Cross Country Cycling Explained: A Complete Guide to XC Riding & Racing
Cross-country (XC) mountain biking is the oldest and most accessible discipline, making it extremely popular among recreational and competitive riders.
XC racing combines descending, climbing, and flat singletrack demanding a high level of technical ability, fitness, and tactical experience to be successful.
You can do cross-country cycling on hardtails or full-suspension mountain bikes with minimal bike gear, making it cheaper than the highly specialized bikes and equipment used for gravity mountain biking. In addition, you can find plenty of XC routes and events for all ability levels.
This article will explain what cross-country riding is, the characteristics of XC bikes and gear, and describe the different types of XC MTB racing events and their rules.
What Is Cross-country Mountain Biking?
Cross-country cycling is a mountain biking discipline involving medium to long-distance routes with a blend of climbing, descending, and flat sections. Speed is essential for XC riding, even on the uphill sections. In contrast, the more technical, flashy nature of gravity mountain biking disciplines (downhill and enduro) focuses solely on the downhill portion.
Modern XC-style trails combine tight, technical sections, rooty uphills, rocky descents, and fast singletrack that challenge all facets of technique, strength, and fitness. As a result, this riding style is incredibly demanding and equally rewarding at both a recreational and competitive level.
History of Cross-country Mountain Biking
Cross-country as a riding and racing style evolved in the western US in the mid to late ’70s. Back then, riders used rigid-frame balloon-tire ‘klunkers’ to ride the trails around Crested Butte, Colorado, and Marin County, California.
The individuals who used these bikes took part in cyclocross races and shortly after, in 1976, began organizing downhill mountain bike races.
Two years after the first ‘Repack’ downhill race, in ’78, the first recorded cross-country race took place in Crested Butte. A decade later, cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), sanctioned the first Mountain Bike World Cup series, consisting of nine cross-country events across Europe and North America.
In 1990, the first World Championships took place in Durango, Colorado, which included XC and downhill disciplines. The last major milestone was its addition to the Olympic Games in 1996.
From the ’70s to the turn of the millennium, XC-style mountain biking was the dominant discipline because of the limitations of early suspension. However, the other types have pulled even with it since the development of modern suspension.
Cross-country mountain biking’s popularity in the professional realm has also led to increases in recreational riders taking part in events, both competitive and non-competitive.
What Defines a Cross-country Mountain Bike
The enormous variety in mountain bike components and suspension designs has led to more specialization and the emergence of a distinct cross-country mountain bike category.
Both hardtails and full-suspension bikes are used regularly for XC riding and racing. Hardtails are cheaper for the equivalent spec, so they are more popular with recreational riders.
Cross-country mountain bikes need to be lightweight, efficient, and agile. To achieve that, manufacturers select the lightest and stiffest components and materials, minimize the amount of suspension, and maximize rolling speed with narrower tires and wide rims.
Now, let’s look at the typical components and features of XC MTBs to better understand the current trends in the discipline.
Frame and Suspension
Almost all premium XC-specific bikes use carbon fiber for the frame for its superior stiffness and strength-to-weight ratio. However, aluminum cross-country bike frames are on most entry and mid-level models as they’re cheaper to manufacture. Generally, manufacturers avoid steel because it’s heavy and compliant (the opposite of light and stiff), but some bikepacking XC hardtails have steel frames.
Hardtails are becoming less common in professional XC racing but are popular at the amateur level and in recreational cross-country cycling. Full-suspension cross-country bikes typically have minimalist single-pivot setups that keep the weight low and leave plenty of space for bottles. Very few manufacturers use four-bar suspension designs on XC bikes.
Air suspension is the only type used in XC because it’s much lighter than coil shocks. The travel range is from 80 to 120mm, with the majority using 100mm.
Finally, XC bikes, especially premium models, often have remote lockout capability, so when the terrain smooths out, you can turn a full-suspension bike into a hardtail with the flick of a lever to stop rear shock compression.
Geometry and Seatposts
Cross-country mountain bikes are steeper and more compact than their trail and enduro counterparts which often have a low, long, and slack geometry. Manufacturers reduce weight and increase agility using a compact frame with less material. XC bikes also have long stems and narrower handlebars, making for a more efficient position and faster handling.
The jury is still out on seatposts for the cross-country category; it is very much down to personal preference. Some riders like low-travel droppers for XC riding, while others stick to lightweight carbon seatposts for lower weight. Getting one of the best dropper posts will allow you to maneuver better and improves stability on descents, increasing your overall speed.
Wheels and Tires
Modern XC bikes exclusively use 29″ rims because they have the fastest rolling speed, allowing you to hold momentum over chunky sections to smooth out the terrain and save energy.
Carbon fiber is the preferred material for XC rims because of its low weight and stiffness. Nonetheless, alloy rims are standard in entry/mid-range models because they are significantly cheaper.
Most XC tires are between 2.1″ and 2.3″, tubeless-ready, and made with multiple compounds to keep the weight down. In addition, most racers use inserts so they can continue riding to the technical zone even with a puncture.
