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Norco Optic C1 Review: The Un-High Pivot

For our second-ever high-pivot bike review, Travis tests the third-generation Norco Optic. Turns out short travel and short chainstays pair pretty well with high pivots and high speed, both downhill and uphill.

There are only a handful of manufacturers combining short travel and high pivots. And by “short” I mean 130mm or less. Forbidden Bikes was one of the first. I just reviewed their second-generation Druid. There are also small-batch makers like Kavenz and experiments like the Woods El Camino. But the Norco Optic Gen 3 is probably the most direct competitor to the Druid. It has slightly less front and rear travel, slightly less aggressive geometry, and slightly lighter component spec. But both are outside the mainstream enduro aisle, which is where you’ll find most high-pivot models that aren’t dedicated downhill bikes. And there are good reasons for that. To unpack them, I’ll CTRL+V my basic explainer on high-pivot rear suspension below. Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you already know the deal.

High-Pivot Primer

On most traditional full-suspension bikes, the rear wheel moves in a predominantly vertical arch when it hits a bump. But the force applied by that bump is usually rearward, relative to the rider. So, the primary benefit of a rearward axle path is that it will allow the wheel to get out of the way more easily when traveling forward over bumpy terrain, even when you’re forcefully pedaling. That gets you better sensitivity, better traction, and better braking. On top of that, it has the effect of lengthening the wheelbase as the suspension compresses instead of shortening it. This makes for better steering stability and more optimal weight distribution in the moments when you need them most.

Unfortunately, a rearward axle path doesn’t play well with a traditional drivetrain. Without modification, the chain would fight the suspension and vice-versa, leading to an unsettling inchworm effect. That’s why all modern high-pivot bikes will route the chain over an idler pulley up near that high pivot point. This eliminates the inchworm effect, but there are still trade-offs.

A high-pivot bike’s idler pulley adds weight, and can create some extra drag and some extra noise. It’s more noticeable than the drag and noise caused by the pulleys on your derailleur because the idler is up in the load-bearing portion of the chain. This is no big deal on a big-travel bike, when riders are expected to use a chairlift or a shuttle vehicle or their own feet to get them to the top of the hill. The bar for climbing efficiency is relatively low in those scenarios. But on a shorter-travel trail bike like the Norco Optic, climbing efficiency is paramount. So, let’s get to it.

 

Norco Optic Quick Hits

  • 125 mm rear travel, 140 mm front travel
  • 29″ or 27.5/29″ configurations available, can be reconfigured aftermarket
  • “VPS HP” high-pivot Horst-style suspension
  • Complete bikes may be available in either carbon or aluminum, depending on your region
  • Framesets may be available in either carbon or aluminum, depending on your region
  • C1 model (tested) retails for $9,099 USD

Climbing

I’ll go into deeper comparisons to the Forbidden Druid later, but the difference in climbing behavior is so significant that I need to start with a little teaser. The Druid was a real “gets-the-job-done” sort of climber. Its priority is the downhill. That bike was excellent on the chunky widowmaker uphills that I may only clean one out of five attempts, but it wasn’t exactly encouraging on short bursts or long slogs. Although some of that is because of the Druid’s longer wheelbase and heavier components, I’d chalk most of it up to how noticeable its idler drag was. I heard and felt it enough that I opened that review with a whole disclaimer about why it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

It will not be necessary for me to put such a disclaimer in my review of the Norco Optic. The drag and noise are there, but they are less significant than on any other high-pivot bike I’ve ever ridden. And to be completely honest, I have no idea why that would be. The Druid idler sure is advanced. It’s angled to ease the chain onto the chainring while cross-chaining, and its tooth profile reportedly was optimized after seeing how previous idlers wore over time. But the Optic is just noticeably smoother. And that’s not even my favorite part about climbing with the it.

This may stir up controversy, but if you can control for a few variables like terrain, seat tube angle, linkage design, and (most importantly) pedaling technique, a short-travel bike doesn’t necessarily climb better than a long-travel bike. Where a short-travel bike will truly excel is when you’re trying to lay down the power. Even the most graceful circle-spinner on the most perfect suspension design will feel a bike bounce when their output peaks. A short-travel bike just won’t bounce as much. That’s what makes them so rewarding to really mash. And the Norco Optic can mash. Even compared to my identical-travel Canyon Spectral 125, this bike had me pushing harder than I normally would, especially on technical sections. It’s not as quick-footed as an Ibis Ripley or Yeti SB120, but it clearly wants to go.

