Horse for the Course: Norco Search Carbon for Dirty Kanza 200

Second-place women's finish after 200 miles of dirt, gravel, wind and Kansas mud

Monsoon-like rains made for one wet and muddy adventure at Dirty Kanza 200 this year. Small streams became fast-moving rivers and mud sections quickly devoured bikes one derailleur at a time.

Even the dry sections of the course were exceptionally rocky and sharp from the heavy rains. The abnormal road conditions made bike and equipment choices even trickier than usual and left many of us nervous and second-guessing ourselves on the start line.

Related: Norco Search Ultegra/105 – just in

For its 10th consecutive year, Dirty Kanza 200 (DK200) drew nearly 1,500 riders from around the world to test their limits at this ultra-endurance gravel race. “A Decade of Dirty,” they dubbed it – and this year’s race would prove to be one of the dirtiest. The Kanza gods weren’t going to let the 10th anniversary race go down with anything less than epic conditions.  

  • The course: 200 miles of rough and ragged gravel with short steep climbs, 7,500ft elevation gain, and adventuresome details such as river crossings and thick, sticky mud
  • The equipment goal: A light and fast setup that's both comfortable over 200 miles and burly enough to withstand rugged conditions
  • The horse: 2015 Norco Search Carbon with Kappius Components KW-1.5 road clinchers and profile design aerobars

My DK200 rig consisted of the Norco Search Carbon adventure bike with a few modifications. I swapped the stock Easton EA70 XCT tubeless wheels for lighter Kappius Components KW-1.5 road clinchers. I used the Clement X’Plor USH 35mm tyres that came with the bike but set them up tubeless on the Kappius wheels.

I also exchanged the resin Shimano brake pads for metallic pads knowing the race conditions could easily eat through the less durable option. For a little added comfort, I swapped the Norco seatpost for Specialized’s CG-R post with built in micro-suspension. Other than a few minor comfort and fit features like saddle, stem and some extra bar tape, the last change I made was adding some slightly dorky – but, as it turned out, much appreciated – aero bars.

Aptly termed an
Aptly termed an

Norco's Search Carbon – an adventure bike for an adventurous ride

Two hundred long miles

Let’s face it, 200 miles on gravel roads is not going to feel pleasant, no matter what you're riding. With the constant vibrations, bumps and heavy pedalling, body pain is inevitable. However, the Norco Search Carbon did a fantastic job mitigating the harsh conditions and helped me feel fresh long into the race. 

Built as an 'all road' bike, the Search has a long wheelbase (1,019cm for size 55.5cm) that makes for a stable and comfortable ride in loose gravel. The bike was steady even in the rare but beautiful tailwind sections and when I hit some reasonably high speeds on the steep downhills.

While the Norco’s geometry and build were exactly what I was hoping for from an adventure/gravel machine, the bike’s tyre clearance was something of a miss for me. With room to fit up to 35mm tyres, the Search rides great on packed dirt roads or even roads with small gravel. However, the jagged and unforgiving gravel of the DK200 Flint Hills can easily tear tyres to shreds. I was fortunate to not have any mechanicals or flats during the race even with 35s, but I would have loved to run 38mm or even 40mm tyres for a little extra protection and peace of mind.

The limited clearance became a problem in the massive mud sections of the race. With the wet earth as thick and sticky as peanut butter, riding was not an option. Even pushing the Norco caused severe build up and I was forced to shoulder and carry the bike several miles throughout the day. While almost no bike could withstand this kind of mud, the Search’s small clearance kept me off the bike longer and hiking farther each time. The most unexpected part of this whole ordeal was that the fork, not the seat- and chainstays, copped the most severe mud build-up.

It's worth noting that if the race had been dry like most other years, however, the tyre clearance wouldn’t have been much of an issue.

Peanut butter mud made for several miles of hike-a-bike throughout the 200-mile course:
Peanut butter mud made for several miles of hike-a-bike throughout the 200-mile course:

Light wheels are almost always an advantage — but especially when you're having to carry your bike

The biggest win of the day came from the light and responsive Kappius Components KW-1.5 hoops. With them set up tubeless, I was able to shave off 150g from the Easton wheels with tubes and tyres that come stock on the Search. While that doesn’t sound like a ton, when you’re carrying your bike for miles throughout the day, every gram makes a difference.

Beyond the weight savings, Kappius hubs are built with 240 points of engagement, making them extremely responsive and giving me instant feedback while pedalling through the mud or shooting into steep climbs. The slightly annoying buzz of the freehub body was the only negative I could find in these wheels. In the end, the buzz probably kept me pedalling longer and coasting less so that even ended up being a positive.

As mentioned above, I would have loved to run wider rubber but Clement’s gravel-minded X’Plor USH 35mm tyres faired pretty darn well. It seemed like I was one of few people who didn’t flat the entire day. The tyres' diamond-shaped side knobs were great in the loose gravel sections and the smooth centre ridges kept me rolling fast on packed portions of the course.

Another small addition aimed at comfort was the Specialized CG-R carbon seatpost. Also known as the “Cobble Gobbler,” the CG-R helps isolates the rider from road vibrations and creates a smoother ride. Don’t get me wrong, I still felt plenty of bumps and vibrations along the way. In fact, I was utterly destroyed by the end of the DK200. But I finished in once piece and the seatpost was at least a small part of that success.

With all the swaps and changes made to my DK200 rig, the last and possibly most important addition saved my day out there. Aerobars. Yes, Profile Design aerobars on a gravel bike truly made all the difference for me.

I know they look funny and many cyclists will refuse to use them simply out of pride (usually myself included), but when you’re facing 20-30 mph winds solo in the middle of nowhere, a little aero advantage can go a long way. Plus, giving yourself the chance to get off your hands every once in a while is a real luxury when your fingers start to go numb and your back is aching from the day’s effort. I can confidently say that aerobars saved my race this year.

All in all, I was superbly happy with these equipment choices as I crossed the line in second place aboard the Norco Search. The bike helped me ride strong through all 200 miles and kept me reasonably comfortable even at the end of the day.

The mud, river crossings, wind and gnarly gravel certainly made for an exceptionally challenging day in the hills. Dirty Kanza is a strange source of fun for many of us but the event is truly an inspiring and self-examining experience that I’d prescribe for most any cyclists to try at least once. Just give me a couple months to forget the mud and wind before asking if I’ll be back next year…

The profile aerobars made my day:
The profile aerobars made my day:

The Profile aerobars were an unexpected lifesaver

Kristen is a former professional triathlete, current elite cyclists, and lives for two-wheeled adventures the world over. She was one of six women to ride the entire Tour de France in 2012 as part of the women's Rêve Tour team. Besides riding and writing about bikes, Legan also coaches with APEX Coaching out of Boulder, Colorado.
  • Preferred Terrain: Dirt climbs and twisty mountain descents
  • Beer of Choice: Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout

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