It does a whole lot of things right and a whole little of things wrong.
I’ve got a handful of numbers for you. 125mm, 65° 28.9 lbs. and 29”. Drooling yet? Even with only 125mm of rear travel, the redesigned 2020 Norco Optic parties with the big kids. Don’t believe me? Just watch Brynn Atkinson boost to the moon in the Optic launch video.
The 29” short-travel trail bike with rowdy geometry seems to be the model to release in 2019 as a bike manufacturer. With good reason too. They’re fun, capable, lighter weight, better climbers and frankly a better fit for most folks on most trail rides. We’ve seen so many good offerings in the shop this year — bikes like the Santa Cruz Tallboy, Giant Trance 29, Ibis Ripley and the Revel Rascal. We’ve ridden and reviewed almost every bike on list. So where does the Optic fit into all of this?
GEOMETRY AND BUILD Norco Optic
The Norco Optic is really pushing the boundaries of geometry for a short travel bike. They took “longer, lower and slacker” and multiplied it by 10. I’m an XL til I die kind of guy. Even with Yeti’s monster frames. Not necessarily so with the Optic — it’s really big. 510mm reach on an XL, big. Just to compare numbers, I own an XL Santa Cruz Megatower. If you’re not familiar, it’s a 160mm travel enduro bike. It’s not messing around. Well, the XL Optic’s wheelbase is longer, has more reach and the head tube angle is every bit as slack as the Megatower — all while packing way less travel and weight. So what does all of this mean? Well, it means you can kind of ride it like a lighter weight, poppier (insert enduro bike of your choice)… kind of. Remember, it only has 125mm of travel. It has its limits, but they’re tougher to find than most short-travel trail bikes. The Optic shows that geometry is the king of all the game.
I rode the Optic C1 for this review. The C1 retails for $5999. Not a bad price considering you get top-tier Rockshox suspension bits, a carbon front triangle, Shimano XTR drivetrain and brakes, Stans Flow rims laced to DT 350 hubs. What I’m saying is, six grand is a lot of money, but this bike is ready to roll out of the box. I have a few nits to pick with the build spec. The X Fusion Manic dropper post wasn’t my favorite. It’s not a bad dropper post, but when you’re buying a top-tier bike, you expect top-tier components. A Fox Transfer or Rockshox Reverb would have fit in more naturally with the XTR and rest of the components. Speaking of XTR, I struggled a bit with the brakes. Right out of the gate the bite point was vague and wandering. The rotors and pads took a very long time to bed in, and even once they had the stopping power didn’t feel like what I’d hope for. I certainly didn’t feel confident coming into corners hot and braking late.
The Shimano XTR “make a bike go” bits performed really well. I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Sram AXS, but if I had to run any other drivetrain I’d go with the new 12 speed XTR. It shifts smooth, fast and accurately. I also like dropping two gears at a time with one push of the lever.
The Optic climbs well. That statement needs no qualifiers or exclusions. It pedals very efficiently. Your power goes into turning the rear wheel, not compressing the shock. It’s a good thing too, because the rear shock on the Optic doesn’t have a lockout lever. The Optic’s Super Deluxe is custom made by Rockshox specifically for this bike. It’s a DH tune that really does a good job of controlling the 125mm of rear wheel travel. I started the test ride with a paved road climb, typically a place where I’d take advantage of a lockout knob. I didn’t feel the need to reach down and flip the non-existent lever. Once I hit the dirt, the shock allowed the rear wheel to hug the ground, providing a bunch of traction. On the few techy bits of my test climb, the back end was able to move up and out of the way of wheel-grabby rocks.
My size L test bike weighed 28.9 lbs. before pedals and a water bottle. That’s not feather light, but with most bikes getting a little heavier these days, it’s a pretty respectable number. The Optic felt light on the uphills. It didn’t feel like I was dragging a big heavy bike with me. It scooted along nicely without requiring too much effort. There was a particularly steep and miserable section of the climb that I dread most times I ride it. The Optic made it suck a lot less. I didn’t get to the top, fall off my bike and pass out in the bushes like I normally do.
The seat tube angle is plenty steep keeping your weight where it should be over the center of the bike. It felt natural to keep my weight balanced between the two wheels. The front end didn’t wander or wheelie on the steeper pitches. The cockpit felt roomy enough without being too stretched out.
