2020 Norco Optic 29 Review
Norco released the outgoing Optic model when the industry still wasn’t sure about wheel size. Leap forward three years and most manufacturers seem to have settled on a wheel specific to a model line and that’s exactly what’s happened here with the Optic becoming a dedicated 29er. The geometry has matured and the travel has grown but it remains an aggressive XC/trail bike, emphasis on aggressive.
The original Optic wasn’t a bike regularly seen on the trails around Norco’s home region in B.C., at least not in its intended guise. When Optics were spotted they were often over-forked, had bigger rubber and larger brakes added. Riders in the Sea to Sky region were keen to use the Optic for more than it was originally intended.
Norco noticed this too and the new bike is heavily influenced by these observations; customer feedback was woven into engineering developments and refinements. Riders who enjoy pushing the limits of a short travel bike, or who race a bit of XC but aren’t interested in a traditional XC bike, are going to be interested in the Optic. Conversely, someone who races XC but wants a capable trail bike that isn’t a large departure from their regular bike could be right at home here.
- Dedicated 29er
- Travel: 125mm R, 140mm Front
- Custom RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate DH on all models
- Carbon front, alloy rear triangle
- Size-specific rear centre lengths
- 180mm F/R rotors with four-piston brakes
- X-Fusion Manic Dropper on all models (other than the AXS model)
- Schwalbe Magic Mary front and Hans Dampf rear w/ Addix Soft compound
- Weight: 13.6kg (29.98lbs) XL w/o pedals
- Frame only option available (2,899 CAD)
- MSRP: C3 – 4,499 CAD / 3,599 USD // C2 – 5,499 CAD / 4,499 USD (pictured) // C1 – 7,999 CAD / 6,599 USD // C AXS – 11,999 CAD / 7,499 USD
A Closer Look
Norco still wanted the Optic to be a short travel whippet, but other intentions are revealed by the parts spec. A custom-built RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate DH rear shock is juxtaposed against the svelte lines of the bike and is the first giveaway. Closer inspection reveals cartridge bearings at the upper hardware of the shock, showing a desire to increase rear wheel traction by minimizing friction. There’s no climb switch and the shock is spec’d on every model in the range – you won’t find a cheaper shock on the lower-priced models, which I reckon is great.
The Super Deluxe Ultimate DH delivers 125mm of rear-wheel travel, an increase of 15mm from the outgoing 29er model and 5mm more than the old 27.5 model. The suspension kinematics were updated and the new Optic features a higher starting leverage rate, again seeking a lighter initial touch for more traction, and a more progressive curve to provide the support needed to meet the bike’s intentions. Anti-squat was increased at the start but a more aggressive drop-off was applied to balance it out through the travel. Norco says they wanted the great pedalling characteristics of a short travel trail bike and with no lockout, obviously felt it necessary to bump up the anti-squat. Having this drop off quickly minimizes pedal feedback and chain interference with the suspension deeper in the stroke, allowing for a consistent feel through the bottom end.
Front travel was bumped up to 140mm from the previous generation’s 120mm 29er and 130mm 27.5. Norco often noticed customers doing this to the previous Optic so working it into the design made sense. If the people want tartar sauce, give them tartar sauce… The top-of-the-line Optic C AXS and C1 come equipped with the Pike Ultimate, the C2 steps down to the Pike Select+ – losing external HSC adjustability – and the C3 has the Pike Select, losing the latest Charger damper tech. Like the rear shock, wheels across the range feature the Stans Flow S1 alloy rim, with the exception being the C AXS model; that will have a fancy set of Crankbrothers Synthesis E11 wheels. The Flow S1 rims spin on DT Swiss 350 hubs on both the C1 and C2 models and step down to a Novatec hub for the C3 models.
Braking power is supplied by four-piston stoppers on all models with 180mm rotors front and rear. That kind of stopping power on a short travel trail bike clearly stamps Norco’s intentions and how they want to see the bike ridden. From the Code RSC’s on the C AXS to Shimano BR-M420 brakes on the entry-level model, no matter the budget, you’ll have ample brake power. And in the event that the message isn’t yet clear, each bike comes with long travel dropper posts – my XL was 170mm.
