There was a time when the cyclocross bike was the go-to all-rounder or do-anything machine du jour. These had a balance of toughness, niftiness and versatility that made them practical for the non-competitive everyday rider, commuter or tourist. Step forward to 2019 and the cyclocrosser’s illegitimate offspring – the gravel bike – fulfils the same role in pretty much every bike company’s catalogues. Including the Canadian-based company Norco.
Its Search XR is nominally a gravel bike, but as Norco says, “with tyre clearance up to 45mm, rack, fender and bottle mounts, the Search XR Steel is ready for any adventure, whether that is urban utility or exploration off the beaten track”.
The Reynolds 725 steel frame is tidily TIG-welded, if not the neatest I’ve ever seen, but otherwise it’s every inch a modern, well-considered frame.
Both the frame and high-modulus carbon fork have 12mm thru-axles and Norco was serious about the bottle mounts – I counted five: seat tube, two on the down tube and two on the fork — which are handy for bikepacking.
The seatstays are flattened and kinked for comfort, and the radically asymmetrical chainstays — to cope with the force of the disc brakes — have an almost Dali-esque ‘melting watches’ look.
Praxis’ industrial-looking Alba single chainring cranks. David Caudery / Immediate Media
Steel may be old-school but the gearing isn’t. SRAM’s Apex shifters and rear mech are joined by a Praxis Alba M24 bottom bracket, single-ring 40t chainset and wide-range 11-42 cassette.
This gives a 101in top gear, which is lower than a road bike’s, roughly equating to a 50×13; the 40×42 (26in) bottom gear — more important for most of us — is similar to a 34×34. You may spin out on fast descents but most climbs are easily within its remit.
SRAM’s ‘Double-Tap’ Apex 1x shifter works very well. David Caudery / Immediate Media
The combination of steel’s vibration-damping qualities and 42mm tyre means that this Norco is plush. WTB’s all-condition Resolute gravel tyres feature small knobs tightly packed at the centre to reduce rolling resistance, with chunkier side knobs for better grip on looser surfaces.
As it’s a gravel tyre you will lose speed on the road, but on my long towpath commute these were grit-gripping favourites and not so slow on tarmac I felt like swapping them. Potholes, kerbs, pitted tarmac? Treated with disdain. The WTB rims are tubeless ready, which lets you run tyres at even lower pressure.
This Norco proves why you should consider an adventure-cum-gravel bike for the daily ride. Robert Smith
The geometry is ideal for endurance riding. The slack head angle, shortish top-tube and long wheelbase deliver a slightly upright and very stable ride. But what you lose in dynamism you make up for in comfort.
The 16-degree flared bar comes into its own off-road and is well matched with Norco’s gel-backed bar tape.
One quirk is the variety of bolts. The bottle mounts have 4mm hex heads, the four stem face plate bolts are Torx T25 and the seatpost bolt and single stem/steerer bolt are T30s.
Torx resists damage better than hex, but three sizes is unusual, so check your multi-tool before heading out.
Ride this off-road, over gravel, on towpaths, take it touring and bikepacking, and commuting. Robert Smith
An adventure-cum-gravel bike may not be the most obvious choice for the daily ride, but this Norco proves why you should consider them.
Simple gears, effective (albeit mechanical) disc brakes, ultra-comprehensive kit, loads of comfort. What more do you want or need apart from a little speed?
Norco Search XR Apex 1 geometry (53cm)
Seat angle: 73.5 degrees
Head angle: 70.5 degrees
Seat tube: 49.6cm
Top tube: 54.8cm
Head tube: 125.cm
Fork offset: 4.8cm
Bottom bracket drop: 7.3cm
Bottom bracket height: 27.8cm