Orbea Orca review: Basque in name, but German in soul
Orbea has always proudly touted its Basque heritage, and its latest Orca road racer is a strong testament to the brand’s lengthy experience in the category. Just like those orange-clad riders in Tours de France of yore, the Orca is a superb climber whose only limitation when the road heads skyward is the ability of its rider.
But while this modern Orca performs better than ever, it’s also lost some of the personality it once had. Ultra-rigid and enviably lightweight, it now ironically feels more a little less Basque, and a little more German.
- Frame weight: 795g (claimed, 53cm, unpainted)
- Complete bike weight: 6.27kg (13.82lb, 51cm, without pedals or accessories)
- Key features: BB386 EVO press-fit bottom bracket, convertible internal cable routing, tapered 1 1/8-to-1 1/2in head tube, 27.2mm seatpost, available custom paint
- Price: US$3,300 / AU$TBC / £2,500 / €3,000 (Orca OMR frameset only)
The Orca family tree
Orbea first debuted the Orca nameplate in 2003, when the company introduced its first carbon fiber road bike after a long and successful stint in premium aluminum construction. While it was a jump forward for Orbea in terms of stiffness and weight, bigger, better-known companies had already launched into composite technology years earlier, and Orbea was desperately trying to keep up. That first-generation Orca was good, but not good enough.
It wasn’t until the second-generation version launched in 2006 that the Orca really made a splash — and a big one at that.
That Orca wore a curvaceous shape that was visually striking and highly distinctive, and its intersection of convex and concave surfaces made for the perfect palette on which to apply a gorgeous rainbow of paint options. Every scheme was tastefully restrained, yet absolutely beautiful; the frame’s shape confidently spoke for itself, without the need to scream through a wildly ornate or complicated finish. Even the polished aluminum seatpost collar was a work of art, its profile a perfect complement to the frame’s curves, its design clearly chosen more to make an aesthetic impact instead of an impressive showing on the scales.
The second-generation Orca wasn’t just a visual masterpiece, either. Its ride quality felt distinctly refined and grown-up. It wasn’t the lightest in the market, but it was composed and planted on less-than-perfect roads, it was stiff enough for the task at hand, it handled beautifully through fast and twisty descents, and generally came across as just dependable and reliable, and always the right tool for the job.
Orbea introduced the third-generation Orca in 2010, which pursued a more purpose-driven design with its aero-inspired shape. Modeled after the company’s triathlon-focused Ordu, the Orca now sprouted diamond-like tube profiles that the company claimed saved 7W of effort as compared to the previous version, along with improvements in stiffness and weight. But once again, those aerodynamic enhancements weren’t on par with what the best in the industry were producing at the time.
Moving forward, the fourth-generation Orca in 2014 embraced that function-first philosophy even further, casting aside much of its predecessor’s aerodynamic skin, and moving back to a more traditional focus on high stiffness and low weight. Those diamond-like cross-sections gave way to more rounded tube shapes that performed better on the test bench.
But where that second-generation Orca couldn’t help but stand out in a crowd, and the third-generation model attracted notice with its diamond-profile tubing, the fourth-generation version ended up being more anonymous, providing another me-too choice amongst a huge swath of competitive options without a compelling argument to pluck it out of the bunch. It wasn’t sufficiently stiff or light to excel in objective frame tests, but it also wasn’t distinctive enough visually to present a valid style argument.
Somewhere along the line, the Orca had lost its way in the vast ocean — just another fish in the sea.
For this fifth-generation edition, Orbea has once again taken a function-over-form approach to the Orca’s design, but has doubled down and moved even more aggressively to push the bike’s performance credentials. Orbea proudly hails from the Basque region on the northern edge of Spain, but the current Orca now seems more Germanic in flavor.
Once again, stiffness-to-weight and overall rigidity were prioritized in engineering the frame; even Orbea admits that it was tired of getting walloped in laboratory bench tests such as the ones conducted by Tour Magazine. Carbon fibers with higher modulus values from Japanese supplier Toray are used throughout, all of the tubes are nominally round for maximum structural efficiency, and each tube takes a dead-straight path from end to end with seemingly every surface wholly devoted to the frame’s singular purpose.
The main tubes are giant in proportion, the girth and tall chainstays are set broadly on the similarly wide and oversized BB386EVO press-fit bottom bracket shell, and the seatstays are pencil-thin in the hopes that they can lend a modicum of comfort. Likewise, there’s a round, 27.2mm seatpost up top to provide more flex on bumps than more oversized options, and the standard shape makes for easy upgrading down the road.
As far as its shape is concerned, the new Orca is arguably more generic than ever, its design bordering on formulaic and derivative of nearly every other top-performing road bike on the market. But there’s a reason why road bikes fixated on stiffness-to-weight all look similar: the recipe works.
Other features include a highly configurable internal cable routing system with a network of interchangeable plastic caps that can set up for every drivetrain and brake combination on the market, including mechanical, wired, wireless, and hydraulic. There’s also a 1 1/8-to-1 1/2in tapered steerer tube up front, an integrated chain catcher attached to the base of the seat tube, and the seatpost is held in place with an internal binder that is neatly hidden inside the top tube.
Claimed weight for an unpainted 53cm frame is just 795g — 80g lighter than its predecessor — with the matching fork coming in just over 300g. But yet despite the feathery claimed weights, Orbea insists that this latest Orca is the stiffest one it’s ever produced.