The full lineup includes four options and both the C2 and C3 models are available in two colours. There’s a fifth option of a frame only, for anyone interested in building a custom weapon. Pricing through the range begins with the C AXS model for a whopping 11,999 CAD but with the full wireless drivetrain and dropper from SRAM and carbon wheels. Below that is the C1 model for 7,999 CAD with Shimano XTR replacing the wireless SRAM drivetrain and Flow rims in place of carbon. The C2 (photographed) fetches 5,499 CAD and runs on GX while the entry-level bike will retail for 4,499 CAD with an NX drivetrain.
The new Optic also includes ISCG-05 mounts for riders who prefer the added security of a chainguide, internal cable routing, an alloy rear triangle and a mounting location beneath the top tube for either another bottle cage or accessories that utilize the bottle cage interface. As with most bikes, the downtube has a rubber moulded protector down by the bottom bracket and there’s more rubber moulded protection on the chain and seat stays. I’d prefer something more robust on the chainstay and would add rubber mastic tape closer to the bottom bracket for more protection and improved chain slap damping.
Touchpoints are taken care of with a 40mm stem and 780mm bars and they’re of the Norco variety. A set of Ergon GA2 grips are slotted onto the bars and while I’ve enjoyed them in the past they, along with the bar and stem, were removed in favour of my own. The seat on my C2 was a Fizik Taiga and I didn’t find it too bad.
Norco admits that when the previous Optic was released in 2016, the geometry was relatively conservative, even for that time. They’ve flipped that on the head with the 2020 Optic and the new model is properly aggressive. Confidence is a term I regularly heard from Norco and despite the short travel and quick handling, they still believed it could be bold. To achieve this, the wheelbase of the new bike has been extended with a longer front centre. Utilizing a slacker head angle, Norco says the rider can relax more behind the front axle where the previous model positioned this closer to rider mass. Extending the reach of each size model also works in favour of a safer feeling at the control points.
Interestingly, the rear centre on the new Optic remains identical to the previous; starting at 425mm on the size small and growing 5mm for each frame size, finishing at 440mm for the XL. Norco is one of the only major manufacturers offering size-specific rear centre lengths and they’ve been doing it for years. The effective seat tube angle has been bumped forward to 76 degrees across all models. It positions riders heaps better for attacking climbs and along with the extended reach, keeps the cockpit fit in check.
An attribute in the new Optic’s geometry that took some to get used to was the BB drop. The previous Optic 29er was already aggressive at 35mm but when considering the 110mm of travel available and shorter front centre, it made sense. This updated bike now features a 38mm BB drop and when coming from my G16, the change was drastic. More on that in the riding impressions below but I will mention that the aggressive drop plants you well into the bike.
In addition to spec'ing the new Optic models with longer dropper posts, the new bike has seen the seat tube chopped between 15 and 40mm to make way for longer droppers and increased clearance. It’s a move I’m happy to see, with the previous XL’s seat tube extending a whopping 530mm. Not everyone will be happy with the change but in my time on shorter seat tubes and longer droppers with steeper angles, I’m yet to come across any issues with the mounting interface or excessive wear to the dropper thanks to its long leverage on the bushings. It also gives riders the opportunity to size up for more cockpit length without having to worry about seat height.
On the Trail
I’ve been riding the new Optic since February, where it was my only bike in Australia. Many of the trails around Newcastle, where I spent the majority of time on the bike, are high speed, open, and loose. It was dry while I was there making conditions dusty, just how I like it. And while the trails aren’t as feature-rich as coastal B.C. there are plenty of square-edged rocks and chatter to test a bike well.
I also took the Optic on a trip to Thredbo, in Australia’s Snowy Mountains where speeds are higher still and stability is a must. It’s also the location of the Cannonball trail, which has hosted Aussie National Downhill races for as long as I can remember. Although it’s changed from the last time I was there, it hasn’t gotten any easier and it's punishing on equipment. Of course, the bike also spent time on the trails around Squamish to round out the review process.
