Flow was lucky enough to spend some time recently with P.J. Hunton, Norco’s engineering manager, while he was in Australia running dealers through the brand’s 2013 lineup. If you’ve followed Norco’s development over the last four years, you undoubtedly would’ve seen some massive improvements in their bikes, especially their dual suspension models. P.J. is man who’s largely responsible, and he’s also one of the key instigators of Norco’s early adaption of the 650B wheel size. He’s an interesting bloke and his thoughts on where frame design and wheel sizes are heading are intriguing to say the least.
Who is P.J. Hunton?
I’m the engineering manager at Norco Bicycles; I am responsible for overseeing the design and development of all of our frame platforms and overseeing our research and development program. That’s me in a nutshell.
Does P.J. stand for?
P.J. stands for Peter Jon; only my grandmother called me that, or my mum when she was mad at me.
How old are you?
What are your indulgences?
Gravity fed fun, on my bike, snowmobile, snowboard or noboard. Just shredding downhill is what I indulge in.
Worst job you’ve ever had?
I once worked in a grocery store as a checkout clerk. I got fired. I made a sarcastic comment to a consumer, non-sarcastically, and they complained, I was terminated. It was for the good though, and simply one of the many forks in the trail network that took me to where I am now.
What bike do you spend most time on?
My Range Killer B 650B for sure, it makes the most sense for the trails that I ride around my house. No question about it.
What’s the difference between aluminum and aluminium?
Aluminum is stronger, aluminium is just more difficult to say!
We hear you worked on a suspension design thesis when you were younger?
Ha, yea. It was an automatic suspension lockout system that was based on chain tension. The bottom bracket was mounted in an eccentric shell that was spring loaded so when you pedalled above a certain tension threshold, the chain tension overcame the spring, rotating the bottom bracket – kinda like an old GT i-Drive –that rotational movement activated a remote controlled car motor rod, to flip the lever on the shock. Then when you backed off the pedalling the bottom bracket would rotate back and the lever would flip back also.
It was tuned to work in the middle chain ring. In the granny chainring due to the tension it would be locked out, and the big ring it wouldn’t lock out with the lower chain tension.
It worked really well, from a functional perspective of somebody who was just recreational riding, there were very few instances where the bike did the wrong thing. We just couldn’t sell it! It never had a good home, just not good enough bang-for-the-buck for recreational riders. It was a great idea, and it really taught me about bikes, engineering and design. Making me realise that not all great ideas have a business case. We sort of invented something that wasn’t really necessary. And looking back, knowing what I know now, we can achieve all that with suspension kinematics. Much less complicated! Hey, I was only in my early 20s.
Off the back of this thesis though, a phenomenal Canadian engineering company called Multimatic picked me up and I worked for them.
They run an advanced engineering component company, suspension is one of their specialities and bicycle suspension was of interest to them at the time. And just through some contacts through university, they wanted to get involved. It was a pretty wild time, and again another critical part of the trail that got me where I am today.
I was very fortunate, and worked on so many super cool race cars, and to actually see the whole process from concept on paper napkins that then moved into the computers and then, boom, off the prototype shop in the same building. It was very rewarding and educational work.
What makes Norco, Norco?
Ah, tough one. Solid, reliable, good value bikes. Over the last couple of years we’ve stepped that up quite a bit, and we know have a lot of really great technical stories that are associated with our bikes. We’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s going to be a great ride.
Being Canadian and building solid bikes for the people is who Norco really is. ‘Listen, innovate, ride’ may be our brand promise but we are all riders; we want to make bikes better for everybody. We all ride bikes.
Tell us a bit about the difference between the FSR suspension system and Norco’s A.R.T. system?
It’s all about the rearward axle path, where a Specialized is less-rearward than a Norco with A.R.T. We feel it gives you better bump compliance because it allows the rear wheel to move back to help maintain the bike’s momentum, instead of the wheel moving just straight up.
