Say hello to Orbea

From issue 44 • Words & images by Augustus Farmer

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Time presses on and I still haven’t eaten since this morning. A longer road than planned means the light is turning that lovely golden hue as I head west and south away from my search for dinner in a strange place. Pacing and retracing my steps up and down these narrow stone walkways through ancient Durango’s intricate network of small streets in search of supper is my first real introduction to the Basque Country. In stark contrast to the built-up concrete dwellings I’d seen in the outskirts and surrounding valleys, a treasure trove of architectural delight greets me in these cobbled paths. Opposite, people gather around a fountain sitting in twos and threes, relaxing outdoors in an outdoors culture. It’s warm. Talk is loud but peaceful. Dogs enjoy refuge from the day’s heat in the cool spouting water, watched over by a line of grand old houses across the street. They have witnessed a lot these buildings, history played out on their pockmarked walls. Spanish Civil War bullet holes pepper the upper windows, left as reminders of troubles past; they find their way into my notebook.


Home-cooked aromas fill the air from the apartments above the shops winding down for the day—people living right in the center, where they have probably lived for years in a way that could never happen in a British city, where the natives are pushed out in favor of newer, richer and “more suitable” residents. So much is lost like that. Here it seems the noise of cheap scooters and small, happy kids playing football in the alleyways, along with the smells of a hundred dinners being conjured up, remains.

The headquarters of Orbea bicycles is close by in Mallabia. The 15 minutes of driving through this valley feels like experiencing a mixture of landscapes gleaned from books and movies. A little bit South American perhaps, tropical, dense green, deep and steep and tall. Slightly alpine pastures and trees, with a little Pyrenean crag and remoteness too. This has got to be some of the best mountain-biking terrain in Europe. I say Orbea bicycles because it isn’t long through the door that I’m made aware of the full heritage of the company. The gun. Orbea started out, as did many companies in the region, making firearms. It’s an area famous for weapons and sewing machines and scissors. It’s heavy, metallic industry in lush-green surroundings. It doesn’t quite fit and yet it does kind of explain the intensity of the urban planning.

Town after town around here seems to be concentrated upward rather than outward—in the 1960s and ’70s utopian logic that succeeded, partially, in thinking upward makes sense in a crowded valley, but failed pretty much completely in creating any kind of balance between the urban and surrounding natural landscapes. These gray columns of concrete, stained with diesel soot and dark windows, are on all levels as the town’s streets dip and rise, leaving me craving the hills just out of view. I know they are close by; I imagine them still groaning at an era in design not so much about the architecture of happiness as the building of hasty, lofty solutions.

Jokin Diez walks into the Orbea foyer to greet me with a warm, genuine smile. He holds a coffee in one hand and extends the other with a firm and eager handshake. My guide seems calm and contented with his role here. More coffee is made and carried up to a large display cabinet of a room, and the family silver is rolled out piece by piece as I get a good understanding of what matters at Orbea. There is pride in the history here but it’s not hanging onto a life past to be stamped onto the boxes coming in from Asia every week. What really matters here is the people that work here. This is a cooperative and you can sense it straight away. People are happy here, yes, but that’s more than just a word attached to a sense of gratitude for a decent job in a struggling national economy with huge unemployment. These people interact more like a family; it’s apparent how positive and friendly they are to each other. It’s perhaps a cliché to say this about a cooperative, but there’s a real sense of togetherness here. Of knowing that actions have ripples and responsibility is key. It’s a very grown-up way of looking at things.

This is Orbea’s 175th year. It was founded in Eibar by four brothers and their sister in 1840 to manufacture weaponry, which continued until the 1930s, when, just as the market for the hardware of war was probably about to hit overdrive, they added prams (baby carriages) to the mix—using bent round rifle barrels to make the frames. It seems like a slightly odd and perhaps distasteful move until bikes came onto the production floor toward the 1950s. Everything was made here too, including the brake levers and seat posts; even the leather for the saddles came from the hills above Eibar. Practical no doubt in pre-mass-procurement times, but there was a pride at work here too. The Basque people are famously proud of their region, and the small printed-and-sewn-cloth flags of the Catalans and the Basques on the fenders of the 1960s children’s bike on display in front of me act as reminders—in case one should forget where the loyalties of the 10-year-old owner of this bike truly lay.

