Thanks to World Cup legend Julien Absalon and the women of the Luna Chix race team, Orbea has had huge success on the cross-country race circuit for a relatively small Basque bike brand. We dropped into its factory in the coastal mountains of northern Spain to see where the magic happens – and to find out if the Oiz is as spellbindingly quick as the trophy cabinet suggests.
The Oiz was already sitting in the foyer of the factory when we rolled into Orbea’s HQ, but our tour revealed strengths that set any Orbea bike apart from standard options you’ll find in the shops. While the frames are made in the Far East they’re designed and prototype tested in the superb riding of the sub Pyrenees, and the Oiz name actually comes from the nearest mountain to the factory.
Orbea has its own in-house stress testing and suspension development rigs, which we saw trying to rip apart a couple of next generation frames (which we can’t tell you about yet). The company’s also affiliated to the technology department of the local university and there’s clearly a lot of fresh, innovative thinking going on.
Frame and equipment: pivotless suspension and plenty of upgrade options
While Orbea's original Oiz was a 26in-wheeled, rear pivot-equipped bike, the latest version uses a pivotless ‘U-Flexion’ carbon rear end. Using built-in flex rather than a real pivot is by no means a unique idea. But it’s neatly executed right up to the very short carbon linkage hanging inside the open underside of the top tube.
Space is too tight for a conventional bridge, so Orbea also uses a high tension Tensegrity metal rod to tie the stays together behind the linkage. The M50 and M30 get a ‘performance’ carbon rather than the ‘race’ blend of the top models. The fact you get a full composite chassis (including linkage) at this price is still damned impressive though.
The rear end uses neat a steel reinforcing pin to boost stiffness and strength
The bike also comes in 650b wheel options in small, medium and large or 29in wheel options in medium, large and extra large. Interestingly, both wheel sizes share the same angles and ride height but top tube and overall length are increased on the 29ers. Both are fully futureproofed for Shimano side swing or Di2 electronic shifting and there are integrated battery mounts for Fox’s electronic iCD shock lockout system too.
Gear cables feed neatly into full low friction internal liners. While it’s not the prettiest solution, the rear brake hose is clipped along the spine of the triangular down tube so you don’t have to worry about dismantling and re-bleeding an internally routed hose if you have a problem on race day.
The detailing and price would be impressive even if this was a fixed package delivered direct from the Far East, but Orbea really scores with the options that it gives buyers. Painting in either the black/white livery reviewed or a full stealth matt black finish with gloss decals is done in house and the bikes are built to order in Spain.
That means that as well as the well-sorted suggested packages such as the M50 there’s a range of upgrade options. These include SLX brakes, FSA SLK carbon bars, a Kashima-coated Factory rear shock or fork or even trading the Mavic CrossOne wheels for a set of superlight CrossMax SLs.
Despite the direct sell style pricing, your Orbea will be delivered to your local dealer a few weeks after ordering so you get full shop support rather than a cold shoulder for shopping online. Orbea even protects your investment with a lifetime carbon warranty.
Ride and handling: twitchy but hugely enjoyable precision speed merchant
Custom options, paint and frame quality and shop and factory backup meant we left Orbea's HQ impressed. But of course it’s the performance on the trail that really matters.
With coastal weather that was making GoreTex feel like tissue paper and turning the trails into slippery slime, the Oiz certainly had its work cut out to feel fresh and lively. Luckily it started doing things right straight from the off.
The 12kg weight is decent for this price and the Ikon treads are seriously fast rolling. That meant the Oiz never struggled to sprint out of corners or charge up the short, sharp climbs on the coastal path.
The remote control rear shock lockout lets you turn it hardtail for maximum power punch if you need to. The lever does make engaging the intermediate Trail setting much more awkward process – particularly on rough ground – but it’s a good positive pedalling, supportive suspension balance if you get the knack.
There’s plenty of stiffness in the chassis too. That’s clear whether you’re hammering the pedals full gas rather than dropping down a gear or trying to stay on the trail when it swings round harder than expected.
Naturally racy and precise handling means fast responses
The potential of the steep steering angles and compact frame dimensions to tuck under and send the semi-slick Ikons skidding sideways makes this precision particularly important. While the 710mm bars are low on leverage we were glad of the 15mm thru-axle on the Fox fork for the same reason.
Combined with the relatively short reach and wheelbase of the medium frame, the 650b wheels make the Oiz a breeze to flick round hairpins or sneak between stalling obstacles on climbs. Easy suspension movement once you’re over the compression platform helps it carry speed through rough sections too.
A fair bit of pressure fettling is, however, needed to find a sweet spot between too much shock movement and a super-firm feel that negates the traction advantages of full suspension. The short and steep geometry also means you can’t rely on the bike to stay on line through sketchy sections, so be prepared to react quickly and ride light when things get rough or rooty.
That sort of handling balance is standard issue for full-on race bikes though. Once you accept it, it’s just another aspect of the Orbea’s impressively responsive and reactive character.
It’s what people who race cross-country are after, and the very rapid ride is amplified with remote shock management that will win over hardtail fans. That this tester rode off up the coast in a hammering downpour and came back after dark grinning is probably the best indication that if you like speed, you’ll love this bike.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.