Like Flanders and Brittany, the Basque region is one of the true heartlands of European cycling. The flags of these regions have become as iconic and recognisable in the sport as the Campagnolo or Colnago logos. These regions breed fans, riders and brands that are truly entwined with the sport.
The Basque region sits in the far north east of Spain and stretches across the border into the south west of France. Here, nestled among the green hills and meandering coastlines are numerous factories including that of Orbea.
Orbea is not the biggest brand in the cycling world but with distribution in 60 countries worldwide the company still has considerable reach. And with Orbea celebrating its 175th anniversary in 2015, it seemed the perfect time to stop by for a visit.
Weapon of choice
Pulling up outside the factory it’s clear Orbea employees have the perfect testing ground right near by. The factory sits at the base of a long winding climb on the outskirts of Mallabia — a small but bustling town nestled among steep hills. To the west a long valley road leads out of town to the much-bigger Ermua. These roads beg to be ridden.
Orbea’s factory looks relatively modern from the outside for such an old brand. Inside the long two-storey building it’s clear the company has something to celebrate. I’m greeted by Jokin Diez, Orbea’s press manager and a keen cyclist himself.
He’s quick to point out that we should just have enough time to check everything out — the factory shuts early on Fridays so staff can get out and test new products or just enjoy the afternoon. Jokin runs me through the company’s history, of which there’s plenty.
Surprisingly, bikes weren’t the first product that made it to market under the Orbea name. Today the term “weapon” can be applied to a strong rider or a fast-looking bike but Orbea first started by producing actual weapons. Back in 1840 three brothers and a sister started Orbea and pistols and other guns were their trade.
It wasn’t until 1930 that Orbea started producing bikes. With a reduction in the demand for guns after World War I, the company looked at how they could reuse the tooling they already had to produce other items. Before long Orbea had a varied if not slightly odd catalog of items, including bikes, guns and baby prams.
Bikes would eventually become the focus as Orbea and though they produced a wide variety of models, the brand sold exclusively in Spain. With the Spanish economic situation in the doldrums and the business close to bankruptcy, the decision to close the factory — made by the then last of the Orbea family — was a call to arms for the 1,500 staff.
The factory staff joined forces and a cooperative was formed in 1970. In the same year, that newly formed cooperative took the decision to move from Orbea’s original home in Eibar to where it is based today, just a short 10km trip away.
The Orbea cooperative is still in effect today. The people behind the brand — a total of 180 from designers to wheel-builders — all own a piece of the company. A buy-in of €15,000 (AUD$22,000) sees you become a member of Orbea.
The set-up as it is now has slightly changed since the initial buyout in 1970. Orbea is now part of a cooperative umbrella group called Mondragon which runs several factories and brands in the area. Mondragon also has a regional bank which will lend you the €15,000 if you want to become a member of the cooperative.
The cooperative nature clearly works for Orbea. Wandering around the factory floor the place is unlike any of the factories I’ve been lucky enough to visit before, and I’ve been to a few. The atmosphere isn’t as intense as others — workers busy themselves and look engrossed, chatter is more audible than other places and it seems a place that is a lot more personable.
The staff aren’t scared to introduce themselves and aren’t scared to say no to a photo when they don’t feel like they’re looking their best. It’s all pleasantly refreshing.
Unlike at other plants, there is no electronic timer at the Orbea factory, ticking away above people’s workstations, showing their speed of production. The slow-moving conveyor belt isn’t a place where multiple individual stations have workers focusing on a single job of either bolting a part on or fitting cables. Instead, each bike is fully assembled by a single person. It doesn’t seem to slow or hamper the production speed too much — I’m told Orbea builds and sells 200,000 bikes every year.
Elsewhere in the factory skilled hands place spokes into hubs, ready to be fed into the automated wheel-building machine. The wheels are then spat out the other end and checked by hand. There are areas for tidying and cleaning the insides of the multiple models of carbon frames; a product Orbea has produced since 2003.
A back room I’m shown to is only slightly quieter; here the high-end and custom bikes are skilfully built up. Small trollies that double as bike stands have a frame, wheels and all the necessary components stored in an orderly fashion upon them, waiting to be rolled across the room and the bikes put together. It’s a very different process to the much more automated processes I’ve seen in the past.
Orbea also has a second plant in Portugal where the lower-end bikes are all built.
