Norco Range 9.2
It has long been assumed that 29ers are best suited to short travel applications. When you don’t have a lot of travel on your hands, the big wheels definitely help with tracking over the bumps; they improve stability and settle the ride a little. However as the travel increases, it becomes harder to shoehorn the big wheels in. This has typically led to compromised geometry, with long chainstays being virtually unavoidable on big travel 29ers.
With the long stays adding to the wheelbase, manufacturers often compensate by increasing the head angle to speed up the steering response. This combination of a long rear end and a steeper than usual head angle often leads to awkward handling with a more forward weight bias than you’d typically want on a good gravity oriented MTB.
Well that’s how it played out until recently anyway. Now we’re seeing a resurgence in the long travel 29er division and these newer bikes don’t fit the mould that I’ve just outlined. With the recently 148mm boost drivetrain standard buying manufacturers some valuable space around the bottom bracket, these new-breed 29ers have chainstays that are as short as their smaller wheeled counterparts. The head angles are also suitably slack and on paper they present an interesting prospect.
While the Range 9 slots right into this new-school 29er division, Norco isn’t shoving big wheels down our throats. Like the Optic and Sight, the Range is offered in both 27.5 and 29-inch formats. The travel differs between the two; with 27.5 Range offering 170/160mm (front/rear) while the 29er has 160/150mm of travel. Look closely at the geometry and you’ll notice the big and smaller wheeled versions are remarkably close. For example, the chainstay length is identical. They’re also very short at 430mm on a medium and 435mm on a large for example (Norco varies the chainstay length to suit the frame size). The overall wheelbase lengths are within a few millimetres of each other too. The 29er does have a steeper head angle, but there’s only half a degree in it; the 27.5 bike runs at 65-degrees while the 29er is 65.5—in either case it’s a super-slack head angle.
With similar wheelbase lengths but a slight variation in the head angle, you wind up with a 7-9mm difference in the reach between the two platforms. Norco compensates for this by tweaking the stem lengths; 40mm is standard on the 29ers while the 27.5 bikes come with a 50mm stem. The end result is a cockpit length that’s pretty much identical regardless of the wheel size option. It’s also worth noting that the stem length tweak isn’t just to compensate for the differing reach. The shorter stem on the 29er aims to speed the steering response, which is typically a little slower on a bigger wheeled bike.
All these aspects highlight the minute level of detail that Norco considers when it comes to frame geometry. Such a fastidious approach means they aren’t about to compromise the fit and feel of a bike in some ‘big wheels or bust’ quest. As a result, the 29er is only offered in medium, large and extra-large sizes; Norco simply couldn’t achieve the desired chainstay length and stack height to make a small fame with the bigger wheels. Look to the 27.5 Range and you’ll find the full spread of sizes; from extra-small through to extra-large.
Speaking of sizing, new generation Range has grown longer than its predecessor. The reach on a medium 27.5 Range has gone from 412mm up to 430mm while a large jumps from 432mm up to 452mm. With this roomy front centre, they’re clearly built with a short stem/wide handlebar setup in mind.
We agree with Norco on the importance of frame geometry – it really can make or break a bike – but there’s a whole lot more going with the new generation Range. Like the older version, the main frame and seat stays are carbon with an alloy chainstay. Norco says that robustness and durability was a priority on this platform. Despite this, our medium 29er frame tipped the scales at 3,282g including the RockShox Super Deluxe piggyback shock—that’s around 150g heavier than the previous generation 27.5 bike but it’s pretty respectable for a long travel 29er frame.
In Australia the Range will be offered in both wheel sizes but only the second tier model; the Range C9.2 (29er) and 7.2 (27.5). It features a SRAM Eagle X01 drivetrain with a down-spec to X1 alloy crank and SRAM Guide RS four-pot brakes. The RockShox Lyric RC is an appropriate choice up front while the remaining parts come from Race Face; 800mm wide Atlas bars, Aeffect stem, 150mm Turbine dropper and tubeless ready Race Face AR 30 rims. It was nice to see a good length dropper and rims that offer a 30mm internal width as standard spec on the 9.2. It even comes with a One Up chain guide fitted, so it really is a case of doing a quick tubeless conversion and hitting the trails. Globally you’ll find a model above and below this one but it’s only the parts spec that differs; all Range models use the same carbon frame and all are equal in terms of build quality.
It may feature a carbon frame that’s respectably light for the travel but the combination of 2,200g wheels, a burly Lyric fork and robust kilo-plus Maxxis Minion tyres all adds up. As a result, the stock Range 9.2 comes in at 14.39kg without pedals—this is weighty for a $7,299 carbon MTB. In the end you’ve got to accept a bit of added heft if you want an appropriately spec’d big travel 29er—generally you’ll be looking at an extra half a kilo when compared to the 27.5 equivalent.
Gizmos & Trunnions
Aside from the added wheel size options, the Range also inherits an assortment of design updates. It features the ‘Gizmo’ cable ports that were first introduced on the Optic. These provide large entry and exit holes for easy servicing whilst also locking down on the cables to prevent rattles. Norco has adopted the new metric shock standard that was recently introduced by RockShox. It features a trunnion mount and large cartridge bearings at the top pivot for reduced stiction when compared with the bushings of old. According to RockShox, the metric sizing also allows them to produce a better shock with increased bushing overlap, a better negative spring design for improved all-round performance.
