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See also: Zeus documents

Country: Spain

Zeus Industriale SA was established by Don Nicholas de Arregui in Eibar, in the Basque region in 1926. Zeus initially produced small parts, then components and finally complete bicycles.

I recently read some PR blurb describing Zeus as ‘one of cycling’s most storied brands’ or some such meaning-lite nonsense - but it’s true that you can’t write about Zeus without getting caught up in a tangled web of stories. It is, after all, only appropriate that a brand called Zeus should be surrounded by fantastical myths and legends.

The first of these stories is that Zeus invented the parallelogram derailleur in 1931, many years before the 1951 Gran Sport produced by that Johnny-come-lately called Tullio Campagnolo.

There could be something in some of this story; Nivex had a production parallelogram derailleur in 1938 and I have a 1946 Super Inax Sport parallelogram derailleur in this collection. Parallelogram designs were definitely in the air in the 1930’s and I suspect that there were any number of prototypes being fettled by eager zealots in gloomy sheds.

And there could also be nothing in any of this story; there seems to me to be a curious lack of photographs, press reports or patent applications to back it up. Where’s the beef?

The second story is that Zeus and Campagnolo had some kind of secret or at least little known commercial relationship. I have been told on different occasions that Campagnolo sub-contracted ‘difficult’ production work to Zeus, that Zeus carried out design work for Campagnolo - designing some of Campagnolo’s signature items, that Zeus produced parts in materials like titanium for Campagnolo because Zeus had more advanced technology, that Campagnolo built the Zeus factory but abandoned it in the face of Spanish nationalism (the evil Generalissimo Francisco Franco even gets to play a walk-on part in this story) etc. etc.. The hidden text is that, in some way, Zeus supplied the touch of genius that Campagnolo exploited.

Again there could be something in some of this. It would be surprising if Campagnolo did not use sub-contractors for some component parts or when demand was exceedingly high. Using external designers is an Italian tradition (Pininfarina, Bertone, Guigaro... - Italian car design studios are too numerous to mention and they definitely supply the ‘touch of genius’ to the likes of FIAT).

And again there could also be nothing in any of the story. You cannot swing a cat in Northern Italy without hitting a precision engineering company or a world-class design studio - is there a good reason why Campagnolo would stray to Spain to obtain a titanium allen bolt? Did Campagnolo not have a high technology automotive business of their own using exotic materials?

The third story surrounds Luis Ocana’s 1973 victory in the Tour de France. This is sometimes presented as an occasion on which the Tour was won on a Zeus bike using Zeus gears, a tiny Spanish firm defeating the European giants. Sometimes the story grows legs, and Ocana wins by heroically defeating Eddy Merckx (equipped with the Campagnolo gears he misguidedly loved so much). There is a further twist in a quote from Richard Hallett on the Classic Rendezvous site claiming that Ocana won the Tour using a Zeus bike and Zeus gears by defeating Eddy Merckx in 1971.

I am no expert, but I believe that Eddy Merckx won the Tour in 1971, although Ocana did crash out  while wearing yellow after a series of heroic attacks. Eddy Merckx accidentally caused the crash, and, according to legend, refused to wear the yellow jersey on the next day as a mark of respect for Ocana.  However I believe that Ocana was riding for the Bic team, and I would guess that Bic would have made him ride a French bicycle.

I further believe that, in 1973, Ocana really did win the tour, but was still riding for the Bic team. Frank Berto claims that Ocana was riding a French Motobecane bicycle equipped with Campagnolo gears - which sounds entirely credible. Campagnolo certainly claim Ocana’s 1973 victory as their own. I also believe that Merckx did not ride the 1973 Tour and so was not available to be heroically defeated.

Finally I believe that Luis Ocana did ride for Zeus in 1975/6, and did ride for Fagor (who, being a Basque company, are very likely to have favoured Zeus equipment) in 1968/9.

So, in summary, I think Luis Ocana did ride for Zeus (in 1975/6), did win the Tour (in 1973), and did win a moral victory over Eddy Merckx (in 1971), I just wouldn’t bet that it all happened at the same time! I am not completely certain, but I don’t think a Zeus bike or a bike using Zeus gears has ever won the Tour. It’s all a typical Zeus story, a wildly attractive and romantic barroom myth that can seem less convincing when subjected to the harsh the light of day.

