The Norco Search Alloy 105 is a great example of the new breed variously called gravel bikes, adventure bikes or, if you're a proper curmudgeon, touring bikes. It's intelligently specced, go-anywhere versatile and lots of fun thanks to its beefy tyres and powerful disc brakes.
If you were going to have just one bike for everything except racing, the Search would do the job, though you might want a second set of wheels to save faffing with tyre changes for road-only rides. It'll cheerfully handle anything from tarmac to well-surfaced singletrack and from the commuting run to days out exploring lanes and dirt roads.
Today's ride shows the Search's versatility. In a nutshell, I got lost in the droves and byways of the Fens. Byways gave way to bridleways, which gave way to (say it quietly) footpaths, and I ended up trying to reach a drove the other side of a field. The Search took it all in its stride even when I was just following a farm vehicle's tyre tracks in the hope of finding firmer ground.
The only thing the Search couldn't do was help when I had to scramble across a six-foot-deep irrigation ditch to get out of a field and back to a drove. But when that drove turned out to be more like a field than a road, the Search coped fine and got me to the next bit of proper road. (I should explain that Fenland droves are historic stock routes – some have been surfaced with gravel, concrete or tarmac, but some are still grass-surfaced lines on the map.)
This versatility is largely down to the Search's 35mm Schwalbe Tyrago tyres, which have enough tread to grip gravel, dirt, grass and dry earth, though they do get overloaded in proper mud. There's room in the frame for fatter tyres still (up to 40mm), but these are a good choice for mixed surface riding and fat enough that you can pretty much ignore potholes round town.
The Search's steady handling allows you to exploit the grip that those tyres provide. This isn't a razor-sharp road racing weapon, but nor is it a barge-like traditional touring bike. The neutral handling means it doesn't require constant attention, freeing you to admire the scenery, pick a line through the mud and wonder whether there really is a decent surface on the other side of that ditch.
That handling is revealed in the very torsionally stiff front end. The beefy carbon fibre fork ends in thru-axle dropouts and the whole front end feels very precise; it goes where you point it with no twang or wander, and it's not easily deterred from finding a line, even on a fast trail descent.
When you get a chance to go for it, the Search is just as stable as when blatting along on the flat. I have to admit I miss the bolt-on skill of my mountain bike's suspension, but being forced to read the trail is fun, and the Search is as forgiving of mistakes as it's reasonable to expect of a drop-bar bike without mountain bike-style fat tyres.
It's helped by the TRP Spyre twin piston brakes. Unlike most mechanical disc brakes, they have a piston either side of the rotor which makes it much easier to set them up so they don't rub. There's plenty of easily modulated power on offer here and – vitally for a bike that's going to be used off-road – they're far less affected by wet and mud than rim brakes.
The other thing you really need off road is as wide as possible a gear range. The Search has a 50/34 chainset and 11-32 11-speed cassette, with Shimano 105 gears and shifters. That's as wide as you can go with a Shimano double, and matches the range of SRAM's WiFli wide-range double.
The almost 1:1 low gear will get you up anything on the road and all but the steepest trails. I wonder who really needs a 50x11 top gear, though. Maybe we need some evolution of adventure bike gears like the developments mountain bikes went through a few years ago, sacrificing high gears for low gears and simplicity; 46/30 chainset, anyone?
I've ranted before about Norco's odd liking for in-line seatposts and there's one on the Search too. It's less of an issue here because you want a more upright riding position when surfaces get grotty, but I still swapped it out for a 25mm setback post because I'm simply comfier further behind the pedals.
That post and the rather ordinary saddle that sits on it are Norco branded bits, as are most of the finishing components. The wheels have been plenty tough enough for the battering they've had and are still straight and tight. Even if they had been banged around, it's an advantage of disc brakes that a few millimetres of rim wander doesn't matter much.
Up front we find a compact bar and – on this 55.5cm frame – a 100cm stem. This is spot on for mixed-surface riding for me, giving a position that's fairly upright for cruising along on the road and manhandling the bike on poorer surfaces. Given that I'd normally like a longer stem on a bike with a 56cm top tube, you might want a shorter one.
The Search's tidily welded double-butted aluminium frame has lots of thoughtful touches. One of the cleverest is the Flip dropouts. Undo a fixing bolt and an aluminium piece slides out with a threaded hole for mudguards so you can tidily fit both a rack and mudguards. Up front there are mudguard eyes hiding inside the fork legs.
The gear and brake cables are internally routed, entering the frame through plug-in ports that should make the hassle of changing cables rather less aggravating than if they just vanish into a hole. It'll also make for easy upgrading to electronic shifting when Shimano finally figures out how to do 105 Di2 for a sensible price.