If you want some comparisons to see how the Optic stacks up against other bikes you may have ridden, it’s most like the Revel Rascal on the climbs. It pedals efficiently and climbs quickly, but it’s not a rocket ship like the Ibis Ripley. It also climbs very much like a Santa Cruz Tallboy. The Tallboy is a bit lighter but the Optic might be a little more efficient — net neutral.
The Optic is the little bike you can ride like a big bike. Dropping into the high-speed death rut at the top of my test DH, I didn’t feel the need to go slower or be more careful than when I drop in on my Megatower. In fact, according to the super accurate and end-all source, Strava, I was faster on the Optic than my average Megatower times. The reason being, the L Optic has a shorter wheelbase allowing for quicker cornering and a more agile ride quality. Or at least thats the only way I can justify it. Granted, the section of trail I rode was not overly chunky. Thats where the Optic would start getting into trouble. The geometry allows you to really push the bike hard while the rear travel amount doesn’t necessarily have your back in every situation. It’s going to let you know when you make a mistake or get in over your head.
The Optic is stable and controlled but where it really shines is when it comes to having the most fun possible. It can plow a bit and it can certainly go fast, but it’s happiest when it gets to turn every bump into a jump and boost off of every takeoff. It’s easy to get in the air and once it’s there it’s fun to throw around a bit. My jumping style could be described as a “baby giraffe on a trampoline,” but I actually was able to get the bike a little sideways (on purpose) with the Optic.
For my first lap I ran the Optic at exactly 30% sag. I got through the travel a little too easily. On my second lap I ran a little closer to 27% sag. It solved the bottom out problem but made the rear end feel too stiff off the top. I think a volume reducer would be in order to have the best of both worlds. It would allow for 30% sag and still resist bottom out pretty well. These short-travel, hard-charging bikes can really benefit from volume reducers. By nature, they want to be pushed hard into corners, or taken off jumps, but when you only have 125mm of travel it can be a little too easy to bottom out. Add a volume spacer and voilà, problem solved.
I’ve always been a big fan of Maxxis tires — Minions to be exact. I’ve tried other tires and I’ve usually been a little disappointed. Before this review I hadn’t ridden the Schwalbe Magic Mary/Hans Dampf combo. Both front and rear tires came in the Addix Soft rubber compound. They hooked up really well and were very predictable. I didn’t feel that they rolled too slowly or were too heavy. The only time I really noticed them being a lot of tire was on the paved roads — mostly because I could hear them grabbing the pavement. I’ll say I’m a big fan now.
On the Downhills the Optic still reminds me quite a bit of the Revel Rascal. They feel pretty comparable in terms of capability. they approach that capability in different ways however. The Rascal has a bit more travel and has a very stiff, race like feel to it. The Optic feels more plush and playful but every bit as confident when the going gets rough — likely due to the slacker and longer geometry.
The All Arounds Norco Optic
Overall, I was very impressed with the Optic. It was a bike I really wanted to like and it didn’t disappoint. It facilitates having the maximum amount of fun on the trail. So who is the Optic for? I think the person who likes to jump and play around on the trail will really like the optic. It’s not going to be for the racer or monster truck driver — although it’s no slouch in the plow department. If you can only have one bike, it would be a really good option. It will have you covered for bike park days without sacrificing much of anything on the easier everyday rides. Alternatively, If you can have the blessing of two mountain bikes in your life, the Optic would make an awesome short-travel compliment to a long-travel sled. Folks who typically like the feel of big, squishy bikes will enjoy the ride quality of the optic. It’s a big bike in a little package.
Norco Optic Comparisons
– Out of all the bikes in the category I’ve ridden and reviewed recently, the Optic is a very good climber. If I had to rank them in order of best to not best this would be my list:
Ripley, Optic, Rascal/Tallboy (Tie)
– Again, if someone made me rank these bikes in descending order (see what I did there?) this would be my list:
Optic, Tallboy, Rascal, Ripley
- Most gravity fueled short-travel trail bike
- Good value
- Great “one bike to rule them all” option
- X Fusion Manic dropper post
- XTR brakes were inconsistent
- Sizing might be tough for some people (frames are HUGE)
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