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 it heads 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 the intricate network of small streets in the old part of Durango in search of supper is my first real introduction to Basque Country. In stark contrast to the built up concrete dwelling in the outskirts and surrounding valleys, these cobbled paths map a treasure trove of architectural delight. Opposite, people gather around a fountain sitting in their 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 old grand houses just across the street. They have witnessed a lot these buildings, history played out on their pock marked walls. Civil war bullet holes pepper the upper windows, left as reminders of troubles passed, they find their way into my notebook.
Home cooked aromas fill the air from the flats above the shops winding down for the day, people living right in the centre, that have probably done so for years in that way that could never happen in a British city where the natives are pushed out in favour of newer richer more suitable residents. So much is lost like that. Here it seems the noise of cheap scooters, the small kids just happy to be playing football in the alley and the smells of a hundred dinners being conjured remains.
Orbea bicycles are close by in Mallabia. Fifteen minutes driving through this valley feels like a mixture of landscapes gleaned from books and movies alike. 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, surely. 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 in the region making firearms. An area famous for weapons and sewing machines. And scissors. This is heavy, metallic industry here in this lush green surrounding. It doesn’t quite fit and yet it does kind of explain the intensity of the urban planning. Town after town round here seems to be concentrated upwards rather than outwards in sixties and seventies utopian logic that succeeded, partially, in thinking upwards 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 grey columns of concrete, stained with diesel soot and dark windows are on all levels as the town’s streets dip and rise leave 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 erecting of hasty lofty solutions.
Jokin Diez walks into the foyer to greet me with a warm genuine smile, holding a coffee in one hand he extends his 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 co-operative 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 economy with huge unemployment. These people interact more like a family, it’s apparent how positive and friendly to each other they are. It’s a cliche to say it of a co-operative perhaps, 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. Started in Eibar by four brothers and their sister in 1840, to manufacture weaponry up until the 1930s when just as the market for the hardware of war was probably about to hit overdrive, they added prams to the mix (using bent round rifle barrels to make the frames) in what seems like a slightly odd and perhaps distasteful move until bikes came onto the production floor towards the 1950s. Everything was made here too. The brake levers, the saddles, the seat posts. Even the leather used 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 reminder in case one should forget where the ten year old owner of this bike’s loyalties had laid.
Their bread and butter was clearly the bicycle of transportation but there was always racing. 20 years with Euskaltel is the UCI’s longest sponsorship 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. Sanchez and 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, Delgado. Before Reynolds and Tour victory he was here, in blue and white. This year marks thirty years since he won the Vuelta on an Orbea and that striped Seat 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 you did it on a BH (who also began in the firearms business) or an Orbea.
By the late sixties the family Orbea were ready to move on and it turned by good fortune to a group of 1500 workers to create the co-operative it remains today. Operations moved to nearby Mallabia where they still are. A lot less of course than 1500, the 180 or so found here today are none the less largely all members of the co-op, many related to the founders from 1969. While aluminium ruled the roost in the 90s these walls still saw production in house, but as carbon took over the move was made to Asian production and this facility turned to designing/ finishing/ painting/ assembling. It always seems like such a shame to me that seems to be the way it must and so often does go, but in a way the survival of this company is about so much more than a brand sticking to it’s roots. Paradoxically with all it’s age and heritage Orbea seems pretty forward thinking when it comes to looking after it’s past. Orbea carrying on 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, who they are. I am reminded of what a dear friend and motoring correspondent said to me once 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 are making quite a lot of bicycles. 175,000 a year. All contributing to this economy, this company, these people, this area and it’s inhabitants that have had a history of brutality last century and of economic hardship this one. Somewhat overlooked these days across europe, Spain’s dictatorship ran all the way into the Seventies. 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, Jokin 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 ten 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 tyres. He smiles as I grab a photograph and I ask the guys what it is they like about working in a co-operative 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 twelve 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’s 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 Euskadi. Up hairpins and barrier-less sheer 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 accompanies our beautifully prepared salads made with local ingrediants. 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 ‘Ornjo de Hierb’ 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 ninety three and it turns out, the father of the previous President of Orbea and one of the original co-op 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 stone wall and lights up his cigar. His green eyes searing through the lens and mirrors right in to mine. An intense and serious, yet warm look accompanying the deep inhaling of smoke filled breath and the glow of embers between hard worked fingers. Feeling too 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.
A quick stop on the way back and we pop in to town to see the museum’s exhibition on Orbea. They’re clearly proud of their local heritage on the global stage. Alfa sewing machines are here, BH nearby, Lambretta it seems have had a hand in it somewhere. I am shown around a slick 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 paint jobs are being finished on carbon Orca (ORbeaCArbon) frames. Cofidis is the sole partner in the pro peloton now Euskaltel is no more and (as a French team) they have a wildcard 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 hand crafted 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 the radio, once more reminding 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 co-op. Run by the people for the people, this ideology of fairness born amidst a dictatorial parenthood, not only survived, but outlived it’s over bearer even flourishing into a new era and threat of globalised blandness. And I think they might just be alright 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 co-operation 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 through hills and mountains, tolls and autoroutes and villages and shady slow rest stops with crickets and birds and sleeping drivers. Shutting the car door I reflect for a moment about these people and realise I am sorry to say goodbye so quickly to this magical place.
As I wave farewell to the afternoon break, standing having a fag 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 it’s past, a more certain security than it’s present. But if that can happen anywhere, I get the distinct impression it will happen here in these hills of passion and flavour of life, for these local people with their pride and their belief and their bullet holes.
Originally published in Peloton Magazine.
©Augustus Farmer 2015