More than the scenes themselves, what struck me most was the stark contrast between what I was seeing and what I had seen a matter of hours ago. I had just visited the modern Orbea factory in Mallabia, where the brand was established after its relocation in 1975, then a few hours later I was in the municipal historical archives in the town of Eibar leafing through the pages of photo albums, searching for any reference to Orbea.
The parent company, Orbea Brothers, was founded there in 1840 and while searching the archives for documentary evidence of its original location, I found myself among vintage scenes from several of the bicycle factories that set up business in Eibar at the turn of the century – Orbea, BH, Zeus, Torrot, Norma, Abelux; the kind of scenes that, if you allow your imagination to wander, look past the workers' clothing and other minor details.
There is actually little to make you think that a century has passed between those images and the ones I had witnessed hours before at the current Orbea factory now located less than five kilometres from where I was standing.
And to think, this is the twenty-first century, the era of carbon and all things "Made in China". It’s really saying something. The truth is that things have changed a lot, especially if you focus your attention on those little details, but ultimately things are more akin to the past than they may seem to be at first glance…
I was in the attic of Eibar’s town hall, also known as "Villa Armera" (‘Armed Town’). Eibar is an industrial city tucked away in the valley between the modest mountains that form the Deva River, 20 kilometres away from where it meets the Cantabrian Sea.
My guide was Jose Antonio Larrea who was president of the Eibar Cycling Club for more than 20 years. He was the one who told me where to find the land in the neighbourhood of Urkizu on which the former Orbea factory once stood; plots which are now home to five towers over 20 storeys high, though we were able to see drawings of the original old factory, which even had a place for a chapel.
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even necessary to go to the archives to discover the most interesting document. In a hallway, hanging on one of the walls, a rather impressive photo captured our attention: row upon row, hundreds of workers, looking intently at the camera in what looked like – more than just a photo – a symbol of an entire era.
In the first row, five people who with their mere presence symbolised power. Behind them, another 425 suitably dressed in their best attire – men in suits, ties and berets; women with long skirt-suits and ceremonial hairdos; there were also children, imitating their elders and revelling in the fact that they were the only ones who didn't have to wear a tie. The date, 1913, and the banner hovering above them made us beam from ear to ear; it read ‘Orbea and Cia’.
The photograph, now a century old, was taken in the spring of 1913, as the height of the grass seems to suggest. Orbea and Cia (1895-1924) was the Limited Partnership heir to the old Orbea Brothers (1840-1895), which was founded by brothers Juan Manuel, Mateo, Casimiro and Petra Orbea Murua. Orbea and Cia – the seedling of the very same Orbea we know today. None of those portrayed that day would ever have guessed that a century later we would be here talking about them, and even less likely about matters related to the world of cycling.
Orbea, like the majority of companies in Eibar in those days, manufactured weapons: revolvers, pistols and shotguns. In 1895 they manufactured 80,000 revolvers, 90 per cent of them destined for export. In 1909, they manufactured 35,000 revolvers and 16,500 shotguns. In 1916, at the height of the First World War, exports reached 725,000, their highest figures.
Orbea was an incredibly important company, perhaps the most important in all of Eibar at the time. It's no wonder that its mailing address was Post Office Box Number 1, the address that it maintains to this very day. It was also, in 1890, the first local company to have electricity installed in its factory thanks to the construction of several hydroelectric plants, which even enabled them to sell the excess electricity to other companies.
Just as important was the lineage of the Orbea family, spawning families of high social status who were granted certain privileges by the government. It's no wonder that in the Weapons Industry Museum, a place dedicated to the industrial history of Eibar and in which you can find an impressive exhibition of all products manufactured in the town during the last century, there is an oil painting dating back to 1635 of a certain Don Martin of Orbea.
Truth be told, I haven't been able to get the photo from 1913 out of my head since I first saw it, until now as I write. Four-hundred and thirty dignified workers posing for posterity a century ago with all the importance that being photographed meant in those days. Everyone is impeccably dressed. The men with their moustaches newly trimmed after, I suppose, the requisite visit to the barber, then off to have their shoes shined especially for the occasion.