You have more chain growth with A.R.T., and thus more anti squat forces generated. It all helps the bike stay firmer under hard pedalling actions; even under braking it is more active than a typical FSR design. Bicycle suspension is pretty much all about the axle path, that is the key. We feel very strongly that what we have done with A.R.T. suspension really does work, and gives you an advantage on the trail.
How long will Specialized own the FSR patent?
It is expiring very soon, it’s a little bit grey to when exactly, but I’m pretty sure it is March next year. From then I think we will see a lot of our international competitors (who use the FSR system too) selling into the United States. That is where the patent is; internationally it will remain the same. I don’t really see it having a huge impact on what manufacturers are doing with their frames. Those brands that sell a lot of bikes into the States have their own suspension designs, and for a long time now their designs are ingrained in their marketing and development to switch suspension systems is a big deal.
Norco has just started an enduro team. Where does Norco see the future of that genre?
We think enduro racing is going to take off. It’s by far the most popular event at Crankworx; it sells out so fast and has huge participation. It’s growing like gangbusters, with series’ popping up all over the place, it’s so more user friendly than downhill racing! Everyone can do it, where downhill tracks can be super gnarly and intimidating, you can have a beginner class at enduro races, any one can show up and have fun, casually. Plus you don’t have to be crazy fit to do well.
Our enduro pro riders are going to help us design our bikes which is exciting.
The frame colours have been looking pretty wild in the last couple years!
I’m so glad that colours are not my job! It’s so subjective, trends change so quickly and it’s all based on opinions. We want to offer bikes that make everybody happy; you need to mix it up. You’ll never please everyone, just please as much as you can.
We’ve put a lot of effort into graphic design, Jeff Boyes works exclusively on design, and he’s done a phenomenal job, and realistically he has the toughest job in the whole company!
Why did Norco decide to become an early adopter of 650B?
Ha, never heard of it! Haha. It is because you can make better bikes, that’s the quick and real answer to that. We thought, and now we know, that when you design a bicycle specifically for that wheel size, the performance level jumps.
When I ride my old 26” Norco Range and my new 650B Range back to back, it’s quite staggering how much performance I can get out of my new one. It’s not as if the old one was a bad bike either, it has just come a long way.
Was there a lot of internal debate about embracing 650B?
Years ago when the 650B topic came up around the office I just shook my head and said “no”. No we don’t need another wheel size, it’s just going to complicate everything.
But when it really started to happen, and we began to look into it, and what we were going to achieve with that specific wheel size in a full suspension frame, it all of a sudden became very very desirable. We were all over it.
In the product development meetings we have, with a bunch of different people with very different opinions, usually we have a very tough time coming to a consensus on product development decisions. There are often heated debates; often it takes a couple meetings to arrive at a point where everyone is happy. But in this particular meeting, when we knew that the 650B forks were coming, it was a unanimous decision to take a 90 degree turn on product development, and put the brakes on a bunch of projects that we were working on and divert all of our engineering and product development energy into these 650B bikes.
It’s proving to be a great decision, showing we are an early adopter, and making better bikes. People say to us all the time “you just wanna sell more bikes” of course we do! We want to make them better; we know that it makes for a better bike.
What are the challenges of designing 650B bike versus a 29er?
There are more challenges designing a 29er just because of the clearances involved with a bigger wheel when trying to fit it in the same package of a 26” bike. The big wheel starts to get in the way of a lot of things. It starts to hit the seat tube, front derailleur clearance is challenging, the suspension kinematics are more difficult to get right with 29ers because the bottom bracket becomes quite a lot lower than the rear axle. To achieve that rearward axle path we aim for, we need to really exaggerate where the pivots are to get the right path, a big challenge. 29ers are definitely the most challenging wheels to work with.
26” and 650B are probably pretty close to tied; there is not a lot you have to work around with 650B. Clearances are a little tighter but very manageable. You are able to achieve a better rolling bike, with no geometry compromises; it truly is the best of both worlds.
