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“I’ve worked here for 40 years,” says Soledad, a lifelong Orbea employee. “My father worked at the old factory and was one of the founders of the cooperative. I remember that the old factory. It even had a supermarket in it. We would go pick him up when he got off work. My whole life has been with Orbea!”
Word/Images: James Startt
Many companies pride themselves on their family spirit. But it is safe to say that there are few companies where that family spirit runs deeper than at Spanish bike manufacturer Orbea. Tucked into the fecund hills of the Basque Country, Orbea started as a family-run company nearly two centuries ago. And although the Orbea family no longer owns the company, its family spirit has never been stronger.
Founded as a gun-making company in 1840, Orbea opted to move into the burgeoning bike industry after World War I. That would not be the first or last time that firearms and bicycles would cross paths. Both industries worked with finely finished steel tubing and, in Italy, the closeness of the two continued well into the 1980s, as the ornate Italian lug work from that period came directly from the neighboring firearms industry. But, by that point, Orbea had long abandoned guns for bikes.
Producing its first bikes in 1930, Orbea was a partner in the very first Vuelta a España in 1935 and soon focused its energy on the growing sport. Even though the bicycle had been a preferred form of transportation for many years, European bicycle racing was only just entering into its golden era.
Almost instantly, Orbea became one of the biggest bicycle manufacturers in Spain with up to 1,000 employees like Soledad’s father working in the small northern town of Eibar. And in the late 1970s, when the last member of the Orbea family wanted to sell the company, he could not resist an offer from his own employees, who bought the company and turned it into a profit-sharing cooperative. The factory soon moved from Eibar to a newer facility in the neighboring town of Mallabia.
But while the new Orbea family took over a company at the height of its powers, it did so in a quickly changing market. In the post-Franco years, after decades of introversion, Spain was spreading its wings on an international level. Spanish cycling mirrored this new outward-looking vision when, in 1985, Pedro Delgado of the Seat-Orbea team won not only the Vuelta a España but also took a memorable Tour de France stage victory at Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrénées.
“He was just a treasure for us,” says Orbea press manager Jokin Díez, when speaking of Delgado. “Since the beginning of Orbea’s cycling history, they have been very close to the competition. But when Delgado won the Vuelta a España and that stage to Luz-Ardiden, wow, that was just something else! He was just an amazing rider and a huge personality!”
International success continued into the 1990s with the growing popularity of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team, built around riders from the Basque Country. But not even Orbea could imagine the success it would have on entering the U.S. market in 2003. “We projected 300 bicycles for the first year. But that was what we sold in the first month! That first carbon bicycle was just huge for us!” says Díez, speaking of the first Orbea Orca. “That was just a huge boom for us and it spread around the world.”
The Orca set a new standard for performance and design and remains a fixture in today’s Orbea fleet. But while models like that are central to its high-end road line, Orbea prides itself on its diversity. Mountain bikes, still buoyed by the success of French off-road legend Julien Absalon, remain the biggest part of its diverse line-up that also includes urban bikes and high-end e-bikes for devoted road riders. In addition, the MyO customization program has met with tremendous success, as it allows everyone to essentially custom build their own Orbea, from colors to components to sizing.
Such diversity has only helped the growth of Orbea, which is coming off its best-ever trimester in early 2018. Boasting a 26-percent growth rate, it’s benefiting not from a boom in any one sector but steady growth in all of them.
Suddenly, anticipating such growth has become Orbea’s greatest challenge. But the family is investing in ways to increase its production while maintaining its reputed quality standards. A second work shift will likely be added within the year to increase the frame-painting capacities; and new state-of-the-art painting facilities, which include pressurized cabins and specific ovens, just opened at the Mallabia factory.
“We call it The Dream Builder,” says Díez. “That is where we make dreams come true, especially for all of our custom models. It´s a high-end facility where we take into account everything to make the best custom bikes, which is a huge priority for us. Every step of the painting process has been maximized in order to give the fastest and optimum quality answer to the custom, personalized order. The painting cabins are equipped with cold lights to best see the different colors or the shades of the colors, while a warmer light will be used in the cabins where we apply stickers for the comfort of the worker’s eyes. In addition, we have installed waterfalls in each cabin where paint is applied so that the over-sprayed paint is immediately recycled.”
But while Orbea boasts an increasingly high-tech production line, some things remain the same as the company’s cooperative spirit is always visible. “I’ve been working here since I was 19 years old, for nearly 30 years,” says Susana Del Barrio, who works closely with Soledad. “The company has grown, but it’s still like a big family here because we are all in this together. We are all owners of Orbea and that is just an amazing feeling.”