Well-known and loved in Canada, Norco has been quietly racking up an American audience with its refined but not-too-expensive line of bikes, including the Range and our 2014 Gear of the Year winner Sight Carbon. Now, with the excellent gravel- and adventure-oriented Search, the company continues to burnish its reputation.
The Good: This is one quiet, compliant, steady carbon frame, and kudos to Norco for the front and rear thru-axles. Shimano Ultegra disc brakes continue to set the standard. Easton UST tubeless-ready wheels are the most elegant solution for quick setup and easy maintenance.
The Bad: We’d rather sit on an anvil than the brutally painful saddle. We love the shape of the Ritchey bars, though carbon would have been welcome instead of alloy. And how about a third water bottle mount?
The Verdict: The Search is one of best one-quiver road bikes we’ve tried, second only perhaps to the Specialized Diverge. It’s an absolute hoot on dirt, stable and totally in control on even the most rugged descents, but also snappy and quick uphill. It pinch-hits for cyclocross just fine. And with lighter wheels and slicks, it’s plenty fast enough for group road rides—although we had so much fun blasting around on gravel that we wonder why we ever ride pavement at all.
Aluminum is durable and less expensive, but carbon is the material of choice for mixed-use bikes like the Search because of the comfort that can be built into the frame. This bike is particularly cushy, with a sloping top tube, shaped tubes, and arced seat- and chainstay junctions that take the bite out of rough roads, even with those aluminum wheels.
The geometry is less aggressive than some of the competition’s. There’s a shorter cockpit, longer chainstays, and that deep slope to the tube for huge stand-over—though the steep headtube means the steering is still plenty quick. The one downfall of that sloping top tube design is less usable space in the main triangle for bags, water, and cargo—difficult if you’re bike packing. Still, it’s all middle-of-the-road angles and configurations, which is a smart choice, as the bike manages to do everything well without leaning too far to either the racy or laid-back sides of the equation. The only other niggle: While you can fit up to a 40c tire, which is pretty good, we’d like to see clearance for even more rubber.
Detailing is top-notch, with polished internal cable routings that are angled wide at the headtube to prevent rubbing on the frame and rubber gaskets that secure the lines and keep them from rattling. Direct-mount front derailleur and post-mount front and rear brakes are also a nice touch. With so much care taken, we were surprised Norco didn’t add a third bottle mount under the down tube. That capacity is de rigueur for events like the Dirty Kanza, and too many manufacturers neglect this easy detail.
Norco does a nice job picking top specs without unnecessarily inflating the price. I’ve written plenty about Shimano Ultegra components, so I won’t dwell on that here except to say that after eight months of pretty hard riding, I didn’t need so much as a barrel adjustment on the drivetrain. Disc brakes on a bike like this are a must (and frankly should be standard on all bikes), and for modulation and power, Shimano BR-RS785s are still the best.
The Easton EA70 XCT wheels, which are actually a 29er mountain model, aren’t the sexiest hoops, but we absolutely loved them. They’re the simplest tubeless system around, with a totally sealed rim bed, so there’s no messing with tape. I set up four different tire models without even a hiccup. And at sub-1,600 grams for the set, they have an excellent weight-to-value ratio. The included Clement X’Plor tires were fine, but I prefer more volume and switched immediately to Specialized Trigger 38s.
We loved the shallow drop and shape of the Ritchey WCS Evo Curve bars, but on dirt we generally prefer carbon for the vibration damping. Obviously the choice was price driven, and we appreciate that.
The only outright miss in the entire spec: the Fi’zi:k Tundra saddle. Yes, this is a personal preference, and yes, this saddle probably fits someone, but we didn’t find that person out of 20-odd testers. One poor guy likened it to “a historic relic from the Spanish Inquisition.”
After riding a three-hour dirt road loop on the Search, one tester said it was the most fun she’s had on a road bike in a dozen years. That’s because this bike has the handling and relative comfort of a rigid mountain bike but still feels poppy and light like a roadie. In fact, she rode the loop 20 minutes faster on the Search than she did on her full-suspension mountain bike.
The Search also descended surprisingly well. On a 1,500-foot, high-altitude dirt road screamer that’s beaten me up on plenty of cross bikes in the past, I felt fast, comfortable, and locked in. Credit the carbon frame and fork, which silence bumps and ruts, as well as those shallow-drop handlebars that let you tuck and muscle the bike through the rough.
To be fair, the Search is not as crisp or responsive as a road bike, in part because it weighs 19 pounds, and the handling is slower than a cross bike. But for adventure riding where you’re churning up long climbs and careening down the other side, the easier-going sensibility is welcome.
Like the geometry, sizing on the Search is middle-of-the-road and should fit pretty much anyone except outliers. Those from a road background may prefer a slightly longer stem: We switched from 100 millimeters to 120 millimeters (size 55.5) and flopped it to a negative rise for a more aggressive road feel. For others, everything felt good out of the box.
The adventure road market is only a few years old, but it’s already clogged with excellent options. Last year’s Specialized Diverge is arguably the highest-performance iteration money can buy, but at $8,500 (for the S-Works model, discontinued for 2016), it’s probably out of the question for most people, especially those after a second or third bike. Our 2015 Gear of the Year winner GT Grade is more in line price-wise than the Spez and definitely worth a look, but it leans more toward the pavement side of things. And of course there’s the top-notch Diamond Back Haanjo, which keeps up well with the Search for almost half the price but isn’t quite as forgiving.
Probably the most comparable bike on the market is the Salsa Warbird, which got an upgrade to carbon last year and in some ways has to be considered the benchmark in gravel bikes. It’s a little more race-oriented than the Search and has bigger tire clearance and triple-bottle capacity, so it’s worth a look if endurance stuff is your thing. Otherwise, there isn’t much of a difference between the two bikes—and the Search XR wins out when it comes to aesthetics.
Before You Buy
If we had to pick a single gravel bike as our favorite from 2015, the Search XR would be on the short list. It’s fun as hell to ride and a solid value at $3,700. And Norco offers a second, even more economical model with the same frame and Shimano 105 components for just $2,250.
Worth noting: Norco has unveiled the 2016 Search range with no changes to the frame, which underscores just how good it was in the first place. The biggest switch on the top-level model, now called the Search Ultegra, is to DTSwiss R 23 Splines. While I’ve yet to try those hoops, on the face of it they seem like a downgrade relative to the EA70s given the additional weight, narrower internal profile, and taping necessary for tubeless. So it could be a good time to look for closeouts on the 2015 edition. On the other hand, the top spec drops in price next year to $3,450, and you can never complain about paying less.