Orbea Orca Aero first ride review: Fast and stiff, but a rough ride
Orbea has long shied away from the aero road bike scene, instead focusing more on low weight and high stiffness for its flagship Orca range. But that all has now changed with the introduction of the Orca Aero, which combines the standard Orca’s proven geometry with a sleek and modern shape to help it slice through the air more efficiently.
CyclingTips U.S. technical editor James Huang recently paid a visit to the Basque region of Spain to get an initial taste of Orbea’s latest entry.
The upside of tardiness
It shouldn’t be discounted just how late Orbea is to the aero road bike party. To put things into perspective, consider that Cervélo — the company often credited with popularizing the aero road bike category — introduced its original Soloist in 2002. Another early adopter, Felt, launched its first-generation AR in 2008. Others, such as the Look KG196 and Corima Fox, came even earlier than that, but as far as modern bikes from major manufacturers go in the post-Lugano Charter era, Cervélo and Felt have been in the game far longer than most.
Both companies have released multiple generations of aero road bikes since then, and just about every other bicycle brand has followed suit with their own wind tunnel-based designs.
And then there’s Orbea.
Orbea hasn’t ignored aerodynamics completely. The company has long dabbled in the triathlon and time trial markets with the Ordu, and the previous-generation Orca had some aerodynamic pretenses with its diamond-shaped tubes. But it’s with the latest iteration of both that Orbea has finally taken the subject of aerodynamic efficiency much more seriously — and just as in road racing, there’s something to be said for sitting back and waiting to burn your matches.
The Orca Aero features the now-common Kamm tail design philosophy on the new Orca Aero that bikes like the Scott Foil and Trek Madone have used for several years to great effect. Clipping the tails off the airfoil sections retains most of the aerodynamic efficiency while allowing for a much broader (and, thus, stiffer) tube than would otherwise be allowed. It’s a lesson that many brands took years to figure out, but one that Orbea can adopt straight out of the gate.
But while those bikes — and others like it — were designed with the UCI’s long-standing technical regulation that dictated tube cross-section ratios of 3-to-1 or less, the Orca was developed after the governing body had already disclosed to manufacturers that that rule would be relaxed (it became official in January).
The Orca Aero’s fork blades, down tube, and seat tube are all built with shapes that are deeper than what was previously allowed — and according to Orbea, the bike’s aerodynamic performance improves as a result. Wind tunnel test results are notoriously difficult to compare between different brands, as everyone seems to have their own ideas on test protocols and preferred test facilities. But nevertheless, Orbea’s claims are quite bold, with an Orca Aero rider saving 27 watts of power over a rider on a standard Orca when traveling at 50km/h, or saving 82 seconds over a 50km-long course at the same (rather unrealistic) speed.
According to Orbea, the integrated Vision Metron 5D carbon fiber cockpit — and its custom-for-Orbea headset cover and spacers — save six watts alone, and the new fork another four.
Bikes are not ridden inside wind tunnels, however, and Orbea has paid plenty of attention to other aspects of the Orca Aero’s design that are likely to be more tangibly appreciated.
In particular, Orbea says the new Orca Aero actually improves upon the standard Orca’s admirable stiffness levels, tallying a 104Nm/degree performance (versus 96Nm/degree for the Orca) on a bench test that mimics what riders will feel when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle and applying loads at both the pedals and handlebar.
Orbea has acknowledged some more practical aspects of the frame’s design, too.
Cable routing is internal, for example, but with conventional direct-mount rim-brake calipers sitting in standard positions at both ends of the bike (a disc-brake version is potentially pending), service and maintenance hassles should be kept at a minimum. A small aluminum hatch atop the down tube can be swapped to suit various drivetrain types — including mechanical, wired electronic, and wireless electronic — while the bottom bracket-mounted guide makes short work of cable swaps.
The front derailleur mount can be also be removed when using single-chainring transmissions, there’s an integrated chain catcher mounted directly to the base of the seat tube, and Orbea provides a custom Shimano Di2 battery mount for the Orca Aero’s proprietary carbon fiber seatpost.
Both ends will accept “most” 28mm-wide tires, and instead of an internal seatpost binder design that can sometimes creak and slip, Orbea has equipped the Orca Aero with a conventional external clamp that has been profiled to blend into the rest of the frame — just like the company did on the original Orca a decade ago.
Claimed frame and fork weights for the Orca Aero were not available at the time of publication, but based on the vast increase in surface area alone, a total weight gain relative to the standard Orca of a couple hundred grams seems reasonable (putting the Orca Aero frame at just under 1kg for an unpainted sample).