As with the previous Range, you’ll find a good sized nylon bash guard under the down tube and there’s room for a bottle within the main triangle (a rarity on modern enduro bikes). The size of said bottle will vary however. A medium 27.5 Range will accept a full size bottle but our medium 29er was very tight for space. With the right sort of side-mount cage, we were able to fit a mid-size 700ml bottle (but only just). Obviously the large 29er will have more room to play with. There’s one other area where a lack of clearance may present issues; our medium Range only had room for a 32 tooth chainring—anything bigger would hit the chainstay. For me, a 32 ring is sufficient on a 29er but some riders will want to run a bigger chainring. Thanks to the size proportional chainstays, clearance is better on the bigger frames with a large able to take a 34T and the extra-large clearing a 36T chainring.
Norco has also massaged the suspension kinematics on the new Range. The older version was quite unique; it was a Horst Link design that employed a distinctly rearward axle path. This made it great at tackling square edge bumps but also produced large amounts of chain growth, pedal kickback and excessive amounts of anti-squat. That meant you could feel the chain tugging back at the pedals when the suspension was compressed—something that proved annoying for some riders, especially when climbing on technical trails. It also created a ‘lumpy’ feel if you didn’t pedal evenly and consistently on smoother surfaces.
With this new take on their ‘ART’ suspension, there’s still enough anti-squat to stop the suspension feeling inefficient and soggy under power, but not so much that the bike suffers with the quirks of the older design. The bike also climbs well thanks to the steep 74.5-degree seat angle. This produces a relatively forward body position when seated and keeps the front wheel grounded despite the super-slack head angle. While the weight doesn’t do it any favours when going uphill, it’s still a capable climber in technical terrain; so long as you’re not in a hurry. Even on tight uphill switchbacks it’ll still get the job done—sure it takes some poise and concentration but so does any 27.5 enduro bike with a similar wheelbase length.
Like the older version, the new Range retains a consistently progressive leverage ratio. That means the bike is supple in the early stroke before steadily becoming more supportive and offering good bottom out resistance for hard-hitting riders. If you don’t ride hard, you mightn’t use all of the travel, but the Range has one more trick up its sleeve. The new Super Deluxe shock runs a really neat token system that allows you to fine-tune the air volume. Pop the air can off and there’s a series of red spacers inside; removing a few will make the ride more linear and better suited to more tentative riders.
Big Wheels & Big Travel?
As outlined earlier, I’d normally expect to see a few oddities in the geometry of a 160/150mm travel 29er, but on paper there doesn’t appear to be any compromise with the Range 9.2. With short stays, a slack head angle and a not-too-limo-like wheelbase length, the bike should offer the same weight distribution between the wheels as any good 27.5 enduro bike. Of course the big question is; does this theory play out on the trail?
At first the bike didn’t present any surprises. It feels stable and solid in a straight line whilst the back end can still be flicked through the turns at will. The frame is exceptionally stiff and the Race Face wheels are solid too; it goes right where it’s pointed. As someone who’s more comfortable with riding 27.5 bikes in this longer travel division, I felt right at home on the Range 9.2. It feels ‘natural’ and there’s none of the quirkiness that you expect from an older generation 29er.
So it felt good to begin with but the ride didn’t strike me as being exceptionally fast. If anything the overall bike weight seemed to take a little away from the ride, making me feel less inclined to get out of the saddle and hammer out of the turns. It wasn’t until I started doing back-to-back testing with some 27.5 wheeled bikes that I started to get the full picture.
One of these bikes had 170mm at both ends with an even slacker head angle and 15mm more wheelbase length—all traits that should help in rough and steep terrain. Despite these factors, the Range 29er was noticeably smoother and more settled when it came to ploughing through rock gardens and other chopped up terrain. In isolation the Range doesn’t feel exceptional, but when you go back and repeat the same section of trail on a smaller wheeled bike, you begin to realise how smooth and controlled this 29er is.
I also repeated the same back-to-back testing with a 27.5 Range and found similar results; despite the reduced travel, the bigger wheels produced a ride that was smoother and less chaotic. The odd thing was, I wasn’t any faster on the 29er. We’re always told that 29ers are ‘faster’ but my descent times all within a second of each other, I just didn’t feel like I was on the edge of control when riding the bigger wheeled Range.
It was also clear that the various wheel options present different ride qualities—something that means wheel size will always be a matter of personal preference. While there isn’t a huge weight disparity, the smaller wheels do feel more ‘spritely’, offering a real sense of reward when you sprint out of the corners. It takes a little less effort to initiate a turn on the 27.5 bike and seems to possess greater agility. In this regard the 27.5 variant of the Range has a more engaging ride and offers more feedback—something that’s probably desirable in a bike park setting with smooth trails and bigger jumps. With a little less travel, the 29er will also run out of legs sooner if you’re partial to big drops and the odd ‘huck to flat’. However if your trails are rough and technical – the sort where you need all the ground-control you can muster – I’d be placing my bets squarely in the 29er camp.
Norco mightn’t be the first brand to create a fully enduro-capable 29er but they sure have made a good one. It’s a bike that offers the big-wheel benefits without resorting an excessively long wheelbase or a quirky slack seat angle. It clears full 2.6-inch wide rubber too, so it’s capable of handling any of the big volume gravity-oriented 29er tyres that are now becoming more common. It’s taken the best part of a decade to happen, but I now feel that 29ers have really come of age!
A 29er that feels like a long travel trail/enduro bike should.
Progressive and active suspension that still pedals well.
Solid and flex free, even when pushed hard.
Total bike weight is getting up there.
Doesn’t offer the snappy feel of a 27.5 bike under acceleration.
Won’t fit smaller riders.