“Look how many female workers there were at the time,” Larrea remarks – this being another realm in which Orbea was a pioneer – replete with long skirts that completely cover their ankles as dictated by the moral standards of the day. In the centre and in marked contrast with the berets of the proletarian workers, there is a man with a bowler hat whose surname we have to assume is Orbea, though I still haven't found anyone that can tell me which of the brothers or heirs he is.
To think that none of these people would be alive today was troubling me, and more so now as I take a closer look at the scene and see their faces so full of life. They say that no one is dead as long as there is someone to remember you and here we are talking about them now, granting them a sip of life.
After several days analysing the image and observing the details carefully, I discovered a curious detail which left me even more overwhelmed: On the left-hand side, more or less half way up you can clearly make out something white that isn’t a person, in fact it seems to be a… yes, zooming in yet taken back by surprise… a dog!
A dog that makes me rethink the scene and come to another conclusion: this isn’t a company – this is a family. The five patriarchs in the front surely all have the last name Orbea; 429 people – men, women, children and young people, the elderly, adolescents… the workforce that drove the company forward; and to one side (though no less important) a dog, or rather, the dog.
A dog lining up among the crowd as if he were one of them, a dog that committed the indiscretion – and he’s not the only one – of not looking at the camera when the shot was taken.
I can't help but smile mischievously because Orbea and their dogs remind me of a story I shall tell you later on that takes me back to my beginnings on the bike.
In 1926 a family rift caused the company to be divided into two distinct branches: Orbea's children, who moved to Vitoria and focused their activity on cartridges, and Orbea and Cia which over time would become a Limited Liability Company focusing its activity on the world of bicycles, after they had combined arms manufacture with the fabrication of presses, lathes, milling machines, tapping machines, children’s cars and even pearl objects such as buttons and cufflinks.
However, the end of the First World War brought problems for the arms trade due to the lack of demand; besides, the tariff policies for each country, having become lenient for the import of weapons, produced great fluctuations in demand. And so it was mid-century when thanks to the help of some masterful French technicians, the manufacture of bicycles got under way by adapting the machinery and the means of production to the manufacture of new and complex parts.
After the Spanish Civil War, the company finally abandoned the manufacture of firearms and focused on the bicycle business. At its height it had a workforce of 1000 employees producing 50,000 bicycles per year.
The 1950s brought the introduction of the moped to the market, manufactured under French license as the ‘Velosolex’, a bicycle with a small 49 DC motor attached below the handlebar which consumed one litre of petrol every 100km, just as promised by the advertising of the period. Thus began a phase of expansion that unfortunately bottomed-out in 1969 when the demand for bicycles began to sharply decline.
The last member of the founding family, Esteban Orbea, was left to contemplate the closure of the company; however, the workers had other plans and convinced him to hand the brand over to them, thus forming a cooperative that lead to the salvation of the company. That initial cooperative was created at the end of the 1960s and in ‘71 was integrated into the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC), which was also part of Fagor, another company with historical ties to cycling.
After various phases, during which the cooperative went through difficult times, the company’s market being mostly local, a restructuring of the business began in 1998. The internationalisation strategy on which it was based succeeded in putting the brand among the heavyweights of the bicycle business. This strategy, which even today is cited as an example in Basque Country business schools, was based on the reduction of points of sale and, above all, innovation and open-mindedness toward the end-users of their products while trying to meet the needs of a radically changing market.
All this was achieved with the support of its investment in competitive cycling, from its time as sponsors of the local team Euskaltel-Euskadi to its own mountain bike team. This all followed the legacy of the company’s previous incursions into the world of competition in the ‘80s, with Pedro Delgado’s landmark victory in the ‘85 Vuelta.
But before everything took off, Orbea went through a phase in which their bicycles were marketed under three different names: Orbea, Zeus and Veneto. It bought the Zeus brand once it had already disappeared, trying to take advantage of the commercial potential that the brand had already built thanks to the quality of its components.
The carbon era officially began in Orbea in 2003 with the launch of the ORCA (Orbea Carbon) but in my box room I have proof that this is not entirely true. Back in 1992 when I competed in the junior category, I had the misfortune of having my bike bumped off the roof rack of the car one night while returning from a competition. I still remember seeing the sparks through the rear-view mirror; the car travelling behind played the deciding role in this catastrophe.