Of course, this is probably a good place to mention that I was on the very top-end, $9,100 C1 build, with the lightweight XO Transmission groupset and carbon Crank Brothers wheels (though Norco has since gone to a We Are One carbon rim for the C1). This thing weighs 32 pounds flat (size S4 without pedals). Not saying that saving a couple percent of combined bike/body weight makes a real difference on a long, steady climb, but it does make a real difference on a steep, technical one. And the Norco Optic loves steep, technical climbs. Most high-pivot designs are naturally able to remain active under pedaling effort without that effort disappearing into the shock. This is similar to the balance offered by bikes like the Revel Rascal, whose linkage design prevents chain tension from interfering with suspension motion, and vice-versa. But high-pivot bikes also have that high-pivot advantage, where any bit of forward momentum naturally eases the rear suspension into motion when you hit a bump, and those bumps are less likely to result in pedal kickback or hangups.

On the Optic, that meant I could charge through rough climbs while losing as little momentum as possible. That had me more easily cleaning those “one-in-five” sections I mentioned earlier. I also managed to bag a couple one-in-twenty sections. I made it through one little uphill rock garden I don’t think I’ve bothered trying in over a year. It felt great to conquer it again. But for me, those maneuvers aren’t (entirely) about bragging rights. They’re about efficiency. Dismounting and remounting costs energy. And that’s the other thing that stood out to me while riding the Optic. On sustained climbs that were especially chunky, I was noticeably less fatigued. Of course, I’ll thank my S4-sized test bike’s relatively steep 77.25° claimed seat tube angle. To get a bit nerdy about that topic, the Optic’s effective seat angle should remain pretty consistent through various saddle heights because its relatively straight seat tube doesn’t bend as much as on most full-suspension bikes.

All this paired well with the Optic’s get-up-and-go. There was a synergy between the support and suppleness that had me kinda enjoying charging up sections that were normally clumsy chores. The catch is that the benefits faded slightly as speed dropped. I’d still give an edge to the Revel Rascal when picking my way through slow, shelfy minefields. But the Optic is the perfect vehicle if the technical difficulty of your climbs is paired with your masochistic enthusiasm for reaching the top.

Descending

So, I think this is a good place to discuss the way aggressive short-travel bikes are commonly portrayed. That is, with photos and videos that seem to suggest they can be ridden like enduro bikes. Maybe even with the same ease. Although Norco hasn’t pushed it too far with their Optic marketing, bikes like the Transition Spur and YT Izzo have gotten some jaw-dropping shred edits over the years. But unless you’re Hannah Bergemann or Peter Jamison, you’ll find there are limits.

For one thing, the Norco Optic’s relatively minimal weight tethered the experience to the mild-mannered trail category. It’s a huge asset on those challenging climbs, but it has a different effect on challenging descents. Unlike a heavier, softer bike, the Optic reminded me that each of my decisions mattered. I couldn’t just loosen my grip and let it auto-pilot through every boulder-lined alley. And the occasional two-wheel kitty-litter drift was not numbed by an extra three pounds of inertia. Instead, the Optic encouraged me to make good choices, and it would immediately abide.

Of course, this is also a function of the geometry. Norco didn’t go nuts when they transitioned the Optic to high-pivot. It’s got the same 65° head angle as the Gen 2. And they actually shortened the resting chainstay length, though it does end up longer later in the stroke thanks to the rearward axle path. The stack got a little higher and the reach numbers got a little roomier, but stayed pretty proportionate. And anyway, frame size is a choice, not a mandate. That’s largely why Norco opted for the “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” instead of “S, M, L, XL” In fact, at six-foot-two, I opted for an S4 (L) instead of an S5 (XL). Not only because the XL was just outside my threshold, but because I wanted to meet the Optic on its lighthearted, playful level.

