Early season Lost Lake trails - Whistler
A funny thing happened when I started riding the Norco Range Killer B. I forgot to analyze how the bike rode. I forgot to fixate on the differences between the 650b wheel size and how they rolled compared to other wheel sizes. I forgot to micro-parse obscure geometry details. Instead I enjoyed the unseasonable dryness of our local trails and just rode and rode and rode.
Eventually overcoming the feeling of contentment and satisfaction that comes with riding a bicycle that feels just right, I remembered that I had a job to do and started taking notes. Norco is a pretty conservative company; by that I mean they're not known for bold moves. The Range was their bread and butter high-end pedally "North Shore" dual suspension bike; a 6-and-6 Horst-link machine that was well-received. But it's not a bike that one would accuse of standing out from the crowd. Norco turned that reputation on its head last year when they announced that the Range (and Sight) line of bikes would go to the all-so-fashionable 650b wheel standard.
In the interests of breaking a trend of reviewing super-expensive specs, Norco made the relatively affordable $2,800 Range Three available for review. Having had a lot of time on Norco bike, I was prepared to enjoy it on the downhill. I wasn't prepared to also love it on the uphill -- but love it I did.
Bottom line, this bike was one of the best value-for-money bikes I have ever had the pleasure of riding. But beware. Demand for the Norco Range has been so great that the entire lineup of bikes is almost completely sold out. First world problems for Norco but a real world problem for consumers. Onward to the review.
I'm 160 lbs, 5'11" and have had over 15 years experience riding bikes in North Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, the Chilcotins and many other areas in B.C. and Alberta. I've also made many bike trips to Switzerland, Tyrol, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and the Yukon, so I've had some experience biking in a variety of terrain. My bias is towards pedaling up, and unlike many people who learned to ride bikes on North Shore trails, I actually enjoy riding (and sometimes bushwhacking) uphill.
My personal bikes are a Santa Cruz Tallboy, Pivot Mach 5, and a Specialized Demo 7. I've had very little experience in the 650b category and, in that tire size have ridden the Rocky Mountain Altitude, the Norco Range and the Norco Sight but only for short rides. This is a test bike that will be given back to Norco at the end of the test period. I am not sponsored by Norco and have no commercial association with Norco.
The Range is a basic four-bar aluminum frame. Noteworthy styling details include curved down tubes, generous top tube clearance, a beefy one-piece welded linkage joining a rocker arm that's positioned low on the bike. Pivots are on sealed ball bearings, with other nice frame touches including machined clevis-type pivots at seat stays, expanding collets against the inner race of bearings (theoretically putting even load on bearings thus increasing longevity), and a Syntace thru-axle 142mm rear-end with breakaway bolt plus a spare breakaway bolt integrated on the frame.
Range non-drive side rocker link; the sleeper part that you can't buy from Norco --- seat collar with integrated dropper post cable routing; pivots on bearings with expanding collets applying even pressure against the bearings (a hidden but elegant touch)
Syntace X12 thru axle with breakaway bolt
The Range uses Norco's A.R.T. suspension which moves the location of the pivot, tilting the rear link lower and slightly forward from more traditional Horst Link designs. Developed in 2011, A.R.T is a variation of the Horst Link that had four main goals: increase pedaling efficiency (i.e. less wallowing and bob while pedaling); improve leverage curve (i.e.. more progressive feel to the suspension); increase square edge bump compliance (i.e. smoother ride when encountering obstacles); and improve braking performance (i.e. suspension performs even while under braking).
Spec on this bike is workmanlike and what you'd expect at this price point (house brand parts, wide handlebars, short stem, no dropper post).
The X-fusion Vengeance R fork and X-Fusion 02 RL shock provides suspension for the Range Three. It's a curious thing for X-Fusion suspension to be spec'ed on the lowest end Range, as I view the offerings to be comparable if not better in performance to the under-damped Fox 2013 CTD that are spec'ed on the Range One and Two.
Like all other X-Fusion forks I've tried, the Vengeance R in particular is incredibly smooth and sensitive yet beautifully damped. Being their lowest end only-for-OE offering (and not even listed on their website) the Vengeance R has no ability to adjust low or high speed compression; all you can do is set the air spring, adjust fork oil level in the lowers and set rebound.
If you're like me and fortunate enough to be in the sweet spot for the stock settings (rider-weight of 140-170lbs ) you will find yourself to be in suspension heaven. If you're outside this range you'll need to change the stock spring or purchase an upgrade to get the X-Fusion HLR damper which gives you high and low speed compression settings.
X-fusion suspension is the heart of the Norco Range Killer B Three. Schwalbe Hans Dampfs are good tires.
Note that the Vengeance R can be modified to increase travel to 170mm (credit to DirtyMartini).
The hard-to-find Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires in 2.35 casing are OE with the Range. My last Schwalbe offerings were the traitorous Nobby Nics which would flat at every opportunity. The Hans Dampf has restored my faith in German rubber. Predictable and with pretty decent braking power. Their only downside is that they are wearing reasonably quickly. But such is the tradeoff of sticky "Trailstar" compounds.