So I ended up without a bike, which was compounded by the fact that my family couldn't afford to buy another one. We managed to find a solution, though, thanks to some friends of my parents, several of whom were workers and associates of the Orbea cooperative. They made a decision for which I'm still grateful to this day, and thanks in part to some help from my town's local government in Ermua, halfway between Eibar and Mallabia, as they gave me a bike, the best that Orbea had at the time: a prototype with a one-piece carbon frame marketed under the Zeus name.
I remember the admiration – or rather, envy – of my rivals at a time when the height of bicycle technology was divided between titanium and aluminium, steel having been already displaced from its supremacy, plus in those days carbon was a genuine unknown. I still have that bike in a box room and would never have suspected that I’d see it with the same admiring eyes as I did back in ‘92.
But the visit to the factory convinced me once again that my ties with the brand ran deeper than I thought. Jokin Diez, the current press manager of the company and the person with whom I had been in contact, had chosen a guide for my visit to the factory. The guide was none other than my cousin Eneko Zarandona, who after completing his engineering studies had done his work experience in the company and ended up staying on.
After a few years working in the quality control area, where they carry out the rigorous fatigue testing, he is currently working in the offices in the design area. "I can show you anything you want in the factory,” Eneko said, “but please be careful not to take photos of prototypes, don't go and put me in a compromising position."
As I got close to the painting area the electrostatic robots were finishing up their working day (from 6 to 10 in the morning they paint frames, then from 10 to 6pm they assemble bicycles). I found myself with Manu Carrasco, a distant relative of mine that I hadn't seen for years. It turns out that Manu, together with Iñaki Astigarraga, was responsible for the painting section; both were happy to show me the intricacies of the painting process.
"Most of the carbon frames are painted in the Kunshan factory in China. Here what little we paint in carbon are the special models or the ones that are destined for the Euskaltel team," Iñaki told me. "Carbon cannot withstand more than 80 degrees in the drying oven, while we have the aluminium oven at 140 degrees right now," he continued.
The painting line advanced before us at a speed of one metre per second, a process that lasts over three and a half hours in total. I was surprised to see that quality control work on the painting process was carried out completely manually by an attendant using their sense of touch and expertly trained eye: they examine every single frame one by one in search of imperfections.
After the "seal of approval" is granted the frame passes to the point at which the decals are attached, after which it’s transferred to the spray booth and finally the oven-drying stage.
"Here in Mallabia we use varnish powder," Manu and Iñaki explained as we watched the master movements of the robot, "whereas the Chinese frames come with a coat of liquid varnish. Through layman's eyes the difference is negligible, but those of us who do this for a living can tell the difference just by touch.”
From there the frames are transferred to the assembly line where each one of the operators is specialised in a specific task. I saw many familiar faces from my childhood, even some old classmates from school. While I was talking to one of the assembly workers, Luis Rico, the subject of the founding partners cropped up. "My father was one of the founding partners," Luis told me. "Some of them are still working in the company but many years have passed and the vast majority are already retired. Those who are here now are their children."
What is curious is that Luis was referring to the 100 founding members of the cooperative (in the early ‘70s), consciously omitting the fact that the company had its origins many years before, linked precisely to the family that gave it its name.
"My father is retired but for many years he was the security guard here." When he told me this I couldn't help but confess that, although I couldn't recall his father's face, I remembered his demeanour and that we were afraid of him because I was one of those kids that did not have anything better to do at weekends than to sift through Orbea's rubbish looking for treasures.
"Ah, so you know what I’m talking about,” Luis said with a smile on his face.
I take a sudden leap back in time to more than 20 years ago and there I am on a typical Saturday afternoon in… let's say 1993. I don't remember who the first one to tell us was, but I clearly remember the message:
At Orbea in the container where they keep the scrap material there are bikes that have been discarded because of small defects; you just have to jump the fence to get them.
It came with a warning though: Beware of the guard, he's brutal and always goes around with a couple of Dobermans that are even more brutal than he is.