As with several other Orbea models, the Orca Aero is offered in a wide range of pre-configured build kits. Bikes with Shimano 105 will start at US$3,300 / £2,600 / €3,000 while a top-end package with SRAM Red eTap will fetch US$8,500 / £6,800 / €7,900 (Australian pricing is to be confirmed).
Customers also have the option of custom paint (at no extra charge) and custom spec via the company’s MyO program.
Taking in the Basque Country on the new Orca Aero
I rode the Orbea’s new bike for two days on roads surrounding the company’s headquarters in the Basque region on the northern coast of Spain, and although such limited time isn’t sufficient to form long-term conclusions, 145km (90 miles) and 2,300m (7,500ft) of climbing still afforded ample opportunity to generate some good early impressions.
Naturally, the first question when assessing the performance of any aero road bike is how well it actually slices through the air — and unfortunately, it’s one that I can’t answer. Riding on unfamiliar roads in uncontrolled settings made it impossible to even roughly assess the bike’s aerodynamic performance, so I have no choice here but to leave that to company claims.
That said, having been immersed in a long-term test of the standard Orca at home, Orbea’s stiffness claims on the Orca Aero seem more than believable. The bike is wonderfully stout and balanced from end-to-end when mashing the pedals out of the saddle, and the giant, asymmetrical chainstays transfer power with a smooth, efficient feel whether seated or standing. Given the frame’s enormous tube cross-sections, that rigidity shouldn’t come as any surprise.
High stiffness and an aerodynamic shape predispose the Orca Aero to going fast, but day two’s point-to-point route from San Sebastián inland — covering 64km (40 miles) in distance with about 1,500m (5,000ft) of elevation gain — provided plenty of time to prove that the bike is plenty capable of going uphill well, too. Then again, that climbing prowess shouldn’t come as any surprise, either. Assuming my assumptions on frame weight are correct, the Orca Aero’s modest weight penalty over the Orca is only significant on paper, and that’s without taking into account any potential benefit from the more aerodynamically efficient form.
Orbea has carried over the standard Orca geometry almost entirely intact to the Orca Aero, and the handling characteristics are about what you’d expect: the steering is highly reactive and immediate, and the front end is generally quick to change direction with just minor inputs required. Our group’s second ride finished with a 6.5km-long (4 miles) sinuous descent with perfect pavement and speeds that hovered between 55-65km/h (34-40mph) throughout, and it was only my unfamiliarity with the tires’ limits of grip that kept me from pushing harder through the corners. Provided you can keep your hands calm on the bars, high-speed stability is very good, too.
That’s all well and good, but what about the bike’s ride quality? Orbea says the comparatively slim top tube and seatpost lend the Orca Aero a more smoother ride than you might expect; however, I say that depends heavily on your expectations.
Even with the 25mm-wide Hutchinson tires on my test bike inflated to a modest 5 bar (72psi), the words “Orca Aero” and “comfortable” aren’t likely to be uttered in the same sentence. While I wouldn’t quite characterize the bike’s ride quality as unduly harsh, it’s noticeably firmer than the already-firm Orca. This wasn’t an issue on smoother roads, but coarser asphalt revealed a distinctly chattery personality that not only affected comfort, but also traction through certain corners.
It’s here where Orbea’s comparative lack of experience in the aero road bike category is perhaps most noticeable. Cervélo has figured out how to engineer some comfort into its S-Series with their ultra-thin seatstays and slimmed-down seatpost head, Felt’s AR uses uniquely paper-thin carbon seatpost walls and an elastomeric saddle cradle to squelch some of the buzz, and the Trek Madone incorporates a properly suspended seat tube mechanism borrowed from the company’s endurance and cyclocross platforms to incredible effect.
The Orca Aero has none of those features, though, and the ride quality is more direct as a result — for better or worse.
Other complaints that came to mind were more minor. The BB386EVO press-fit bottom bracket shell developed a slight tick by the time I handed my tester back to the Orbea mechanics — something that could possibly be solved by using one of the new thread-together bottom brackets — and while the Vision Metron 5D integrated cockpit was presumably speedy, the untaped tops were unnervingly slippery. In fact, one other editor nearly crashed on a descent from the lack of grip, so I’d recommend extending the taped section at least slightly further inboard than what Vision recommends — printed graphics be damned.
Orca vs. Orca Aero
Invariably, the second question that will come to mind is which of Orbea’s two flagship road models someone should choose — and as is often the case, the answer will depend on your particular wants and needs.
If your primary desire is to have a light-and-stiff bike that simply feels fantastic underneath you, the standard Orca is the easy pick from Orbea’s catalog. All signs point to the new Orca Aero being the faster of the two options, but bear in mind that there’s a penalty for speed.