The Easter long weekend. Time to ride. And, for some, time to dress up in an old team jersey from the 1980s and remember what carbon-fibre bikes used to be like. Stephen Hodge’s Tweet about his ‘mufti day’ ride on Friday, prompted us to revisit the ‘Retro Review‘ story of his Vitus from 1988.
— Stephen Hodge (@stephenhodgeaus) April 17, 2014
In RIDE #46 we took a look at Stephen Hodge’s KAS team-issue Vitus Carbone Plus with Mavic. Here is a ‘flashback’ to that Retro Review (first published in October 2009)…
– By Rob Rixon
It’s not unusual to see new technology tested on pro bikes but many parts will never see production. The racing specification of Stephen Hodge’s 1988 Vitus Carbone Plus is one example…
Creating an exact working replica of a famous racing bike is always a labour of love. First there are weeks of diligent research, made easier by the wonder of the web: cross-checking photos of the period with scans or tattered original catalogues to ensure each piece of the puzzle is correct. Then the hard work begins. How do you source a 20-year-old component that was rare and expensive when it was first released, and now commands an obscene premium? What if the finishing touch for the project wasn’t even a production item?
It may often be quicker (if not cheaper) to start with the real thing. George Marques is the owner of Stephen Hodge’s carbon-fibre and kevlar Vitus from the Australian’s second year with the KAS team in 1988. The bike you see here was kindly loaned to Hodge and RIDE for a week in order for it to be photographed and documented for the purposes of this piece. Hodge collected the bike from Canberra on his way to Sydney and the handover was, unfortunately, quite eventful.
Upon arrival at the RIDE office, Hodge burst through the door and declared: “I have a confession to make!” Before a word could be offered in reply, he blurted it out. “I killed the bike! I’m an idiot. I went to George’s house and he proudly showed me how original it all was. I had to get to Sydney that night so I took it apart as I’ve done a thousand times before. I put a wheel on either side of me, leaning against the bumper bar. I put the bike in, put a wheel in and closed the boot.
“I jumped in the car, said goodbye to George and drove off… crunch! Right over the top of the other wheel!”
The wheel in question (above) is composed of a prototype Service Course version of the Mavic G40 clincher rim (used by the KAS team for training), laced to a 510 hub with butted spokes. The hub survived Hodge’s embarrassing faux pas in perfect working order but if the rim could tell a story it would take the form of a blood-curdling scream.
Hodge has built up an impressive network of contacts throughout the cycling industry in Europe and is hopeful that a replacement rim can be sourced: “They were given to me because I was very good friends with the Mavic importer after my years riding for him in Switzerland.”
The Australian was responsible for all of the team’s mechanical work while racing for Loup Sport, the Swiss Mavic importer. “As an amateur I was the team mechanic in the workshop,” Hodge recalled. “I used to build up all of the wheels, pack the car (properly) and get all of the gear together to go away each weekend with the team. Then I’d have to try and get the result in the race and drive everyone home again. I was a one-man-band for the amateur team.”
He built this wheelset with the help of another employee, Willy Friederich. The Swiss wheelsmith’s nickname, ‘Boulanger’, comprises the other half of the “B&S” that is visible in yellow paint on the inner surface of the rims.
Hodge’s move to a top tier team was in part due to the Mavic connection. Sean Kelly was riding for KAS at the time and, as a fellow Mavic sponsored athlete, Hodge was considered for a spot alongside the Irishman at the top. The Australian signed with KAS at the end of 1986 after contesting the Commonwealth Games road race in Edinburgh.
“I went training with Kelly before I signed a contract with Jean de Gribaldy who was the team’s directeur sportif. He used to be called ‘The Viscount’, he was minor French royalty. He was a funny little man. He was the one who got Sean back to top form and made him competitive again with a really strict regime: how to eat, drink and everything else.”
Hodge had been the top rider in Switzerland for two seasons, taking out the national points series, but the transition to the next level was still a major leap. From his first season with the KAS team, the Aussie rode all of the Classics – abandoning many of the brutal one-day events “dead, absolutely plastered” – but he relished the opportunity to ride for Kelly, who had won Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo the previous year.
