By Tom Demerly
Bikes constantly evolve. Evolution has sweet spots and awkward spots. Orbea’s new Orca SLi2 with Shimano Ultegra Di2 has both.
As one of the oldest bike companies in the world Orbea knows how to build bikes. Their competitive record in the Tour de France and Ironman Triathlon validate their designs. Orbea is, in every way, an old world racing bike brand evolved in the modern age with advanced design, materials and competitive results to back them up.
Shimano is similar: Proven results, proven history- albeit not the history of Orbea. This is usually a formula for success. There are speed bumps in evolution though. That’s where we are now in bike development: The “awkward years”. Orbea’s Orca SLi2 with Shimano Ultegra Di2 show signs of dissonance in frame/component integration. There is the proven frame of the Orbea Orca and evolving Ultegra Di2 wiring and battery mounting. Luckily, Orbea has some solutions with their flagship Orbea Orca GDi2 with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. That seamless Dura-Ace Di2 integration hasn’t made it to the Ultegra Di2 equipped SLi2 yet.
Orbea Orca SLi2 From Front to Back:
The Orbea Orca SLi2 uses an all-carbon fiber fork with unique “Attraction” shape to improve lateral stiffness and control ride quality. “Attraction” is the name of the frame shaping Orbea uses on the Orca to make the most of carbon fiber’s properties for improving ride and increasing lateral stiffness. The lay-up of the carbon fiber is controlled from the inside during manufacturing to optimize ride and stiffness, like most high end carbon bikes. The difference with the Orbea Orca is the external shaping of the fork blades and rear triangle. The fork blades bow outward making them effectively longer to absorb more road shock.
In the rear triangle the chainstays and seatstays have an angular shape that resists twisting but increases surface area to moderate shock. This unusual shaping resists torsional stress making steering, climbing and accelerating more responsive while improving ride quality. Using external shape to control ride characteristics is expensive to develop on a molded bike and tricky to manufacture. It takes a company the size of Orbea and the Mondragon Cooperative- many times the size of a Trek or Specialized- to execute a concept this ambitious. Few other bike brands could do this. For comparison think about Cervelo’s “Squoval” shaping on the downtubes of their stiffness road bikes like the R3. “Attraction” is like “Squoval” for the fork blades and rear triangle. “Attraction” is most obvious when looking at the rear triangle where you can see the angular bends in the chainstays and seatstays.
“The difference with the Orbea Orca is “Attraction” external shaping of the fork and rear triangle.”
Orbea’s component kits are straightforward and pure. The Orca SLi2 rolls on Mavic Ksyrium Equipes turning a pair of Vittoria Diamontes in the 700 X 23 width that measure precisely 23.9 millimeters wide at full pressure with a 175 pound load (rider). The Orbea website incorrectly identifies this tire as “700 X 22c”. This is one of the better Vittoria tires with nice ride quality and good flat resistance. The Ksyrium Equipe wheels weigh 1697 grams measured weight and use the FTS-L rear transmission to increase the contact area between the freehub pawl- the ratcheting mechanism- and the hub itself. The benefit is smoother application of pedaling forces and longer life. All the other Mavic wheel technologies are present on this wheel, including the machined brake track and SUP joint process. Bottom line: The wheels are durable, have the smoothest braking characteristics in the industry and are reasonably light. Both front and rear wheel use 20 spokes with radial (straight) lacing in the front and Isopulse straight pull, cross 2 non-drive, radial drive side lacing in the rear. Orbea: Great wheel and tire spec.
The new Shimano Ultegra Di2 kit uses the new BR-6700-G Ultegra brake. This updated version has a vampy, dark finish and marvelous hardware including a great barrel adjuster that is ultra easy to adjust even when riding and- wait for it- an ALLOY quick release lever. No plastic. The brake shoes are the excellent Shimano replaceable, modular pad design. Ten for ten on brake spec: Perfect.
Cockpit on the Orca SLi2 is an Orbea pantographed alloy bar with a very nice ergo bend and long flat surface into the brake lever hoods for hand comfort. The stem is also an Orbea labeled model with a carbon fiber finish over an alloy skeleton. The front plate on the stem is a bit boggling since there appear to be alignment indexes that don’t align when the stem is in the lower orientation. Curious.