At 1040g per tire they're not for weight-weenies but the Range is not a lightweight bike. (More about the Schwalbes in my colleague Brian Mullin's review here, and from Francis's review here.)
The SRAM X-5group is noteworthy in its un-noteworthiness providing crisp predictable shifts even when I get sloppy. I used a similar lower end SRAM group on a Norco Shinobi that I pounded on last year and it was flawless. It's assumed that higher-end groups tend to prove their worth in the long term. I've only had 16 rides on the X5 group this year, so I can't comment on whether or not it'll work just as well a 100 rides later but so far so good. I'll check in on this group as the season wears on.
Unfortunately the Avid brakes are noteworthy in their lamentable mediocrity. Inconsistency and loud shrieking are the hallmarks throughout the line of every Avid Elixir offering and the Elixir 1 is no exception. Only after multiple bleeds following the SRAM video tips are these brakes passable. These brakes provide substandard modulation and provide excitement and adventure whenever they are used. What kind of lever throw will one get? Its simply amazing that Avid can't get these brakes right after so many years.
Detailed Component Specs:
From the numbers the Norco Range Killer B Three is downhill biased with a slack head angle, low BB (13.5 inches), middle of the pack wheelbase and chain stay length yet with a climbing friendly seat tube angle. It's offered in five sizes from XS to XL. See the Norco website for geometry for the other models. Some comparables to other bikes that I picked purely at random are offered below for amusement.
The Range Killer B Three is a schizophrenic climber; at the same time in one package being both an excellent yet lethargic uphiller. Norco says that the new pivot locations in the A.R.T. system allow for additional chain growth and a more rearward axle path. When climbing that translates into a rear end that digs in on these techy climbs especially when you are spinning high revs uphill.
Norco says that A.R.T. should also result in less pedal bob when climbing but I certainly didn't feel that to be the case as the rear shock actuates in climbs particularly in granny gear. The good news is that capable technical climbers can use that bob to time pedal strokes to scramble up astoundingly technical terrain. I liken this to a truck-like low 4x4 feeling where you can use the Range's characteristic of transferring an enormous amount of traction to the rear wheel to crawl uphill.
The Range doesn't do as well in middle ring or gradual climbs being ponderous at best. The weight of the bike and particularly of the wheelset doesn't lend itself to acceleration or to snappy quickness in climbs. To alleviate this demerit, I used the rear shock's lockout feature to plod up fire roads.
Downhill is in the Range's DNA and this is where the bike shines. I setup the Range with 30 percent sag which proved to be optimal for descending. Insanely confident is the way to describe how you can descend with this bike. It's a combination of fantastic suspension (yes I'm an X-Fusion fork fan boy), smart aggressive tire choices, and descending geometry.
Slow technical steeps in particular is where the bike shines. Under those conditions the Range is super stable and one can descend with perfect control with the only minor downside being the on-off nature of the Avid brakes. I managed to chuck the bike off small and medium drops to transitions and to flat. The Range absorbed it all comfortably.
Under high-speed conditions with multiple hits I had some minor quibbles. The A.R.T. suspension works particularly well in absorbing bumps/hits even while braking. The burly frame is stiff, tracking well without the vague feeling one sometimes gets when there is excessive flex. The limit seems to be the X-Fusion rear shock which has a tendency to pack up and spike under multiple hard hits and of course, the Avid brakes which can be an adventure in inconsistency.
Norco Range Killer B Three Overall Impressions
This bike is a killer value for the money. It's such a downhill-biased bike that it could be considered to be overkill for people who don't have plenty of technical downhill trails. If you've got a good selection of aggressively gravity-oriented technical terrain, or if you're never in a particular rush to get uphill but want to max out charging downhills, then the Range is your bike.
Many will ask about the 650b wheels. I've had about 15 rides on the Range to date and can't say that I've made up my mind about the wheels yet. What's really stuck in my mind is the completeness of the bike as a package; its that superbly well thought out.
In a follow-up article, I'm planning to compare the 650b version to a 26-inch wheeled Range. This won't be scientific at all (I'd better leave that to the Germans) but it will satisfy my own nagging curiosity. Look for that in a month or so. In the meantime, if you want to geek out on wheel sizes look at Francis's video here:
- Price price price. The bike is $2899. The Range frame alone is $2720. Did I mention price?
- The X-Fusion suspension is beyond fantastic. The front fork was particularly stiff and I applaud Norco for spec'ing the 20mm Xfusion.
- Fun, playful yet stable-at-speed downhill performer.
- A.R.T. makes a tremendous difference for slow grinding uphills
- Will keep the fashionistas happy by having cutting edge 650b technology
- Not going to win any uphill sprinting time-trials (weight in particular in the sluggishness of the wheels)
- Lots of room for upgrades (remember this is a value-priced bike)
- Will identify the owner as a fashionistas by having cutting edge 650b technology
Here's our initial thoughts on the Sight and Range during the product launch late last season. https://reviews.mtbr.com/2013-norco-range-and-sight-650b-bikes