By Adam Newman
It can take years to design and develop a bike from scratch, as Norco has done with the Sight and Range 650b platforms, so neither design is a quick adaptation of an existing bike to catch the 650b wave expected to crest in 2013. Despite retaining Norco’s tried and true suspension design and other technologies, not a single frame tube is carried over from the 26-inch bike.
Both of the 650b models use Norco’s A.R.T. (Advanced Ride Technology) suspension platform, designed to deliver a stable pedaling platform, a rearward axle path on square-edged bumps, and improved performance under braking. The Holloform linkarm is a sturdy, one-piece unit that keeps the rear end as stiff as possible while keeping any twisting forces away from the shock. The bearings in the suspension system are held in place with a tapered collet that expands to hold the bearings by exerting equal pressure from the inside out, eliminating the single hot-spot that a slide-fit axle would subject them to as they pivot.
The two new bikes are also sized according to Norco’s Gravity Tune geometry system that uses identical swing arms on all frame sizes, but by repositioning the bottom bracket on the main triangle of each size, effectively lengthens the chainstays a small amount as frame sizes grow. This keeps a balanced weight distribution between the two wheels on all frame sizes. Norco also worked hard to achieve an incredibly low standover height, which I — and my potential offspring — appreciated on the more technical trails we rode.
The 26-inch Sight trail bike has been a big success for Norco, but the addition of 650b wheels makes it even more capable. Built to climb as well as it descends, it’s a perfect platform for everyday, aggressive trail riders. The 67.5-degree headtube angle on all sizes is paired with 431mm chainstays on the size Large I rode.
Thanks to the increased traction of the slightly larger wheels, the Sight B-1 I rode climbed incredibly well, and the ART suspension offered up only a tiny bit of pedal bob. It was stable enough that the adjustability of the Fox Float CTD (Climb Trail Descend) shock was rendered mostly moot, as I left it open the whole ride. The 140mm RockShox Revelation 650b-specific fork with a 15mm thru-axle it was plenty stiff. It’s no XC race bike, but it can scoot when pushed hard. Norco lists the weight as 28.5 lbs.
What has become almost indispensable on trail bikes these days is a dropper seatpost, and the top-level Sight B-1 includes a RockShox Reverb and a clever seatpost clamp with an integrated cable guide. Rounding out the spec are a Shimano XT 2×10 drivetrain and brakes and Sun Charger wheels. Behind the chainrings are removable ISCG05 tabs and Bionicon chainguide, so you can build up the drivetrain to perfectly suit your local terrain.
I did wash out the front end a few times, possibly because the Schwalbe Hans Damf front tire wasn’t right for the unusually dry, hardpacked trails on Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia, and I was on a size large, rather than the XL I should have chosen.
The Sight B-1 I rode retails for $4,985. There are two other build specs available at $3,665 and $2,480 as well as a frameset option. If 650b just isn’t your thing, there are still three Sight 26-inch bikes to choose from.
Norco went big with the Range for 2013, both with the travel (160mm front and rear) and with the commitment to 650b. There will be no 26-inch model next year. Despite the more gravity-oriented components and more travel, the weight penalty is minimal over the Sight and Norco lists it right at 30 lbs.
With the headtube slacked out to 66.5-degrees, and the Fox 34 TALAS 650b-specific fork, there isn’t much this bike can’t handle. Once again, despite being equipped with a CTD shock and fork, I left the fork and shock in their "open" position for the whole ride and didn’t get any excessive pedal bob headed up the service road at Fromme Mountain on the North Shore.
On the way back down, the ride was stable and confidence inspiring, with more than enough travel to handle anything my cajones could. On berms and some incredibly tight switchbacks, I could pivot the bike around in ways I could never think of with a 29er, and I never thought once about having to compensate for the larger-than-26-inch wheels.
The build kit on the Range B-1 I rode also includes a SRAM X9 2×10 drivetrain with RaceFace cranks and Avid XO Trail 4-piston brakes. It will retail for $5,350 and there are two other build options at $3,800 and $2,670, and a frameset option.
So, about those wheels…
These two bi was my first ride on 650b wheels, and my initial, generalized impression is that they ride like a 29er in front and a 26 out back. The front wheel gets up and over logs and small obstacles like a 29er, but the bike turns and accelerates like a 26-inch bike. Having bounced back and forth between 29er hardtails and a 26-inch all-mountain bike all summer, it is amazing how quickly I adapted to the “tweener” size. It simply disappears beneath you, allowing you to focus on the trail, not your bike.
Once moving, neither bike felt big or awkward, as some longer-travel 29ers can. Since the actual 650b wheel size is closer to 26" than 29", it might feel more at home to riders who are used to the former. Except for the slightly better roll-over ability, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference if riding blindfolded (which I tried once, and don’t recommend, by the way).
Compared to the Sight, the Range seemed far more capable and forgiving. With the very small weight penalty over the Sight, the slacker angles and increased travel allowed me to try more difficult lines without trepidation.
The Sight, on the other hand, would be worth a look if you’ve been riding short-travel 29ers and wanted to be able to push a little harder and gain a little more maneuverability without sacrificing much rollover ability.
It seems to me, and many others that I’ve talked to, that the 130mm-160mm suspension range is the perfect application for 650b wheels. They really do have tangible benefits over the other two sizes with limited drawbacks as more and more 650b-specific wheels, tires, and components become available.
My takeaway from my first rides on these wheels is that they “ride like a bike.” A great bike will ride well, regardless of the wheel size, and a wheel size does not a great bike make.