Killer value for money.
With the Norco Optic A9.1 the brand has the sizing of the bike dialled in, the weight distribution sorted and the specification is on point.
When we first ordered the Norco Optic A9.1 for test it cost £2,299. Given that it comes with a dropper post, 1×11 SRAM drivetrain, Fox 34 suspension fork and Boost dropouts it seemed like great value for money. Now that Evans has slashed the price by 13 per cent, it looks more like an absolute steal. But is it?
Before we answer that question let’s zoom in on the details as there’s a ton of info in the name alone. The “A” indicates that this Optic has an aluminium frame, and differentiates it come the “C” carbon bikes. There are also two wheel sizes to choose from, the 9 denotes 29in wheels while the 7 series bikes all roll on 27.5in wheels.
What the model name doesn’t tell you is that the travel and geometry are adjusted to suit each wheel size. As such, the 29er Optic tested here has 110mm of travel married to a 120mm fork, while the 27.5in bike get 10mm more bounce at both ends.
Regardless of wheel size or travel, the Optic employs Norco’s Gravity Tune geometry, were the effective chain stay length, also known as the rear centre measurement, increases by 5mm as you go up through the size range to help maintain the same weight distribution on all four frame sizes. Norco achieves this not by building different rear ends for each size, instead it simply clocks the BB shell forward of the main pivot as the frame sizes increase. It a clever, cost effective solution and we’re somewhat surprised that more brands haven’t followed Norco’s lead.
With 110mm out back, the Norco only has a finger width less travel than the Specialized, but it feels like a much short travel bike. That’s because the rear end isn’t anything like as sensitive, so the initial hit on every small bump makes the back end feel much harsher. Given how effective Norco’s ART suspension design is on its longer travel bikes we suspect that the lacklustre suspension response is the result of a firmer shock tune to make the bike pedal better. Two tell tail signs that lead us to that conclusion are that that the maximum compression setting the Fox Float shock was close to full lock out firm and we had to run the rebound adjustment wide open, and even then the return speed of the shock wasn’t that fast.
We had no such issues with the 120mm travel Fox 34 Performance fork. If anything it felt too springy compared to the rear end and even when we crank on more rebound damping it still didn’t feel as composed as the RockShox units on the Trek and Specialized, especially on the bigger hits.
We’re big fans of the new Schwalbe Nobby Nic, but the basic Performance series version fitted to the front end of the Norco didn’t offer much in the way or traction or damping. When it came to removing the stock tyres to fit our Maxxis control tyres, we discovered that the Schwalbe tyres were also the steel bead variety. They were also an absolute nightmare to remove. Interestingly, they proved to be lighter than the Kevlar bead tyres fitted to the Specialized and Trek, so you can just imagine how thin casing is. The takeaway point is: don’t venture out into the wild without tyre levers and plenty of spare inner tubes.
Norco Optic A91. performance
Even with the hard compound tyres and tight suspension response the Norco never felt particularly fast or efficient. Swapping back and forth between the Optic and the Trek Fuel, it was evident that rider fatigue wasn’t playing a part either; the Trek is almost 1kg heavier but it proved much lighter work even on the climbs.
Lethargy was evident in other ways too. Preload the suspension to pop over some roots and the Norco didn’t spring into action with anything like the same vigour as the Specialized Camber or Trek.
Which is a real shame, as the sizing, geometry and specification on the Optic are all first rate.
Norco has the sizing of the Optic dialled in, the weight distribution sorted and the specification is on point, but something is missing and the Optic A9.1 feels like it’s not firing on all cylinders. A lighter shock tune and better tyres are probably all that’s needed to resuscitate the Norco’s from its slumber and with the recent price drop, these changes wouldn’t leave you out of pocket. It is a bit of a gamble though, as they may not be the kiss of life that we anticipated, and why take the risk when the Trek Fuel EX is such a safe bet?