You may have noticed more and more Orbea bikes on your local roads or trails. They're getting lots of attention from magazines and YouTubers. When I visit The Pro's Closet, I notice more and more Orbea bikes hanging on our staff bike racks. One thing's for sure, Orbea is so hot right now.
The thing is, Orbea isn't new at all; not even close.
Hailing from Mallabia, Spain, Orbea has been producing road bikes and supporting bike racing for nearly 100 years. It has made race-winning mountain bikes since 1989. Orbea is already a big brand in Europe, and it is growing its presence here in North America.
I first discovered Orbea in 2003. In an infamous Tour de France incident, Lance Armstrong hooked his bars on a musette bag and crashed, taking Euskaltel Euskadi rider, Iban Mayo, down with him. Mayo was riding a stunning orange and yellow bike, an Orbea Starship, that immediately caught my teenaged eye.
Later in the Tour, Mayo rode that bike to an emphatic victory up Alpe d'Huez. I wasn't a cyclist just yet, but seven years later, the memory of that bike was still with me. In 2010, I bought a 2005 Starship in the orange and yellow Euskaltel colors and I still own that frame today. I hang it in my garage as an art piece.
Some U.S. riders, however, might not be as familiar with Orbea (yet). So to learn more about this historic brand, I decided to sit down with Parker Degray, Orbea's U.S. marketing coordinator. He told me the story of how one of cycling's oldest brands came to be, and what sets it apart from nearly every other bike maker in the world. For those discovering Orbea now, this is seven things you should know.
1. Orbea has been around a very long time
Bianchi is the oldest bike brand (making bikes since 1885), but Orbea has the distinction of being the second oldest bike manufacturer still in existence. In fact, the company itself has existed longer than any other in the bike industry.
Orbea began in 1840, 45 years before Bianchi, producing handguns. It was named for the three Orbea brothers who started it and in the tumultuous Spanish political climate at the time, making handguns was seen as a necessity. The Basque Country of Spain has spawned numerous renowned gunmakers and there remains a strong tradition of gun making there.
"Orbea didn't make a bicycle until 1920," says Parker Degray. "Gun restrictions were increasing and people were in need of transportation so Orbea morphed the business to fit the times. We started making bikes and baby carriages."
After decades of producing guns, Orbea was already an expert in shaping and joining round tubing. Bikes (and baby carriages) were the next logical step since they were also made out of round steel tubing. It allowed Orbea to quickly react to demand and keep all production in house.
"Then there was a family feud," explains Degray. "They split the company into guns and bikes, and then guns kind of slowly went out of the picture and the bicycles stayed around. It became a co-op in 1969 and it's been full-gas on bikes ever since."
2. Orbea has strong Basque heritage
The Basque Country is a region in northern Spain. It has strong cultural traditions, a unique cuisine, and though they speak Spanish, there's also a distinct language that pre-dates the Romance languages. Orbea is from the Basque Country, where you can ride from the mountains to the sea, and that's a central part of its identity.
"They're proud, motivated, and very dedicated to anything they produce," says Degray. "Cycling is huge there. You've never been given as much space from a car as you get when riding a bike on a single-lane mountain road. It’s the kind of place where everybody gets cyclists. They all just love it when you're out riding."
“One of the major focal points of the brand and of the co-op is supporting the community that supports them,” says Degray.
As a proud Basque company, Orbea has a long history of sponsoring Basque riders. For years, the iconic orange and yellow livery of the Basque-based Euskaltel Euskadi team was one of the most vibrant in the pro peloton.
3. Orbea benefits from being employee-owned
Due to financial hardships and the economic climate in Spain during the 1960s, it became difficult for Orbea to stay in business. In 1969, a group of employees banded together to buy it. Thus it became an employee-owned co-op.
"It’s really cool because everyone down to the person who glues the box closed before it ships has the ability to become part of the co-op and have a stake in what's going on in the company," says Degrary. "Everybody there is motivated to see the company do well and you see that trickle down the line.
"There aren’t really any other big bike brands that are run as a co-op. And then because the co-op is part of a larger umbrella corporation of co-ops (Mondragon Cooperative Corporation), it means Orbea has access to different assets that a lot of bike companies don't have."
"For most bicycle companies, if you need to go use a wind tunnel, you have to rent time in an aerospace wind tunnel," says Degray. "Orbea, on the other hand, we just go down to our own building at Mondragon University and use the wind tunnel.
"That’s just one example, but there’s a lot of different assets and access to things that other companies don't have. The engineering backing from co-op partners is a huge advantage and then global distribution and shipping and production channels too."
4. Orbea is changing bike painting
Just like how the orange and yellow Orbea bike caught my eye in 2003, you probably noticed an Orbea out in the wild with a beautiful paint job. All finish work, including paint and assembly, is done in Spain. Orbea has invested a huge amount of thought and resources into how it approaches painting bikes.
"The MyO program allows customers ordering a new bike to mix and match colors to customize their frame’s paint," explains Degray. "No other bike company can currently do this to this scale. Bikes are painted in-house and there are a million-plus options for different paint schemes. You can put your name on it if you want.
