Meet the Maker: Orbea

Posted by Andrew Hartwell

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Meet the Maker: Inside Orbea

Orbea is one of the oldest and proudest bicycle brands in the world. We paid them a visit to see inside their factory as well as ride the new Orca race bike

Words and photos: David Arthur

If I was to tell you Orbea started life not as a bicycle company, but as a maker of guns and ammo, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But in 1840, it was indeed the manufacture of arms that first fired up the production line in the Basque company’s headquarters. The switch from destructive machinery to liberators of freedom and sporting conquest didn’t happen until 1930, but in the subsequent 86 years Orbea has carved itself a fine reputation for building some of the best racing bicycles to grace the professional peloton.

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For it is in the pantheon of professional cycle racing that the company has really made its mark and left an indelible mark on the memories of most sporting cyclists. Racing and competition run deep in the veins of the company and its employees and has spearheaded the development of its bikes over the years.

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“Competition has been something extremely important for Orbea since we switch from guns to bikes on 1930s,” explains Orbea’s Press Manager Jokin Diez. “Since that moment we bet for the competition because we think that if something is good for the competition it will be perfect for the final user. Since then, 80 years of Orbea teams in Road, MTB, triathlon.”

Its sponsorship of the legendary Euskaltel-Euskadi professional racing team during the 1990s and 2000s was one of the longest running sporting partnerships in professional cycling, lasting some 20 years and ensuring Orbea would forever be associated with a generation of proud Basque cycling fans.

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“With Euskaltel-Euskadi we started on 1994 and until the end, it was 20 years of partnership, the longest sponsorship on the UCI history,” expands Jokin. “With Iban Mayo we fought with Lance Armstrong on his best days, winning in Luz Ardiden with Samuel Sánchez, having victories like the one of Mikel Nieve and Igor Antón on a great weekend on the Alps on the Giro... And a Gold medal in Beijing! It´s been one of the best teams of all the times! And for sure, it was great for us!”

But it was more than a team and bike sponsor. Basque has a strong sport and cycling culture, the region has produced some very good athletes and Orbea is proud of its roots. And the Euskaltel-Euskadi team came to be a symbol for Basque cycling, projecting its sporting pedigree onto a world stage. There was much race success, some 150 race victories that included stages in each of the Grand Tours. Remember Iban Mayo winning on the fearsome Alpe d’Huez in 2003? Or Samuel Sanchez winning the Beijing 2008 Olympics aboard the company’s iconic Orca race bike? These are just two of many outstanding victories in a long-lasting partnership.

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Success hasn’t just been limited to road racing. A strong presence in the mountain bike world culminated with Julien Absalon, one of the most successful cross-country racers ever, winning Olympic gold in 2008 aboard an Orbea Alma. More recently, professional triathlete Andrew Starykowicz blitzed the Ironman event, setting a record for the bike segment with a time of 4:04:39, all aboard Orbea’s time trial Ordu bike.

From the company’s beginnings as makers of rifles and guns to producing bikes, it is today Spain’s biggest bicycle brand. The company is rather unique in being a co-operative, which means that the 230 employees not only work for Orbea but also own a part of it, once they buy-in after two years of employment. Orbea is actually part of a bigger co-operative called Mondragon, which offers employees financial, educational and medical benefits, as well as logistical advantages to Orbea.

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While far from the biggest bike brands - it makes 190,000 bikes a year - it has been enjoying continued growth over the past few years: its yearly turnover has grown steadily and is on track for nearly €100 million in 2016. Strong sales outside of Spain have contributed to this growth, with demand in France, UK, Germany and the US. Profits have been invested back into the company, a €1 million state-of-the-art paint shop was added to its factory to allow it to paint all its frames in-house, and plans are underway to expand to a bigger facility to accommodate the increasing bikes sales its popularity is generating.

Despite this impressive growth, Orbea is keen to ensure manages the growth to build a sustainable business. While many bike companies are driven solely by profit to the benefit of shareholders, Orbea’s shareholders are its employees so the race for profit has to be tempered by its desire to build a long-lasting brand that remains true to its core values.

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Just how does a small company compete with bigger bike brands when it comes to sporting success and developing new products?

“With effort, and passion, and work, and passion again,” offers Orbea’s Jokin Diez. “We love what we do. We live in an area, Basque Country, that loves cycling, that makes trips to the Pyrenees to see the Tour, that we have the Euskal Herriko Itzulia with the best teams of the world... So, it´s something that it´s in our DNA. We make bikes that makes people happy so it´s easy to make even more efforts to make people happy.”

