Norco Range 29 Review
Until last year I hadn’t given much thought to Norcos. They seemed like solid bikes but nothing special. That changed when they released the Norco Range 29. From the first time I looked at the specs for this bike, I knew it was exactly what I wanted: long travel but not too long, slack and low but not extreme, short chainstays, water bottle cage in the frame... all the things I like. In some ways there’s still nothing special about Range 29: the suspension is the same old four bar design, the carbon is on the heavy side, it still uses aluminum chainstays, the shock is off-the-shelf, no carbon wheels, and not particularly light. Yet this bike is so in tune with the needs of real riders who ride harder and more aggressively than the average Jerry, it somehow transcends the sum of its parts and becomes a genuinely special bike.
The original Hightower was my first full suspension 29er, and it is a phenomenal bike, but as a bike that’s squarely in the “trail bike” category, it has its limitations. My next bike was the Enduro 29, and it too is very good but something of a Franken-bike: crazy long travel, but with more trail bike geometry (the 2018 version quickly changed this), so it could be really good in some situations but awkward in others. It also had some really annoying design shortcomings like a downtube protector that didn’t protect (I cracked the downtube under the protector), unreliable rear shock (blown), only 2 bolts for the ISCG mount (no fitting a bash guard which may have saved the downtube), creaky headset, mystery rattles, no chain protection on the seat stay (made noise and paint got destroyed), inability to run a dropper longer than 125mm, a derailleur hanger that bent just by looking at it, and rear suspension that never felt great.
So while my previous two bikes were near misses (although, after writing the above paragraph, I'm realizing the Enduro may have been a bigger miss), the Range 29 gets pretty close to a bullseye. Its designers knew exactly what kind of bike it was supposed to be: something that’s capable of all-day rides but built for all out speed and composure on the gnarliest of backcountry trails, or pretty much your typical B.C. ride which also happens to be where Norco is from.
Design & Build Quality
The Range is a no-frills machine that prioritizes durability and usability over lightweight and gimmicks. The carbon is an extra heavy layup (flicking it makes a thud sound that makes you wonder if the tubes are actually hollow), the massive downtube protector isn’t svelt, but it’s made of thick rubbery plastic and has a big cavity inside to absorb impacts. It’s got a three bolt ISCG mount for an honest to god bash guard and not just a chainguide (I’m really only mentioning this for you, Specialized, as almost all Enduro bikes have real ISCG mounts, duh). It doesn’t have internal tubes for cables, but something better: big openings to fish stuff through, which is easier because those internal tubes are great until you have to fish a cable out of one section of tubing and into another. The plastic plates that cover the openings secure the cables nice and neat with no rattling. It also has a press-in headset that I prefer over the increasingly popular integrated kind, which, in my experience, always creak and come loose. The rubber protection for the stays is excellent and keeps things quiet, and while the pivot hardware looks like it may have come from a bin at the Home Depot, it's all very high quality, stays tight, and there's no friction from the pivot bearings. Finally, the seat tube has a bend in it, but unlike the Enduro, the rocker pivot does't go right through the middle of it (duh), so I'm able (just barely) to run a 160mm dropper that wouldn't fit on the Enduro, which is pretty rad for shorter people.
My only criticisms of the bike are the paint, which is gorgeous but prone to chipping (how about a raw carbon finish Norco?), the pressfit BB instead of threaded (although, to be fair, I’ve had zero problems with it so far), and the fact that on my medium (with large frames it’s a non-issue), the water bottle in the frame is more of a theoretical possibility (I got it to work with a modified cage, tapered bottle, and flipping the climb switch on the shock). But again, to be fair, Norco obviously prioritized kinematics first and the water bottle placement last, which makes sense, and I applaud Norco for at least giving us the possibility of mounting the bottle albeit with a bit of a puzzle to solve. It's also worth noting that the medium frame is limited to a 32 tooth chainring, which is fine unless your name is Richie Rude (size large can run a 34).
