Inside Orbea: 175 Years of Manufacturing Heritage

Mar 12, 2015
by Mike Kazimer  


Until fairly recently, for most cyclists the name 'Orbea' conjured up images of spandex-clad riders aboard flyweight carbon fiber bikes duking it out in the dirt of the World Cup XC series, or on the endless asphalt of the Tour de France. In 2014, the Spanish company's introduction of the latest version of the Rallon, a 160mm all-mountain rig turned heads, a clear signal that Orbea was serious about making their mark on the enduro racing / all-mountain side of the sport. To find out more about the brand, we visited Orbea's headquarters in Mallabia, Spain.

Orbea's origins date all the way back to 1840, when they began business manufacturing guns and ammunition under the name Orbea Hermanos. Not surprisingly, business boomed during times of war - in 1916 alone Orbea produced over 725,000 guns. The shift to building less destructive machines began in the late 1930, when the company added bicycles to the list of goods they manufactured, and easy addition due to the fact that they already had the tubing machines and raw materials needed to produce bicycles.

Orbea
The bicycle business ebbed and flowed over the years, and in 1969 the company found itself teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, which would have caused 1,500 workers to lose their jobs. To prevent this, the employees set up a cooperative, and the company became part of the Mondragon group of cooperatives. The fact that at the time the country was headed by dictator Francisco Franco creates a unique juxtaposition of economic models. On the one hand, Spain was effectively being governed by a single, fascist ruler, while on the other Orbea was being governed by its employees, a distinctly socialist business model. Orbea's switch to a cooperative allowed the company to stay in business, and a few years later the company moved their headquarters to Mallabia, where they are still located. To this day they are still a cooperative, which means the workers still, in a very real and legal sense, own the company. Twice a year they get together in company meetings to make the important decision about the future.

By 1998, Orbea had experienced enough growth that the decision was made to expand internationally, and over the next decade operations expanded to the United States, Australia, and throughout Europe. In 2000, an additional factory was added in Portugal, and in 2007 Orbea opened another factory in Kunshan, China, expanding their global reach even further. Orbea has 180 employees at their Mallabia headquarters, 50 employees at the Portugal factory, and another 50 employees in China.

Orbea
  Orbea's employees, circa 1913. At the time, the company's main focus was on the production of handguns. Photo courtesy of Orbea.

Orbea
  In the 1930s, Orbea made the switch to bicycle manufacturing, and by the time the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 were producing 50,000 bikes per year. Photo courtesy of Orbea.

Orbea
  The number of bikes produced each year is now over 250,000, and many of them are painted and assembled in their Mallabia facility, which explains the need for this many components in stock.

Orbea

Orbea
  Much of the quality control and material testing is done here in Mallabia where they test not just their frames but the components they spec on them to destruction in their purpose-built test lab. If you buy a fully-built Orbea you know that they are confident that the equipment will do the job for a good amount of time.

Orbea

Orbea
Orbea

Orbea
  While the base layers of paint are machine sprayed, the final finish for every frame is done by hand.

Orbea
  They are then left to dry off thoroughly.

Orbea
Orbea

Orbea
  Once the paint is dry it's time for the detailing and decals, and that too is all done by hand as the shapes are too intricate for any machine - to repeat perfect decals time after time is a real art.

Orbea
   Orbea offers their customers the chance to customize the build to their specific needs and budget, although this option isn't currently available in the US. Once the decals are ready each frame is tagged with the build list for the customer who ordered it.

Orbea

Orbea
Orbea

Orbea
  Each bike is then meticulously built and prepped to go out to the customer.

Development and Testing

Orbea has close ties with the Biomechanics Institute of Valencia and the Centre of Studies and Technical Research (CEIT), Tenneco, and the Universitry of Mondragon, relationships that have proven to be instrumental when creating a new bike through their Advanced Dynamics program. Orbea is able to use the information processing and and analytical capabilities of these institutes to help make sense of the massive amounts of data that are collected when telemetry sensors are mounted onto a bike and its rider.

Orbea
If you ride an Orbea mountain bike, it was developed by these two: Beñat Auzmendi, Orbea R&D Engineer, and Mikel Bergara, Orbea Industrial Designer, along with Xabier Narbaiza, Orbea MTB Product Manager (not pictured).