I always try to correct people when they say 650B is just a compromise. That word means there are negative connotations, I say, “ride the bike, and then tell me if there is a compromise”.
When are we going to see 650B in downhill racing?
It depends how much you’ll believe the rumours! We’ll see it next year in the 2013 World Cup and I will not be surprised to see some of the bigger teams on 650B wheels.
From speaking to the suspension people, it sounds like there are more companies working on 650B downhill bikes than we originally thought. If the suspension companies are working on 650B parts, it is not because we phoned up and asked them, that’s for sure.
Bryn Atkinson and Jill Kinter (Norco International team) did a couple test sessions with some 650B prototype downhill frames recently, back-to-back with their 26” bikes. The results were not conclusive at that stage; there was not too much time to extract the true performance out of the bikes.
The general feeling was that with a little refinement and more time on the bikes that it would be faster. Bryn was more adamant about it than Jill was, as she rides a small size, and felt challenged getting used to it. There is no hard evidence that it is faster, but there are very strong hints that it will be. So we can expect the pace at World Cup level will get even faster, crazy!
Talk to us about the process of determining a bike’s geometry. How do you balance feedback from the team versus the needs of the general public?
It’s a combination of listening to everybody, and blending it all together. We try to listen to as many people as we can. We build as many bikes in as many variations as possible. The use of anglesets (head angle adjustable headsets) help, offset bushings do also. There is a lot of ways to test geometry on bikes, and a pretty fun process finding the bike that works best.
Norco’s Gravity Tune is a very interesting concept, adjusting a bike’s chain stay length to suit riders of varying heights. Please tell us a little more about the rationale behind this concept?
It’s so obvious; we don’t know why we are the first ones to be doing it. The beauty of the Gravity Tune system is that the adjustments made to the front and rear end of the bike are all made in the front triangle. Moving the bottom bracket forwards to make the chainstay longer, and then rearward to make it shorter.
Because the bottom bracket is housed in the front triangle, that is where all the adjustments are made. And it only has the slightest impact on the suspension kinematics and rear axle paths.
Why go for composite frames? What are your favourite properties of the wonder material in a mountain bike?
The freedom of design and the efficiency of the structure that you can achieve. You have so much more choice in design, and end up with a better performing bike. And when you ride them, the spring and liveliness is great.
We’ve heard you talk a bit about Norglide composite bearings recently. Will we see more of these unique bearings in suspension frame pivots in the future?
Yes. It really is a better way to design a pivot. A suspension pivot oscillates back and forth; sometimes the range of movement is very small depending on which one, where the cartridge bearings are designed to spin continuously. We’ll see a lot more composite bearings in the future.
The technology has come a long way, you couldn’t design a tight fit with the old plastic bushings so there was always a little bit of slop to start with that got worse at they wore. With these new style composite bearings, the structure is aluminium and then it’s overlayed with a bronze mesh and into that mesh and over it is a high tech Teflon liner. That is what provides that frictionless surface that you can tighten onto each other, no slop.
In terms of frame construction, you have a lot of freedom designing the frame with Norglide bearings over one with cartridge bearings. Hopefully the consumers are ready for this. It’s not a backwards step back to the old style bushes at all, and frames will be significantly lighter because of them. They weigh so little. Moving forward with some of the cross country platforms we are working on, we will be bringing them back for sure to make the frames as light as possible.
(for information on Norglide composite bearings – http://www.bearings.saint-gobain.com/bicycle-market.aspx)
Will mountain bikes be rid of the front derailleur?
Some mountain bikes in the higher performance category, maybe not all levels yet.
How would it impact the engineering of a suspension frame if so?
It will make life a lot easier for us to design the area in front of the rear tyre. There would be no more need to drop the drive side chainstay, the main pivot could be a lot wider to name a few.
And one more question, what do you like about Australia?
Haha, I like Australians! You guys are a lively, spirited bunch. And I can’t wait to try my hand at surfing.
Thank you very much!