Norco 2018 Search XR gravel bike review: carbon versus steel
Norco has been in the bike business for over fifty years, however there are some markets that are still unfamiliar with the brand despite the extensive catalogue of offerings and wide range of appeal. But if Norco has a strength, then it surely lies with its off-road bikes.
The Search XR is Norco’s new gravel bike, the second iteration of a platform that was first unveiled for 2015. Interestingly, the company has opted to offer buyers two versions of the Search XR, one in carbon and the other in steel. In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom throws a leg over each one to learn more about what they have to offer.
- Purpose: Gravel riding
- Highlight: Confident and assured gravel bike with lots of options including a choice of two frame materials
- Material: Steel or carbon fibre frame
- Brake type: Disc
- Key details: Threadless BB86 bottom bracket, tapered fork steerer, 27.2mm seatpost, dual wheel sizes, fittings for racks and fenders.
- Price: AUD$2,999 / US$2,599 / €2,699 (Search XR Steel Rival); AUD$4,499 / US$3,799 / €4,199 (Search XR Carbon Ultegra)
Norco’s history as a bike manufacturer goes back to 1964 when Bert Lewis founded Northern Cycle Industries in rural British Columbia, Canada. Four years later, the company was re-named Norco to simplify branding, and from there, its catalogue began to grow. BMX was added in 1973, followed by road bikes in 1975, and MTB in 1984.
Norco soon grew to become a well known brand within Canada, but it wasn’t until 1995 that it started tackling the international market. Now, the brand is probably best known for its full-suspension mountain bikes, however its current catalogue also caters for road and urban riders as well as women and children.
Norco’s first gravel bike, dubbed the Search, appeared in Norco’s 2015 catalogue in two guises — one carbon and the other steel — with almost identical geometry and a total of six builds. A year later, the company abandoned the steel frame in favour of new aluminium version while the Search Carbon would continue unchanged.
The Search Carbon and Search Alu are still part of Norco’s catalogue for 2018, however they have been re-classified as all-road bikes because a new gravel-specific platform, dubbed the Search XR, has been created to keep pace with this rapidly-evolving sector of the market. Like the original Search, the Search XR is available with a steel or carbon chassis, both of which have been updated to provide more tyre clearance and accommodate dual wheel sizes. A suite of fittings (for fenders, racks, a third bottle cage, and even a dropper post) has also been added to further expand the capabilities of each chassis.
Making room for bigger tyres and accommodating dual wheel sizes
When Norco set out to create the Search XR, one of the primary goals was to add more tyre clearance. 700 x 40c tyres could be squeezed into the original Search, but there wasn’t any room for mud, stones, or fenders. In contrast, the Search XR is able to accommodate 700 x 45c tyres without fenders, or 700 x 42c tyres with fenders.
That’s not the absolute limit, though, since the Search XR can also be fitted with 650b/27.5 inch wheels, which have a smaller diameter so that even wider (and taller) tyres can be used. In this way, tyres as large as 27.5 x 2.1 inches can be installed on the Search XR.
Making room for larger tyres is not a simple matter. A new carbon fork with a longer axle-to-crown length was created for the Search XR, which in turn, demanded a change to the geometry of the front end in order to accommodate the taller fork. As for the rear end, the right chainstay had to be re-worked. For the steel chassis, a semi-yoke was created using a blade of metal while the stay was lowered on the carbon frame. In both instances, Norco’s engineers managed to increase the amount of tyre clearance and reduce the rear centre of the Search XR by 2.5-5mm (relative to the original Search) at the same time.
While Norco was re-visiting the geometry of the Search, the two smallest frame sizes (45.5 and 48cm) were re-designed to only accommodate smaller 650b/27.5inch wheels. This kind of wheel-scaling allowed Norco’s engineers to preserve the steering and handling of the larger frame sizes while avoiding toe overlap issues. Tyre clearance was also maintained along with the option to run a smaller wheel size (26inch) with wider MTB tyres.
The Search XR Steel: an affordable yet robust gravel bike
The Search XR Steel frame is constructed from Reynolds 725, a heat-treated and butted chrome-moly tubeset. 725 is not as light or sophisticated as the company’s premium offerings, such as 853 and 953, but it is a still considered a high-quality offering in terms of strength and durability that is well suited to TIG-welding.
The front end of the frame has a 44mm-diameter head tube for accommodating a tapered fork steerer with a 1.5-inch lower headset bearing. A threadless BB86 shell serves the bottom bracket while the seat tube accepts a 27.2mm-diameter seatpost. There is a flat mount for the rear disc calliper, a 12 x 142mm thru-axle, and mounts for three bottle cages, a rear rack, and fender.
