By Karen Brooks
Europe has been slow to catch the 29er wave, although a recent World Cup win by Czech racer Jaroslav Kuhlavy atop a 29er may change some minds. Orbea is one Euro company way ahead of the curve, having introduced their first 29er in 2005, and improving upon this early aluminum experiment by going carbon and incorporating design innovations from their road frames for the Alma in 2006. The current line of Alma 29ers shows off Orbea’s proficiency with both wonder fibers and big wheels.
Soul of the bike
The Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish, is one sexy bike, in a very Continental way, with its angular, sculpted lines highlighted by sleek, understated graphics and shiny red fittings. Underneath the Alma’s glossy white paint is a highly-engineered monocoque carbon frame. Each of the three frame sizes has a unique construction, with differing carbon layups, wall thicknesses, and tube diameters, to impart consistent ride characteristics. The construction process is a time and labor-intensive process, requiring multiple prototypes for each size.
Following Orbea’s previous 29ers, the goal is to maximize pedaling efficiency while offering a measure of vertical compliance via their 4×4 Triangle frame configuration, best summed up extra angles in the chai stays, near the rear dropouts, and in the top tube, just in front of the seat tube. Another goal is to play up the benefits of 29-inch wheels while minimizing their drawbacks, aiming for good traction with quick steering. To this end, Orbea uses the standard 29er geometry for companies who get it: short-as-possible chainstays (439mm in this case), combined with a bent seat tube, bottom bracket slightly lower than the axles, 65mm drop, and a short head tube (110mm) with top and down tubes merging well behind it. The 71.5-degree head tube angle keeps the steering snappy. An integrated, tapered headset adds to the clean and futuristic look.
All of the frame’s “tubes” can hardly be described as such, what with their various polygonal cross-sections. This Alma shares the original’s “fender” sculpted into the down tube, which actually does shield some spraying mud. There’s plenty of room in the rear for big tires—a Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.35” fit no problem.
About those shiny red fittings. They do more than just look good, they serve to route the bike’s vascular system in an efficient manner. The head tube cable guide in particular is a stroke of genius, eliminating the possibility of cable rub marring the finish.
The 29er Alma’s elegant frame comes dressed in four different configurations, ranging from the $5,900 Team to the $3,200 S50. My S30 came with a 100mm-travel Reba 29 RLT, Shimano XT 3×10 shifty bits and brakes, and Mavic C29ssmax wheels. Props to Orbea for spec’ing a 180mm front rotor.
Trial by fire
I started off the test with our own DirtFest weekend, followed closely by the Trans-Sylvania Epic stage race. Nothing like put- ting on hundreds of miles in the first two weeks. Although the S30 is not the lightest build, the spec was plenty race-worthy for my mid-pack aspirations. A few extra pounds disappeared from the equation given the bike’s amazing pedaling efficiency—I felt like I’d magically gained fitness on the first ride, and appreciated it more with each subsequent pedal stroke. Especially standing, all I had to do was let my weight fall on the pedals, no pulling required, and the bike sprang forward—awesome when I was tired.
I was apprehensive about using a carbon hardtail for the notoriously rock-infested trails of the TSE, but the Alma handled it all with grace. Its claimed vertical compliance wasn’t some kind of pseudo-suspension; the bike still felt like you’d expect a carbon hardtail to feel, yet it wasn’t as harsh as I feared, and it rode comfortably as the miles piled on.
The Alma has a playful nature to counter its disciplined efficiency. With its snappy head tube angle and fairly short chainstays and wheelbase, this is a quick-steering bike that feels smaller than it is. This, plus the settled-in feel of the bottom bracket placement encourages more shred-style moves than what’s normal for a racy bike. I did strike a pedal here and there on rocks, but not enough to make me wish for a higher BB.
I used, and appreciated, the entire range of the Shimano Dyna-Sys 10-speed drivetrain—although a 2×10 would make a lot of sense for such a climb-friendly bike (and indeed the Alma S10 uses it). My only complaint was that the 11-36t cassette’s wide range skipped over my preferred gear for rock gardens. The brakes worked beautifully and silently for the entire test.
On Orbea’s advice, I applied Shelter brand protective tape to the down tube and underside of the bottom bracket to prevent flying rocks from chipping the paint and possibly damaging the carbon underneath. I also added a LizardSkins chainstay wrap. But chips of paint came off beyond the wrap and from a couple other areas not covered in tape. Orbea says that the paint can be dislodged from the carbon’s smooth surface, but that it’s nothing to worry about, unless there is also evidence of damaged fibers. Orbea offers a lifetime warranty on the frame, and although the company doesn’t cover damage from pointy objects, it speaks to the company’s belief in their bikes’ structural integrity.
I also had an issue with the FSA BB30 bottom bracket. The seals on one bearing failed. The bearing become contaminated with mud and water and refused to turn. I was able to pry it open and clean it out while it was still on the bike. According to FSA, this would have been covered under warranty and remedied with a new bearing.
The Alma would be an excellent choice for the privateer racer who includes “just for fun” rides as part of their training. Sure, this midrange version still costs a good chunk of change, but this is one “plastic” bike that I would consider a worthy investment.
Sizes available: S (tested), M, L
Country of Origin: china