SIZE ISN'T EVERYTHING
The Norco Optic 9.2 is proving that it really is a trail bike for all conditions.
I’M NEARLY SIX months into riding the Optic, and I can say I’m still getting a little frisson of joy pretty much every time I climb aboard. It’s just a damn pleasure to ride the thing on both the ups and the downs. But it has set me wondering exactly how this has been achieved, that a bike that climbs so well, a bike which can be stiffened up with a flick of switch to near hardtail/ rigid capabilities can also be a bike which can descend so smoothly. There are, of course, multiple factors: head tube angles, stem length, wheelbase and so on, but what genuinely intrigues me the most has been the Optic’s suspension, so I contacted via email its designer Owen Pemberton to chat about it.
“In the past,” says Pemberton, “it was often bigger travel bikes that would have a progressive action with shorter travel bikes having more of a flatter curve. [But] I think with the Optic we’ve shown that it’s almost more important on shorter travel bikes. With less travel to play with it is important to get the utmost performance out of every millimeter.”
I had never really thought about before, but Pemberton is 100% right. You tend to think it’s bikes with loads of travel where suspension is more important; in fact, it’s shorter travel bikes that truly have to make the most of what they’ve got. Unfortunately, that hasn’t necessarily played out in bike design; until recently, for many short travel bikes it almost seemed quality suspension has been an afterthought. That’s changing, however, with the current crop of more aggressive short travel bikes like the Optic.
That not to say on big drops and over rougher terrain I’ve ever mistaken the Optic’s suspension for a that of a plush 160mm travel enduro bike; it is, nonetheless, a bike that really likes to be ridden hard. Up front, the Fox 32 fork would—with 120mm of travel—usually come stock with a firmer, more XC-style compression tune; instead the Optic is specced with softer compression. And on the rear, the entire bike, says Pemberton, “was designed to be used with, and take advantage of, a smaller volume Fox Evol air shock.” He tweaked the positioning of the Optic’s pivot points so that— geek alert!— its leverage rate (how far its wheel travels compared to shock travel) complemented the Fox Evol’s spring curve (i.e. its resistance to compression; the curve refers to how that resistance changes relative to travel). The result, Pemberton says, “[is the] very progressive feel; bottomless and with that illusion of more travel than 110mm. On the descents, it takes a very large, high speed impact to reach bottom out, which will happen on occasion, but for the most part the travel holds the rider just above bottom.”
Progressive suspension, nor the matching of leverage and spring rates, is hardly the domain of the Optic alone; it does, however, achieve them particularly well. And as for being held “just above bottom”, I can definitely attest to that; on just a few occasions have I managed to take a hit big enough to push the O-ring travel indicator off the shock. It just seems to hover right at its limit, to the millimeter, without ever falling off. Not even the twometre drop near my place that I’ve hit on the Norco on several occasions has seen me bottom out. But, crucially, that’s despite the shock still being supple over smaller bumps; on rides without big hits, I still seem to be able to use most of the available travel. Pemberton credits this in part to the custom light compression tune given to the Evol shock, making it sensitive in the beginning of its stroke.
The net result: an all-round ripper, a bike that just loves to go fast. Not only has the Optic given me Strava PBs on the climbs and flats, I’ve hit a few on descents as well. And it’s still been perfect for my long-distance bikepacking forays. Who could ask for more?
IT’S JUST A DAMN PLEASURE TO RIDE THE THING ON BOTH THE UPS AND THE DOWNS.
The Optic’s 110mm of travel feels like a lot more thanks to the progressive, bottomless feel of the suspension.