Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bike Review - 2009 Orbea Orca

The Orca is the flagship of the Orbea lineup, and although it's been slightly revamped for 2010 I thought it would be worthwhile for me to comment on the 2009 model considering the significant amount of seat time I have on it.

The '09 Orca features subtle revisions over the previous Orca, notably one-piece rear dropouts, a magnesium seat collar, carbon headbadge and revised carbon layup. According to Orbea these revisions shaved about 90 grams off the frameset and made it 20% stiffer. Having ridden both, I can't say that I could tell any difference in stiffness.

My frame (size 51cm, 53.5cm top tube length) weighed in at 940 grams when stripped of all of its metal bits. Total weight for my bike at its lightest build was 15 lbs, 2 oz ready to race (see below for a complete build list). This is certainly competitive with most of the carbon flagship bikes on the market and could easily have been lower with a few substitutions.

How does it ride? In my opinion ride quality is the area where the Orca really shines. The frame does an excellent job of filtering out bumps and high-frequency vibration. This bike is all-day comfortable. Handling on the frame is feels stable to slow - the Orca almost seems to smooth out your line even under hard pedalling. The flipside is that you don't so much dive into corners as much as you herd the Orca through them. Don't expect Cannondale or Specialized Tarmac responsiveness here, although the ride is much better damped than either of those bikes.

In fact, that lack of responsiveness is what I liked least about the Orca. After riding some top-level carbon bikes from other manufacturers I found that they felt much more eager to cut turns or responded much more noticably to pedal input. It seems the Orca rewards smooth, calculated inputs much more than sudden forceful ones. I suppose something had to be given up in order to infuse the Orca with comfort and stability.

I have noticed a few issues with this generation of Orca, all of them related to the reliability of the carbon frame. I personally have seen more than a couple of Orcas that fell over at low (or no) speed, sending the handlebars into the sculpted top tube which then cracked. In my opinion the dramatic lines of the frame create a series of stress risers not found in round tubes and make it more susceptible to such damage. It seems that the ridges of the tubes allow external force to concentrate in that area causing the carbon to fail.

The other issue I encountered was with my personal bike. After a while the carbon headbadge (which also serves as the cable guide for the derailleur cables) formed cracks on the outside edges, apparently from the stress of the cable ferrules and tension of the derailleur cables. Orbea replaced my frame under warranty and I built the second frame using longer housing runs and plastic ferrules per Orbea's advice, only to have that frame fail in the exact same manner. Orbea once again replaced the frame under warranty. According to sources at Orbea, the headbadge has been reinforced on 2010 models in order to prevent this from happening (which also tells me that I wasn't the only person experiencing this).

For racing I believe the Opal is actually a better choice than the Orca. Although it's a little heavier and not nearly as good-looking as its upscale bretheren it should prove far more durable and, from what I've heard, is more responsive. That's probably why Orbea-sponsored Team Type 1 rocks the Opal, along with many other domestic amateur teams.

Of course, all of my reservations about the Orca didn't keep Samuel Sanchez from winning an Olympic gold medal on one. As Lance Armstrong says, "It's not about the bike."

A few more nice features about the Orca include a non-proprietary seatpost (which seems to be a rarity these days) and Orbea's spectacular Made to Order program, which allows you a great deal of flexibility in choosing color, components, wheelsets, even saddles. I know there has been talk at Orbea about scrapping Made to Order but I hope for their customers' sakes they don't.

In my opinion the Orca is best suited for those who want a high-performance rig that isn't going to beat them up on long weekend or club rides. If I were a big sprinter or regular crit racer it probably wouldn't be my first choice. The new improvements for 2010 (tapered headtube, BB30 bottom bracket) should yield a frame that is slightly more responsive and perhaps a little lighter overall, both good things. And there is no denying the Orca's unique look - in my opinion it's one of the best looking bikes on the market, especially in black or red.

Test build (15 lbs, 2 oz):
  • 2009 Orca frameset, size 51 (53.5 top tube)
  • 2009 SRAM Force drivetrain (shifters, derailleurs, brakeset)
  • 2009 FSA K-Force Light crankset, 172.5mm, 52/38T
  • Ritchey WCS 4-Axis 100mm stem
  • Ritchey WCS Anatomic handlebar (42 cm)
  • Bontrager Race X-Lite 31.8mm seatpost (270mm length)
  • Fizik Arione K:ium saddle
  • 2009 Easton EC90 Aero wheelset
  • Vredestein Fortezza TriComp tubular tires
  • Look Keo Sprint pedals
  • Cateye Strade Wireless computer
  • Bontrager Race X-Lite Carbon bottle cages (2)

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