Norco's new Search XR is a serious gravel grinder, decked out to keep the most hardcore adventurer happy, but with looks and subtlety that belie its gnarly abilities.
The not-so-minor details
Norco Search XR Ultegra
A good looking adventure sled.
Confident, stable handling without feeling dull.
Plenty of tyre clearance.
Great spec at a good price.
Our butt and the Norco's saddle were at war.
Form should follow function, but as Norco have proved here, putting practicality first doesn’t mean making it ugly. Norco have managed to take a utilitarian machine and given it the kind of sleek appeal that eludes most bikes in this segment. The new Norco Search XR is a beauty, both in terms of presentation and the way it performs.
With the exception of the rubber boot over the seat clamp, and the small silver bolt heads on the fork legs, you’d struggle to notice this bike’s rugged intentions – they’re masked by its awesome paint job, clean lines and light weight of just 8.58kg for our large 55.5cm test bike.
What can’t you carry on the Norco Search XR?
The Norco Search XR has been a serious workhorse – we’ve done well over 500km of proper gravel riding and bike packing on this steed over summer, loading it up for overnighters, heading out for day-long wanderings in the Watagans, getting chased by goannas. It’s been epic. In short, this bike has fulfilled its mandate as an adventure machine.
At first glance its easy to miss, but there’s room for three bottles on the main frame, plus mounts on the fork legs which can take more cages or other fixtures, as well rack and neat fender mounts too. As you can see, we had the bike loaded up during our testing. But then we also rode it stripped right back with just a single bottle cage fitted, and it morphed from back country beast to endurance road bike. In fact, we took this bike out in the local road bunch, and while the big tyres attracted a bit of attention we were able to hang on.
Do it all day long
As an all-day machine, the way this bike rides is tough to beat. The tall head tube gives a moderately upright riding position, the gentle slant of the hoods feels natural, the big tyres and 27.2mm post provide a little bit of forgiveness. But for all that, it’s not a sluggish ride either – the chain stays have been kept short with some clever construction so it still reacts quickly, and the head angle is relaxed but without being slow.
It’s happy when the going gets fast and rough too. When you’re in the drops, the flared handlebar puts you in a strong position – your centre of gravity spread low and wide – giving you more confidence to leave the powerful brakes alone. The Clement tyres measure up a touch wider than their claimed 40mm, and while they don’t have much in the way of knobs, they’re sturdy and we had a lot of confidence in them when the gravel got deeper.
What’s with that chain stay?
The dropped drive side chain stay on the Norco Search XR is reminiscent of the boutique Open U.P frame. It’s all about creating more clearance without resorting to long chain stays. By dropping the chain stay down low, Norco leaves room for 700x45c tyre (or 27.5 x 2.1″ mountain bike rubber should you prefer) while keeping room for mud shedding and facilitating the use of a front derailleur too. Interestingly, the Search XR uses ‘size scaled wheels’, a concept sometimes seen on 29er mountain bikes – the two smallest frame sizes are equipped with 27.5″ wheels out of the box.
I thought double rings were on the way out?
At first we saw the double chain ring setup as a negative, but we quickly realised it’s actually pretty handy having such a wide spread of gears. The Praxis cranks run sensible 32/48-tooth chain rings, and paired to an 11-34 cassette you’ve got it all covered.
We had assumed the Ultegra mech, which doesn’t have a clutch mechanism, would flap around and make a racket, but it was pretty damn quiet actually and to our surprise we never once dropped a chain. Maybe single rings aren’t the be all and end all… The shifting performance of the new Ultregra gear is silky smooth too. While SRAM are getting a lot of the attention in the gravel space, the refinement of Shimano’s offerings shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in terms of braking performance.
So you like it?
We sure do. The Search XR has been getting plenty of global attention, and after a few months of riding it, we understand why. There are options galore to suit your style, including two steel versions of this bike as well as a model that comes with 27.5″ wheels, mountain bike tyres and a dropper post. But we think this one is the pick of the bunch – at $4499 it’s a bit of a steal for such a sophisticated, well-appointed gravel weapon. Tempting, isn’t it?
Bike packing mega-adventure and pretty flower images courtesy of Josh Stephenson @joshivision