All cables are externally routed on the frame, which will please any mechanic when it comes time to replace them. The rear derailleur cable is housed for the entire length from the shifter so as to reduce the risk of contamination from mud and grit. A cable boss is provided on the down tube for a front shifter, if required, that routes the exposed inner wire under the bottom bracket for a down-pull front derailleur.
The Search XR Steel frame is partnered with an all-carbon fork. Like the frame, it has a flat mount for the front disc calliper and a 12mm thru-axle. The front brake hose is routed externally and there is a pair of fittings on each fork blade for bottle cages or racks along with fittings for a fender.
The Search XR Steel is offered in seven frame sizes, as detailed in the table below:
The Search XR Steel has a generous stack, due in part to the extra fork length required to accommodate 700 x 45c tyres. At face value, the head tube length looks relatively short but the lower external headset cup adds another 10mm to the effective length of the head tube.
As mentioned above, the two smallest frame sizes are designed around 650b wheels instead of 700c wheels, and therefore, make use of a shorter fork (380mm versus 395mm), higher bottom bracket (57mm versus 70-75mm) and shorter chainstays (420mm versus 430-432.5mm). In contrast, the fork rake is 49mm for every frame size.
Norco offers two builds for the Search XR Steel: a 1x build with SRAM’s Rival groupset or a 2x build with Shimano’s 105 groupset. Australia’s Norco distributor, Advance Traders, was able to supply the former for this review, which featured Rival shifters, callipers, and long-cage rear derailleur paired with a 10-42T cassette.
The rest of the components were as follows: Praxis Zayante crankset with a 40T chainring; Easton EA70 AX alloy handlebars; Norco-branded alloy stem and seatpost; Norco-branded saddle; unbranded hubs to suit six-bolt rotors; WTB tubeless-compatible STS i23 alloy rims; and Clement X’Plor MSO tubeless tyres. The latter is fitted with tubes from the factory, but the rims are taped and tubeless valves are included with the bike, so all that is needed for converting to tubeless is some sealant.
The 53cm sample sent for review weighed 10.24kg (22.58lb) without pedals and cages, a fairly hefty result, but one that is in keeping with the modest steel frame. The simple gloss tan paint that is used to finish the frame works well with all of the black components and subdued branding to produce a bike that is easy to look at.
As for the price, the recommended retail price for the Search XR Steel is AUD$2,999 / US$2,599 / €2,699. Buyers also have the option of purchasing the frameset in some markets, which sells for AUD$1,199 / US$899 / €899. In both cases, the frameset is covered by a five-year warranty. For more information on the Search XR Steel Rival, visit Norco Bikes.
The Search XR Carbon: a premium gravel bike
Compared to the Search XR Steel, the carbon frame is a more sophisticated offering, starting with tube profiles that grow with the size of the frame so as to provide extra stiffness for bigger riders. It’s an appealing strategy that capitalises on the strengths of composite construction and allows Norco to deliver a consistent ride quality over the entire range of frame sizes on offer.
Another strength of composites is that specific regions of the frame can be fortified for extra stiffness, while in other places, it can be rendered more compliant. Thus, the head tube, down tube, bottom bracket, and chainstays of the Search XR Carbon are relatively stiff compared to the softer seatstays. Moreover, Norco went to the trouble of removing the “brake” bridge so as to encourage flexion of the seatstays.
Norco does not detail any of the materials that are used to construct the Search XR Carbon, however the company does highlight the importance of its “Armourlite” resin. According to Norco, this resin not only provides high strength; it also improves the impact resistance of the frame, which is why it is used for many of the company’s composite offerings, including downhill race bikes.
The carbon frame shares many of the same specifications as the Search XR Steel, including an oversized head tube, tapered fork steerer, BB86 bottom bracket, 12mm thru-axles, and a 27.2mm-diameter seatpost. The Search XR Carbon also features the same range of fittings as the steel frame for front and rear fenders, rear rack, a trio of bottle cages for the frame, and another pair of cages/racks for the fork legs. Most of these fittings are incorporated into the frame, evading the eye to some extent. However, a plastic seatstay yoke must be attached to the frame when fitting a rear fender.
The Search XR Carbon uses the same all-carbon fork as the Search XR Steel, hence the external path for the front brake hose. In contrast, all of the other cables and hoses are routed internally through the carbon frame with an extra port for a dropper seatpost. Hiding all the cables tidies up the appearance of the frame, but it will require more time when it comes time to replace any of the cables.
