The Norco Search is a great all-around road bike, but its limited tire clearance (barely clears 40c tires) make it less than ideal for gravel and CX, meaning its not quite the ‘one-bike-to-rule-them-all’. None the less, an excellent bike that I’m quite fond of.
When I was shopping for a new high-performance "gravel" bike, reviews where hard to find. So now that I've had one myself for a full riding season, I thought I'd offer my own review.
The Search has replaced 2 bikes for me. I had a monstercross bike (a 29"er with drop bars) that I was using for gravel, cyclocross races, and on a couple occasions endurance MTB racing. I also had a 2007 Schwinn Peleton road bike. Despite Schwinn's questionable reputation as of late, I found the Peleton to be an excellent road bike, stiff and efficient, but also forgiving, comfortable and stable. This made it a great bike for covering long miles. Like most road bikes, it only fits up to 25c tires.
I really loved the Peleton for what it was, but I was longing for a bike with a bit more versatility. Often I'd want to go off-pavement, follow an intriguing path, or just put in a few miles on a limestone rail-trail as part of my journey. The Peleton was clearly not ideal for this. My monstercross bike on the other hand was a bit of a kludge, it did a lot of things, but none of them well. Thirdly, I wanted to reduce the number of bikes in my fleet. Despite the "n+1" dogma, I found that owning and maintaining 8 bicycles cost a lot of time and money.
So I took a big leap and tried to find 'one-bike-to-rule-them-all'. Basically, I was looking for a bike that would perform at least as-well on pavement as my Peleton, but also be able to apply to gravel roads and cyclocross racing. I narrowed it down to two carbon frames: the Jamis Renegade and Norco Search. The Renegade is only available as a complete bike. Since I wanted to use my old parts (two bikes worth!) to save money and configure the bike just the way I like it, that ruled out the Renegade.
The Bike Set-Up
So, I'm only reviewing the frame and fork here. For components, I went with a Thomson cockpit, Katie Compton CX bars mated to a 90mm X2 stem, and Elite Seatpost. I'm a fan of Fizik Arione saddle and am quickly becoming a fan of the ESI bar tape.
One thing that I think a lot of "gravel bikes" lack is gearing low enough to actually allow you to ride up what are often quite steep gravel road climbs. And on loose gravel you can't just stand up and power through a climb. So you need lower gears to spin up a hill.
My bike runs SRAM Rival shifters and front derailleur, with a 50/34 compact chainring set-up, but uses a SRAM XX rear derailleur. Unlike Shimano, SRAM's mountain and road groups play well together, allowing me to run a 11-28 cassette on my "road" wheelset and a 11-36 cassette on my "gravel/CX" wheelset. The 34x36 low gear is proving to be sufficient for the steep hills and deep valleys of the Driftless region, but I think I’d want even lower gears if I lived somewhere more mountainous. One issue with running a mountain derailleur is that the internally routes shifter cable exits the frame in a way that makes for a real awkward curve to feed it into an MTB derailleur. I think this may have killed my shifter due to the friction in the cables and force being put on the shifter. So I came up with a… unique solution.
For the moment, I'm running some wheels with carbon hoops borrowed from a very generous friend, with 28c Compass tires as my road wheels and a Hope/Stan's Arch wheelset with 42c (that measure 39mm) Continental Cyclocross Speed tires for gravel.
The Actual Review Part of the Review
I had a fairly low bar for the performance of this bike on pavement: it just had to be as-good as my previous road-racing designed carbon frame. It has greatly exceeded my expectations. As a road bike it is considerably stiffer and more efficient than my previous bike. It felt like it was almost a gear faster. The super supple Compass tires and stiff carbon rims probably help this a lot. Overall, it handles in a stable manner. It's easy to sit up and ride no handed to rest or eat. Despite the short stem it descends with confidence, the wheels feel tacked to the ground, I can rail corners harder than ever before. It accelerates rapidly when you put power into the pedals and it blasts up hills when climbing out of the saddle, at least as much as the engine can push it. I worried the longer wheel base would make it a less-capable climber, but this has not proven to be the case.
The frame does seem a little too stiff at times when riding on the pavement. Again, some of this is probably from the stiff wheels. But even with the 28c tires, I seem to feel every crack and seam in the pavement. You could argue that I get a lot of feedback from the road surface, but I was hoping the bike, which is designed to absorb some vibration and impact, would smooth things out a bit more for me. I suppose this is the cost of a high-performance frame.