Their bread-and-butter was clearly the bicycle of transportation, but there was always racing. Orbea’s 20 years of sponsorship with the now defunct Euskadi-Euskaltel team was the longest in UCI history, I am told. Basque riders or some connection with the region wasn’t a rule as such, but it was definitely a philosophy of the team. Samuel Sanchez’s and Iban Mayo’s bikes are dotted around the place, bringing some of that history up to date. Jerseys hang everywhere, as they do so often in cycling circles, but I notice some paraphernalia I remember from my earliest days following these heroes, including Pedro Delgado. Before Reynolds and his Tour victory, he was here, in blue and white. This year marks 30 years since Delgado won the Vuelta on an Orbea, and that striped-seat team uniform has been printed once again to mark the occasion. Racing has been key to this Basque success story. From the very beginning, if you rode the Vuelta, chances are that you did it on a BH (which also began in the firearms business) or an Orbea.

By the late 1960s, the Orbea family was ready to move on and it turned, by good fortune, to a group of 1,500 workers to create the cooperative it remains today. Operations moved to nearby Mallabia, where they remain. Of course, there’s a lot fewer than 1,500 today; the company now has around 180, but they are mostly members of the cooperative, many related to the founders from 1969. While aluminum ruled the roost in the ’90s, production still happened within these walls, but as carbon took over the move was made to Asian production and this facility turned to designing, finishing, painting and assembling.

It always seems like such a shame that that seems to be the way it must go, and so often does go, but in a way the survival of this company is about so much more than a brand sticking to its roots. Paradoxically, with all its age and heritage, Orbea seems pretty forward thinking when it comes to looking after its past. Orbea continuing at all means everything to the people here. They have invested real commitment into this; it’s not just a job, it’s what they do and who they are. I am reminded of what a dear friend and motoring correspondent once said to me as Porsche unveiled the overweight cousin to the 911, the first-era Cayenne: “It is ghastly, yes, but if it means we still have the delight of a rear-engined 911 in a decade because of it, I’m behind it.” He had a point.

And these guys at Orbea are making quite a lot of bicycles: 175,000 a year, all contributing to this economy, this company, these people, this area and its inhabitants who have lived through a history of brutality last century and economic hardship this one. Somewhat overlooked these days across Europe, Spain’s dictatorship ran all the way into the 1970s. Franco’s power outlived the Beatles by half a decade and it wasn’t that long ago that people were arrested for things like watching pornographic movies in these towns. Outlawed and monitored, Diez tells me there was a time (still a running joke) that “if there was a Spaniard in the French city of Perpignan, just across the border, they were only there for the cinema.”

Walking into the workshop with the mechanics returning from a break, we’re caught up in a wave of laughter and joking among the 10 or so people coming back to assemble people’s orders. I turn and see a guy walking in with sets of wheels held like that famous 1980s poster by Herb Ritts of the guy with tires. He smiles as I grab a photograph and I ask the guys what it is they like about working in a cooperative here? “Working in Orbea and being a member for me is doing what I like the most and it gives me security. That is hard to find. I have the feeling of working on something that is mine,” says Álex Jabonero, who’s been here 12 years already. It dawns on me that most of the people I talk to have been here long enough to feel the seven-year itch but not scratch it. I don’t know about this country in general but that longevity is pretty rare where I come from.

Lunch beckons and we drive out into the Basque hills for food with a view. Up what must be an incredible climb on a bike we drive over the familiar sight of names in white paint. This is Arrate, part of a stage in the Tour of the Basque Country. Up hairpins and past sheer, unprotected drops to the right, we arrive at a small church and a shrine to the fallen of the Civil War. From here you can see everything. The smell of fresh pines and the singing of free birds accompany our beautifully prepared salads made with local ingredients. Fresh-salted bread is cut roughly by large hands.

