Can you garner big grins from short travel?
With the new Norco Optic the Canadian company sets out to garner big grins from short travel. Will the Optic Carbon fit the bill?
Norco Optic Carbon need to know
- Short-travel ripper with 29in wheels and 125mm out back
- All models use a custom RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate rear shock for consistent suspension performance across the range
- Norco frontloads the Optic C2 with a 140mm RockShox Pike suspension fork
- The Ride Aligned design tweaks the chainstay lengths in 5mm incremements to balance weight distribution on all frame sizes. There’s even a bike setup app to get you dialled in
- Solid build kit includes Stans Flow S1 rims and four-piston Shimano brakes
Norco’s latest Optic is a short-travel trail bike that aims to let you extract maximum fun from minimal travel. So even though it only has 125mm of travel on the rear, it forgoes any XC racing ambitions. Something that’s instantly apparent from the 140mm fork.
Less obvious are the lengths that Norco has gone to in order to balance the handling. Like Norco’s Ride Aligned concept, which aims for perfect balance regardless of rider height and frame size. As such, the chainstay length on the Optic range grows in 5mm increments from 430mm on the size M 29er to 440mm on the XL. If you’ve read our recent Geometry 101 feature you’ll already know why these changes are so important. But has Norco nailed this fine balancing act with the Optic? You bet. In fact the rear suspension felt absolutely spot on for me at 82kg on our size large test bike.
The front end of the Norco Optic has significantly morphed from the previous generation too. Reach has grown around 20mm per frame size, so the large is now a generous 480mm. There’s also a welcome (much steeper) 76° seat angle delivering a pedalling position that’s effective even climbing up the steepest gradients. Feet and hips sit sunken and stable too, thanks to a healthy 37mm BB drop that yields a 336mm static height, even with chunky 2.35in Schwalbe tyres.
In fact, these orange-striped Schwalbe Addix Soft Magic Mary and Hans Dampf tyres chime well with the C2’s overall vibe. They roll fast, but don’t sacrifice too much capability in tough terrain, in the same way control and durability are prioritised over sheer weight saving throughout.
This is evident in the Stan’s rims being enduro-level Flow S1s. They’re wide enough for good tyre stability at lower pressures and stiff enough to really take a thrashing. Yes, they are heavier than some, and the DT Swiss freehub is a bit slow to engage when sneaking half-cranks in on janky singletrack or awkward climbs. Shimano MT520 brakes are cheaper models, but use beefier four-piston calipers that are plenty powerful even with 180mm rotors. This focus on capable kit means, even with carbon cranks on the GX Eagle drivetrain (that occasionally creaked in the PressFit BB), the £3,500 Optic weighs over 30lb.
Ripping along trails, I was soon grateful for the grippier tyres, tougher build kit and the RockShox Pike Select+ fork packing 15mm more travel than the rear, because the Optic is a bike that really eggs you on. The fork uses the latest SKF wiper seals, but a Charger 2.1 RC damper with only external low- speed compression adjustment to save cash. Control and support isn’t too far off top-tier RC2 models, although they offer more adjustment and are subtly smoother and calmer. A short 42mm fork offset works well with the relaxed 65° head angle, wide handlebars and 45mm stem for intuitive steering and there’s a good balance between stability and reactiveness.
The Pike fork occasionally felt less sensitive than expected though, which was likely a consequence of needing the air spring quite firm to balance and keep up with the Optic’s exceptional rear suspension, which, put simply, is totally nailed. To the point that it’s hard to fathom how the 45mm shock stroke delivers such control in such a small travel window. And because Norco feels that the top-spec, RockShox SuperDeluxe Ultimate is so critical to the performance of the bike, it comes stock on all Optic 29ers, regardless of price.
Norco uses a special shock tune with custom valving that offers extra high-speed compression damping. So if the Optic feels a little firm in the car park or shop showroom, wait until you’re properly off-road and charging, as the back end laps up small repeated hits, even when cruising, and also packs enough control to never feel too flustered at speed.
So on top of being punchy and supportive, there’s a liquid fluidity around sag to the rear suspension that allows the rear tyre to hover and float over chop and small bumps. This all means the Optic maintains pace over rough ground without ever being fazed. Compressions, turns and jumps simply don’t scrub off as much speed as on longer travel rigs, and, at times, I even ended up scaring myself with the speed generated, and none of the safety-net that comes with having acres of travel.
So the snappier feel you’d expect from a shorter travel rig is amplified, but the Optic’s combination of geometry, chassis feel and suspension also feels calm and composed at high speeds. The rear end absorbs energy from smaller hits that can potentially chip away at rolling speed, without much trade off in terms of snappiness when pedalling.
And while it’s perfectly content getting you about efficiently, release your grip on the brakes and the Optic reveals a special swagger that makes you want to push harder in every situation. Occasionally bikes transcend the numbers, leverage rates and spec lists, morphing into something truly special. The Optic is one such machine, and one of the very best in this crowded category.