The geometry for the Search XR Carbon frame is virtually identical to the steel version, as shown in the table below:
The head tube of the Search XR Carbon is taller on paper, but only because it includes an integrated headset. There are some minor differences in the stack and reach for some frame sizes, but they are no greater than 3mm. The only major point of departure concerns the rear end of the Search XR Carbon, which is 7.5mm shorter than the Search XR Steel at every frame size.
Norco has created a three builds for the Search XR Carbon using SRAM 1x and Shimano 2x groupsets. The Search XR Carbon Ultegra sits in the middle of the range and features the new R8000 mechanical groupset with hydraulic disc brakes, mid-cage rear derailleur, and 11-34T cassette. Praxis supplies its Zayante crankset with sub-compact (48/32T) chainrings; the chain comes from KMC; Easton supplies its EA70 AX alloy bars; the alloy stem, carbon post, and saddle are Norco-branded; and Clement supplies its Ushuaia tubeless-ready wheelset and X’Plor MSO tubeless tyres. The tyres are shipped with tubes, but as on the Search XR Steel, can be converted to tubeless by fitting the tubeless valves that are included with the bike and adding some sealant.
The 53cm sample supplied for review by Australia’s Norco distributor, Advance Traders, weighed 8.86kg (19.53lb) without pedals and cages. That makes for a saving of 1.38kg (3.04lb) compared to the Search XR Steel Rival, but it does come at a price: the Search XR Carbon has a recommended retail price of AUD$4,499 / US$3,799 / €4,199.
Like the Search XR Steel, the Search XR Carbon frameset is covered by a five-year warranty. For more information on the Search XR Carbon, visit Norco Bikes.
After the ride: Search XR Steel Rival
On paper, the Search XR Steel Rival really appealed to me as a solid bike that could be used to attack all sorts of unpaved terrain with ease, where the only thing I had to worry about was chipping the paint. That the bike was equipped with a 1x transmission only added to its promise, since I’ve always enjoyed the level of simplicity that comes with piloting a bike fitted with a single gear lever.
In general terms, the bike lived up to these expectations, and in some regards, it exceeded them, so that by the end of the review, I was thoroughly satisfied with the performance of the Search XR Steel Rival. That the asking price for the bike is a relatively paltry sum simply strengthened the overall appeal of the bike.
From the outset, it is worth noting that I treated the Search XR Steel as a “dirt” bike. I tackled unpaved terrain on every outing and paid more attention to the performance of the bike in this realm than elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that I ignored the road, but when a bike weighs over 10kg and comes equipped with wide knobby-like tyres, it is never going to shine on tarmac.
The weight of the bike was immediately noticeable, so it was a little cumbersome when I tried to ride it aggressively, on- or off-road. The bike hesitated when coming out of corners and it was slow to pick up speed; however, if I stayed in the saddle and dosed my efforts, working with the momentum of the bike whenever possible, the extra weight never really felt like a liability.
Indeed, as I spent more time of the bike, I lost all sense of that weight, and instead, I started to really appreciate the sturdy and robust nature of the bike. That the trails were dry and dusty for the duration of the review period also meant that I found myself spending most of my time in the saddle so as to preserve the traction of the rear wheel.
The steering and handling of the Search XR Steel was well suited to riding on unpaved surfaces. The steering was a little slow, which mellowed out the front end of the bike, so that it was highly predictable, even when sledding through sand. The only time I was ever caught by surprise was when I was running higher tyre pressures that reduced the grip of the tyres.
The slow steering also helped the stability of the bike when I was bombing down rocky and dusty descents, so once I found my line, it didn’t have any trouble sticking to it. There was still an amount of responsiveness in the steering, though, so I could make minor corrections to find a more aggressive line through a corner when racing with a buddy.
Those steering and handling traits translated reasonably well to the road. Yes, the bike lacked agility through tight bends, but it was almost futile trying to push the bike that hard. I was more inclined to cruise through the streets and save my energy for the gravel.
The combination of a 40T chainring and 10-42T cassette was ideal for the terrain that I was riding. I was able to spin my way up some nasty 15% grades (while seated) without too much effort, and at the end of a long rocky ride, it made lesser grades much easier to contend with. With that said, I completed all of my rides with no more than two bidons loaded on the bike.