Orbea offers the Orca frame in three versions. The top-end OMR features the latest shape and the highest-end carbon fiber blend; the mid-range OMP is essentially the previous-generation Orca frame, using that older mold; and finally, there’s the entry-level PRO, which shares the same shape as the OMP, but with a lesser carbon fiber blend to keep the cost down.
Orbea sent a top-end Orca OMR 18 model for this review, built with a suitably high-end blend of parts that were seemingly hand-chosen to emphasize the chassis’ climbing chops: SRAM’s ultralight Red 22 mechanical groupset, Fulcrum Racing Quattro medium-profile carbon clinchers shod with 23mm-wide Vittoria Corsa tires (and latex inner tubes), a mix of carbon fiber and aluminum FSA cockpit components, and a silly-light Selle Italia SLR Tekno saddle with an unpadded carbon fiber shell.
Total weight is about what you’d expect at a UCI-illegal 6.27kg (13.82lb, 51cm, without pedals or accessories).
Riding the wave
Orbea’s goal with the current Orca was to make it as light and stiff as possible, and that’s certainly the impression you get of it on the road.
All of the stereotypical descriptors apply here. The bike eagerly squirts forward when you get on gas, it feels as if not a single watt is wasted from pedal-to-tire, and the fantastic torsional stiffness makes for excellent manners when out of the saddle or just carving through a series of sharp downhill corners. It’s all painfully overused marketing cliché, yes, but yet it’s all true. Orbea has always wanted to play with the big boys in terms of performance numbers, and that goal has clearly now been met.
Climbers will be especially happy with the bike’s performance characteristics.
I distinctly recall the glory days of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team that Orbea sponsored for ages, its orange-clad riders effortlessly propelling themselves up the steepest of grades, always animating the state of play when the road turned upward.
It was hard not to have those images in my head when heading uphill on the Orca. I’m not a naturally gifted climber in any way, but the Orca could hardly be better suited for gaining elevation. In that environment, and especially on steeper pitches, high stiffness and low weight are more noticeable than aerodynamic efficiency, and the Orca excels in both regards.
Handling is still a strong suit of the Orca, too, provided you’re a fan of quick-and-darty manners out on the road. Just as the bike responds immediately to changes in pressure at the pedals, the front end is quick to answer when you transit any input at the bars. It’s eager to change course on the road, and that agility is only compounded by the complete bike’s feathery total weight and outstanding chassis rigidity. But yet while the sub-1m wheelbase on my 51cm test bike makes it easy to change directions, it’s somewhat tempered by the slightly lower-than-typical 72mm bottom bracket drop, which helps keep the center of gravity closer to the ground for good high-speed stability.
Not surprisingly given the target market for the Orca, the fit is aggressively long and low, just as it should be for this type of bike. Stack and reach figures are within a few millimeters of a Specialized Tarmac, Trek Madone (H1 fit), and Giant TCR Advanced SL. There are no concessions made to those that want the look of a race bike, but shouldn’t really be on one. In other words, do your yoga.
Unfortunately, ride quality is just as race-oriented, and not necessarily in a good way.
I have fond memories of that iconic second-generation Orca, and this current version feels nothing like it. Whereas that old bike felt planted, substantial, and composed, this one is flintier and more skittish. Despite what the pencil-thin seatstays and comparatively skinny 27.2mm-diameter seatpost might suggest, the ride is backboard-stiff overall, and there’s little sense that the frame or fork is doing much to conform to the road surface. Many traditionalists who still hold on to unreasonably high tire pressures might characterize that sensation as “fast”, but the reality is that it’s a bit wearing after several hours in the saddle, and hampers the bike’s ability to confidently hold a line through coarsely-paved roads.
In fairness, most of that unyielding ride quality can be tempered by running lower air pressure, and dropping the stock 23mm-wide Vittoria clinchers to 70psi indeed helped. Even with the standard rim-brake version I tested here, Orbea also wisely leaves ample room for 28mm-wide tires if you want yet more cushioning; the disc-brake Orca provides for a bit more space still.
That said, not every rider will be willing to go that route.
Lower inflation pressures can still yield very low rolling resistance (possibly even lower than higher pressures, in fact), but doing so requires the use of supple tires and thin tread caps, neither of which provides the sort of durability many people want for everyday riding. Nor can everyone run lower pressures on narrower tires without the risk of pinch flats (I only weigh 70kg).
It also goes without saying that wider tires are heavier than narrower ones of equivalent construction, which directly counters the point of choosing a lightweight frameset like this to begin with. As an experiment during testing, I swapped the supplied Fulcrum wheelset with a pair of HED Jet 4 Black aero clinchers, shod with Continental’s latest Force and Attack tires inflated to a modest 65psi. Ride comfort absolutely improved, and there was no perceived downgrade in rolling resistance. If anything, the more aerodynamic wheels likely made the bike faster overall.
I never lost the sense that the frame was inherently stiff-riding, and the heavier wheel-and-tire setup dulled the bike’s climbing prowess.
In other words, there are avenues to take to avoid the Orca’s ride-quality pitfalls, but weigh them carefully before deciding to depend on them.
Visually, the latest Orca is undeniably more generic than it’s ever been; any bit of built-in elegance that once graced that iconic second-generation version is well in the past, for better or worse. That alone may turn some buyers off, but Orbea’s fantastic MyO custom paint program steps in to inject some much needed flair. Although the designs are preset for each model, the generous color palettes — not to mention both glossy and matte finishes — allow for thousands of possible color combinations to truly make the bike your own. Going the MyO route (as I did for my loaner sample) adds about six weeks of waiting time, but that’s all. Quite miraculously, there’s no upcharge whatsoever for the service.