By Karen Brooks, photos by Justin Steiner
When I first spotted this bike at Interbike 2009, the Norco Vixa was one of two women’s-specific freeride bikes at the show, the other from fellow Pacific Northwesterners, Kona. What is it about that area that produces badass chicks? A subject for another time. Anyway, since Kona has discontinued theirs, Norco is currently the only company to offer a women’s freeride bike. Although I thought the concept was way cool, I didn’t think I was the right tester for it, not having the skills to pay the bills as far as freeriding goes. However, as it’s true that a poor craftsman blames his tools, it’s also true that good tools can elevate the work of the craftsman (or woman). Such has been the case with testing the Vixa—it has encouraged me to improve my skills and given me confidence to push the envelope.
Nuts and Bolts
At first glance, the Vixa looks like a women’s bike, with its teal-accented white paint (thankfully Norco left out the flowers), but there are plenty of details to make this distinction functional as well as aesthetic. The 6061 double-butted aluminum frame is strikingly swept to fit 160mm of travel into a compact package. Most of the geometry measurements are shorter than the measurements for Norco’s nearest equivalent, the all-mountain Range: My size medium tester has a 570mm top tube, 744mm standover, 429mm chainstays, and a 1137mm wheelbase. The tubeset is also lighter than what Norco uses for their unisex freeride offerings, a welcome accommodation. Head and seat tube angles are fairly standard for this sort of bike at 66º and 73º respectively. The frame also sports ISCG 05 chainguide mounts and cable guides for a dropper seatpost. Overall, it could be better described as a light-duty freeride or heavy-duty all-mountain bike, strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
Norco’s A.R.T. rear suspension is a licensed version of Specialized’s patented FSR configuration, with the position of the pivots tweaked to point the axle path rearward in the first part of the travel, and thus glean some extra square-bump absorption and pedaling efficiency, along with more active braking. The forged rocker link is welded into one solid piece to bolster lateral stiffness; this link also has scalloped finger recesses thoughtfully added to the underside edge to make carrying easier.
Both front and rear squishing is provided by RockShox. The rear is a large-volume Monarch R, tuned for lighter-weight riders, with an externally adjustable rebound for the beginning of the stroke. The fork is a standard Lyrik Solo Air R with external rebound adjustment, set in a tapered head tube.
Naturally, this bike gets thru-axles front and rear: RockShox’s Maxle Lite for the front, and the Syntace X-12 axle and derailleur hanger combo system for the rear. In the 142mm-wide X-12 system, a bolt pinches the drive side of the rear dropout and passes through to a burly derailleur hanger; this bolt is designed to break loose, rather than the hanger, and Norco provides a handy spare bolt threaded into the frame.
Other parts of note include a Shimano SLX drivetrain featuring their latest 10-speed cassette with an 11-36t range, and Shimano M-575 hydraulic discs with 180mm rotors. To continue the women’s theme, Norco spec’d their own brand of aluminum riser bar in a not-too-wide 700mm width (680mm on the XS and S size bikes), with small-diameter lock-on grips, and a WTB Deva Comp saddle.
Free to Ride
I was a little nervous when I received the Vixa. My previous experiences with long-travel bikes taught me they were burly beasts in need of a firm hand to keep them in line. Some felt like they demanded more speed than I was comfortable allowing. But right off the bat, the Vixa’s compact size was reassuring. The reasonable handlebar width alone went a long way toward making this a bike I could control easily. A shorter top tube is expected for a women’s bike, but the shorter chainstays and overall wheelbase made the bike seem friendlier. The Vixa was equally easy to steer in techy stuff, whip around smooth but short turns, or lean over aggressively at speed. I didn’t have to get all aggro to make the bike go where I wanted. The shorter wheelbase might possibly become a hindrance at DH-racing speeds, but for my current skill level, it was a big bonus.
A basic non-piggyback air shock on the rear might seem like chump change to some freeriders, but since most chicks weigh significantly less than dudes, it gives plenty of cush while saving some weight. I kept the rear shock at the low end of the recommended 25-30% sag. The front end kept pace just fine with the rear, and felt nicely balanced, although it took an air pressure setting almost too low to measure to achieve the recommended 25% sag. The suspension feel is on the squishy side; unlike some five-inch-plus bikes that don’t reveal all their cards right away, the Vixa’s long travel is immediately apparent.
Norco achieved close to bottomless-ness with this set-up, and their claim of square-edged bump slaying also seemed to hold up. Although the bike handled responsively, the cushiony suspension feel led me to aim less and fire more on technical descents, opening up new possibilities. It was certainly hella fun to find a rutted, rocky ghost of a fire road and just point down and let ‘er rip, not bothering to pick a line at all or even deliberately seeking out the biggest chunks, letting the shocks just soak it all in. Unweighting for drops meant scooping into the travel, rather than actually getting the wheels off the ground, with plenty of smooth travel for soft landings. I had to learn to go at kickers with some speed to actually get some air.
Perhaps incongruously, I was impressed with the way this bike went uphill. The dreaded bob was almost nonexistent, at least in the rear wheel and while seated. I ended up barely using the granny ring—the 36-tooth big rear cog helped in that respect. Sure, the Vixa’s heft didn’t lend itself to scampering up slopes, but that didn’t prevent me from trying. The bike’s climb-ability allowed me to ride up some of my favorite cross-country trails without excessive suffering, and enjoy them a lot more on the way down. The whole package felt plenty stiff laterally—no doubt aided by the thru-axles. Granted, I’m not one to push the boundaries of a bike’s lateral flex, but I certainly pushed more boundaries with the Vixa than with other bikes I’ve tested.
The one quibble I had was with reinstalling the rear wheel. Syntace claims that their X-12 thru-axle makes it very easy to drop the wheel in place and screw in the axle, but I found I had to lift one side slightly to get the axle to thread. Norco says this isn’t a sign of poor finish or anything to be concerned about, but it would have been nice not to fiddle with it as much.
Ultimately, the Vixa’s strength is in its versatility. If you’re a girl who enjoys focusing on the down more than the up on trail rides, and who wants to dabble in lift-assisted fun, you could skip the trail or all-mountain style bike for your next upgrade and go straight to the Vixa—you’ll enjoy the benefits of 160mm of travel, but not feel hampered on casual trail rides. Although I’ve been an XC weight-weenie type for some years, I have always kept an eye out for that epiphany bike, that one big-hit ride that would instantly make me see the light and want to join the dark side of speed and gravity. The Vixa comes closest to fulfilling that wish.
- Country of origin: Taiwan
- Price: $2,860
- Weight: 34.5lbs.
- Sizes available: XS, S, M (tested), L
- Contact: www.norco.com
- Age: 37
- Height: 5’8"
- Weight: 125lbs.
- Inseam: 33"
Freeride superstar Darcy Turenne spoke with us about her impact on the development of the Vixa. Read our interview here.
Tester Karen Brooks put the Vixa through its paces at the Massanutten YEE-HA! downhill race. You can read her race report here.