Oldest bike brand of all time? The story of Orbea.

BIG thanks to Jenson USA for making this video possible!

What do you know about Spanish bike brand Orbea???

Admittedly, until trying the Occam- I didn’t have a ton of knowledge about the company, but recently I found out they have a really cool back story. 

Orbea has actually been around since 1840! It was founded by the Orbea brothers in the Basque Country in Northern Spain.

If you don’t know about the Basque Country, well, it would be fair to say the Basque’s have always marched to the beat of their own drummer.

The Basque’s do pretty much everything independently. Secluded in the Pyrenees mountains, Basques speak their own language and control their own police force, industry, agriculture, taxation and media.

They’re the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe, in fact, the origins of the Basque people still confound many researchers, as the genetics and language of Basque people are unlike almost any other cultural group in the world.

Having been the target of many attempts to erase Basque culture over Spain’s history- there was a strong nationalist sentiment among many Basque people. They even had their own terrorist organization, the ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna]. 

Anyway, this is all to say, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that back in the day Orbea wasn’t known for their bikes. Because they actually didn’t make bikes…

They made guns!

The city of Eibar in the Basque Country, where Orbea was founded, is also known as the “city of guns.” It’s been an epicenter of firearm development and manufacturing for centuries. In 2011, there were as many as eight gun manufacturers in Eibar. For a city with a population under 30,000- that’s pretty unprecedented. 

Orbea was one of the cutting edge gun manufacturers of the time in Eibar. They were pioneers in the business and one of the first manufacturers to bring electricity to the manufacturing process.

Orbea employees at the height of their gun manufacturing days, with the Orbea brothers up front.

The company continued in the weaponry business until 1930, but with peacetime gun restrictions implemented in Europe after WW1, business was taking a hit, and the company started considering what else they could make with the steel tubing they were already so well known for. So, the ex-gun manufacturer started making…

Baby carriages! And, as we know, BICYCLES.

Orbea’s cycling history is incredibly rich. They’ve been a premier cycling brand since the 1930s when Mariano Carnado formed the basis of their road cycling team in 1934. Three years later, Carnado would win the Tour de France.

Carnado was an incredibly impressive rider with seven Volta de Catalunya wins and a spot on the podium four other times. That’s not even to mention his wins in the Tour of the Basque Country and Tour du Maroc, OR his four national road race wins. Carnado was virtually unbeatable during his glory days. 

It’s hard to say if Mariano could have done even more with his cycling career, but he stopped racing in 1943, likely because all cycling races were suspended in Spain from 1936-1939 amid the Spanish Civil War, and immediately following, World War 2 disrupted racing all over Europe.

Orbea didn’t miss a beat, though, and after the wars ended in 1945, they quickly got back in the game. They developed new, more technically advanced bikes like the Carrera Professional. This model, equipped with wooden wheels, wooden rear derailleurs and extra-thin cranks, was much lighter than previous bicycles, and race speeds continuously increased. But despite post-war gains made by the company, less than two decades later, Orbea would find itself amidst some dire financial troubles.

If you know anything about the history of Spain, you know its economy has had some massive swings from prosperity to bust. Orbea wasn’t immune to that pressure, and with the Spanish economy on the brink of collapse in the late 60s, Orbea nearly went bankrupt.

Luckily for them, their crew of loyal bike-loving employees pulled together to buy the company, and in 1969 Orbea became a cooperative, which it remains to this day.

Things slowed a bit after that, and for years Orbea primarily sold recreational bikes, with just a handful of competition bikes, while working in financially dire circumstances. That is until the 80s. The 80s were the golden years for the brand.

In the 80s, Orbea once again made strides in the world of competitive cycling. Their road cycling team hit the pavement led by some of the best cyclists of the era like Jokin Mujika and Peio Ruiz Cabestany. They even debuted their women’s team in 1985- one of the very first in Spain.

Orbea Women’s Team – 1985
Orbea Women’s Team – 1985

Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for…. 1989! In 1989 Orbea made their first mountain bikes!!!

Mountain bikes were a HIT for Orbea and shortly after the release of the Orbea Sherpa MTB, the Orbea Mountain Bike team was founded with riders Jokin Mujika, Roberto Lezaun and Andoni Olberria, among others.

The Orbea Sherpa
Orbea’s first MTB team – 1991

By the early 2000s, top athletes from all over the world were winning medals on Orbea bikes. In 2008, Orbea racer Julien Absalon won the gold medal in the mountain bike competition in the Beijing Olympics and Jean Christophe Peruad won silver.

Rockstar advocate Catharine Pendrel from Kamloops later won a world championship on the Orbea Oiz as part of the Luna Pro Team. The Oiz and the Alma were incredibly successful bikes, and benchmarks of success for Orbea.

Perhaps the most well known Orbea mountain bike in North America is the long travel Rallon, which launched in 2005. I’ve never actually ridden one of these but I get the feeling it’s pretty similar to the Yeti ASX (which ironically was the bike I brought with me during my time studying abroad in Spain). That first generation Rallon had a travel adjustability feature that allowed the bike to be adapted from 110-1

The model stayed more or less the same through 2011, when it underwent a big upgrade, including upping to travel to 150mm. Then in 2013, the Rallon got an even bigger upgrade. Although the frame was still aluminum, the 2013 Rallon boasted 27.5 wheels, a 66 degree head angle and a 75 degree seat tube angle. Those geometry numbers are modern even by todays standards– and this model came out seven years ago!

2013 Rallon

Today, Orbea is headquartered in Mallabia, Spain. They are still a cooperative, meaning their employees own the business. They’re producing some 250,000+ bikes each year- most assembled and hand painted at their Mallabia factory. 

Each year, Orbea puts out increasingly dialed all-mountain rigs, making it clear that they’re in the MTB industry to stay. But they’re not known just for their mountain bikes- the company continues to make versatile road, mountain, triathlon, children’s bikes and ebikes- which is to say, they’ve got something for every kind of rider. They make it clear that they’re proud of their long history and Basque heritage, and the bikes they make today are a nod to years of evolving craftsmanship and overcoming significant hurdles decade after decade.

ORBEA BIKES THROUGH THE YEARS

2020 Orbea Occam

Orbea at Jenson USA

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