catalogue which I was only able to find in Spanish. Heavily reliant on Google translate any errors in translation and facts are mine. I hope, however, that I have been able to add something to the discussion.
Berto, Frank J. The Dancing Chain: History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle. 4th ed. San Francisco, CA: Cycling Publishing/Van der Plas Publications, 2014.
Fotheringham, Alasdair. Reckless: The Life and Times of Luis Ocaña, London: Bloomsbury 2014.
Hadland, Tony, and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History. Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2014.
Horilli, Pedro. “Orbea.” Rouleur 40, online edition http://rouleur.cc/journal/bicycles/orbea
Kossack, J. M. “New Zeus Components: The 2000 Series.” Bicycling Magazine 16, no. 9 (September 1975): 38-40.
Overton, Greg, “Zeus company didn’t get a break from the gods.” Classic Corner. Cycling Utah, http://www.cyclingutah.com/june/june98/classic.htm
“Zeus,” Disraeli Gears, http://www.disraeligears.co.uk/Site/Zeus_derailleurs_page_2.html. Disraeli Gears also provides scans of a number of Zeus patents, http://www.disraeligears.co.uk/Site/Scanned_material_-_Zeus.html
Zeus Industrial S. A. Zeus Catalogo 102. Abadiano: Zeus Industrial S.A., 1973. This and other Zeus catalogues may be downloaded from VeloBase
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