Initially, I set the bike up to the recommended settings of 5–10psi over bodyweight (in lbs) and the fork to 82psi. I found the rear to feel quite firm despite achieving ~30% sag but I left it for the first ride. I increased the pressure in the fork 3psi to better balance the bike to my liking. I headed for the trails which were about 15 minutes ride from where I was staying, perfect for a warmup and to get better acquainted with the Optic. Pedalling the bike I quickly noticed how positively it responded to power. Stomping on the pedals produces quick spurts of momentum and it rolled effortlessly despite the meaty 2.5 WT Maxxis DHF and DHR II tires. Acceleration was brilliant.
Seated the bike was a touch longer than my bike and I had to slam the seat as far forward on its rails as possible. Jumping on the Optic after updating my bike, the difference was much smaller, but it was still a hair longer. In a standing position the bike felt shorter, which prevented me from shortening the stem. The seated length wasn’t enough to make technical climbing a problem after a short stint to get acquainted with the bike but on the descents, I wanted the space.
Coming from my G16, the relationship between my hands and feet felt different, making the Optic feel bigger than it was on paper, at least until I had to work it in rough sections of trail. I found running the bars 5mm lower than I preferred helped with this, but there was a downside. Aside from trying to get a familiar feel across the spread of the bike, I didn’t need the other effects of a lower bar. More weight over the front wheel, coupled with the deep BB drop made holding the front end off the ground require more effort and was another point I needed to adjust for.
After the first ride I changed rear shock pressure. It felt firm on the trail and I found the rear wheel couldn't get out of the way quickly enough. I also found grip challenging In chattery sections. During the initial ride I mucked about with the LSC and rebound of the rear shock, hoping to squeeze more give out of the wheel. I hoped that by backing off the rebound I would release pressure on the valves, allowing it to move more but also increase grip. It helped to an extent but it wasn't enough so it was time to change the air pressure.
I worked with this on the trails for a few rides, going too far one way to see how far it could be taken from the recommended settings, then back again. Eventually, I settled on 5psi below the recommended, which was the equivalent to my bodyweight in pounds. This allowed the rear wheel to move more freely but in the search for more I went lower. At a couple of psi below bodyweight, the bike felt much more comfortable but lacked control and would get caught deep in the stroke, struggling to retain shape across consecutive hits. In coastal B.C. this was also the only time that I was troubled by pedal clearance. At or just below the recommended settings, and with the 170mm cranks, I never found clearance to be an issue.
Once I found my happy place on the bike I began pushing what I could get away with on it. Norco was clear that this is more than your typical trail bike and looking down at the spec. regularly reminded me of this. At Thredbo Bike Park, the bike was subjected to speeds that I’m not accustomed to living in Squamish. Hauling down ski runs, I at times found myself comfortable without any brake cover as the Optic’s stable geometry cheekily spurred me on. It whipped through berms and as long as I remained light, rode through the many rock gardens admirably. Entering a blown-out section of holes or rocks would quickly remind me that I was, however, on a short travel bike.
And that’s where I find the limits of the Optic lay. It’s remarkable how stable it is on the trail but that stability quickly gets tossed about when the heavily tuned rear suspension is asked to play. It’s a firm feeling ride and with that comes some abuse in rough terrain. It beat down on me in Thredbo and riding it at home in Squamish required more precision than I've become used to on 150–160 travel bikes. I’ve always enjoyed riding short-travel bikes for this reason; they keep you sharp and it's a blast getting loose. But with geometry this capable, the rear suspension of the Optic can limit what’s possible. Repeatedly, I found myself wishing it had the impressive suspension of the 2019 Giant Trance 29er. The Trance is more comfortable to ride and when pushed, it responds with excitement. That bike’s grip left me with the shit-eating grin of all shit-eating grins.
In Australia, I spent time on an almost C1 and lately I’ve been on the C2. Thanks to how Norco is spec’ing the new Optic, there wasn’t a lot of change between the two.
Stans Flow S1 Rims w/ DT 350 Hubs
I’m still a fan of alloy wheels and for years the Stans’ Flow rim has been a solid choice for riders looking for an affordable option. The S1 features a profile similar to the EX3 but is constructed with a cheaper, 6061 alloy. On the trail, they feel great and while I haven’t spent as much time on them (the Optic I had earlier had carbon wheels) they look like they’ll hold up to some abuse.