“He was one of the hard men of cycling and very tough but he was – and still is – quite hard to understand in English because of his Irish accent. There would be times in the peloton when he’d say: ‘Hey Hodgy, jurrr durr simar err’.
“I’d go: ‘What?’
“‘Hodgy, durr ferr rarr shor.’
“‘Sean, tell me in French…’”
When Kelly gave orders they were acted on and in his final season with KAS in 1988, he added a Grand Tour trophy to his mantle, winning the Vuelta a España. While that edition had the “easiest” parcours in many years, it cemented Kelly’s status as one of the last true all-round competitors.
Kelly may be as difficult to understand now as he was then but his reputation still serves him well. He is a commentator for Eurosport and still very much an enigma in the sport. Hodge joined him as a domestique when he was young and it was a great learning experience for the boy from Canberra.
“I went to Europe at the age of 22 so I was 25 when I turned pro. Unfortunately, when I was hitting my physiological peak I was still learning the ropes. That was fine though; I had two great years at KAS. Kelly had been number one in the world for six or seven years and was riding all of the big races. From year one I rode all the Classics, which nearly killed me.”
At a glance the Vitus closely resembles the carbon-fibre and aluminium Miyata (RIDE #45). Kath Bazzano’s bike was built three years after Hodge’s 1988 Carbone Plus left the factory in Saint-Etienne and Vitus was at the leading edge of the carbon wave that would become a torrent over the decades that followed. Colnago’s celebrated C40 was still six years off.
“We used to ride Vitus bikes which were all aluminium but this was the first model that had the carbon tubes,” said Hodge. “I was excited because I got it just at the end of 1988. The team supplied all of our measurements and Vitus used those.”
Hodge’s physiology required a bike that was actually very close to the standard 57cm production frame, as evidenced by the numerals broached into the head tube. The chainstays on this team bike are around 10mm shorter than the regular 408mm items which made the bike more suited to climbing. For cobbled races, frames with generous rearstay proportions were used but creating a unique frame for each rider was no harder than making a standard production model thanks to the lugged construction method.
Tubes of carbon-fibre and kevlar were bonded to Dural lugs which were cast. The tubes on the all-alloy Vitus frames were drawn to be an interference fit with the corresponding lug so that the bond was mechanical as well as chemical.
“They were light for the time,” says Hodge. “I’ve ridden this one recently and it still feels pretty light but it’s very soft and flexible. The Vitus frames used to go ‘off’ really quickly. The aluminium tubes used to start out nice and rigid but quite quickly they would soften up. You’d have two or three during the season that would need to be replaced. I think the carbon frame would stay rigid for longer and they were great for the Classics because the aluminium fork was nice and soft. Kelly used to love them for the cobbles.”
The 7000-series aluminium alloys used in modern road frames are a mixture of aluminium, zinc, magnesium and a selection of other elements. The Dural aluminium alloy used for the Vitus frames used by KAS contains roughly the same amount of aluminium but copper replaces the zinc component to create a tube that has a higher ultimate tensile strength, a harder surface finish and around twice the ductility.
It was found more commonly in aerospace and aeronautical applications but the major downside is how difficult it is to weld. Vitus addressed this issue by simply bonding the tubes together. When carbon-fibre tubing became available it was quickly substituted in place of the heavier alloy. Large tows of kevlar are clearly visible in the tubes of the Carbone Plus as they spiral around the three major spans.
A bike in Stephen Hodge’s size was claimed to weigh 1,720g by the factory in its marketing material and the Dural 979 fork with a steerer in this length weighed in at 420g. Those weights are a little optimistic but Hodge’s complete bike is less than nine kilos so they aren’t far off the mark.
Don’t be fooled by the bulky appearance of the 36-spoke wheels; they weigh just 20g more than Mavic’s 2010 Aksium. The G40 clincher rims feature a pinned joint, spoke eyelets and a hard anodised surface treatment. At 430g each they are slightly lighter than the current Mavic Open Pro and, when paired with the minimal 510 hubset and butted spokes, would have made an excellent training wheelset.