Orbea’s dogs. Twenty years ago it was the brown Dobermans that came after me in my nightmares; and now, it’s the white dog from the photo that leaves me overwhelmed…
The message was meant for us; it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. So there I was with one of my inseparable best friends from childhood, the very same friend that about ten years later would win the UCI Road World Championship in Hamilton, Canada: Igor Astarloa. We can talk about this now, we assume – the crime has already ‘expired’. It’s true that what we were doing was stealing but it’s no lesser a fact that everything we stole was destined for the scrap smelter anyway. That is to say, that more than stealing, if you look at it from an idealistic point of view, what we were doing was recycling.
When we arrived at Orbea, just 2km from our houses, I was always surprised that we were never alone. There was always some other kid from town that had the same idea as us. So we organised ourselves as a team; one looked out for the guard, and when he disappeared around some corner, the signal was given that the moment to dive into the scrap metal container had arrived. Frames, brakes, wheels, handlebars – there was an incredible variety of parts… it was like rummaging through the sales of a department store.
What seemed to be of some use was meticulously separated into a small pile while trying to make the least amount of noise possible during the process. The examination of each of the parts was as fast and as scrupulous as it could be under the circumstances, with the threat of the guard and his dogs always looming over us.
"I looked after those dogs when I was a kid,” Luis Rico told me. “They seemed to be very fierce, but the truth is that they were soft." Good to know now, but I would have preferred to have known back then, I thought.
Then the guard would appear from somewhere and the great escape began. We would quickly throw our carefully selected booty over the fence and run as fast as our legs would carry us. The truth is that we didn't all make it but I can say that I was one of the ones that never got caught, although perhaps it was simply a matter of luck.
Next came the process of sharing out the spoils, which often led to a dispute. What's more, at that time the mountain bike phenomenon had just burst onto the market, so any piece that had any kind of relationship with an MTB was worth more. Once we'd shared everything out we returned home, taking the mountain roads and carefully inspecting each one of the treasures seized, most of which ended up scattered in the surrounding area when they were found to be useless…
Thanks to those parts we got our first notions of basic bicycle mechanics; and with those components – after swapping material with our other cohorts – we managed to assemble complete bicycles. A couple of years ago I got rid of one of them, a road bike painted with the colours of the Caja Rural Team. I gave it away to the first African immigrant that crossed my path and wanted to accept the gift.
It turns out that on the occasion of the Tour of Spain a campaign called "Bikes for Africa" was organised in which old bikes were collected for shipping abroad. I remembered the bike that was gathering dust in my attic and decided to make an anonymous contribution to the campaign. The first person to whom I offered it accepted the gift without hesitation, so I hope that bike is still being ridden somewhere.
What remains from Orbea’s scrap heap now are the memories, but Igor still has a green mountain bike with stickers from another brand, Flanders, by way of camouflage, which was assembled entirely from that recycled material. "I don’t think it has any parts that were actually purchased,” says Igor proudly, “but best of all is that the bike is still going now; and to think that it was just scrap.
“It’s a shame that I don’t have the bike at home now so that you can photograph it,” he adds, about a bike that I know perfectly well as it wasn't for nothing that I intervened in the assembly process. “Last week I did some stages of the Camino de Santiago by bicycle and left the bike in Salamanca so that my friends could bring it down in a van.”
So this is the history of Orbea in a nutshell. On the one hand, the historical part of the brand, public and known, although it's slowly being forgotten; and on the other, my personal contribution, more intimate and unknown.
By the way, I forgot to mention that the first jersey that I wore as a cyclist was for Orbea, because by that time the company was the sponsor of our cycling school where I began as a child at the age of 13 or 14.
Orbea currently has 250 employees of which 175 work at the Mallabia plant. They also have another plant in the USA dedicated entirely to assembly, and another in Kunshan, China, which opened a few years ago using the Mallabia factory as a model. Exporting to 64 different markets, its production is divided 50/50 between the world of the road and the MTB. It's something that is both surprising and admirable given the critical point they were at in 1998.
"You have to keep running even after crossing the finishing line", is the company's current slogan. "43° 11'0'' N, 2° 32'0'' W: From the heart of the Pyrenees" said another of the more recent advertising slogans.
But I'll stick with one that I found in a catalogue from the ‘60s: "Cycling is healthy and cheap". Recycling too, I would say, justifying today what we – Igor and I – did 20 years ago.