Orbea
This may not look too exciting, but it might just be the part of the most advanced mountain bike development program in the industry. Working with the scientists and test riders they accrued a vast amount of data to translate trail experiences like comfort and pedal efficiency into numbers. For instance, they have a very precise measurement for shock movement from pedalling - if the shock moves more than a certain number of millimeters it is ruled too inefficient to be used, and they also found the threshold that riders could discern. What that means is that even though you could make a shock more efficient, there is no need to, as it has no impact on the riding experience and would therefore mean unnecessary sacrifices in other areas of shock performance

Getting the bike fully configured for data gathering is a complex process, and it can take up to a month to complete the set up. All of these efforts go towards compiling hard data that Orbea's engineers can use to make changes to the bike's design if necessary. As useful as rider feedback is, data with concrete numbers is even more valuable, allowing the results of a change to the bike to more easily be detected, as opposed to asking a rider to describe the sensations they are feeling.

Orbea
Orbea

Orbea
Orbea
Prior to production, various prototypes are created, including ABS plastic models like the bike in the upper two photos, as well as an aluminum mule. This allows Orbea to fine tune the aesthetic and the function of the bike, ensuring that the final version is as refined as possible.

3 4 view
  All of the data Orbea gathered meant they could be more confident with the final product, in this case the Rallon pictured above. Talking to Simon Andre it was interesting to hear that the Advanced Dynamics process allowed them to go through surprisingly few iterations of the new bike before they found the layout that they felt was the best all-round performer.


www.orbea.com


53 Comments

  • + 122
 you can be a road rider orbea mountain biker.
  • + 18
 I think your comment was a little orbeatrary.
  • + 34
 After a sunny ride, do you prefer cider orbea?
  • - 20
flag madmon (Mar 12, 2015 at 9:31) (Below Threshold)
 and now with dumb flow trails you can ride your road bike on as well
  • + 1
 @keystonebikes haha that was funny
  • + 32
 What a great place, it´s like Charlies Chocolate Factory for bikers. I love it every time I pop in, a great mixture of proper history and cutting edge stuff to drool over. It´s amazing to have something like Orbea in the Basque Country, producing some of the best bikes in the world and the fact that it´s all owned by the workers just adds something to the whole thing.
  • + 5
 only if bikers continue to support their brand.
  • + 18
 Orbea makes beautiful bikes, both for the pavement and for the dirt. The amount of engineering going into these machines is incredible. Keep up the good work guys!
  • + 9
 A big thank you to companies like Orbea, who still push the envelope tech wise and keep things real by holding on to the skill and craftsmanship of their workers/owners. After finishing the article I feel guilty of owning a bike from an overseas brand, even more since they have production in Portugal as well.