Orbea sprays all its bikes in-house — there are two spaces in the factory designated for this. One is a two-roomed area where frames hang from another conveyor belt, slowly trundling into the booth where a larger robotic arm covers them in paint. The bikes swing 180 degrees where a second arm sprays the other side of the frame. But it’s the room across from the robots where the real magic happens.
Orbea has a new custom paint scheme. It’s in the two-room booth where skilled hands bring Orbea customers’ designs to life. Judging by the row upon row of frames hanging in their multicoloured livery, Orbea’s new project has been a hit. Equally obvious is the fact some customers aren’t happy to settle for conservative colour schemes — the designs go from cool and classy to flat-out retina abuse.
New horizons and a little history
It’s this new My-O paint project that is part of Orbea’s growth in the high-end and exclusive market. As Jokin explains, the original Orca was the first step.
“The Orca was probably the first bike that got us recognition as a high-end brand; that was in about 2003,” Jokin tells me. “With Euskaltel-Euskadi riding that bike in the Tour de France, fighting Armstrong was something really special and awesome for us. It helped us expand to the US, and be known as a high-end brand and exclusive outside of Spain.”
Prior to Orbea’s most recent sponsored teams — Cofidis and the now-defunct Euskaltel-Euskadi — they had a shared title sponsorship with the Gin MG-Orbea team that then changed to Seat-Orbea in 1986 (due to not being allowed to advertise alcohol at the TDF).
Pedro Delgado was the big name on the team, taking a Vuelta win in 1985 and a Tour stage win in 1986. One man I spoke to at the Orbea factory, Aitor Larrañaga, has fond memories of this era.
“In 1982 I started at the factory aged 19. Five years before, since I was 14 years old, I’d been hanging out and helping in the local bike shops,” Aitor said. “After school, I would turn up and work as a hobby. I didn’t race, I was purely a mechanic.
“The first two years with the Orbea amateur team I was based here Monday to Friday in the factory then at the weekends I went with the team to the races. With the pro team which started in 1985, we ended up doing four Tours, three Vueltas, one Giro, then all the Classics.
“I would be based in the factory in the winter from December to February before the competitions started, building the bikes and making the designs of the race frames and so on. Then I’d go to the races in the season. The team headquarters were here in the factory. Mathieu Hermans, Delgado, Felipe Yanez De La Torre, Jaime Vilamajo were a few of the riders. We had Basque riders move from the amateur team to the pro team too.”
Come 1989, with a growing and changing market plus the fear of Spain hitting an economic slump like it had after the civil war, Orbea was spurred into moving in a different direction.
“Orbea actually went down the path of buying Zeus who were selling medium to high-end range, at the time,” press officer Jokin Diez explained. “Orbea wanted to move into that market so they went and bought Zeus. They at the time were known as the Spanish Campagnolo as they were making groupsets too. We did something similar in France with a company called Veneto.
“At one time in about 1994 we had a frame with all three brands painted onto one bike [ed. Orbea on the toptube, Zeus on the downtube, and Veneto on the seattube]. It took a while to where we thought that it wasn’t the right way to do things. The original Euskadi team rode Zeus bikes.”
For any fan of the Spanish cycling scene, the absence of the bright orange Euskaltel-Euskadi team in the pro ranks since 2014 has been a blow. Orbea had a long relationship with the setup, sponsoring it from the beginning of its 19-year journey in the sport. With the demise of Euskaltel-Euskadi Orbea was absent from the pro peloton. So did they ever consider sponsoring their own team?
“No, We couldn’t afford what was then a €9 million budget,” Jokin explained. “But there is no sense building a competition bike and not having a team. We spoke with many teams [and] in the end the team that we felt had similar philosophies and ideas as us was Cofidis.
“We are now entering the second year of sponsorship with them. We still have that connection between the foundation team and now the Cofidis team [ed. as they did with Euskatel-Euskadi] so we can bring the young riders through to the professional teams. It’s not just about winning the Tour de France but more about what we can do for the sport”.
Lines like these are often rolled out by brands and normally it’s pure marketing buzz. But on this occasion, having spent time walking around the factory, meeting the people behind the brand, listing to the history and hearing how profits are pumped back into the company or shared among staff, Jokin’s words ring close to the truth.
Orbea has lasted for 175 years, 85 of those in the bicycle trade. In reality, it’s only in the past 12 years that they’ve found a foothold in the international market. It makes you wonder where the brand will go in the next 175 years.