The main frame of the bike uses nice shaping for aero styling and great stiffness. There are some nagging features with the component integration on the Orca SLi2 though, as with many Di2 equipped current generation bikes. The wiring for Ultegra Di2 appears to be an afterthought on the SLi2, attached to the bike with tape and zip ties. At $5000+ this is… different than what I would like to see. Orbea has done excellent Di2 integration on the $10,899 Orca GDi2 with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2.
The cable fittings for non-Di2 mechanical components like cable-actuated Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo groups are still there- a series of empty holes and fittings on the frame. This looks odd to me. The benefit is mechanical groups will work and look great on this frameset, there is backwards compatibility. Since this frame is not Di2 specific you can go back and forth between Di2 and a mechanical component group. You can’t do that as easily on the Dura-Ace equipped GDi2 which is Di2 specific.
If the idea of taping and zipping a component group to a $5K+ bike does not appeal to you the Orca STH equipped with Campagnolo Athena at $4599 and the awesome Orca SRD with SRAM Red at $5899 are examples of Orcas with mechanical drivetrains and seamless component integration. It’s possible we may see lower priced frames designed with better Di2 battery/wiring integration from bike brands in the future borrowing from the GDi2 frame design. Shimano may also re-design wiring harnesses and battery mounts for better integration. The later seems easier than the former.
In fairness to frame manufacturers it is risky to design a frame around current Di2 (as with the Orca GDi2) with complete integration of wiring harness and battery pack. Shimano may change the battery and wiring harness. Those changes may not be backwards compatible with frame integration for current Di2. For now Di2 is something most companies bolt and zip-tie to a bike. I don’t blame Orbea for not designing around Di2 at the lower price point. It will change. It isn’t a safe bet for Orbea, or any bike brand. I do wish Shimano provided bike brands with better cable and battery integration for current frame designs. The most elegant solution from Shimano would have been a wiring harness that used most current frameset internal cable routings. For now you bolt and zip tie Di2 to most bikes. It’s less than elegant and doesn’t do justice to Orbea’s nice designs at the lower price points.
“The shifting is laser-guided accurate and spooky smooth.”
That said Ultegra Di2 is a triumph as a component group. I defy you to discern the slightest difference from Dura-Ace Di2 in shift speed, quality and performance. We’ve even arranged a blind test on indoor trainers to see if riders can discern the difference between the groups from tactile interface alone. Hypothesis: They won’t be able to. The shifting is laser-guided accurate and spooky smooth. The mechanical “whirring” sound of the front shifter is like something from a Terminator movie- and just as lethal to mechanical drivetrains. Every shift up to the big ring from the small is robotic accurate. Forget dropped chains or missed shifts- it won’t happen on Di2. If I have one criticism of Ultegra Di2 it is the same as with Dura-Ace Di2: The shift controls on dual control lever are too close together. With bare hands it isn’t an issue after learning the controls, but with long finger winter gloves it is difficult to tell which shifter you are pressing.
Sizing on the Orbea Orcas runs odd number size names beginning on 51cm but includes a 48cm frame size. Head and seat angles trend to the relaxed- classic Euro-road geometry with a very stable 72.1 degree head angle up to the 53 cm frame size (71.5 degrees on the 48 cm). Chain stays are short but not as short as the ultra-racy BH G5 road frame from Orbea’s Spanish brand-cousin.
Ride quality? There is a reason this bike has had so much success in the professional peloton. It is stable, comfortable and stiff enough for the top pro teams but isn’t caught up in the race to ultimate frame stiffness like the Scott Foil, which has extremely stiff ride quality. Cornering is good but remember- this is a Euro-geometry road bike, so if you are expecting ultra snappy handling you need to shop for steeper angles. In general I prefer better stability to more responsiveness and the Orca trends toward stability. I’ll suggest it is well suited for the bottom 98% of American road cyclists. It isn’t as well suited for diving into the final corner after the bell lap of a tight criterium- and it wasn’t designed for that anyway.
While I’m unimpressed by the integration of the Shimano Ultegra Di2 on this frame, taken separately, the frame from Orbea, wheels and furniture (except the stem) are a triumph. The Ultegra Di2 is a coup for Shimano and must have all the other component companies trembling. Once you ride Ultegra Di2 mechanical drivetrains feel a little ancient.
Orbea’s approach to designing one strong frame concept and building a wide variety of component kits onto that platform is appealing and offers a lot of options. The only difficult thing about the Orbea ownership experience is deciding between all the component kits, and that is a luxurious decision made on the way to a fantastic ownership experience of one of the most successful road bike designs in history.