Check out the eye protection on the riders in the 1930s. Four out of six were using goggles for road/dirt.
  • + 5
 Do you mean two thirds?
  • + 5
 What ever makes you happy is fine with me Wink
  • + 5
 I'm impressed that there is so much hands on in the paint process. Kinda just assumed that it was a machine that handled it all. Also suprised to see that a bicycle tire mounting machine exists.
  • + 3
 Very cool that Orbea is a worker-owned cooperative. And that they went from building guns to bikes. About as good a back story as you can get. It's a bummer what someone above said about them moving manufacturing to China. Still I'll strongly consider Orbea for my next ride if I can get a hold of one in the states.
  • + 3
 i'd buy one if they added one of their handguns to the headtube. have a little trigger on the handlebars, have the ammo in the downtube, shoot my slow friends in the ass when I catch up to them, put one on my road bike for unfriendly cars that drive by....
  • + 4
 To all said in the article, add that the Basque Country is one of the mos beautiful places in Spain, and an awesome place to ride, both road an mountain bikes, Plus, Basque people are friendly and their food is great!
  • + 4
 Amen to that! In fact pinkbike visited the area during the same visit to the Orbea factory. www.pinkbike.com/news/another-spain-basque-2015.html
  • + 3
 They must not have the tight health and safety requirements as the US because that painter doesn't have the appropreiate PPE Frown
  • + 5
 you told on the other kids a lot when you were young, didn't you?
  • + 1
 Or RCB actually cares about the long term health of the people producing our equipment. Would be terrible to see workers with impaired cognitive and lung function just because they weren't provided protective equipment.
  • + 2
 Or... it could be that it is water based, non toxic paint. And the people at Orbea know exactly what they are doing. Perhaps we should trust that Employee Owners in the super strict EU would care for their employees as much as the super awesome RCB? Having visited both places I can say without a doubt there are many similarities in the care and pride of both employees and how much pride they take in the places they work.
  • + 1
 Very cool article. I had no idea Orbea had been around so long or that they were once an ammunition manufacturer. It seems as though they put a lot of heart and soul into their products, which is a tough trait to find in companies these days. Great write up PB.
  • + 3
 I would love a bike with no paint, that raw look is so sexy. Unless the paint help improve the life span of the frame that is.
  • + 1
 I've got a bare aluminium Turner. As much as I love the look of the bare welds etc, it's a pain in the ass to keep looking clean. I have another frame that's clear anodised, but it just doesn't have the same look as freshly polished bare ally.
  • + 2
 I love my Occam 29 carbon. Best bike I have ridden to date. I like the shift to longer TT and shorter stems with wider bars.
  • + 2
 Thanks for coming to the Fat tire fest in Ocala and letting me demo your top offerings. You make some nice rides.
  • + 2
 We have the rallon a great bike good spec, very suprised to not see more of these bikes about
  • - 1
 Dear Orbea,

A few years ago I watched several friends get shafted when their carbon Orbea frames cracked at the top tube & seat tube joint. Orbea claimed it was due to riders sitting on the top tubes outside the ordinary fashion & refused to warranty any of them.

I will never buy your products nor support your company. I don't care how many years you have of heritage.

Sincerely,
-An informed consumer
  • + 3
 Very cool article. Good work PB/Mike!
  • + 2
 Cool article, I'm picking up my first road bike today and I'm glad I ordered an Orbea.
  • + 2
 I love the Orbea business model. Would love to hop on a Rallon. We need a NorCal demo day!
  • + 3
 love industry inside!!!!!!!!
  • + 1
 They just warrantied me a new frame and it was a step up from my bronze to the new omp. Thanks again Jason Macom.
  • + 4
 aside from my asinine antics, orbeas ride like a damn DREAM im glad to see they come from a place that looks like one as well
  • + 2
 I saw an Orbea shoot past me the other day.
  • + 2
 Do Orbea manufacture frames for other brands too?
  • + 2
 I like the attention to detail
  • + 1
 Nice to see them using the new head mounted paint gun. Unicorn Guns paint the prettiest colours.
  • + 2
 a tyre fitting machine! it had never occurred to me that it existed!
  • + 4
 Yep, how cool is that! I want one for no rational reason whatsoever.
  • + 1
 Can't fault my Rallon X Team, brilliant all round bike
  • + 1
 where are the relic firearms?!
  • + 0
 States not available in the US, but they are. At least the rallon is. artscyclery.com
  • + 1
 There was a fleet of them to demo in FL last weekend. They had some REALLY nice bikes.
  • + 6
 Definitely available in the USA! I think he meant that the customization program isn't.
  • + 1
 That triple XT baby!
  • - 3
 Manufactured in China....
  • + 10
 Like a majority of things we own/use.
  • + 0
 so in 2007 when Spain was in economic trouble the company decide to move manufacture to a country with very dubious enviromental and employee conditions.. nice move, this policy has been repeated all over Spain with companies closing manufacture with bad debts and huge layoffs than morphing into importers the next week.


I would still consider riding one if they did not feel like cheap crap as well 2 cents
  • + 5
 so since the internet exist nobody buy nor look for the cheapest price broken the economic chain that used to be without care the final quality among other things...nice one. Be sure that all of us are guilty of these kind of survive movement that almost all company which can supported have done. At least Orbea is owned by their workers and are still keeping 180 employees in Mallabia being sure that could cheapen costs by also move in it.
  • + 0
 buy cheap, buy twice.
  • + 1
 What?

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