"Each MyO bike we produce is made to order. It gets taped out and sprayed individually. We also do “MyO light” which is a part spec change. If you want a bigger fork, different tires, different length cranks, or bars width, or a power meter added, that can all be adjusted to order so we can make sure you have the exact bike you want. As a consumer that's really cool to me."
As a picky rider, I was impressed seeing how far Orbea goes in allowing you to customize new bike orders. In the pre-owned bike space, this has made Orbea bikes exciting and desirable with their unique paint and high-end specs.
Why aren’t other big bike brands doing this?
“Well if you're too big, it doesn't work because you can't scale it," explains Degray. "It's actually almost scale-limiting. If our competitors wanted to do personalized paint all the way down to $2500 bikes as we have, they would have to buy an entire facility and completely change the way that they do warehousing, ordering, and shipping. We’ve really come to own this niche in the market. We moved our facility back to Spain to have more control over the end product. All of our ordering systems and forecasting is all done around offering personalized paint in-house."
And Orbea's in house painting isn't just about personalized colors. Along with other aspects of bike production, its greater goal is to make painting bikes more environmentally responsible.
"Our painting philosophy is focused on sustainability," says Degray. "We all want less waste during production, so all of our paint facilities are currently zero-waste facilities. So we recycle every bit of overspray and everything is run back in. Orbea actually engineers its own paint bases and it’s all mixed in-house in a state of the art facility to support our goals. Getting closer to 100% recycled materials and zero waste is something we’re constantly striving toward."
5. Orbea bikes are gold medal winners
Orbea's racing history is deep. Road racing became a focal point for Orbea in 1930 and it began participating in the Tour de France as early as 1934. Orbea bikes have won some of the world's biggest races, including the Olympics. In 2008, Samuel Sanchez won gold in the Olympic road race aboard an Orbea Orca while Julien Absalon won gold in the Olympic mountain bike race aboard an Orbea Alma.
The Euskaltel Euskadi team made its mark in the WorldTour. And in World Cup mountain bike racing, Catharine Pendrel has won both an XC World Championship and the World Cup overall on the Orbea Oiz.
“Orbea has been racing for nearly as long as it's been making bikes," says Degray. "It’s part of our culture. If you look at the Tour of the Basque Country, it’s just a small little glimpse into how big bike racing is where Orbea is from. They treat it like a Grand Tour! Racing is their lifeblood.
"For Orbea, racing is how you prove you've got the bike. It’s what motivates our R&D to keep making better and better bikes. We're seeing a bit of a shift in the industry away from racing as a focal point but to us, there's no better way to learn and show that your bike is up to snuff than winning races.”
6. You’re probably pronouncing Oiz wrong
The Orbea Oiz — pronounced like “Oy-eth.”
That’s right. The Oiz is pronounced with a “th” sound. The name of Orbea's cross-country full-suspension mountain bike may seem strange to us Americans, but it’s Basque in origin.
“The Basque language is very old. And Oiz is actually one of the Basque mountains behind the factory," explains Degray. "You can see it when you're standing at the front door.”
The Rallon enduro mountain bike is named for another proud Spanish peak located in Navarre. Orbea also has a bit of an affinity for history and mythology. The Occam (pictured above) was named for Occam’s Razor, the problem-solving principle, and the Laufey was named for a Norse god, the mother of Loki.
And what about race-winning Orca road bike?
“It stands for Orbea Carbon," says Degray.
That makes sense. But I have a personal theory. The Basque people were among the first to catch whales commercially. They dominated the Atlantic whale trade for nearly five centuries. Fortunately for the whales, the practice of whaling has died out. But the ocean and its creatures have been a large part of Basque culture for a very long time. If you ask me, it's named the Orca because it's an apex predator of a bike, the killer whale. But that's just my opinion.
7. Orbea is ready for the future
Like it or not, e-bikes are important to the future of cycling. As a European based company, Orbea already has plenty of experience.
"We had a kind of a categorical defining program with the Gain platform for road e-bikes," says Degray. "We worked with [MALHE] ebikemotion to develop a motor around the Gain bike. We helped develop that motor initially and were the first to market that type of bike. It’s come to define the “enough power” segment. Now Bianchi and Pinarello use that motor too.
"One of the major things we're working on is filling different transportation needs, especially for people in cities. That’s one of the driving forces behind our Urban lightness program. We make some freakishly light, urban e-bikes for people who have to lift them up 10 flights of stairs to their home or office or load it on a train or car to get somewhere.
"I think e-bikes are going to widen the market a bit. And that's the one thing it needs. The cycling market is the most one of the most stagnant markets in the world. We constantly need to figure out ways to get more people included. E-bikes drop the barrier of entry for a lot of individuals. And then they also help people who may have fallen out of riding, find enjoyment again. If you can get 10% more people riding that’s going to make getting more lifetime cyclists in the sport a little bit easier."
All photos courtesy of Orbea.