The Search comes in under the all-important £1,000 Cycle To Work Scheme threshold, and it's a very decent package for the money considering you get a tidy double-butted aluminium frame, Shimano 105 transmission and the best cable disc brakes around.
Don't call it a touring bike
I kicked off this review with a crack about curmudgeonly types calling bikes like this 'touring bikes'. It's true that the bike industry keeps coming up with new niches and at first glance gravel/adventure/all-road looks a lot like touring.
But the Search is substantially different from a traditional touring bike. For starters those bikes usually have space for tyres no bigger than 32mm – 35mm at a pinch. That's fine for tarmac touring, but limiting if you want to get away from the roads.
Touring bikes are optimised for carrying luggage. The Search will carry panniers, but it handles just fine without them. Its mid-length chainstays suggest you might not want to get too enthusiastic adding very big bags though – you'll run out of heel clearance or have to push them so far back they'll wag the back end.
There are plenty of other differences, most notably the disc brakes, which are still rare on trad tourers, and the weight. For this price you'd be looking at a heavy steel-framed tourer. It might be repairable by a village blacksmith in Kyrgyzstan but it's going to be no fun when you do ride it unladen.
And fun is what sets apart adventure bikes from tourers. The Search is a blast to ride because it always tempts you to see what's down that gravel side road and, well, get lost. Tourers encourage a more stately, planned exploration of the countryside, all OS Landrangers and sandwiches in bar bags. They're both great, don't get me wrong, but they're different in style and attitude, and there's a place for both.
A go-anywhere bike that's great for 'accidentally' getting lost in the wilds
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Norco Search Alloy 105
Size tested: 56cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Double-butted aluminium alloy frame
Mid-Mod Full Carbon – TA Disc fork
Front Derailleur: Shimano 105 FD-5800 11spd
Rear Derailleur: Shimano 105 RD-5800-GS 11spd
Number of Gears: 22
Shifters: Shimano 105 ST-5800 11spd
Chainset: Shimano FC-RS500 50/34T 11spd
Bottom Bracket: Shimano HollowTech II
Cassette: Shimano 105 CS-5800 11-32T 11 speed
Chain: Shimano CN-HG600-11 11speed
Brakeset: TRP Spyre Twin Piston Mechanical Disc – 160mm
Handlebars: Norco Compact
Stem: Norco – Black
Headset: Angular Sealed Cartridge Bearings – Tapered
Grips: Norco Ultra Comfort ShockProof
Rims: Double Wall Aero 28mm
Front Hub: Alloy 15–100mm Thru-Axle Disc 28h
Rear Hub: Alloy Cartridge Bearing Disc 28h
Front Tyre: Schwalbe Tyrago 700–35c w/Reflex
Rear Tyre: Schwalbe Tyrago 700–35c w/Reflex
Saddle: Norco Sport w/Cromo Rail
Seatpost: Norco Composite 27.2 – UD Carbon Stealth
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Norco says: "The Search is more than a road bike: it is an all road bike. It is for those who search out challenging topography and an escape from the familiar – riders driven by an insatiable desire to discover that which lies around the next bend or over the crest of the next hill. . . and the next one after that. The route to the elusive 'end of the road' is often unpaved, which is why the Search features a long, stable wheelbase, comfort-enhancing ARC design and plenty of clearance for up to a 40c tire. Wherever your path leads – and whatever it is made of – Search it out and ride it."
I say: That's pretty well right. 'All road' is yet another term from a bike industry struggling to find a good name for this class of bike, but the Search tackles paved and unpaved roads with aplomb and isn't too bothered if what you're riding isn't even a road.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Nice to get a full-carbon fork at this price.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Not extreme in either department. Fairly high bar, a good thing for off-road riding.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
The fat tyres dominate the feel; comfort is entirely determined by tyre pressure.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
It's a good all-rounder, with neutral handling and no unpleasant surprises.
The weight of the wheels and tyres inevitably slows the Search down on climbs, but setting Strava KOMs is not what this bike is about.
Shimano 105: it's simple and it works.
Wheels and tyres
While I didn't have any problems during testing, these are 28-spoke wheels, which seems a bit optimistic for the rear wheel on a bike that might get some loaded use. If I were using this bike with panniers, I'd have a 32- or even 36-spoke rear wheel, handbuilt, to better take the loads.
Those fat tyre give a very comfy ride on poor surfaces.
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
They're good all-purpose hoops. If this were my only bike I'd have a second set of wheels and tyres for road-only, and use these for exploring.
Shimano 105 brake/shifters have everything in the right place for me; no complaints.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
The Search does what it's supposed to do very well.
About the tester
I usually ride: Scapin Style My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, general fitness riding, mountain biking
Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.