Just a little more than three years ago, Orbea were a mid-sized Basque company with a long, if not spectacular, history of building bikes for the French and Spanish markets. Then came the Orca, one of the first carbon bikes designed to combine high-end performance and rider comfort. Orbea were elevated to a global cycling brand.
The bike was a phenomenon - although one that largely passed UK riders by. Bike of the year in France and Spain, it grabbed awards plus big sales in Europe, the US and beyond.
So how do you follow that?
Good looks and smart technology
Orbea's design team were set a tough brief for the new Orca. First, they had to preserve the essence of what made the original machine a success, and then improve on it. The bike had to be consistent in terms of ride quality and appearance across all sizes in the range, and the frame had to have a lifetime warranty.
To achieve this Orbea's engineers and designers started from scratch. The Orca was designed as a complete bike, rather than as a frame to be matched to wheels and fork. To get the same set of ride characteristics, at all sizes the frame and fork are made from a combination of two different fibre types: Torayca M40J for stiffness and M30S for vertical compliance with the frame laid up in slightly different configurations for each size. Orbea call this SSN Technology (Size Specific Nerve) and claim the new bike gives the same level of comfort as the 2004 version of the original, but it's 11 per cent lighter and 17 per cent stiffer at the back end. Having ridden it we couldn't quibble with the comfort factor or its responsiveness under power. Designing each size in the range as a separate bike also means that Orbea have achieved the aesthetic consistency they wanted.
Many manufacturers design their bikes around the most popular size (medium) - it's less costly. But the downside is that their bikes risk being too stiff in the smaller sizes and too flexible in the bigger ones. Also the larger bike will look gappy and the smaller one constricted.
A look at the Orca confirms that aesthetics were high on the designers' brief. It's a beautiful machine: organic curves and scolloped tube profiles are neatly set off by clever design touches. The head-tube badge acts as a pair of matching cable guides and the dropforged seat clamp is an elegant and simple way of designing out a source of potential weakness on carbon frames. But successful bikes have to be more than just pretty and those curvy looks serve a purpose. In fact the curve that runs from the inside of the head tube around the down tube and chainstays then back up along the seatstays and top tube is the 'Nerve' in SSN. To be exact it's the defined outer edge of that curve. Orbea went to a lot of trouble when designing their moulds to get that edge, it adds strength to the frame while the curve allows good load transmission and helps dissipate vibration and shock. Like the tub e profiles the exact shape of the curve is different for each frame size.
The frame comes with a lifetime warranty. Trek, Storck and Seven offer such a warranty on their carbon frames and, like them, Orbea has avoided the ultra-lightweight route, opting for a good blend of strength, lightness and comfort. Our Orca came in black and cream but there is a choice of black and six other colour options.
Sharp, stable, responsive
We rode the original Orca in it s Euskaltel team guise in last year's Tour Superbike supplement, and we liked it. Our only reservation was the fork's lack of lateral stiffness, which we felt sold the bike short through fast corners when descending. The new Zeus Zaga fork remedies this issue, complementing the improved foreaft stiffness of the rest of the frame.
As good as the original was, this is better. Dropping off Pyrenean cols, it was clear the ride has been refined to the standards of the very best bikes. Steering has been tune d to impress more experienced descenders too. If you're brave enough to lay off the brakes, it will reward you; if you're not, it won't punish you by throwing in unexpected wobbles. Lighthandling bikes can bite back when braking hard into slow corners, but relax your upper body and the Orca will give you rock stead y stability. At speed, the overall impression is of lightness and responsiveness with reassuring levels of stability. You won't be punished for wanting to change your position on the bars on a fast descent either.
These qualities are good on climbs, too - slow speed stability is important when you're trying to get yourself into a rhythm up a hill. Likewise, tired riders often momentarily lose concentration, with a wobble leading to a fall. We didn't try to fall off, but the bike's stability at slow speeds suggests its forgiving nature applies when you are pushing the 39x25, too. Its responsiveness also reassures you that your effort is pushing you upwards, especially if you want to vary things with high cadence out of the saddle work.
On the flat this baby will also happily roll along in the big ring for as long as you can and, as the ride delivers on comfort, that will be for longer than you'd think.
Well chosen top-end kit
There are six equipment options, including SRAM's new groupsets - Force and Rival. The latter comes with a compact chainset, as doe s the Ultegra option (with a Zeus compact). You also have the Orca with Shimano Dura-Ace, Campag Centaur or Campag Record. All bikes come with Look Carbon Keo pedals (except Dura-Ace, which has Dura-Ace pedals).
The top-end build suits the bike - the Campag brakes are spot on for its fast-handling nature. Gearing is a 39x52 on the front, matched to a 12x25 10-speed cassette - good on the flat and for fitter riders on climbs. But if you ride steep stuff or you want the bike for big sportif rides, consider the Zeus compact chainset - an alternative on the non-compact build options.
All your contact points are well catered for. The ITM 101 bars have a shallow, comfortable bend, and the carbon bar tape was forgiving and grippy. Orbea offer own-brand Zeus alternatives to the bars and stem in a choice of carbon or alu. The Record option comes equipped with Selle Italia's Signo saddle and our differently shaped test riders didn't have any complaints - but you can choose from Selle Italia's Thoork and Transam models, so there's room for mixing and matching.
Reliable race hoops
Make no mistake: this is a performance tool
Campag Neutrons are fine allrounders and underrated in our opinion. Their stiffness lends itself to good climbing and powering along on the flat. The angular contact bearing Campag use in their hubs means that with a grease every couple of years, they should last a long time. Other wheel options include Mavic Ksyrium SLs or Elites. The latter would certainly be worth considering for heavier riders. Our bike came with Michelin Pro Race tyres; a proven, dependable set of rubber.
There are very few bikes you can compare the Orca too. We could only think of two. Cannondale's Synapse, race sharp with an accent on comfort - though the Synapse suffers in some eyes from not being a team bike. The other is Trek's thoroughbred, the Madone 5.9, a comfortable race bike with a lifetime frame warranty.
Orbea supplies its teams with the Opal, a stiffer derivative of the original Orca. Their teams, Euskaltel and Communidad Valencia will have new Orcas too. It'll be interesting to see how many Orbea-riding pros choose the new bike. The suffering on this year's Tour has gone some way to persuading a generation of riders brought up on aluminium that outright stiffness and theoretical efficiency doesn't necessarily translate into an effective real-world racing bike - even if you have the pain threshold of a pro, and especially if you haven't. Unnecessary pain slows you down. Make no mistake: this is a performance tool, it's certainly a great sportif machine, and it would make a fine stage racer too. We think the Orca can crack Britain. It does everything you ask of it well, and that lifetime frame warranty is an attraction. Technically, it competes on every level. Orbea just need to make sure it competes on price.