The Norco Optic had a re-launch for 2020 with a new frame boasting a ‘short travel ripper’ personality, thanks to its 125mm out back, 140mm up front travel, and geometry that wouldn’t be amiss on an enduro bike.
On the face of it, it’s a bike that should impress in our annual Trail Bike of the Year test; with its great shape and some decent bits of kit plugged into the frame, it showed promise, especially because this type of aggressive short-travel bike suits me down to the ground.
Bike of the Year 2020
The Norco Optic C3 is part of our annual Bike of the Year test.
Head to our Bike of the Year hub for the full list of winners, categories and shortlisted bikes, as well as the latest reviews – or read our behind-the-scenes feature on how we tested Bike of the Year 2020.
Norco Optic C3 frame and suspension details
The Norco Optic C3 has 125mm of rear wheel travel and a 140mm fork.
Norco supplies its carbon Optic C3 29er with a carbon front triangle and an aluminium rear, which is common across the range, and comes in four sizes.
The 125mm of suspension at the back runs via a four-bar linkage, with the rocker link compressing the vertically-mounted shock.
Norco use carbon for the front triangle, with alloy at the rear.
The frames are nicely finished, with down tube and chainstay protection, as well as ISCG05 mounts for a chainguide, should you wish to run one.
Cables run internally and mid-way along the down tube there’s a zip-tie port, keeping the cables held snugly inside for a quiet ride.
Within the front triangle there are two sets of bottle cage mounts, including one underneath the top tube.
Norco Optic C3 geometry
Low standover, and a second set of bottle mounts under the top tube.
Norco has got sizing spot on with the Optic – the bike is long, with a reach of 480mm in a Large and each size has correspondingly longer/shorter chainstays – adding or removing 5mm per size from the 435mm of the Large.
This is something very few brands offer on their bikes, but makes a lot of sense. As front end lengths grow with a size, the rear tends to become proportionally shorter, changing the fore/aft balance of a bike between sizes.
A 45mm stem helps keep handling snappy.
While 5mm might not fully recompense this between sizes, it is a definite step in the right direction, especially given the costs involved for a relatively small brand.
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The head angle is slack at 65 degrees and the seat angle steep at 76, while the bottom bracket sits low between the axles at 337mm.
The 445mm seat tube is nice and short, meaning riders who want an even longer bike can likely size-up a frame, while it’ll also be possible to get the saddle nice and low for regular riders with a 170mm dropper.
An X-Fusion dropper lever sits nicely on the bars.
- Size tested: Large
- Seat angle: 76 degrees
- Head angle: 65 degrees
- Chainstay: 43.5cm / 17.13in
- Seat tube length: 44.5cm / 17.52in
- Top tube (effective): 63.7cm / 25.08in
- Head tube length: 12cm / 4.72in
- Bottom bracket height: 33.7cm / 13.27in
- Wheelbase: 1,235mm / 48.62in
- Standover: 69.8cm / 27.48in
- Stack: 62.9cm / 24.72in
- Reach: 48cm / 18.9in
Norco Optic C3 specifications
A top-flight shock, but accessing the compression dial was tricky.
While the carbon front triangle will eat up some of the sub-£3,000 cost, the specification on the C3 is a mixed bag.
Suspension is provided by RockShox, with a top-end Super Deluxe Ultimate rear shock and a 140mm Pike Select fork. The Select fork has a Charger RC damper, which isn’t quite as fancy as the Charger 2.1 found on some bikes at this price point (such as on a Select+ level fork).
SRAM NX Eagle crank.
I found the SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain didn’t mate well on the bars with the Shimano M420 brake levers, meaning I struggled to get my levers and shifters set up where I wanted them.
I did like the wheelset, Stans Flow S1 rims holding sticky Schwalbe Magic Mary / Hans Dampf rubber, both 2.35in wide.
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Norco Optic C3 ride impressions
Our 2020 Bike of the Year testing predominantly took place in the South West of the UK during winter. This included loops round trail centres, natural muddy and rooty tracks dug in to Welsh hillsides, as well as laps at BikePark Wales.
A number of bikes were taken to Spain for the final set of tests, where we rode on dry, rocky flow trails, super-technical rock gardens and some loamy enduro tracks. Thanks to BlackTown Trails for their help with finding these test tracks!