Orbea once used to manufacture complete bicycles, making not just the frames but also many of the components adorning the bike. These days the majority of its frames are manufactured in the Far East, though it has been moving some aluminium production back to Europe in recent years. Once produced, raw frames are shipped to one of its two European locations; low cost models built in Portugal and higher-end models, including all its carbon frames, to its main facility and company headquarters in Mallabia just outside Bilbao.

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One thing that certainly sets Orbea apart is the fact it paints all its own frames. It combines a state-of-the-art painting production line: raw frames are fed in at one end and robots quickly and precisely apply paint, in a process that is mesmerising to witness; and a conventional manual paint shop for the custom finishes that form part of Orbea’s expanding MyO customisation programme. And the quality of the work is flawless; polished, clean and smooth.

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To meet this challenge to allow such a level of personalisation, Orbea has invested heavily both in the paint facility with a £1million automated paint shop, but also the size of the building, which is currently been increased to cope with the continued growth it has enjoyed in recent years. Bikes are rigorously checked through an 11 point quality control check throughout the process from arrival as raw frames through to the final assembly. The factory also includes Orbea’s own testing facilities where new frames in the development process are put through rigorous stress tests. At the end of the production line in a separate room, bikes are assembled to order on special trollies before being built by skilled mechanics. Throughout the process and tour of the factory, it’s remarkably relaxed. Quiet, too. The atmosphere isn’t one of chaos or pressure, of working against the clock or a unit delivery target as it is at some companies. None of the employees appear under stress to work faster.

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It’s a company of keen cyclists, that much is evident during our visit. Lunchtime roads are common here; a browse of the local roads on Strava reveals many top times are held by employees. The Basque region might not be the first area to roll off the tongue when listing top cycling destinations, but like Flanders or the Alps, it offers some spectacular riding, provided you like climbing. And it’s the perfect place for testing bikes - immediately outside the company’s front door is a stunning 5km climb that snakes through the lush countryside and disappears into the vast expanse of hills that line the landscape in this region.

It’s clearly the ideal testing ground for developing road bikes, a succession of climbs and descents with - as we’re told by Orbea Product Manager Joseba Arizaga, our guide for a short demo ride - very few flat roads. It’s either up or down, nothing in between. We’re riding the brand new 2017 Orca, the company’s flagship race bike. These roads around Orbea’s office go some way to explaining the way the new Orca rides. But first, let’s rewind to 2013, the year the very first Orca was introduced to the world. It’s a pivotal bike in the company’s timeline as it was the first carbon model in its range. The name actually comes from combing the first two letters of ORbea and CArbon: Orca.

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“Orca is Orbea’s Road flagship,” says Jokin Diez. “It was our first carbon production and a really successful bike in terms of sales. So, a new evolution of the bike is a new step ahead to make better something that is already on user´s minds.”

The Orca has evolved and been finessed over the years, from the distinctive frame design of the original to today’s fifth generation incarnation which, with a weight of 790g, is the lightest frame Orbea has ever produced. A big development is an all-new fork, designed to be stiffer and more aerodynamic, but it’s just one component of a bike that is a big step forward for the small but ambitious company.

The new bike is a big step forward, then. The redesign has centred on reducing weight, achieved by the use of simpler tube shapes and a more advanced carbon fibre layup. Sadly it does mean some of the distinctiveness of the original Orca has been phased out. On the plus side, the frame weighs just 790g, which puts it right up there with the lightest frames from the bigger manufacturers. The stiffness and aerodynamics have also been improved, the former via oversized tubes and a PF386 bottom bracket, the latter via a new wide stance fork that reduces turbulent air between fork blades and the wheel.

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Make no mistake, the new Orca is a stiff and highly responsive race bike. It accelerates with no delay and changes direction with absolutely no hesitation, but the fast steering demands your absolute and full attention. The geometry on this top-end model has been sharpened and that much is clear from the way it threads a definite line through the sweeping descents that are the reward for the tough climbs. It’s a bike we definitely want to spend more time on, but it’s clear that the performance places the Orca on the same page as the leading rivals from much bigger companies, impressive given Orbea’s modest size and budget.

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Visiting Orbea has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. It’s clearly a company passionate about making the best bicycles it can to the highest standards possible, and not accepting second best when only the best will do. Though a relatively small company, its size allows it to be agile and responsive to changing market trends, but it is in sticking firmly to its desire to be taken seriously as a pedigree racing brand that has seen it enjoy considerable success over the past couple of decades, and there’s much evidence it’ll be around in another 175 years. But whether it’ll still be making bicycles is another matter…

We’ll let Orbea have the last word.

Each Orbea retains something of our environment, the Basque Country , our mountains, our temperament, our spirit and our momentum. A responsibility to love was born here, and our enthusiasm conquered the world.”

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