Orbea Terra long-term review: Happily devouring the dirt
The Orbea brand is most closely associated with the competitive side of cycling, long supporting the efforts of the now-defunct local Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi, five-time world cross-country champion Julien Absalon, and the Luna Chix women’s mountain bike and cyclocross team. Recently, Orbea has jumped on the gravel movement that has been sweeping across the globe with the introduction of a new, do-it-all drop-bar bike called the Terra.
With generous tire clearance, a versatile geometry, a reasonably light-and-stiff carbon frame, and lots of options, the Terra indeed comes across as fun and capable all-road machine. And as it turns out in this case, the book is nearly as good as the promise of the cover.
Making the Terra
Orbea is a brand that’s already well-known to most enthusiast cyclists; less well-known, however, is the much larger Mondragon umbrella under which it operates. Founded in 1956, Mondragon isn’t like most other business entities. Rather, it’s a group of cooperatives, jointly held by its 75,000 employee owners. Such a flat structure has its advantages; notably, the care of the employees is always a high priority in any business decision. But just like governments that rely on the will of many vs. the whimsy of one, it sometimes takes a little longer to get things done.
And so it is that it was only a few months ago that Orbea announced its first truly gravel-capable bike, the Terra — more than five years after Salsa launched its Warbird, which arguably spearheaded the mainstream gravel market when it debuted in August 2012.
Orbea doesn’t actually label the Terra specifically as an all-road bike, a gravel racer, a premium commuter, or a cyclocross rig. Instead, it says the bike is equally capable across all of those roles. That’s quite the tall order, but on paper, there’s some decent evidence to support Orbea’s heady claims of ultimate versatility.
On the gravel front, Orbea has equipped its new modular monocoque carbon fiber frameset with generous tire clearance, officially swallowing “most” 40mm-wide tires through the fork blades and rear stays. Even-bigger Road Plus tires (which typically measure around 47-52mm and mount to smaller-diameter 650b rims) aren’t an option here, but in fairness, 40mm-wide tires should more than suffice for most.
Geometry is bang-on with the latest trends in gravel rigs, with numbers that are similar to a conventional cyclocross bike, but with a bit of massaging to eke out more stability. The chainstays are only 10mm longer than usual at 430mm, and the head tube is slightly more relaxed for a calm demeanor at speed. Those changes result in a 1,030mm wheelbase for my size small tester, which is about 20mm longer than what I would normally run for a proper ‘cross racer. Bottom bracket drops are CX-like, too, ranging from 70-65mm, depending on size.
Orbea has still sought to infuse the Terra with a healthy dose of sporting verve when sticking to paved roads, though. Orbea claims road bike-like levels of measured stiffness, and the 1,190g claimed frame weight (size small) isn’t far off from what you’d see in a dedicated mid-range road racing chassis.
The rider position is also akin to what you’d see in a higher-end endurance road bike, with stack and reach dimensions that actually match Specialized’s latest Roubaix to the millimeter. Bottom-bracket drop is pegged at 70mm across the size range, too, for a good balance between stability and agility.
Feature-wise, the Terra is about what you would expect.
Flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm-diameter thru-axles are used at both ends, there’s a tapered steerer hidden inside the integrated head tube, and the internal cable routing can be configured for mechanical or electronic drivetrains — or even a dropper seatpost — via an array of swappable plastic ports.
The front derailleur tab is removable should you decide a single-chainring drivetrain is more your style, and there’s an optional chain watcher that can be fitted should you prefer a conventional two-ring setup. Either way, you’re stuck with a narrow-format PF30 press-fit bottom bracket shell.
Just two bottle mounts are provided in the usual position, so truly epic rides will force riders to figure out another way to carry sufficient liquid. But that said, Orbea includes proper fender mounts front and rear so you can more comfortably head out in the wet.
Orbea offers an impressively broad range of standard build and color options for the Terra. Six complete builds are on tap along with a bare frameset option, and each is available in five different stock paint schemes as compared to the more common one or two. Moreover, the Terra is available for purchase through Orbea’s MyO custom program, which lets users choose from a dizzying array of colors and components. Component upgrades obviously cost extra, but the custom paint carries no downsides aside from a longer wait.