Gruff and awkward gives way to warmth and respect as the bartender deals with the tourist, and the owner spots Orbea on a sleeve. Basking in the afternoon sunshine, we are joined by an incredible looking old man: beret, cigar, a thimble of yellow alcohol. Eyes that have seen it all no doubt and can still smile with a slight crease. “That is Orujo de Hierbas, the alcohol of the grasses,” I am told when I ask if it’s a type of limoncello. Strong and harsh, but sweet smelling like cut grass, it hasn’t done him any harm by the looks of it. He is 93 and, it turns out, the father of the previous president of Orbea and one of the original cooperative founders, Felix Garigoitia, who joins the gathering amid warm embraces and the handing out of cigars and pats on backs. He gracefully obliges my garbled request to photograph him as he reclines against the warm glow of the afternoon-sun-soaked stonewall, and lights up his cigar. His green eyes sear through the lens and mirrors right into mine. An intense and serious, yet warm, look accompanies the deep inhaling of smoke-filled breath and the glow of embers between hard-worked fingers. Feeling too self-conscious to ask his aged father to move into a more photogenic position, I settle instead for the son alone, looking a little like a gangster or a police chief with a knowing look, but at the same time a delicate calm of simplicity in the focus and meaning of drawing in smoke with old friends.

On a quick stop on the way back, we pop into town to see the museum’s exhibition on Orbea. The curators are clearly proud of their local heritage on the global stage. Alfa sewing machines are here, BH nearby and Lambretta it seems has had a hand in it somewhere. I am shown around a slickly designed and tranquil space in a chaotic and crowded town. All manner of guns are showcased but, as they always do, the collection of antique head badges steals my attention.

Back into the heart of the machine, I find myself in the familiar surroundings of the paint booth. Cofidis team paint jobs are being finished on carbon Orca (“ORbeaCArbon”) frames. Cofidis is the sole partner in the pro peloton now that Euskaltel is no more and (as a French team) Cofidis has a wild-card entry to Le Tour—which explains the yellow and green paint jobs (just in case) being hung up on spikes, breaking the symmetry of the white-and-red wall of bike frames adjacent. A production line of sorts, this process still affords a handcrafted attention to detail, the painters being supremely careful, clearly taking great pride in their responsibility. After a final clear coat has dried, decals are delicately chosen, cut out and applied by a small team with scissors and good nails.

Laughter reigns in what is so often the domain of music or the radio, once more reminding me of the camaraderie at work. No headphones zoning people out of what they do and where, and who they do it with; instead, it seems every bit the team. Empowered by investment in and reward out perhaps, this seems to embody all that can be great about a cooperative. Run by the people for the people, this ideology of fairness born amid a dictatorial parenthood, not only survived, but outlived its over-bearer, even flourishing into a new era and the threat of globalized blandness.  And I think these people might just be all right too, breathing life into the philosophy that good energy recirculates; they’re reaping what they sew.

Finishing up in the design office surrounded by the shrouded models of tomorrow and prototypes of the future, the feeling of cooperation is as tangible as anywhere here. It could so easily be marketing guff, rolled out to sell an ideology that in reality isn’t that relevant anymore, but I get a real sense of belief and being genuine from people of an age that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with such long-term thinking. There are wise heads on young shoulders here; it’s impressive.

I pack up ready for the road trip home, a journey that will see me traversing hills and mountains, tolls and autoroutes, towns and villages, and making slow, shady rest stops with crickets, birds and sleeping drivers. Shutting the car door, I reflect for a moment about these people at Orbea and realize I am sorry to say good-bye so quickly to this magical place.

As I wave farewell to them at afternoon break, as they stand having a smoke and a coffee, smiling, joking, relaxing together, not a smartphone in sight, I feel warmed. This place deserves that good energy. A better future than its past, a more certain security than its present. But if that can happen anywhere, I get the distinct impression it will happen here in these hills of passion and flavor of life, for these locals with their pride and their belief and their bullet holes.

Augustus Farmer:

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