All models of the 2020 Optic come fitted with a Schwalbe Magic Mary front and Hans Dampf V2 rear in the Addix Soft compound. Riding these lately I’ve found them not as forgiving as the Maxxis DHF, DHRII or Assegai in the 2.5 WT. The volume is similar but the compound and carcass of the Maxxis – even the Max Terra – seems more comfortable in our currently cold and wet conditions. The MM is a commendable tread in softer conditions and in the softer compound I've really enjoyed it. I wasn’t a fan of the previous Hans, and though an improvement I don’t feel much different about the new one.
Tires are, like the touchpoints of the bike, quite personal though, so take this with a grain of salt. Regardless, the Optic models are equipped with decent, burly treads to match the rest of the components on the bike.
Shimano BR-MT520 Brakes
Four-piston stoppers on a 125mm travel bike! SRAM’s Code brake line has gotten increasingly popular on non-downhill specific bikes and now we’re seeing similarly powerful brakes on even smaller rigs. The top tier C AXS comes with Code RSCs and the new XTR four-piston brakes are fitted on the C1. The C2 I tested comes with a similar brake though not of the XTR/XT/SLX family. Did it make a difference? Not at all, these were still consistent and provided me heaps of stopping power on the trail.
The only problem I had was with the incompatibility between the SRAM shifter and the brakes. I couldn’t position the gear shifter in a good spot for mindless shifts and opted to deal with this rather than shifting the brakes somewhere less favourable to compensate. If Norco had used the old slide-on shifter mount it wouldn’t have been a problem but my guess is these can only be found in old parts bins today.
RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate DH and Pike Fork
Seeing the Super Deluxe Ultimate DH on a 125mm trail bike made me smile. The piggyback is longer than the shock stroke for crying out loud! It screams badass and on the trail, it proved consistent, reliable and did a great job despite the amount of abuse thrown its way. I’d be interested to try it with a lighter tune as I found the heavy compression made the rear of the bike quite harsh but it was consistent through the stroke and I never felt any alarming clunks or knocks at full travel.
The new Pikes feel great too and never left me feeling short-changed against the capabilities of the bike’s geometry. They remain very easy to set up and I used more of the compression range than I have in the past. My Pike Ultimate in Australia did get stuck down and I needed to work some magic to get full extension again. Once I had it serviced there were no issues and the Select+ on the C2 has been flawless.
SRAM GX Drivetrain w/ X0 Carbon Cranks
By now no-one needs to hear how much value for money the SRAM GX Eagle line is. It’s good. However, I did find it strange that Norco included a carbon crank rather than the stock GX alloy crank. I’d prefer to see that cost be thrown at a higher spec. fork or, despite no trouble with the brakes spec’ed, XT brakes. When I asked Norco why use a more expensive carbon crank, they responded that "Carbon cranks are just an added value to the overall build”. I reckon there’s more value in having greater adjustability over the fork than a carbon crank, but maybe that’s just me…
X-Fusion Manic Dropper
I’ve been really impressed with this dropper post. It feels solid, has 170mm of travel and is smooth to actuate. I’m not a fan of the lever but that’s an easy fix, plus it isn’t so bad that it’s a must fix in most situations. Our own Andrew Major reviewed the Manic dropper back in 2017 and found it to be a solid aftermarket option too.
The Optic begs to be ridden faster, harder, and with more party. The fit is great and it feels super responsive smacking through corners and compressions. I had no second thoughts when dropping into steep terrain with gaps and drops, stuff like Treasure Trail or slabs with big compressions like Chossy Slabs in Squamish. It’s deceptively capable for a short travel trail bike.
And while its geometry keeps the pilot comfortable in tricky terrain, its sporty demeanour on trails with berms and flow makes it one heck of a versatile bike. It’s not the most comfortable ride on aggressive terrain thanks to the firm rear suspension and while that makes it an efficient climber and helps maintain momentum on smoother trails, it can work against it in rough terrain. If you’re prepared to ride on your toes and want to feel heaps more of the trail, it’s a great option but there are more comfortable riding 125mm rear suspension bikes that offer great grip. There aren't many offering as stable geometry as the Optic though.
More information on the 2020 Norco Optic is available on their website.