I selected a stock midrange Terra M21-D model to review here, built with a SRAM Force 1 groupset, Fulcrum Racing 5 DB aluminum clincher wheels, and FSA handlebars, stem, and seatpost.
Total weight for the complete bike is 8.39kg (18.50lb, size small, without pedals or accessories).
Jack-of-all-trades, master of some
Orbea’s marketing department created some awfully big shoes for the Terra to fill, so it’s no surprise that it perhaps doesn’t quite nail those heady aspirations entirely. The Terra may very well be highly capable on a wide range of surfaces, but I found it most at home while attacking the vast network of hard-packed dirt roads that litter Colorado’s Front Range.
As promised, the Terra feels admirably stiff and efficient under power — and yes, indeed like a road bike in this respect. That chassis rigidity carries through to the front end, too, making for a nicely cohesive and secure feel from tip to tail that eagerly responds to rider inputs. A stout frame may be a good starting point for going fast, but it’s the bike’s stable handling that really helps you exploit those capabilities when you hit the dirt.
The slacker front end filters out unintended handlebar movements, and the longer wheelbase makes the bike less apt to unexpectedly spin around when it’s slippery — just the thing for gleefully drifting through the dirt corners littered with pebbles that populate the country roads here.
Further helping matters is Orbea’s choice of tires. This was perhaps my fourth or fifth round of testing on Schwalbe’s versatile G-One Allround, and it continues to be one of my favorites for mixed-terrain riding, especially in the 40mm width used here. The micro-dot tread pattern offers far better grip on hard-packed dirt than its appearance might suggest, and its supple casing makes for surprisingly agreeable levels of rolling resistance. The generous casing volume also ably soaks up smaller chatter, and they’ve proven impressively durable, too.
Straying further from that sweet spot reveals a few shortcomings, though.
Stiffness and reasonably low weight are naturally suited for riding on paved roads, of course, and even in stock form, the Terra is not a bad companion for bigger climbs. Switching to narrower and lighter tires would help quite a bit, but unless you’re out to set a KOM on your local ascent (or have a second set of lighter-weight aero wheels for quicker changes), it doesn’t seem worth the effort to me. These Schwalbes may not be especially light, but they roll faster than one might expect, and offer superb grip on tarmac.
In fact, it’s that excellent pavement performance that highlights one of the Terra’s strongest suits.
On paper, one might expect the Terra to be a lazy handler, and in some ways, it is. At higher speeds, there’s significant effort required to get the bars to turn, and the bike is naturally inclined to track straight ahead.
But at the same time, it responds much better than I’d expected when leaned over. It eagerly dives toward apexes when treated in this manner, and there’s so much traction on hand on asphalt that you can really lay it over. The perfectly round tire profile promotes that behavior, too, and the tread practically begs you to explore the limits by extending so far down the side of the casing.
Unfortunately, things get a little bumpier as you tackle more unruly terrain — literally.
Orbea makes a big deal of the Terra’s “Dynamic Structure,” which is basically yet another marketing spin on the old “laterally stiff, vertically compliant” descriptor. While the bike is a little smoother than ultra-stiff chassis like the Scott Addict Gravel, it’s still no couch; any semblance of ride comfort comes almost entirely from the high-volume tires.
Speaking of which, the micro-knob tread pattern and round casing profile that work so well on pavement and dirt just aren’t enough to adequately cope with actual gravel roads. There’s a reasonable amount of casing volume to handle the roughness, but not enough negative space between the knobs to hold the ground, and not enough of a squared-off shoulder to provide any sort of reassuring shelf when cornering.
Unfortunately, one key shortcoming in the spec only exacerbates that issue.
The tires are tubeless-ready, but the Fulcrum Racing 5 DB wheels on which they’re mounted are not (although that’s apparently been corrected for the 2018 model year). As a result, I never felt comfortable running less than 35psi or so, and absolutely would have preferred to go softer, especially for light trail duty. Previous experience on those tires has demonstrated that they can easily be run in the mid-to-high 20s with minimal effects on rolling resistance, but greatly enhanced ride quality and traction — both of which the Terra could use more of.
Even if the rims were tubeless-compatible, though, their 17mm internal width is arguably too narrow to fully exploit the advantages of low pressure since there wouldn’t be enough support to keep the casing from folding over in corners. Orbea offers the slightly wider and tubeless-compatible DT Swiss P 1800 Spline 32 wheelset as a no-cost upgrade through the MyO program, and it’s one I would strongly recommend.
