There was no doubt that the bigger 700c hoops felt faster, especially on smooth, hardpacked gravel and road riding. If big miles were on the menu, the 700c wheels were on the bike.
While I personally would appreciate some bigger knobs, the Clement, now Donnelly, XPlor MSO tires are a good match for the Search XR UltegraRussell Eich / Immediate Media
Added cush and comfort, as well as stability, were the major draws when rolling the smaller, wider 27.5in wheels and tires. Riding forest roads and lesser used gravel roads (which maybe only see the occasional Jeep or 4×4) is where the 27.5in set-up made sense.
The added tire volume was the biggest advantage, followed closely by the lower center of gravity afforded by the smaller wheels.
Svelte without compromise
Gravel riding encompasses a range of sub-genres, and with that, a lot is asked of the frames in terms of outright speed, gear hauling and accessories add-ons.
Norco managed to add rack and gear-hauling compatibility without cluttering up the frame with too many obvious braze-ons.
Disc brakes are better. Disc brakes with high-tech rotors are even betterRussell Eich / Immediate Media
The rear dropouts have what Norco calls NINJA, which stands for ‘not instantly noticeable junk attachments’. They’re threaded inserts for bolting on fenders that can be removed when not needed. It’s far from a new concept, but it is cleanly executed on the Search XR.
Up front, it’s a tad less clean because the fork blades are dotted with eyelets along with one more occupying the crown for a fender.
The ideal blend of ride characteristics
Gravel bikes are the hot new drop bar phenomenon among the road-going set and cover a wide range of uses from gravel racing to bikepacking. The Search XR seeks to do both.
That blue-to-gray fade looked good everywhereRussell Eich / Immediate Media
The Search XR carbon chassis had the stiffness for plenty of go, yet it didn’t rattle about or make me nervous about my dental work. It was fast and responsive when hammering the pedals, yet calm and composed when railing a washboard turn.
Group rides were well within its realm, as were solo outings where getting lost was the one and only goal of the day.
It was a pleasant surprise to find speed on the road, yet damped smoothness when blasting into pock-marked, wrist-wrecking sections of unmaintained gravel road.
If your gravel style is all the styles, it’s an impressive machine.
Shimano needs a clutch rear derailleur
Noise and dropped chains were the shortcomings of the non-clutch equipped Shimano drivetrain. It’s a shame really as I appreciate the wider range a two-ring group provides.
As it was, however, I did experience plenty of chain slap and noise coming from the drivetrain. It’s likely exacerbated by how impressively quiet bikes have become.
The Praxis Zayante crank pulls 48/32 chainrings, which for gravel explore provides a welcome gear rangeRussell Eich / Immediate Media
And despite the meticulous adjustment of the chain catcher down by the little chainring, I managed to throw the chain a few times, especially when running the 27.5in wheel set-up and blasting rutted and washboarded roads.
And while I loved the blue/gray fade matte-finish paintwork, I wasn’t as thrilled by the clunky-looking rubber boot over the seat clamp.
Norco Search XR Ultegra bottom line
The Search XR Ultegra manages the near-perfect blend of smoothness and responsiveness. It goes fast yet doesn’t punish when the roads get nasty.
It has the ability to be loaded with bags, fenders and cages or be run clean and minimal for quick spins. It’s decently light, yet feels solid underneath, and I’m a sucker for its fabulous matte blue-fade color.
If your gravel-bike intentions run the gamut from bikecamping to racing, or you don’t need a hyper-specialized gravel machine, it’s hard to beat the Search XR with its broad range of abilities.
For me, where gravel isn’t merely riding slow road bikes on pavement with the occasional foray on hard dirt roads, the Search XR Ultegra is the gravel bike I’d spend my money on.