So having expressed my reservations about various Zeus myths, what is the ‘real’ history of Zeus gears? Again I am no expert, but I think there are effectively five generations of Zeus derailleurs.

I think Campagnolo’s patents, bought from Francesco Ghiggini, dated from 1937, 1938 and 1941 (the 1938 patent might be the key one). These patents presumably ran out 20 years later, unleashing the flood-gates of parallelogram derailleurs in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

I am uncertain, but I think Zeus’s first generation derailleur dates from this time and was  a Zeus Gran Sport released some time in the early 1960’s, possibly 1965. The only example of a Zeus Gran Sport that I have ever seen was a steel(?) derailleur that had the pulley cage pivot off set from the axis of the pulley wheels, indicating that it was a copy of the Campagnolo Record (rather than Campagnolo Gran Sport).

I think Zeus embarked on their second generation of derailleurs in 1969. The ‘quality’ model was the Criterium (sometimes called Criterium 69). This was a steel copy of the Campagnolo Record, but had a quality feel and a competitive price. The Criterium was joined by a new model, the Zeus Alfa-Junior. The Alfa-Junior appears to be very similar to a Huret Svelto but with the pulley cage pivoting between the pulley wheels, rather than concentric with the guide pulley. The Alfa-Junior was then joined, or possibly superceded, by a series of Alfas based on Campagnolo’s various Valentino designs.

Sometime in the early 1970’s Zeus seems to have made a decisive change of direction, and decided that instead of slavishly copying Campagnolo, it was going to try to make the pace rather than following it. I have a strange suspicion that this may have been caused by the emergence of Triplex’s 1970 copies of the Campagnolo Nuovo Record. Although the aluminium Triplex was crude and poorly finished, it was actually a technological generation ahead of Zeus’ steel 1969 Criterium. Zeus’ response was to produce their third generation - the legendary Zeus 2000 groupset of 1975. This was a genuinely innovative set of components, with its braze-on centre-pull brakes, aluminium freewheel, extensively drilled look and branding that was decisively not Campagnolo. At its launch Zeus 2000 could make a realistic claim to being the ‘best groupset in the world’. I know that I wanted a Zeus 2000 groupset more than even Campagnolo’s Super Record.

Sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s Zeus bit the bullet and revamped all their derailleurs with aluminium parallelogram plates. The Zeus 2000 acquired the ‘big Z’ look, the Criterium looked cleaner and more modern and the venerable Alfa was renamed the New Racer.

In 1984 Zeus produced their fourth generation, with three groupsets, Amateur, New Racer and Supercronos. They were tidily styled, but New Racer and Supercronos were still basically copies of the Campagnolo Nuovo Record and Super Record, respectively. They all lacked the pizzazz of Zeus 2000. Most importantly, they looked very out of date in a bike shop’s display cabinet next to Shimano’s Dura-Ace 7400.

Finally in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s Zeus produced their fifth generation - including the Zeus Cosmos, belatedly a derailleur with a dropped parallogram.

Sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s Zeus seemed to have ceased trading. Orbea, also based near Eibar, seem to have bought the name and produced bicycles branded Zeus as recently as 2002. Orbea also use the Zeus name as a house brand for components such as seatpins.

Why does Zeus attract so many stories? My explanation would be that it is hard to overestimate how dominant Campagnolo was in the 1970’s, particularly in Britain. My memory of attending races was that every single rider was using Campagnolo gears of one sort or another. People talked a little about the Huret Jubilee, but you never saw one. For some reason you would have been laughed out of your club for turning up with a Simplex Super LJ or a Huret Success - they were simply too naff. Roto and Triplex were visibly too horrible. SunTour and Shimano were a sign that you were not a true believer and had crossed over to the dark side. That left Zeus as the one way of showing your individuality (while, of course, still fitting in). Zeus was all about being slightly different, slightly more thoughtful and slightly more interesting - and nothing breeds legends faster than the need to feel slightly superior.

How would I sum-up Zeus? Unfortunately not as ‘the forgotten geniuses of European bicycle component design’, but certainly as ‘the best of the Campagnolo imitators’.