In the bike world, it could be said that we’re all a little guilty of following the crowd. But occasionally, someone will come along, shake things up a little, and step out of line. Getting to know someone means asking the right questions, and as a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to know how to uncover a story.
Talking to Alex James, Vitus’ Global Marketing Manager, it is fair to say that he was willing to be upfront. In the modern age of technology (not always a great thing) interviews can be done in all manner of ways. In this case, WhatsApp and email were the favoured option for communication due to busy work schedules. I sent him a barrage of questions, and he replied via voice notes. Before answering, Alex apologised for his “mumbling Welsh accent.” I told him not to worry, as a fellow Welshie, I had a built-in translator.
The History of Vitus
Before the interview, I dove into a bit of a wormhole. I imagine writing is a little like being a detective. You’ve got to get some background to figure out what you want to ask. I wanted to know the brand’s history, what they stood for, about the privateer programs and their bikes. But who better to ask than someone who actually knows these things? The internet can only tell you so much, and it very rarely has any heart (or the right answers).
Whilst their history is not hidden by any means, hearing the story from someone firsthand brings it to life in a different way. They may be a very different brand now, but underneath it all, Vitus has quite a few layers.
Over the years there have been several changes to ownership, but there’s a clear energy and devotion behind the brand they are today. Admittedly, everyone is passionate about their brand, but the thing is, when it’s not sincere, you can feel it. That wasn’t the case in this instance. What I got was a willingness from Alex. A desire to tell the story, to share how proud he was of where Vitus is going and the people making it happen. Alex admits that before 2021, Vitus didn’t quite know who they were, or what they stood for. That’s no longer an issue. A lot can change in a year.
Vitus were initially a French brand. What I didn’t know was their history goes back as far as 1930. Alex expanded on the past, describing Vitus’ role in pioneering the development of aluminium and carbon fibre bicycles in their infancy. Fast forward to the seventies, Vitus dominated professional cycling in Europe, and by the time the eighties rolled around, they were the world’s biggest aluminium bicycle manufacturer.
Nowadays you’ll find Vitus in Northern Ireland with a team that has grown substantially since the relaunch in 2011. Whilst they are proud of their heritage, Alex admits that they are a very different brand these days. Despite the differences, there is something, or rather someone that remains from their early days, and that’s Sean Kelly. A legend in his own right who dominated road cycling throughout the eighties riding the Vitus 979. Forty years on he’s still very much part of the Vitus family. Still riding their bikes, sharing his knowledge, and giving feedback where needed.
In the present day, they position themselves as a brand for real riders, a champion of privateers and a company full of passionate cyclists who want to create great bikes for everyone. The brand they are today is something the team is incredibly proud to be part of.
A Brand for Real Riders
2021 was the start of a new chapter for Vitus. They took a step back to think about what it is that made them different. Realising there were already plenty of brands focusing on elite riders and factory teams, they wanted to focus on making high-performance bikes accessible to more riders. These changes were pioneered by the team. As the saying goes, ‘be the change you want to see.’
From the repositioning came a clear focus. Their goal is to offer an alternative without compromise and create the best bikes possible. That’s not to say they are a value brand, far from it. Whether you’re just starting out or racing at top level is irrelevant. In their view, you should be able to ride a great bike and not have to pay excessive amounts for the privilege. I questioned Alex on how they’re able to keep the costs down and create affordable bikes, “First of all, I generally believe that other bikes are often overpriced. Second of all, some really good business decisions and strategy allows us to give all the benefit to the rider, which is super important for us,” he explained.
Whilst they have nothing against factory teams, there’s specific reasoning for avoiding that route. For one, it would mean Vitus would need to fund it, ultimately passing the cost on to their customers, and as privateers themselves, they understand the frustrations and hardships of racing. This is what fuels their desire to support people who need it most.
It’s clear they don’t take themselves too seriously, at least when it comes to attitudes about riding. Behind the brand are riders who want nothing more than to share their love of riding with everyone. There is a seriousness to how the business is run, but in regard to the brand, the goal is to create bikes that everyone can ride. In Alex’s words, they make “serious bikes for serious riders who don’t take themselves too seriously.” Which does make a lot of sense. It’s easy to lose yourself and fall into the trap of thinking you should be doing something or have a defined idea of what riding is supposed to look like, when in reality, it goes so far beyond what we see online.
