After getting some saddle time on the new Vitus Venon and Sean Kelly Special Edition road bikes, it was time to check out the company's latest fat-tyred offerings. We got the chance to ride nearly all the mountain bikes in the 2012 range for at least a quick blast round a knot of slippery technical singletrack just outside Belfast, ahead of their official launch this spring.
The bike that really stood out in terms of ride attitude, and dominated our trail time because it was so damned fun, is the £1,675 (US$TBC) Blitz 1. The tidy looking multi-butted and hydroformed frame joins a tapered head tube to a four-bar style, 100mm-travel back end. The rear brake mount and bottom bracket are conventional (rather than post mount and BB30) but there’s decent mud room, space for a bottle cage and overall weld quality is excellent.
The SRAM 2x10 transmission suits this bike perfectly but the hidden ride amplifier is the RockShox Reba RL fork up front. Now that the Reba is based on the super-light SID chassis it helps keep weight of the Blitz down to a very price-competitive 12.34kg/27.2lb without pedals. The 120mm-travel screw-axle fork also tips the geometry back slightly to create an immediately engaging and ego boosting ride on technical terrain.
With the short stroke rear end keeping power response and tracking accuracy tight, plus a short stem and decent width bar, the Blitz loves to be let loose at the top of properly technical descents and spit and slide out of the bottom more composed and controlled than many longer travel and/or more expensive bikes. The reduced rear movement (100mm, compared to 120mm up front) means better pedalling, less wallow and more communication, so while comfort can suffer at times, the Vitus carries speed through trail carnage extremely well.
The more we learned to trust it, the more we left the brakes alone, and the faster we hit technical situations, the more it seemed to love it. Even on bigger blocks and drops that obviously stung the suspension pretty hard it never stumbled or spat its dummy (or us) into the dirt. Floodgate low-speed compression damping on the rear shock lets you tweak the initial feel enough for those who want no pedal damping or like to push off a firm platform in faster corners.
The more we rode the Blitz, the more the little pocket rocket impressed us. It consistently delivered a vast amount of fun, easy agility and speed whether we were on the ragged edge on rooty descents or closing gaps onto our racer guides as our test group snaked through the singletrack. File-pattern lock-on grips and a decent saddle mean the physical contact points are as enjoyable and daring day ride compatible as the cerebral connection too. The result is a bike we were very reluctant to give back and an absolute bargain.
Look out for a full first ride review of the Blitz 1, complete with direct data and build discussion from its designers, in What Mountain Bike magazine later in the year, along with an abridged version on BikeRadar. Further down the range, the Blitz 2 gets a RockShox Recon fork with 20mm Maxle, SRAM X7/X5 shifting, Avid Elixir 1 brakes and Mavic XM319 rims on Formula hubs to drop the price to £1,200 with very little obvious difference in the infectiously dynamic, 'foot out, flat out' descending, efficient climbing and map crossing character.
If you want more moving millimetres between you and the ground, the Escarpe range of 140mm bikes is at the top of the Vitus travel tree. The very tidy hydroformed tube, FSR-style four-bar frame starts with a tapered head tube and ends with replaceable screw-thru or quick-release dropouts. Tyre clearance is generous and there’s plenty of seat drop too. Brake mounts are IS rather than the latest post mounts though, the bottom bracket is a screw-in external bearing setup and there are no guides for a remote seatpost cable/hose, but that’s reflected in the price. Or more accurately it’s reflected in the quality of kit you get for the price.
On the £1,750/$2,975* Escarpe 1 damping duties are taken care of by a RockShox Revelation RL Dual Air Maxle Lite 140mm fork up front and a Monarch RT rear shock. SRAM X9 gearing is driven by a SRAM S1400 2x10 chainset while Avid Elixir 3 brakes do the stopping. Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres are wrapped round Fulcrum Red Power XL wheels, while Truvativ supply the cockpit and seatpost.
