Orbea Orca

What better way to get into the groove for the Tour de France than get out there and ride a bike like the pro's.  The Orbea Orca is ridden by the Euskaltel Euskadi Pro Tour Team and is the preferred frame of their riders.  I'll explain why later.

Orbea's are built in the heart of the Spanish Pyreneees, the Basque Euskadi region, which is the home of around 1500 cycle clubs.  They have a very critical audience and have been around since 1840 building bikes for many, many years.  They know a thing or two about bike building and now I can add my opinion by riding their award winning carbon fibre offering, the Orca.

The Frame
The Orca and the Opal are the top two frames in Orbea's line up.  They are however, subtly different.  The Orca is made of a combination of high modulus and medium modulus carbon fibres.  I won't go in to all sciency detail here but you get the drift from the high and medium bit.  The Opal is all high modulus.  Now high isn't always better.

Nothing but nothing will get you from A to B quicker than a Formula One car.  But, driving lots of miles in a racing car will leave you somewhat jaded, trust me, I know.  When we go away to our cyclos we use our trusty bus, a Chrysler Voyager turbo diesel.  Not as fast as an F1 but it's like driving your favourite armchair.  What's this got to do with bikes? 

Well F1 cars are built from high modulus carbon fibre.  It's strong. it's light, it's unforgiving.  Orbea's Opal is all high modulus.  By combining a mix of high and medium modulus fibres the Orca gives you the best of both worlds.  It handles like a Formula One car but rides like a Chrysler Voyager.  You get performance and comfort.  So, if your riding nothing but crits on a billiard smooth road go Opal.  If you value your comfort,  want to do long distances and want to have energy left for a big sprint go Orca.  That's why the pro's ride Orca's!

The semi-compact sloping frame is a beautifully organic creation that flows from front to back, top to bottom.  The head, seat and bottom bracket clusters are massive, beefy, energy propelling works of art.  No straight round tubes here, just one shape slowly melding into another to get every milli-watt of power to where it's needed, the rear wheel.  Everywhere you look there are ridges, ripples and crests to add strength without adding weight.

To be honest it looks a heavy frame because there appears to be so much of it.  But as with most things in life you must never trust appearances alone.  This is a seriously light, and resilient bike.  With a ribbed, in-house, Zeus, curved fork up front held in place by a substantial head tube and an FSA hidden headset there is no lateral or longitudal flex whatsoever.

Nice touches include but are not limited to, a front race number hanger, a replaceable rear derailleur drop out and a tiny cable hole in the bottom bracket to give the front mech cable a cleaner run!  The curved rear stays give added comfort and heel clearance and feed in to a single wishbone just behind the seat cluster.

Finishing Kit
As ever these days the Orca came with Shimano gears and brakes.  On the road test frame it was the Ultegra 10.  And to be honest it was boringly reliable, as are all groupsets these days.  Read one of my other tests for my thoughts on previously tested Ultegra equipped bikes.

They did everything perfectly when I needed them to.  Of course Dura Ace and Record do everything just that little bit better, but they cost more than a little bit more!  Ultegra is just fine and dandy for all but the pro's and the less financially challenged or egotistically perverse.  Or if you're a vet and worked your way up over the years!

The chainset however, was a Zeus carbon jobbie.  Apart from a little chain rub when sprinting really hard up the side of the Lobster Pot it never ever gave cause for concern.  Which is as it should be.  Up front we had some wide (maybe too wide) Zeus anatomical carbon bars,  But they didn't flex, they were fantastically comfortable, they weren't too anatomical, if you know what I mean, and they didn't smack my forearms when sprinting.  So perhaps they weren't too wide after all?

The wheels were Shimano WD-600's equipped with Vittoria Rubino Pro tyres.  A nice solid wheelset, 1700 g, but maybe a tad under specced for a frame of this calibre.  A Selle Italia, 225g, Signo, genuine gel saddle, was perched atop a once more beautifully sculptured piece of carbon, the Zeus seatpost.  When you can make your own kit this good, why buy it in from other manufacturers?

The stem, however, is another story. A true  triumph of function over form.  It has to be the ugliest stem I've ever seen.  But boy does it work!  It's super stiff, cradles the wide bars to prevent flex, has a built in water channel, cum fag holder in the middle, and has the cleanest top section fork clamp grip I've seen.  It's an acquired taste and certainly a talking point.  But like every ugly child, it's parents love it.

The Ride
Due to the design of the stem I wasn't able to lower the bars to my desired height so felt a centimetre too tall.  But once In the groove of things I just rode around it.  When testing the limits of a bike you need to have confidence in the front end and feel comfortable.  I wasn't uncomfortable I just wasn't as comfortable as I could have been.

All that disappeared when I climbed my first hill.  Sitting on Dave Whitt's wheel I was dragged up St Aubin's Hill with no sense of flex, distortion or power-loss.  Only to be told we would be heading straight into St Brelade's bay to come out of the Chapel Hill.  The 40 mph descent in to the bay was stable, smooth and comfortable, as would be expected from a pro bike.  But it wasn't nervous or twitchy on the limit at all.  Despite my high front end, oo-er missus! 