I also found the stock Prologo saddle to be overly stiff and slippery for all-day rides, but otherwise, the rest of the build felt mostly spot-on.
SRAM’s Force 1 single-ring groupset is arguably the top choice for this category of riding, with its precise (albeit somewhat clunky-sounding) shift performance and the bulletproof chain retention of its X-Sync chainring and clutched rear derailleur. Say what you will about the chunky lever shape, but that big protrusion on top of the body is nice to grab when the going gets rough.
Kudos to Orbea for specifying a non-flared FSA Energy Compact handlebar. Terra riders aren’t apt to get sufficiently rowdy to justify the extra width of a flared bend, and the straight drops of the Energy Compact bar felt more natural to me on long days.
Keep in mind that the stock 11-36T cassette offers somewhat limited gearing range, though, especially when considering the Terra’s expanded range of capabilities. I found the stock setup to be alright on most rides, but on days I took the Terra on more rustic routes, I often yearned for SRAM’s wider-range 10-42T cassette, or at least a smaller chainring.
It’s still fun being Jack
Truth be told, most of the Terra’s shortcomings come about solely due to the lofty aspirations put forward by Orbea. Mountain bikers have chased after the one-bike “quiver killer” mostly in vain for ages, so there’s no good reason why we should expect such a thing to exist on the road.
That all said, the Terra may not quite live up to that somewhat unrealistic billing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an awfully entertaining machine on which to spend a day. During my lengthy test period, one ride in particular stood out to highlight the Terra’s personality.
Fog is a rare occurrence here in Boulder, and a recent morning treated the area to an especially thick blanket of cold and wet mist. I was yearning for some sun, however, and had a feeling that I could climb out of it. And so up toward the tiny mountain town of Gold Hill I went.
The ride starts in earnest with a slightly uphill section of crushed-gravel multi-use trail that follows along a creek. After a few minutes, it’s back on to a quiet paved road that leads up one of the many canyons that feed into town. This road was one of many decimated by the catastrophic flooding that hit the area in 2013, and so while it’s technically paved, the quality steadily degrades as you ascend. The surface fully switches to dirt after about 9km.
I was still stuck in the clouds when the asphalt ended, 500m higher than where I started. But just as the grade of the road started creeping well into the double digits and I began to curse the Terra’s limited gearing range, the sky began to lighten and the air began to warm. I fully busted through the cloud layer at 2,300m above sea level, and by the time I hit the section of switchback section just above, I was bathed in glorious sunlight as I continued to make my way up.
By the time I hit Gold Hill, it was like I had turned the page on the calendar and moved from autumn back into summer. I treated myself to a piece of pie from the local general store.
Stopping in Gold Hill is always a bittersweet affair, though, as there’s still one last uphill drag of pavement before you finally reach the top. But once you’re there, you can look over your shoulder for a dramatic view of the Rockies, which on this day, were just starting to don their snowy caps. Up to this point, I hadn’t really tested the Terra’s capabilities; it’s basically just a steady 900m uphill slog to here all the way from town.
But on the other side of that crest is one of the best dirt descents in the area. The Terra made easy work of the first section, then happily railed around the backside of the hill before the road opens up to an expansive overlook of Boulder below. On this day, there was still that heavy blanket of mist covering the area, offering one of the best views I’d seen in my decade-plus of living here. The pie was tasty, but that view was the real treat after laboring up and out of that cold, low-hanging cloud.
From that point, there’s a series of downhill dirt switchbacks that the Terra absolutely ate up. With the tires’ reassuring grip and the confident power of those hydraulic disc brakes, I dove into each corner before clamping hard on the rotors, drifting through the apex, and then powering through to the next bend.
A little further down, the road turns back into asphalt, and I was really able to open it up. That high-speed stability made it easy to grab gobs of free speed, and between the tires’ generous contact patches and the bike’s lean-happy geometry, it was like riding a roller coaster through the remaining hairpin corners. I sped back into town with that endorphin high that cyclists know all so well.
I hadn’t fully forgotten whatever equipment flaws I noticed earlier in the day, but at that point, they sure seemed less important.