Alongside trail biking, cross-country mountain biking (or XC biking) is the most popular biking discipline.
If you’re just starting out with mountain biking and want to test your skills, cross-country racing is the most suitable for you. Unlike trail riding or downhill races, XC mountain biking deals less with riding through technical terrain and focuses more on speed and endurance.
That is not to say cross-country racing is not challenging; it still involves pushing both uphill and downhill while gathering up enough speed and energy to cover as much distance as possible.
That said, it all depends on the type of race you ride in.
XC Racing Disciplines
There are two main types of XC races – cross-country Olympics and cross-country marathons. As with a footrace marathon, cross-country marathons cover longer distances than Olympic cross-country races.
Cross-Country Olympic (XCO)
An XCO mountain biking race is one where many riders complete laps on a single racetrack. As is the nature of cross-country races, you start with a bunch of XC riders beside you, but the more you progress, the more freedom you get on the track.
The average distance to cover in an Olympic race is about 5km, with the average time being 1 hour and 30 mins. Since the riding style requires bikers to do laps around the track, it’s a good event to watch as a spectator as you’ll get to see them over and over again.
A race for elite cross-country riders requires them to complete the most laps (and hence takes more time), while juniors and beginners ride shorter distances. This allows inexperienced XC riders to get a feel of the XCO mountain bike race without feeling too overwhelmed by the format.
The number of laps in such races range from five to seven. Depending on the racetrack, a short one requires more laps while a longer one means the riders will go on fewer laps.
Keep in mind that Olympic XC mountain biking still has obstacles and technical challenges you need to ride through to get to the finish line. As you might guess, the first one across the line wins.
A common feature of these races is that they have a technical zone where XC riders can replenish their energy and repair their mountain bikes before getting on with the race. The only disadvantage here is that if the mountain biker is unfortunate enough to damage the XC bike afterward, he can’t ride back to the previous technical zone and has to take it to the next one further ahead.
XC Olympic races are fun to watch. And if you want to take part, it’s as easy as searching for the nearest local XCO event and signing up—do note that bigger, more recognized races might require you to have a license.
Cross-Country Marathons (XCM)
An XCM covers a distance of about 100km, on average, though beginners can start at 40 to 50km. More experienced cross-country riders, on the other hand, can ride a whole 160km.
Though longer, the format of this event doesn’t involve covering the distance in laps. Riders will, instead, need to finish the race in one long lap.
Marathon racing also involves the technicalities of climbing uphill and descending downhill while riding through different terrain. All this, combined with the distance, makes it a longer, more demanding race that can take over three hours to complete.
Similar to an XCO mountain biking event, a marathon mountain bike race focuses on speed and endurance. Only this time, it’s more so as it takes longer for riders to get past the obstacles and get to the finish line.
For trail riders or beginners, this is a great form of cross-country riding if you want to challenge yourself. You can always start with the least possible distance (mostly 40km) and work your way up from there, monitoring your progress.
As with XCO mountain bike races, marathon events also have technical areas for the riders to fuel up and take care of punctures and other issues. That said, as this is a long event, it’s always best to carry some essential tools and spares for you to handle small inconveniences yourself.
One thing to note here is that you can take part in a cross-country marathon event on your own (solo) or as a team of two (duo). The latter allows people with different abilities to work together and helps you finish the race in good time.
If you want to add a challenging experience to your bucket list, completing a cross-country marathon is one to consider.
Cross-Country Short Circuit (XCC)
One cross-country mountain biking discipline that’s not as popular as the above two is the short circuit event. This is a shorter race that takes about 20 minutes and covers about 1km in 7 to 10 laps.
As the above two focus on a mixture of speed and endurance, an XCC event focuses more on speed as it has fewer obstacles to overcome. That said, the format is closer to that of XCO mountain biking than that of a marathon.
A bonus XC riding discipline is the cross-country eliminator (XCE). This is where the last one to cross the finish line is eliminated.
Other disciplines for trail riders and bikers who want to challenge themselves include enduro/all-mountain riding and downhill races.
In XC riding, it’s always important to have a strong start. That small advantage can determine where you finish.
Types of XC Bikes for Cross-Country Mountain Biking
Depending on the XC race, mountain bike enthusiasts use one of two cross-country mountain bikes – a hardtail bike or a full-suspension bike.
There’s not much debate about wheel sizes today. The most common wheel size for a cross country XC rider is 29-inches.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
A hardtail cross-country bike has a suspension fork at the front and does not bear a rear shock. This makes these types of bikes lighter compared to trail bikes or downhill bikes as downhill riders use bikes with slacker geometry and longer suspension travel.
This is also why a trail bike is not common in cross-country racing. The terrain, though not as technical, requires a lot of climbing, which means your XC bike should weigh as little as possible—a feature of hardtail designs.
Hardtail XC bikes are also cheaper and require little maintenance. They’re the most suitable cross-country bikes for beginner riders on less technical terrain.
Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes
These cross-country bikes have good front and rear suspension travel. This makes them geared for trail riding through difficult terrains that require a lot of maneuvering.
They’re the most versatile of the two. Other riders use a full-suspension bike on a cross-country mountain bike race, but it’s hard to survive trail racing with a hardtail bike.
Full-suspension cross-country bikes are also heavier. Even though you can use them in a cross-country race, you’re likely to be left behind due to all the climbing of hills.
A full-suspension cross-country bike is the most efficient bike for beginners without a specific discipline in mind. They also offer more comfortable riding.
Cross country (XC) mountain biking is a great way for you to test your skills if you’ve been participating in the sport for a while. If you’re a beginner, it’s one way for you to experience the thrill that comes with mountain biking.
Smaller XC races won’t require you to have a racing license, so if you want to have fun, check out your local bike shop or ask some local cross-country riders how you can register for one.
Though they’re classified as races, the most important thing is to have fun. XC mountain biking is an experience you’re sure to enjoy.