Cross-country mountain biking (or XC for shorthand) is one of the most exciting sports, full of speed, skill and occasional sprint finish.
Professional XC’s popularity is growing across the world, with the sport now making inroads into Central and South America. The current U23 men’s World Champion, Martín Vidaurre Kossmann, is from Chile. It’s also attracting multi-disciplinary cycling stars like Evie Richards, Tom Pidcock and Mathieu Van der Poel.
Taking part yourself is just as fun as watching all of the action from the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike Cross-country World Cup unfold live on Red Bull TV.
What is XC mountain biking?
XC is all about riding mountain bikes in the countryside off-road. When it comes to racing (rather than recreational riding), the most common type is ‘Olympic’ (named because – you guessed it – it’s an Olympic discipline) which is also known as XCO. Events see competitors race around a predetermined off-road course for a set number of laps or duration, with the winner being the rider who crosses the line in first place.
XC racing focuses on your speed both up and down a hill, so it’s a good workout if you take up the sport. The more you get into it, the more a lightweight, race-ready bike will start to make sense. They tend to have less suspension travel (making them less forgiving on the big, gnarly jumps), but the reduction in weight and more aggressive on-bike positioning makes for a faster, more responsive ride.
Not sure where to start on your cross-country journey? We spoke to cross-country world champion Evie Richards to find out the best tips she can share and why we should all be getting on our bikes.
Know the course
“Racing an XC course is so much easier if you’ve already ridden it at a slow, steady pace before your event,” says Richards.
But that doesn’t mean you need to scout out your upcoming race’s venue for months beforehand. Most events allow for a practice session either the day before or on the morning of the race. Richards uses this time to make mental notes that will come in handy when it’s race time.
As you and your skills progress, recceing the route becomes a great way of finding the fastest lines and potential passing points
“It’s important to try and get a feel for the various technical sections that are dotted around a course,” she says. “For example, tackling a rock garden is so much easier if you’ve already had a couple of goes at it. When you’re starting out, knowing the course will help you manage your speed when entering these trickier sections or help you figure out if you need to skip them completely and take the alternative line. As you and your skills progress, recceing the route becomes a great way of finding the fastest lines and potential passing points.”
Nail your nutrition
“It’s taken me time to perfect my eating and drinking both for training and on race day, but my best advice is to not sweat the small stuff,” explains Richards. “If you’re training and racing regularly, it’s important to refuel and hydrate properly with a well-balanced diet throughout the week, rather than simply carb-loading the night before a race.”
When it comes to the day itself, Richards has a breakfast of porridge and fruit but makes sure she doesn’t have anything too substantial within three hours of the start. From there, she has a gel just before heading to the start line to top up her pre-race energy levels. After that, it’s simply a case of making sure she stays hydrated during the race while keeping her energy up.
“I mix 50/50 Red Bull and water in my bottle, so I get that hit of energy while staying hydrated throughout the race,” she says. “It’s something that works for me and ensures I can put in explosive bursts deep into a race.”
Richards is quick to add that post-race nutrition is just as important as everything that has come before it because it can help with recovery and the dreaded DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).
Ditch the baggy mountain biking kit
Out-and-out cross-country racing bikes are refined machines made for going fast. But you don’t have to splash the cash if you’re just getting started.
“When I first began racing, I rode a pretty basic hardtail that was the same bike I used for riding my local trails and to and from work,” says Richards. “It wasn’t particularly light or fancy but made the sport quite accessible as I didn’t need to buy anything else.”
When it comes to kit, it’s best to stick to tighter, lycra-based clothing commonly found in road cycling rather than the traditionally baggy mountain biking attire.
Remember to warm up
Kit ready, course learned and fuelling sorted, it’s time to head to the start line. But there’s a crucial final thing to do that will make all the difference when the start gun is fired – warming up.
“Coming to the start line cold will not only mean you’re not going to be as fast out of the blocks as the other racers, but it could also lead to an injury if your muscles aren’t properly prepared,” says Richards.
She takes to the turbo trainer within the hour before a race, starting with a gentle spin before ramping up with some harder efforts to get the blood pumping.
“Before I started using a turbo trainer, I would warm up by riding up and down a nearby road or fire road, and throw some sprints in for good measure,” adds Richards.
Start as you mean to go on
A lot is made of getting a good start in an XC MTB race – the tight, technical nature of some courses can create bottlenecks early on, meaning those towards the back of the pack can get held up. But it’s important not to put in an effort at the start that you aren’t able to recover from.
“I always try to keep something in reserve, especially at the start of a race,” says Richards. “If I’m not able to get the best start, I use my experience to reset and not let it get the better of me mentally. It’s better to try and pick my way back to the front of the pack over the course of a race rather than put in loads of efforts that are going to leave me burned out come crunch time.”
“Always have a warm coat ready for you at the end of a race,” she says. “When it’s wet and muddy, there’s nothing worse than standing around getting cold!”
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