So, there’s nothing all that surprising here. A lightweight bike with these numbers is always going to be fun to goof around with. That control I mentioned above wasn’t just there to keep me on my toes. It made it possible to do some of my favorite things on a bike, most of which fall under the broad description of “getting loose.” Like, a lot of my trails have inconvenient but immovable rocks in the middle of outside turns. Go on the left, you’ll end up in the wrong line. Go on the right, you’ll end up off the edge. I love getting my front wheel inside and allowing my rear wheel to skip around the rock to the outside, lining me up for the trail ahead. The motion is something akin to a mini moto whip, but you’re on the ground the whole time. Doing those sorts of moves with the Optic took very little effort, so it was easy to keep them from getting out of hand. And of course there’s popping off every wedge-shaped rock that’s shallower than 50° but steeper than 10°. It seems like it’s right past 130 mm of travel where I need more preload and a longer takeoff, and those types of frivolous jumps just stop being worth it. But the Norco Optic is here for it.

The High Pivot Of It All

This is exactly the sort of low-consequence playfulness that a high-pivot linkage might inhibit. That’s because they’re usually found on long-travel enduro bikes with greater concerns than my humble little trail jibs. The shorter-travel Forbidden Druid shaves off a bit of that enduro-ness, but that bike was still clearly focused on speed and stability. Much of that is thanks to Forbidden’s love of long chainstays. It was hard to swing the Druid’s rear end around a corner, and harder to pick up its front end for a manual. But the Optic’s numbers are more conservative. On all but the smallest-size Optic, the rear-center is between 8 mm and 26 mm mm shorter than that of the Druid. And perhaps more importantly, the Optic rear-center doesn’t lengthen quite as drastically throughout the stroke.

The effects of a high-pivot bike depend largely on how high the pivot actually is. The more it’s raised, the more predominantly rearward the axle path will be, and for a greater percentage of the travel. The Druid’s main pivot is about 30 mm higher than that of the Optic. Its axle moves about 12 mm horizontally rearward for the first 30% of the travel, while on the matched-wheel 29” Optic, the axle moves more like 7 mm. And the Optic’s axle path begins to arch forward sooner than the Druid’s. Normally, I wouldn’t dwell so long on such small distances, but we’re getting to the heart of what makes the Optic so very unique.

While reviewing the Druid, I gushed about how unflapable it was, especially in the flappiest sections of my local descents. I theorized that this was largely thanks to the bike’s geometry because it wasn’t just the suspension’s smoothness. It was the bike’s calmness. For better or worse, there was never any chaos. Though I couldn’t whip the Druid around, it would respond prudently to minor line changes. I think the long-and-lengthening chainstays helped keep my weight centered and my front-wheel traction reliable. And of course, that was against the backdrop of the suspension smoothness. The Optic offers a little less of this effect, but that results in a qualitatively different experience. Not just compared to the Druid, but compared to any other bike I’ve ridden.

First, the high pivot is absolutely doing its thing. Once it was up to speed, I got that beloved “feels-like-it-has-more-travel-than-it-does” sensation. It didn’t just shave the sharp edges off of every bump. It sliced them down to a fraction of their size. My favorite suspension-testing trail has a number of fast rocky straightaways that are exercises in controlled chaos. They bounce you around quite unpredictably, and the only way to survive is to go faster. But on the Optic, I was able to keep the bike on a more predictable path. I could relax a little when I had a good line, and I could slow down quicker when I didn’t.

Initially, I was finding myself hitting the end of the travel sooner than I’d have liked. That’s not to say I was hitting harsh bottom-outs. I just wasn’t getting eased into the last 10% of travel like I wanted to be. My solution, of course, was volume spacers. Out of the box, my build came with the second smallest spacer Fox makes, leaving plenty of room for play. I went up two sizes, and found it stiffened up the late-stroke gently but effectively. Without sacrificing an ounce of the Optic’s phenomenal bump sensitivity, I ended up finding a nearly bottomless feeling that complimented the this bike’s multiple personalities. It didn’t quite earn the bike-review buzzword, “planted,” but it was definitely smooth.