On the trail it’s a classic contemporary ‘vanilla’ ride, with impressive stiffness and relaxed but not overly radical handling that lets you hit the descents hard. The RockShox rear shock is particularly well tuned for a concisely controlled but never sharp or sticky feel, even over big rooty stepdowns. Stable pedalling manners and a 12.74kg/28.1lb weight (without pedals) mean you get to access the best descents all day long without suffering too much on the climbs.
The Escarpe 2 comes in at £1,300/$2,210 with the same frame and shock package. Up front is our favourite mid-price mayhem tamer, the RockShox Sektor R Maxle Lite, and the bike rolls on Mavic XM319 rims on Formula hubs. A SRAM X7/X5/Shimano SLX gearset and Truvativ Firex crank get it up to speed while Avid Elixir 1 brakes provide basic but controlled stopping. Again it’s a totally neutral ride that doesn’t shrink from anything you’re likely to have the balls to ride off/down and it’s no surprise to find that several of the Vitus development team have been downhill national champions.
Vitus's cross-country championship hopes are carried on the £2,000/$3,400 carbon fibre Rapide 1. At 10.35kg/23.7lb without pedals, this hardtail is certainly light enough to holeshot the pack if your kick is good enough. While it uses an external bottom bracket there’s no shortage of encouraging effort transfer from the 2x10 SRAM X0 carbon chainset to the distinctive fully replaceable rear dropout sections.
The tapered head tube, matching SID fork with Maxle Lite 15mm screw-through axle and machined-rim Fulcrum Red Power XL wheels keep steering outcomes obedient and accurate. The Rapide is based around lively rather than lounging geometry, so be ready to change direction fast as soon as the first command sparks crackle across your cerebellum. The updated DNA fork damping and the edge-dulling capability of the carbon frame mean decent comfort levels for a hardtail too, making it a good choice for epic work if rear suspension doesn't appeal.
Continuing the double headed theme, the Rapide 2 uses the same frame and fork but with a standard Fulcrum Red Power wheelset and SRAM X9 not X0. This adds 300g to the weight but takes £300/$510 off the price to make it a cracking option for cost-conscious privateer racers or long-distance lightweight rail riders. Vitus also let us have a quick sneak spin on their prototype carbon fibre 29er race frame but that’s as much as we’re allowed to tell you.
Zircon & Nucleus
A quick blast on the £950/$1,615 Zircon 1 trail hardtail confirmed its tenacious compact-frame capability on more technical trails. The fork is quick-release rather than screw-through, and the Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres are definitely more of a summer trail centre rather than black night bog friendly option. Overall spec quality is still significantly better than most bikes we’ve ridden at this pricepoint though, and apart from the slithery rubber there’s no sign of obvious compromise anywhere on the trail.
Again there’s a £675/$1,148 Zircon 2 which gets the same frame and a RockShox Recon fork but cheaper SRAM family components. The one bike we didn’t get trail time on was the introductory £475/$807 Nucleus. Its triple-butted frame, RockShox T30 fork and Truvativ, SRAM and Mavic componentry eliver the Vitus reputation for value right to the bottom rung of this impressively well designed, detailed and engagingly enthusiastic range of new bikes.
As well as the bikes we were officially there to see, the Vitus team also lets us have some singletrack time on their new 29er prototype. The full-carbon frame has a very similar power/smoothness balance to the Rapide and this makes for competitive kick and a hard charging attitude to climbs without making it too unforgiving for marathon races or just fun riding.
Handling is on the fast cross-country side, as you'd expect for a carbon hardtail developed primarily for racing, and it was built up with similarly racey cockpit dimensions – although the bar and stem had been swapped over from a donor bike rather than being specifically chosen for the bike by the Vitus designers.
With a bit of car park cockpit tweaking (we nicked a shorter stem off one of the trail bikes) it was obvious that there's more than enough stiffness and spark in the front end to set it up more edgy and technically adept if you wanted. Like we say it's still in the prototype phase, but if the pricing of the other 2012 bikes is anything to go by, it's going to be worth keeping an eye on as it develops.
* US prices correct at time of writing but subject to currency fluctuations