The name Vitus was once associated with quirky, ultra light, bonded-and-lugged alloy frames. Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly used them to great effect in his heyday, dominating some of the world’s toughest race during the 80s and 90s.
In 2009 the sadly defunct marque was acquired by mega-bikeshop Chain Reaction Cycles and with Kelly as a figurehead, it’s gained a new lease of life as a direct-sales brand.
New for this year, Vitus has replaced its mid-level alloy racer the Zenium SL with a disc version of same. The old model earned a glowing review in our sister magazine Cycling Plus, so when Vitus asked us if we’d like to try out the new bike at the An Post-Chain Reaction training camp in Spain, we were intrigued to find if it lived up to its predecessor. Having been the man to accept the mission, I'm pleased to report that it did.
There are two versions of the Zenium frame and the SL is naturally the lighter and more expensive one. It’s available in two builds – the Ultegra one we tried out here, and a 105 option that's £200 cheaper.
A balanced bike wrapped in a classy finish
Like the old bike, the Zenium SL Pro Disc is built around a very tidy hydroformed aluminium frame. The welds are visible but unobtrusive and the slightly textured finish is lovely; it has a premium feel to it and it’s complemented by tasteful anodising and fairly restrained graphics.
The bike’s lines are neat and harmonious, with tube profiles tweaked for comfort and performance. The seat tube is flared at its base for the obligatory stiffness, while the bowed-out seatstays should allow for extra vertical flex, as well as creating space to access the rear brake caliper.
With the move to discs, there’s no need for a bridge across the stays, so that’s been done away with in pursuit of extra compliance. While this is very much a road bike, it has clearance for tyres up to 28mm in width and with a 145mm head tube and 376mm of reach on a size 54, the Zenium is distinctly middle-of-the-road in its geometry – neither an all-out racer nor a sit-up-and-wave sportive bike.
Up front, a tapered head tube houses a full-carbon fork, and in pursuit of stiffness (and consistent alignment), the front wheel is retained by a 15mm thru-axle. The rear gets a conventional quick release skewer.
The whole design strikes a nice balance between aesthetics, performance and practicality. The brake outers for example are partially internal but easy to access, while the gear cables are fully external for maximum mechanic-friendly points. In a similar vein, the bottom bracket is a standard threaded unit.
With a full Ultegra groupset (chain and brakes aside) and decent low-to-mid-range wheels in the shape of Fulcrum’s Racing 5 DBs, the SL is well specced, albeit not quite as absurdly well as some of its direct-sales rivals (we’re looking at you, Germany).
Braking comes courtesy of TRP’s dual-piston mechanical Spyre calipers, which are certainly the best in their class. Mechanical discs will always be the poor cousin to hydraulics (they have no self-adjusting ability so they require regular tweaking to account for pad wear, and the braking feel tends not to be quite as good if we’re splitting hairs) but fitting the Spyres does mean you get standard Ultegra shifters rather than bulky hydraulic ones, and there’s no brake bleeding to worry about.
The keen-eyed might notice that the Zenium is sporting some rather cludgy brake adapters. This is a consequence of using standard post mount calipers on a frameset that’s ready for the latest flat-mount brakes. Vitus says TRP wasn’t able to supply the new flat-mount version of the Spyre in time for the release. Brand manager Simon Cordner says the choice of flat mount was to ensure futureproofing, and he was quite upfront about the likelihood that next year’s bike will have hydraulics in any case, as the trickle down of the tech has now reached Shimano’s mid-range.
The only other detail of note is that that the new SL lacks the rear mudguard mounts of its predecessor, which is a shame as they added a little versatility with no real penalty. On that point, Cordner says they may reappear if Vitus judges that the demand is there.
A cultured ride that proudly flies the alloy flag
(photo: David Pintins / Vitus)
All the usual disclaimers about launch fever and the effects of escaping the UK’s spectacularly dismal weather apply: yes, I got to ride the Zenium SL on lovely, relatively smooth Spanish roads; yes, the weather was balmy and mild; and yes, I was slightly starstruck by the presence of Sean Kelly, who even in his 60th year gives the impression that he’d be perfectly capable of ripping your legs off and beating you to death with them. Having said that, the Zenium SL really is an accomplished and refined piece of bike design, retaining the inherent rightness of its rim-brake predecessor.
Aluminium bikes used to have a not undeserved reputation for harshness, but it’s a stereotype that really needs to be put to bed, as technology has simply moved on. The Zenium SL isn’t harsh in the slightest, and it certainly doesn’t need to apologise for its ride quality, which is on par with other decent alloy machines like the Canyon Endurace AL. The bike proved to be smooth and comfortable when rolling along, and the whole experience was sufficiently similar to the old bike that we’re pretty sure it fare will equally well on the UK’s rather less forgiving road surfaces.
(photo: David Pintins / Vitus)
Out of the saddle it’s a willing companion; I never felt like I was fighting flex through the bottom bracket and although the bike is not exceptionally light, it never seemed ponderous. Seated climbing was made more comfortable by the slightly swept bar tops, which ease the strain on your wrists.
With around 1300m of climbing on the 94km test ride, I had plenty of opportunity to assess its capabilities; all that ascending meant plenty of downhill too, and the SL acquitted itself well here too, feeling composed at all times despite my best efforts to misjudge my lines through endless sequences of mountain bends. Braking on the Spyres definitely feels a little less positive that it does with hydraulics, but the power is there when you need it.
My only real complaint is about the Vitus-branded saddle, which I found unsupportive and uncomfortable, applying pressure to some nerves I’m rather keen to protect. We’ll be the first to acknowledge that saddle choice is hugely personal, but we’d still contend that squishy seats that you sink into have no place on road bikes.
In short, the Zenium SL Pro Disc is fine machine that looks the business and performs well. If you’re in the market for a relatively affordable disc road bike, it should certainly be on your list.