And that smoothness didn’t stand out until I was up to speed. That’s a good thing, because most other high-pivot bikes I’ve ridden absolutely have felt planted, even when I wanted to pull them out of the dirt. Though the Druid could still pop off roots and out of berms when I had some momentum, its suspension behavior inhibited moderate-speed playfulness. And moderate-speed playfulness is why you might want a bike with these travel numbers in the first place. The Optic never complained when I wanted to lift the front end up to get on the optimal side of a rutty climb, or when I wanted to lean back into a quick manual.

The combination of these two traits—smoothness and playfulness—is why the Optic’s unique configuration actually makes perfect sense. That’s not to say it’s for everyone. The high-pivot linkage doesn’t magically imbue it with an enduro bike’s capability. And the moderate travel doesn’t magically make the high pivot’s extra complexity disappear. It’s purpose built for those who plan to put their trail bike in over its head whenever possible, and will sacrifice some simplicity to do so. In that way, I like to think Norco was being refreshingly intentional about the choice to go high-pivot on the Optic. And Norco has long been quite intentional with their design.

Design Details

I already spent too much time talking about the Optic’s chainstay lengths, but they’re actually just one part of Norco’s “Ride Aligned” philosophy. It’s why, among other things, they’re one of the small but growing number of brands who increase effective seat tube angles as frame size increases. Ride Aligned is a whole-body / whole-bike approach to geometry and setup, including a pretty extensive online guide. For my first ride on the Optic, I entered just a few pieces of information and ended up with a granular breakdown of suggested configurations, all the way down to headset spacers. I did end up steadily diverging from some of the Ride Aligned recommendations, but even (or maybe especially) for someone with long-established setup preferences, this was a helpful way to make sure I was meeting the bike on its level, and that any changes were made with a good understanding of the baseline. It’s just a thoughtful way to do things, and the Optic is full of thoughtful things.

For example, the Optic can be built (or bought) in a mixed wheel configuration. But Norco doesn’t just make those accommodations via a flip chip. A unique lower shock mount keeps the geometry consistent, while a unique rocker link keeps the suspension kinematics optimal. The mixed-wheel Optic’s axle path actually remains rearward for more of the travel, making up for the 27.5” wheel’s tendency to hang up more than a 29”. There’s also more subtle touches like an accessory mount, fully guided (though still not fully silent) internal routing, and rear-stay protection that clips and bolts on instead of just sticking on.

The whole thing feels quite “premium.” Like what you’d want from a boutique brand. That’s fitting, given how specialized the Optic is. When bikes are this unique, I can’t help but judge their value on a sliding scale. Meaning, they offer something you won’t find anywhere else. If that “something” is what you’re after, it’s a value-add in itself. This is my way of justifying the fact that, at least in the USA, the Optics start at $7,000. And my test bike, with all the light-weight-ness I found so inspiring, is $9,100.

There are alloy-frame full-builds for sale in other global markets, but Norco didn’t have any info to share about whether they’ll be available south of the border any time soon. For now, if Americans want a complete bike, it’s carbon-only and SRAM-Transmission-only. But Norco does do an alloy frame kit with a baller RockShox Vivid Air shock for $2,100. It’s a rare choice for a carbon-forward brand to offer the alloy frameset. And that tracks, because the Optic is a rare bike.

Norco didn’t go high-pivot to fit in with the crowd. If that’s all they wanted for Gen 3, they could have just added downtube storage and called it a day. Instead, they made some real choices here. Choices that I’d wager very few other brands are going to make. The tradeoffs involved with a high-pivot linkage are simply too in-your-face for most consumers to ignore. But high-pivot tradeoffs hit different. They’re not about making incremental gains at incremental costs. They’re about making your bike behave in a fundamentally new way. And on a light, lively, efficient bike like the Optic, that means potentially delivering on the radness promised in those short-travel shred-edits.

Pros:

  • Quick, efficient, and light under foot
  • Bump-devouring high-pivot magic, especially at speed
  • More nimble than other high-pivot bikes
  • Thoughtful geometry across all frame sizes
  • Smart approach to mixed-wheel compatibility
  • Frameset available in both carbon and alloy
  • Minimal noise or drag from high-pivot idler

Cons:

  • There still is some idler noise and drag
  • Limited availability of alloy versions
  • Not cheap

See more at Norco