For those eyeing the Search XR Steel Rival for bikepacking, this gearing may not be low enough when the bike is carrying an extra 20kg. The 40T chainring can always be swapped out for something smaller, but even with the clever step-down spider arms that Praxis uses, the Zayante crankset’s 110mm bolt-circle diameter still limits the minimum chainring size to 32T. For those riders hoping to use a smaller chainring, a change in cranks will be required.
The steel frame possessed a smooth and silent ride quality that was easy to appreciate on paved roads, but it didn’t count for much on rougher terrain. Under those conditions, tyre pressure proved to be far more important. One early ride with 40psi in the tyres, which was a fine choice for the road, left me feeling battered and saddle-sore after a couple of hours on rocky trails. Dropping the tyre pressure to 25-30psi immediately improved my comfort, but it came at the expense of on-road performance.
Clement’s X’Plor MSO tyres have a stiff, robust casing that wasn’t supple enough to serve double-duty on paved and unpaved surfaces. At 40psi, the tyres rolled well on the road, but they were noticeably firm and slippery in the dirt; at 25-30psi, performance in the dirt was much improved, however they were too soft for the road, especially up front when I was diving into sharp bends.
While the tyres seemed to undermine the “do-it-all” capabilities of the bike to some extent, they were sturdier and more robust than a more versatile gravel tyre like Schwalbe’s tubeless G-One. I found I could ignore the risk of cutting a sidewall on rocky trails, and as a result, I enjoyed more confidence when tackling rugged terrain.
There was a limit to the amount of comfort that the Search XR Steel had to offer when the rocks and ruts were at their worst. This was the kind of terrain where a proper mountain bike shines and full-suspension is arguably a pre-requisite for maintaining speed and control without the body suffering. Nevertheless, I was able to stay on the bike and maintain some momentum despite the barrage of shock and vibration.
In the aftermath, I started thinking about a second wheelset, 650b with 2.1inch tyres. This is the kind of setup that proved to be very effective when I was reviewing 3T’s Exploro. Those big knobby tyres were slow on the road but they were able to gobble up rocks and ruts with ease, so I’m sure they would expand the off-road capabilities of the Search XR Steel, but I didn’t have anything on hand to test this notion.
A second wheelset may seem like an indulgent luxury, but I wouldn’t have much trouble justifying it. Those wheels could be kept in the shed for more adventurous riding while the 700c X’Plor MSO tyres could be swapped out for something more supple and versatile to improve the on-road performance of the bike without surrendering the capacity to explore groomed trails.
All of the components fitted to the Search XR Steel Rival worked well during the review period. The wheels were perhaps the weakest part of the package. Out of the box, the spokes started pinging as I rolled down my street for the first time, a sure sign of inadequate stress-relieving that is common for mass-produced wheels. That pinging indicates sudden changes in spoke tension, and sure enough, the rims were quick to come out of true. It was only a matter of a few millimetres, so it didn’t take much work to true the wheels after the first week of riding.
After the ride: Search XR Carbon Ultegra
Coming to the Search XR Carbon after spending time on the Search XR Steel Rival was a bit like swapping a classic Land Rover Defender for a modern Range Rover with all of the options, at least on paper. The chassis was lighter, sleeker, and more sophisticated; the cockpit was filled with more controls; and the transmission provided more gear ratios. All that really seemed to be missing was cup-holders.
The Search XR Carbon Ultegra may have possessed the sophistication of a dedicated road bike, but the wide, knobby-like tyres made it clear that Norco’s design team intended for the bike to be used off-road, just like the Search XR Steel Rival.
The 1.38kg weight savings were obvious on the road. In and out of corners, the Search XR Carbon was more agile than the Search XR Steel, and it was more responsive to my efforts. On unpaved roads and trails, though, my sense of this deteriorated with the quality of the terrain, and by the end of the review period, I was convinced that it really didn’t count for much in this setting.
The Search XR Carbon offered a smooth ride but it wasn’t as quiet as the Search XR Steel, since the frame amplified all sorts of minor noises from the road and trail to produce a low rumble. And while composites have a strong reputation for providing a stiff-but-compliant ride, back-to-back testing failed to reveal any appreciable difference between the two bikes. Both were equally effective at contending with the shock and buzz from paved and unpaved surfaces but ultimately, the amount of comfort really depended on tyre pressure.
As discussed above for the Search XR Steel, 40psi worked well on paved surfaces but it rendered the tyres too firm and slippery for dusty trails. Dropping the pressure to 25-30psi improved grip and comfort off-road at the expense of on-road speed, making for an uneasy compromise. With an enthusiasm to ride more trails, I opted for softer tyres and limited the amount of time I spent on paved surfaces.