But How Does it Ride?
FYI my bike is custom. I bought it as a frame and built it using a mix of parts I had and some new stuff, so this is more a review of the frame and geometry characteristics than any particular build spec. The biggest difference might be the MRP Ribbon mounted up front which is a great performing fork and well matched to the Fox Factory Float X2 in the rear. At $2900 USD with a Fox Float X2, the frame is a great value too.
For me the Range comes damn near to the sweet spot of a bike that can handle high speed and gnarly, technical DH without completely giving up maneuverability and flickability in slower speed situations. Sure, bikes like the Pole Evolink and the Transition Sentinel take long and slack 29er to the next level, but the Range will probably be more fun on slow stuff and a more natural climber without giving up much on the descents. Nevertheless, my first impression coming off of my Enduro 29 was how low and slack the bike feels. The Enduro was a little steeper and taller which was actually nice in certain situations, but when it comes to the steepest of steeps, the Range gives much more confidence to ride through sketchy situations. Cornering benefits from the low center of gravity too, which provides a planted feel with loads of grip. I have an MRP bash guard on mine, which I think is a good idea given how low the BB is, and I’ve definitely bashed it. The four bar suspension design may be old, but paired with the Fox Float X2 it’s more sensitive than both the Specialized and VPP designs I’ve ridden before, probably thanks to a low but progressive leverage ratio, and it actually feels like it has more travel than the Enduro even though it’s down 15mm. Climbing is a little bouncier, but that’s probably more to do with the light, coil-like damping tune I prefer on the Float X2, since the anti-squat values are all around 100%.
The bike is surprisingly flickable. And that’s largely thanks to tight chainstays. At about 5’9” I went with the medium (Norco puts me between the medium and large), but it’s still the longest wheelbase bike I’ve owned. I could fit the large, too, and I would gain some stability at the expense of maneuverability. If the Range wasn’t my only bike and used mainly for park and shuttle riding, I would probably have gone with the large, but since I use it for everything including long XC days, the medium works for me, and I just prefer the flickability of a smaller bike. With each larger size, however, the chainstay length increases, which is great because it keeps the bike feeling balanced. Plus some people just like longer stays, and if I was one of those people I could have opted for the large.
Don’t expect the Norco to be an eager climber. It’s on the heavy side and some enduro bikes do feel better on the gas, but those bikes usually have tricky suspension that use weird leverage curves to achieve that feel, and they often suffer on the extreme, bottom out end of the travel that the true enduro-er will be hitting a lot. The Range uses a tried-and-true, simple progressive leverage curve, which naturally feels plush at the start of travel but resists bottoming out. It’s easier to tune for and more compatible with off the shelf air and coil shocks. I’ve also learned not to trust light bikes. They break too easy and you’re less inclined to really flog them, and flogging is just more fun. All that said, the Range, like most 29ers, is surprisingly good at monster trucking over technical climbs. It takes some learning and technique, but you can occasionally embarrass skinsuit wearing hardtail riders on the ups with this bike.
The end result is that I’m Strava certified faster on the Range 29 than any bike I’ve had before, and I feel noticeably more confident (and crash less) on sketchy stuff. On top of that, the bike is extremely quiet, and I’ve had no creaks or rattles, and nothing has come loose. The Float X2 is an impressive shock, and I love the tuning flexibility it gives you. Don’t try to add more volume spacers, though, because Norco has already maxed them out. Also be prepared to tinker with it, as you will have to spend some time getting it dialed.
The Norco Range 29 is the best bike I’ve ridden. It’s perfectly suited to the kind of riding and trails I’m into, and it’s a bike that can take a beating and lacks any kind of design or usability foibles that cause frustrations. If I was to buy another bike today it would be another Range. And it’s not just me, three of my buddies who are all into riding the same kind of trails, also bought Range 29s (proof great minds think alike). Norco may fly under the radar, but more people should take a look at this brand, and if they’re #soenduro, the Range 29.