Now I was beginning to get confidence in the machine.  A pro bike that's comfortable, not nervous and light.  How does that work?  Then, came the acid test.  One of my, "I'm not braking here" corners, is coming past Corbiere lighthouse and in to the bay. 

Still unsure of the tyres I feathered the brakes at the bottom and kicked myself for not having the confidence of my convictions.  These tyres aren't the lightest, but they have massive diamond treads on the shoulders.

I've raced on and used, for the last 20 years, Vittoria Corsa CX's and only use Continental 4-Seasons for my sportives (puncture proof) and Schwalbe Stelvio's for my cobbled excursions (bomb proof with grip).  With CX's I know exactly where the limit is, with the others I know exactly what I'm getting and trade off the speed, comfort and grip for reliability and long-life .  It seems the Rubino Pro's are a combination of all three!  Good grip, long life and puncture resistant.

I know they grip because when we descended from Mont a la Brune down the side road we met a car coming up the one car wide road.  I already had my escape route planned, braked, threw the bike to the far left of the road, just clipped his mirror with my shirt sleeve as I went passed and dragged the bike beck to the centre of the road to get around the corner. 

I flew round the corner, basking in the glory of the bike and how it handled, was just going to to shout to Dave how well it did, when another car came!  We see a car once every six months on this road.  Now we get two in 10 seconds!  This time with an even smaller gap, I made it through.  Dave, on my C50 was cadence braking behind me!  I expected a "thud" that never came, so obviously he made it and was behind me.

So I can say, without fear of contradiction, that an Orbea Orca handles as well as a C50 in emergency situations!  And to be fair to Dave, my brakes are the opposite way round to his so he may have been surprised when he first grabbed them.  But he didn't panic, as an ex-karter wouldn't then thought and calmly steered his way out of trouble.

Sprinting, like climbing descending  and cornering on an Orca is a pleasure.  This is a seriously good bike with no obvious vices or quirks.  When we go out, we have a few hills we test ourselves on.  One is a 20 second test hill where we attack, from a standstill, up a seriously steep climb with a 90 degree left at the top.  During these tests I knock out around 900 watts, so it's a fair test of the rigidity of the whole bike and the application of the power to the ground.  Any flex, skip, wobble, weakness or creaky componentry will be found out here.  As expected the Orca passed with flying colours.  It tracked well, it felt solid in the bottom bracket area and it never felt like the back was steering the front; something you get if a bike has any weak areas in the back end.  This one doesn't.

Tech Spec
For some the following numbers mean nothing, for others they'll be studied for hours as all the variables of seat tube, top tube, stem requirements and head angles are all worked out to the nth degree.  It's here to help you see how you can get an Orca to fit you!

The Orca has a solid front end that allows it to snap and track in to corners, and out of situations, like it's on rails.  It's solid, lengthy chainstays give it rear end comfort and a reassuredness that prevents the whole package from becoming a nervous handful.  Some pro bikes are bucking broncos when ridden in the real world environment that we mere mortals inhabit.  Not all pro bikes are the dream we believe them to be and not all of them translate to life on the road.  The Orca, with a mix of high and medium modulus fibres, gives the perfect compromise of ride, handling and comfort, proving these dichotomies (trichotomies?) are not mutually exclusive!

At 7.3 kilos, for the Record and 7.9 for the Ultegra, they're right in the ball park for life-time owning race bikes and is more than a match for it's price point competitors.  If I was to suggest anything, it would be do a deal and get the wheels upgraded.  The Shimano 600's are average race wheels on an exceptional frame, but the overall presentation is an above average package.  Invest a little more in your purchase and upgrade the wheelset to Mavics or Campags and you've got a bike as good as any workhorse pro's. 

These bikes have won stages in the mountains of the Tour, they're more than a match for any bike you'll see at your local clubber.  With five sizes it shouldn't be hard to get your fit just right.  Visit the lads at the shop and they'll spend as long as it takes to get you right.  Don't take my word for it, get down to Pedal Power and find out for yourself.

The Deal
If you're still unsure if the Orca is the bike for you, get down to Pedal Power and ride it for a weekend!  They have a race ready demonstrator available for you to try.  The 57cm bike I tested is available with a massive 15% discount.  Ride it and be prepared to leave a deposit on the way out!

A brand new, Ultegra equipped, Orca is 2,395.  All you need to add are pedals.  The Orca frameset and forks come in at 1295.  The TDF version with Campag Record is 3450 and the TDI with Chorus is 2895.  A Dura Ace equipped TDE is 3250 and the Ultegra TBP is 2395. 

I've checked the old interweb and you'll pay up to 500 more on some of the UK sites, with a five week delivery!  If you see cheaper prices, which I have, make sure what you're getting is the 2006 models, not the earlier and heavier 2004 ones.  Support your local bike shops!

The Tester
What makes me think I'm qualified to write articles and critique bikes? Click here and I'll try to explain.