Privateers Supporting Privateers
Vitus are very much a privateer brand. They support and employ several privateers, Alex himself being one, “we’re really passionate about supporting privateers because we all are privateers. I’m a roadie and Ben, Garth and Alex are our mountain bikers. They are privateer riders and we all know the hardships and how much of a ball-ache it can be to have to do everything yourself. So, there’s a big passion for supporting privateers from everyone in the brand,” he tells me.
Vitus understand the barriers riders come up against and want to give people that wouldn’t always have the means to race the opportunity to do so. The privateers Vitus support are everyday people that others can aspire to, people that share their stories about what it’s like to race around their full-time job and other commitments.
This year Vitus began working with The Dirt Fund, a project that supports privateers in the UK and Ireland to race at the EWS or Downhill World Cups. Vitus got involved and together they launched the Vitus Dirt Fund privateer program to give people the opportunity to win a bike and race support for a year. Talking about the program in more detail, Alex explained how things worked, “basically every year, we support one male and one female. Anyone can enter and we’ll choose a winner. It’s a massive team effort. It’s chosen between us, the Dirt Fund and everyone else involved in Vitus. We got a bit carried away this year and had three winners because we put an e-bike in as well.”
How exactly do they choose riders? Well for the team, choosing the “right people for the right reasons,” is something that guides them. Their support is quite vast. In addition to the three riders on the Vitus Dirt Fund program, they support ten people. In terms of what they offer, Vitus provide their privateers with as much as possible, “we do everything we can. We give them bikes, we’ll help them get to races. We’ll pay for some races, we’ll give them tents, you know, if we’ve gotta give them petrol money, we’ll give them petrol money. We’ll just do everything that we can to make sure we are giving them the best possible opportunity,” Alex tells me when I ask how much they help their riders.
Although results aren’t at the top of the priority list, Vitus still want their bikes raced at the top level. This year there have been some notable results such as Joe Smith’s second place at Red Bull Hardline, Tom Moore getting a top 40 at EWS Crans Montana and Hannah Mullin taking second in the U21 category in the Trophy of Nations EWS round.
To his credit, Alex finishes telling me about how all their riders have got on during the season. This particular voice note was lengthy. I could hear how excited Alex was and what it means to him to play his part. He finished by telling me that the important thing isn’t how they do, but about the individual, “It’s more around who they are and what they stand for and the fact that they’re just out there trying to do their best. For us, it’s been a really good step forward into bringing this passion of supporting privateers to life.”
It’s clear that Vitus takes feedback on board, whether that’s from their privateers or the people who ride their bikes. You only have to look at their active online community to see that they engage with the audience, responding to feedback and questions from members. It also helps to have the likes of Rob Warner testing samples and giving feedback on bikes. Alex told me that since Rob joined in 2020, he’s been really helpful, “He’s really involved with the brand. He loves everything that we do and he is always there when we need him. We use Rob a lot for E-bike development and e-bike testing.”
Supporting the privateers has also had an impact on how Vitus thinks about R&D. Joe Smith and Tom Moore have some involvement in the development process, sharing what works and what doesn’t. In terms of finding out what everyday riders need, the team engage with the Vitus owners’ group and read reviews. This all feeds back to the design and development team in Belfast. Their five Product Managers and 30-man development team take feedback on board to ensure they create bikes riders actually want. Recent feedback revealed that people wanted carbon and aluminium options as well as something that was easily upgradeable. This is something they listened to, developing a new bike with everything riders asked for.
The Future of Vitus
As for the future, Alex hints about some new platforms coming on the bike side. With their privateers, the goal of the Vitus Dirt Fund project is to make it bigger and better every year. In regard to the other privateers, Vitus already have their eyes on riders to add to their growing roster.
It’s clear that Alex is excited about what’s coming next for Vitus. Things have been moving quite fast in the last few years. In June 2021 Vitus was bought by Signa Sports United (as part of the WiggleCRC buyout) which will see them expand into the US. It also means that whilst they will retain what they have in the UK, they’ll have a warehouse and website in the US. They’ll also be available on more retailer sites in the UK and Europe. With two Brand Managers now based in the US, the brand is growing on a global scale. The plan for 2023 and beyond? Taking Vitus to the next level.