My solution to this issue will be to switch to the 35c Compass Bon Jon Pass tires as soon as possible. The Bon Jon's are tubeless compatible, and running them as such I should be able to smooth out rough roads, reducing rolling resistance, increase traction and reduce flats, all for only 10-20 grams of increased weight. This upgrade should truly make this bike handle any road well, provide great comfort for long rides and be even grippier in the corners.
Gravel and off-road performance have also exceeded expectations, and really, what I thought was possible on a bike with skinny tires and drop bars. The bike is stable and comfortable on gravel despite the limited tire size. On surfaces that aren't really roads any more, 2-tracks, ATV trails and singletrack, it continues to dish out. I have been just shocked by the stability and control this bike has provided on rocky, rooted singletrack and one particular 1000-foot, loose, rocky double-track descents. This is where the "ArcEndurance" frame compliance features come into their own. They don't do much on road surface irregularities, but when you hit a rock, root, or pothole the frame softens the blow considerably. It honestly rides off-road as well as any fully-rigid mountain bike I've even been on, better than some, in-fact. I even had a few sharp pieces of granite pop up and strike my downtube with no notable damage, so the ArmorLite frame coating seems to do its job well.
A few things could be better:
Overall, I'm LOVING this bike, but it does have a few weaknesses. The internal cable routing was a pretty significant challenge to set-up. I'm a fairly experienced mechanic, but it still took me 8 hours to run the run all the cables. To be fair, this was my first time running internal cables, but I found getting the length on the exposed cable sections correct to be a trial-and-error affair, and I had to re-run the cables through the labyrinth inside the frame each time I cut an inch or two off the cable housing leading from the brifters, in order to test how they fit.
Speaking of cables, the way the rear derailleur cable exits the frame does not work well at all for mountain bike derailleurs. I know this is an “all-road” bike, but being able to run a bigger cassette on a bike like this is a valuable feature that should be considered by the bike designers.
The head tube is a little tall. I'm sure they were going for a more upright riding position and fewer headset spacers. But riders who prefer a more aggressive bar position will have a hard time getting their bars as low as they'd like. Fortunately for me, my bike is a little small for me, and I've gotten fat and old so higher bars work for my current fitness level.
Search’s Achellie’s Heel
The only real failing of this bike is the minimal tire clearance. The manufacturer claims the frame will clear 40c tires, and it will, provided you never get any mud on those tires. My tires measure 39mm wide and clear the frame and fork with just 2mm on the sides. I realize that the designers of this bike have got to work the chain stay around the chain, chainrings AND the tires, while maintaining a good chainline and low q-factor. But from my non-bike-engineer perspective, I've got to wonder if they could squeeze a few more mm of clearance on the drive side... Couldn’t the non-drive side be asymetrical, offering a little more clearance yet? Why on Earth is the tire clearance at the seat stays as tight as at the chain stays?
Furthermore, the fork actually has LESS clearance than the rear of the bike. This is exasperated by the routing of the front brake cable housing which comes a little too close to the tire for my comfort. Really, there's no reason why the fork shouldn’t have significantly more tire clearance. A lot of people like to run bigger front tires for a little better shock absorption. Alternately, If I'm going to have my wheels fill with mud and lock-up, I'd really rather have the rear tire lock up first.
Most gravel riders like tires in the 40-45c range. Then you need clearance for mud. And if you’re going to race CX on it, you really need clearance for mud.
I used the bike for a couple of cyclocross races this fall. The bike handled it flawlessly. I felt very comfortable on it, descending, climbing, pushing hard through the corners, rough field sections, jumping on and off, etc. But these were both dry courses, and I am sure the minimal tire clearance would have been a real issue on a wet day. I’ll be investing in some skinnier mud tires in the 30c range going forward.
Overall, my only real complaint is this tire clearance issue. That being said, I realize that in any bike design, there are compromises that need to be made. This bike maintains the fit, speed, and efficiency of a road bike, and it also allows you to ride gavel and trails with confidence, comfort and efficiency. The Search accomplishes my goal of 'one-bike-to-rule-them-all’. If it could clear 45c tires it would be the perfect drop bar bike.