There came a point, though, when the trails were truly rocky and rutted, that the Search XR Carbon would be overwhelmed by shock and vibration, just like the Search XR Steel. Once again, I started wishing for bigger tyres, but the take-home message was clear: the Search XR Carbon is not a mountain bike.
The Search XR Carbon Ultegra exhibited all of the same steering and handling traits as the Search XR Steel Rival, which was unsurprising, since the geometry of the two bikes was nearly identical. Stable and predictable, confident and assured, it was easy to take the bike for granted, even when the terrain was demanding.
In comparing the behaviour of the two bikes over the same terrain, the only point of difference emerged when I was grinding up steep (10-15%) gradients in the saddle. The front end of the Search XR Carbon had a habit of lifting up with each downstroke of the pedals while the Search XR Steel remained planted. I suspect the shorter rear end for the carbon frame was responsible for this effect but it’s possible that the lighter weight of the bike also had a role to play.
Making the transition from the simplicity of the 1x transmission on the Search XR Steel Rival to the 2x transmission on the Search XR Carbon Ultegra required a bit of mental re-programming. At first, using and trimming the front derailleur seemed like an annoying chore, however that soon passed. The generous range of gear ratios afforded by the 11-34T cassette allowed me to make use of the big chainring for the majority of any ride while the small ring was reserved for long or steep climbs.
Compared to the 1x transmission on the Search XR Steel Rival (40T x 10-42), the combination of a sub-compact (48/32T) crankset and 11-34T cassette provided a marginally smaller gear at the low end of the range and an extra gear ratio at the high end of the range, with several more steps in between. All served me well, so I was never left wanting, which leaves me wondering if bikepackers may end up wishing for lower gear ratios to contend with a fully loaded bike.
Unfortunately, they won’t be able to fit smaller chainrings without changing to a new crank. It should, however, be easy to fit a 36T sprocket — which is just outside Shimano’s recommendations for the Ultegra GS rear derailleur — although that won’t make a big difference to the gearing of the bike. Going to a 40/42T sprocket is an option but some kind of adapter (such as Wolf Tooth’s new RoadLink DM) will be required to increase the capacity of the rear derailleur.
That isn’t to say that the bike is poorly geared for bikepacking, especially if buyers are planning on sticking to mildly undulating routes on paved roads. For those heading off-road, the suitability of the gearing will ultimately depend upon the strength of the rider, the extent of climbing, and the amount of luggage that will be loaded onto the bike.
All of the components worked well during the course of the review period. I had no trouble with pinging spokes from the Ushuaia wheelset, plus, the freehub provided a very satisfying buzz whenever I was coasting on the bike. The short tight curve of the outer housing for the rear derailleur interfered with the barrel adjuster, making it very difficult to adjust. I had to resort to creating some cable slack to release the housing from the adjuster before it would turn freely, making on-the-fly adjustments much more difficult. Fortunately, this was only an issue during the first few rides as the cable was bedding in; after that, there was no need to fiddle with the adjuster.
Summary and final thoughts
Norco has done a fantastic job with the Search XR. The bike is a very capable gravel bike that offer buyers plenty of options, not the least of which is the choice of two frame materials. In some settings, the choice of frame materials can influence the ride quality and performance of the bike, but in this instance, it has a far greater impact on the cost of the bike.
With that said, in retrospect, I found that the Search XR Carbon Ultegra was marginally more pleasant to ride. There are many potential explanations for this, starting with the fact that it was lighter than the Search XR Steel Rival and offered more gear ratios. A four-hour gravel ride over rugged terrain still left me feeling weary and bone-sore in places, so it’s fair say that the difference was largely a matter of nuance.
Thus, I found myself coming back to the Search XR Steel Rival on the strength of the value it had to offer. In this guise, adding a second set of wheels (650b) is more feasible, though I’d welcome a build that offered the smaller wheels with wider tyres as a standard option. Such an option exists for the carbon chassis in the form of the Search XR Carbon Force 1, though it’s not available in some markets, including Australia.
Is the Search XR one bike that can replace many? For some, it might be, provided that they don’t have high expectations for the road-going performance of the bike. The Search XR is not as swift as an all-road bike like Cannondale’s new Synapse, Canyon’s Endurace CF SLX, Specialized Roubaix or Trek Domane, but it has a greater scope for rugged adventure than any of those bikes. Instead, I see it as a very attractive alternative to 3T’s pricey Exploro with the kind of the features and fittings that defines a great gravel bike.