Most cross-country MTBs, especially for shorter races, will have a 1×12-speed drivetrain. This configuration reduces weight and the risk of mechanical issues. However, long-distance marathon XC riders may use a 2×11-speed setup for the extra efficiency it provides.
Finally, cross-country bikes usually have lightweight two-piston hydraulic disc brakes with 160mm rotors front and back or even a lighter 140mm rear rotor.
Cross-country Cycling Gear and Clothing
You can do non-competitive cross-country cycling in whatever gear is most comfortable for you. For example, a best bike helmet with good ventilation is perfectly adequate, platform or clipless pedals both work well, and whatever clothing you like (just make sure you use cycling bib shorts with a chamois).
Because it is a speed-focused discipline, serious XC riders and racers use clothing and gear that is more aerodynamic and lighter than typical mountain bike gear. You’ll see racers using lightweight aero helmets with ventilation, tight lycra-based cycling clothes, and clipless pedals.
Cycling Cross-country: Bikepacking and Bicycle Touring
Cycling cross country, over large distances, or even an overnight trip with an off-road bike loaded with bags is known as bikepacking; combining bags with a pannier setup on an all-road bike is typically referred to as bicycle touring.
Both touring styles are increasingly popular as cycling infrastructure improvements make them safer and more convenient.
Bikepacking involves more off-roading and gives you more flexibility with where you can ride. For this reason, XC MTBs or bikes with off-road characteristics are favored for bikepacking.
There are many popular cross-country cycling routes in the United States and Canada, ranging from 1800 to over 4500 miles. In addition, you can visit Europe to cycle across multiple countries over much shorter distances. For example, in just 500 miles, you can cycle through five countries, starting in southeast France and going through Monaco, Italy, and Slovenia, to reach Croatia.
Cross-country mountain bikes make excellent bikepacking machines because they are lightweight, efficient, and capable of handling diverse terrains. Other popular options for cycling cross-country include gravel bikes and touring bikes.
What Is XC Cross-country Mountain Bike Racing?
XC mountain bike racing encompasses multiple events, ranging in distance and duration. However, the rulesets are relatively similar across the professional races.
Successful cross-country mountain bikers mix incredible fitness, impressive technical skills and handling, and cunning tactics to win highly competitive races with up to 100 competitors.
Cross-country Olympic Racing (XCO)
XCO racing is the most common cross-country cycling race. It’s a mass-start event that involves completing an allocated number of laps around a circuit. Course length varies from four to ten kilometers (2.5-6 miles), with roughly three miles being the most common.
The courses mix climbing, descending, and flat sections, with plenty of highly technical terrain at the professional level. Because XCO isn’t long, riders race at a high tempo, maintaining close to maximum effort.
World Cup and Olympic-level events are the longest and most challenging versions. Amateur races use less technical courses and shorter distances. Races can last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, but elite-level races typically last around 90.
During an XCO event, riders jostle fiercely in the opening lap to establish a position at the front of the bunch. By the second lap, the race settles into a rhythm with less passing and fewer explosive efforts. Then, on the last lap, riders try to gain an advantage out front or pass those in front of them.
XCO events have two different service points for feeding and repairing mechanical issues. Riders cannot receive help outside these zones, so they must get there even with a flat tire (that’s why XC racers use tubeless inserts).
Cross-country Short Circuit (XCC)
Because XCO races are mass-start events, there must be a way to determine who starts where; that’s where XCC comes in. Before World Cup events, XCC races determine the first 24 starting positions (the first three rows).
These races take place two days before the event on short 1 to 1.5km (0.6-1 miles) courses. Riders complete six to eight laps, lasting 20 to 25 minutes. Riders start side by side on an extra-wide starting line and race to secure their place at the front for the XCO race. The remaining starting positions are determined by ranking (the unranked riders draw lots).
Because of their popularity, XCC races have become their own event with unique rankings, not just a sorting race for XCO. Cross-country Short Circuit’s high-intensity, short-duration nature is exhilarating for fans and riders.
World Cup XC MTB Racing
The XC World Cup is a year-round competition that takes place over six to nine rounds. Each round is in a different country. The challenge for riders is to perform consistently on diverse courses, in unfamiliar climates, and at different fitness levels (as you cannot stay in peak shape year-round).
In each event, the first five places take points. Whoever has the most at the end of the year wears a special white jersey for the following series.
Marathon Cross-country Mountain Bike Racing (XCM)
Marathon XC mountain bike racing is a long-distance version of XCO, taking place on courses up to 100 miles long.
The UCI organizes an XCM World Cup and a World Championship each year. In these events, professional mountain bike racers take on distances between 60 and 160km in length with between one and three laps.
The non-professional XCM events, also called Cross-country Enduro, can be based on time or distance, such as 6, 12, or 24 hours or a 100-mile course. In the timed races, participants do as many laps as possible in the allotted time. Some are team events, where the total time is split evenly between the participants, and the total number of laps completed by each rider are added together at the end.
XCM races have areas to restock on fluids and food and repair technicals. However, riders must carry spares for on-field repairs because of the longer distances between service points.