It has been going strong for half a century, thanks to imagination and hard work. Whether it is town bikes or electric bikes, for top competitions or mountain-biking or to meet the particular specifications of various public services, Órbita Bicicletas Portuguesas has been part of a silent revolution occurring all over the planet.
Orbiter was the term given to the first satellites to head for Mars. Aurélio Ferreira can no longer recall the name of the actual satellite which, after a 167-day voyage, managed to successfully orbit a heavenly body other than the Moon. Mariner 9, as it was known, is the name he was looking for. He marked the historic event, however, by celebrating what it did. In 1971, he founded Órbita – Bicicletas Portuguesas, by merging three companies – Miralago (created in 1956 by him), Macal and Sociedade Comercial do Vouga – with one aim: “to make a complete bicycle”.
Known in days gone by as the “capital of the two-wheeler’’, the town of Águeda had dozens of factories making bicycle components. At that time, recalls Aurélio Ferreira, bicycles were assembled in situ. In other words, you bought the handlebars, the frame, the wheels, the gears, the saddle, and a whole series of other parts and all around Portugal, everyone built their own bike. Órbita filled that niche in the market, assembling bicycles from parts that it produced itself, mostly made at Miralago, which now controls 95% of the company’s capital. Today, Miralago and Órbita are the only companies in the region which have not only survived but grown steadily over time. “How have I managed it?”, Aurélio Ferreira repeats, as if the answer is obvious and the only one possible. He pauses for a few seconds and the goes on: “With imagination and a lot of work”. A man of few words, he stressed at the beginning of our conversation that he has little time and many designs to study, as he glances at the files piled up on his desk. He is 83 years old and still manages Órbita, making no apologies for a timetable that runs from eight in the morning until the end of the day. “I saw with time that it was possible to do better and faster.” At 14 he worked in a factory making bicycles with a hacksaw and a file. Hard work? “I had to escape from farming; that was hard work. Inside a factory it didn’t rain, there was no wind, no snow. Even so, it was very difficult and that makes people think. There was a willingness to do things”. At 22, Aurélio Ferreira was already a businessman; he founded Miralago.
“The greatest reward for our work is not what we get paid, but the motivation and pride it gives us”, it says on his website. Aurélio Ferreira walks through a kind of exhibition room and points out the details that have set his bicycles apart over the years. With disc brakes made for the Dutch market, a brakeless back pedal for Austria, adult tricycles for the French – he has a client who buys 40 a month – with three seats, which are no longer made. He introduces these special features according to the countries they are for and the use to which they are put. Every year, he reveals, Órbita produces around a dozen new models- mountain bikes, competition bikes, urban, electric, foldable, steel, aluminium or carbon, with special features, for the National Guard or postal workers; Órbita diversifies, innovates and competes with the best in the world.
Portuguese bicycles: the label that sells
He advances with caution, at the speed of a bicycle, and pedals hard until he reaches his goal. “Every time we invest in a market, we succeed.” Aurélio Ferreira doesn’t divulge the names of the 15 countries to which he exports 75% to 80% of his production. That, he says, “is something the competition would love to hear about. We are in Europe, Africa and Asia and we have just entered the US market this year. We try to be everywhere. If we were only in one market, we would fail. If it wasn’t for the international markets, we wouldn’t exist. Being successful abroad was a concern right from the start and it still is today”. Even in the current economic situation, Órbita continues to grow, and has enough orders to keep them busy for the next six months.
“What sets us apart? We are the only Portuguese brand that is trusted on the market, there isn’t any other. We are known for our quality at every level; polymer and aluminium components – guaranteed longevity –the way they are made, quality control, ergonomic design, hard work”, says Aurélio Ferreira. Órbita makes between 250 and 500 bicycles a day, depending on the model – simple or complex (with more gears, for example) – and whether it is low or high season (spring and summer). On all of them he makes a point of stamping the words “Portuguese bicycles”, not just because it is part of the company’s name, he stresses, but mainly because he is proud they are “made in Portugal”. And also, he adds, it is a label that sells well. The aim, he says, “is that lots of bicycles get used in Europe”. How many? “I don’t know…Maybe three million”.
New urban conscience
In today’s cities, people get around more by bike, the consequence of a globalized world which “has obliged people to return to the necessity of saving”, believes Aurélio Ferreira. The businessman, who has always ridden a bicycle –a classic 1950 model which Órbita still produces – believes in a promising future for the urban bicycle. “You spend less money, it’s good for your health, it doesn’t pollute. People have got to realise they can’t drive 50 yards in their car just to get a paper or have a coffee.” In 2007, in partnership with Paris City Council, Órbita produced 20,000 town bicycles under a citizens’ bicycle programme – Vélib. This was followed by a series of partnerships with other European cities in Spain, Britain, Ireland and Austria. Here in Portugal, an urban mobility strategy began in 2011 under the BeÁgueda project and a dozen electric bicycles were made available to citizens as an alternative to the public transport system. Águeda Council’s pilot project was chosen by Croatia as one of the best local initiatives for promoting sustainability and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Vilamoura, Vouzela, Tondela, Viseu, Mangualde, Torres Vedras, Murtosa, Ovar, Estarreja… the list of Portuguese municipalities which have implemented public bicycle programmes is expanding steadily. In Vilamoura, observes Aurélio Ferreira, the project was so successful – each bike was used about 600 times a day – that the first 150 bicycles will be increased by 60, and their use extended to tourists.
Órbita’s urban mobility strategy goes beyond making bicycles: in 2012 they set up JustB, an electronic bicycle parking system, all made in Portugal, from the software to the parking meters, with technical assistance thrown in. Their motto is: “a public bicycle anywhere, anytime”, to attract and convince more people that it is better to pedal.
by Ana Serpa
web design & development 262media.com