For regular road races, GL 330 tubular rims and Vittoria CX tyres would be substituted but the Classics called for the reinforced SSC versions of the toughest GP4. If you take a close look at the bikes of Mavic sponsored teams in one-day races like Paris-Roubaix you’ll see the descendant of the GP4 in the form of the Reflex tubular rim.
The French company has long since ceased production of hubs for individual sale in favour of complete wheels but the 510 hubs of the 1980s were so light and so cheap that sales of the pricier 550 version ground to a halt. The rear hub from the damaged wheel is a respectable 210g (a Campagnolo Record 10-speed hub weighs 220g); however, there is no freehub to add bulk so it isn’t, strictly speaking, a fair comparison.
With the exceptions of a pair of Dia-Compe brake levers and Simplex Retrofriction shifters, the bike owned by Marques has a complete Mavic ensemble. The brake callipers are finished in a dark surface treatment but the SSC logos are actually applied to a Modolo product. The closest match from the Italian company’s line is the Master Pro.
The aforementioned brake levers have replaced what Hodge believes were Modolo examples. The Australian has always run his brakes the ‘wrong’ way and stuck with the right-front arrangement throughout his career in Europe.
“I’ve always been left-rear with my brakes,” said the former rider, “which is different to the ‘froggies’ and the Spaniards. I tried it a few times and I just couldn’t stop properly. I had to always have the front on the right.”
That would have made his bike an unattractive proposition for a team leader in need of a replacement during a stage but Hodge’s height meant his frames were too big to be of use in most cases. The team policy in the event of a mechanical was for domestiques to wait until a team support vehicle arrived. They would then pace the waylaid leader back to the front.
Shifting duties were handled by a pair of Simplex Retrofriction units mounted to alloy bosses that were bonded to the down tube. The carved levers are elegant and regarded as the benchmark for pre-index shifting but they could sometimes let their user down. If the springs resisting the cable tension failed – as they did, “every so often” – they would simply default to the hardest cog on the 12-21 seven-speed Sachs-Maillard freewheel.
A pair of French derailleurs sent a Sachs chain between ratios at the front (Mavic 860) and rear (Mavic 851). There were lighter derailleurs on the market but the Mavic items were designed to stay in tune amid the rigours of racing.
The 630 crankset is missing the small bolt caps that utilised the crank puller’s thread. On the Vitus the double is fitted with a 41-tooth inner chainring which was the smallest available. A set of black-anodised alloy bolts also secures a 52-tooth ring but every size up to 54 teeth was available. You could even have a triple if required: the 635 model offered 23 sizes from 32 to 54 teeth in one-tooth increments. The odd Giro d’Italia stage may produce a triple chainring crankset on a pro’s bike today but Hodge made full use of the gearing options at his disposal. “After this KAS period I used a triple which was great because you could keep a good range through the mountains.”
“I remember distinctly when we rode the Tour of Britain we went up the Shibden Wall and the Rosedale Chimney which were 25 per cent on cobbles and 33 per cent on bitumen… even how they lay bitumen on a one in three slope I don’t know. There were only about eight people who got up the climb in the race. Mauro Gianetti won it and I came second but only by virtue of the fact that I was up the front and everyone else had to stop and try to walk up with cleated shoes.
“We did that climb using the smallest chainring that was available on the Mavic cranks which was a 41-tooth item. On the back we had a 25-tooth cog which was a bit of a strain.”
Easier gearing may have eased the strain for the current crop of cyclists but the average pro’s bike fit has become much more aggressive. The saddle height on the bike pictured here is actually that of the new owner’s but Hodge’s measurements have stayed the same. He recalled them without hesitation: “76.7cm seat height, 8.5cm of setback… I know everything off by heart”.
He now rides a titanium Seven frame in the same dimensions and the same saddle shape, even though the current one is “falling to bits, it’s 12 years old”. They may not make them like they used to but hopefully there are enough old components buried in bike shops to keep Stephen riding on familiar equipment for years to come. With luck, there might still be the odd G40 SSC rim kicking around too.