The Shimano brake lever and SRAM NX shifter didn’t mate well on the bars.
I had two niggles setting up the Optic C3. First was getting the shifter and brake levers where I wanted them – cross-branding on the cockpit rarely makes life easier, but the NX shifter and M420 levers seemed particularly unhappy bedfellows.
The biggest problem, though, was accessing the compression dial on the shock. It’s mounted on the piggyback section of the shock and lies between where the dropper and derailleur cables exit the down tube and enter their relevant tubes in the rear half of the bike.
The Pike Select fork has a stout chassis.
Because they’re held firmly in place, and have only a short exterior run, they aren’t overly flexible to move out of the way. That said, as I’ll talk about shortly, once I’d got the shock into the fully-open setting, I wasn’t going to mess with it again.
Norco Optic C3 climbing performance
The Optic climbs well – the damped back-end gives plenty of pedalling stability, with the shock being fairly inactive through pedalling forces, meaning I wasn’t being held back on short efforts or long drags.
This is handy because the compression switch on the shock is located low in the bike, and is fairly hard to flick while pedalling.
SRAM’s NX drivetrain isn’t as smooth as their pricier offerings.
The geometry works well on climbs too. The seat angle is steep enough to pitch your weight forward over the bottom bracket, and with the chainstays not being particularly short, weight is nice and central between the axles.
With a long front-end there’s plenty of opportunity to keep your chest open, and to move over and around the bike should a bit of body weight tweaking be required to maintain control and traction.
The low-slung geometry makes for great cornering.
When I dropped shock pressure to improve rear end comfort, I lost some of that climbing stability, though, leaving the bike wallowing a touch more than I’d like. As such, there’s a bit of a balancing act to be found between pedalling prowess and descending comfort.
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Norco Optic C3 descending performance
On flatter, flowy, more mellow terrain the Optic pedals well, allowing you to put the power down and push on a bit. The Hans Dampf, while in its soft compound, doesn’t feel too draggy, and so there’s definitely a bit of zip about the bike. This certainly encourages you to approach more technical or steeper and rougher sections of trail faster than you otherwise might.
It’s also very good at dealing with turns that come in quick succession. The 45mm stem and stiff bars help give the Optic snappy, accurate handling, and the bottom bracket is low enough to give good long-corner stability and handling – as such, it absolutely rips through manicured berms.
Over rocks, the harsh feeling back end was most noticeable.
My main issue came from the rear suspension that didn’t have the smooth, ground-hugging composure that I expected. Okay, it ‘only’ has 125mm of travel, so I didn’t expect it to feel bottomless, but of all the bikes in our 2020 Trail Bike of the Year test, this was the one that left me feeling short-changed.
The shock feels over-damped, I was running it fully-open and found it feeling harsh and lacking suppleness on small to medium sized high-frequency hits. At speed and on hard-packed trails this left the Optic skipping about over the top of the trail, compromising grip and control when I wanted it most – when I’d picked up speed and needed to either scrub it or approach a corner with confidence.
Schwalbe’s Hans Dampf is fast rolling for a more aggressive tyre.
It also meant that I had to work harder and pick better lines to carry speed over choppy trails. Counter intuitively, it was when I could get it skipping over the top of the trails that the bike felt at its best, by then the harshness from the back-end could be glossed over and I was relying on the Magic Mary up front for the bulk of my control.
Further adding to this was the Pike Select feeling under-gunned in the damping game when compared to fancier dampers in our comparative tests. It’s not quite as soft and supple, meaning more chatter was transferred through the fork and stiff cockpit into my hands.
Norco have got the Optic’s sizing spot-on.
Norco Optic C3 bottom line
It sounds like I’ve given the Optic C3 a kicking here, but that’s only because I had really high expectations from this Canadian trail ripper.
On paper, it has everything I’m looking for: great geometry, RockShox suspension, sticky tyres on wide rims. However, the whole package was let down largely by an over-damped shock and a fork that continued that slightly harsh theme.
A drop in shock damping, and perhaps an upgraded fork damper (a couple of hundred pounds), would change this from an also-ran to a real contender. This is a bike with a huge amount of potential and one I reckon would be super with a bit of tweaking.