Cross-country mountain biking (or XC MTB for short) is one of the most popular types of cycling, and it’s easy to see why. It gets its name literally because it takes place in the countryside, allowing riders to explore bridleways, trails and fire roads free from traffic, as well as the worries that come with it.
It’s not limited to a leisurely spin on a Saturday afternoon, either. A professional sport since 1990, the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup is the pinnacle of cross-country mountain bike racing and sees the best riders in the world compete on some of the planet’s most technically demanding courses.
To get the full lowdown, we spoke to the current women’s world champion Evie Richards to find out what cross-country mountain biking is and why we should all be getting a piece of the action.
What is XC MTB?
XC MTB is a varied discipline of off-road riding. A ride can take in anything from fire roads to twisting singletrack. As a leisure activity, most participants will just ride on flattish trails. For those looking for more of a workout, these trails are often combined with an off-road climb or two. There is also a competitive side to it for those who want to put their skills and speed to the test, as Richards explains.
“The most common type of cross-country race is the Olympic discipline [also known as XCO], which is what I race in at an elite level. Essentially, there is a marked out course that you race for a set number of laps or time.
“There are also short track [XCC] and marathon [XCM] races, which are, as you can probably guess, shorter or longer in distance. Most courses will include some hills, descents and technical sections like jumps, berms [curved, raised banks that allow riders to carry speed into corners], drops and rock gardens [a section of rocky, uneven terrain made up of razor-sharp stone and slabs that are slippery when wet].”
What is XCC and XCO mountain biking?
Wondering what on earth XCC and XCO racing are? Canadian National Champion Emily Batty runs us through the ins and outs of UCI MTB World Cup cross-country racing.
XC MTB isn’t just trail riding
There is quite a lot of overlap in terms of areas and features ridden but the focus of the ride is different. XC MTB can probably be considered slightly tamer than all-out trail riding.
With trail riding the general focus of a ride is about going mostly downhill while tackling technical natural features (jumps, drops, gaps, berms) along the way, XC MTB is all about your speed both up and down a trail and tackling similar features. There’s no relaxing on the ride back to the start of an XC trail.
“When I’m doing a XC training session, it will include all-out efforts up off-road climbs, practising my technique on small jumps and uneven terrain, and just generally trying to ride a loop or section of trail as quickly as I can,” explains Richards.
Trail mountain bikes are heavier than cross-country mountain bikes. The latter being built for racing with their lightness and agility.
How do you get into XC MTB?
Most entry-level mountain bikes are based on the standard cross-country bike design, so if you’ve already got one of those, that’s the main hurdle overcome.
“When I first started racing, I used a hardtail [front suspension-only mountain bike] that I’d bought to ride to and from my weekend job on,” she says. “Although it’s a million miles from the bike I ride now, it was a great way of getting into mountain biking without having to spend loads on new kit.”
When I first started racing, I used a hardtail that I’d bought to ride to and from my weekend job on
Bike sorted, it’s time to find a race near to you. Checking your country’s cycling federation website is a good place to start.
“Every area has its own local series, and you’ll be surprised to see what there is on your doorstep,” adds Richards.
Can anyone do it? If so, where?
The great thing about XC MTB is that it’s a really accessible form of mountain biking. Unlike other competitive disciplines – such as downhill, 4x and enduro – XC requires a much lower level of technical skill. But that’s not to say it’s as easy as riding a bike.
“Before you enter your first race, you should be able to ride confidently off-road and be comfortable tackling sometimes uneven terrain and the occasional section of singletrack,” says Richards. “If you’re not quite there yet, spend some time practising and get yourself used to the riding off-road – either at a dedicated trail centre or the paths and bridleways near your home.”
Once you feel like you can hold your own, you don’t have to throw yourself in at the deep end either. Although most courses include daunting technical features like jumps, ruts, and rock gardens, there will also be an alternative, beginner-friendly path to take.
What do you need to take part in a XC MTB race?
Other than a bike, there is only one other must-have when lining up on the start line of a XC MTB race – a helmet. But there are a number of things that will make your race more enjoyable (and could even boost your performance, too).
“When racing, I wear a cycling jersey and pair of bib shorts, and I can’t recommend riding in proper clip-in shoes enough – they take a bit of getting used to at the start but are so much more efficient than just flat pedals and trainers,” says Richards.
While Richards has mechanics on hand during her races if there are any issues, she recommends carrying all the tools required to fix a puncture (spare inner tube, tyre levers, mini pump and multitool) and everything you’ll need to keep you properly fuelled during your race.
“I tend to stick to carrying a bottle filled with half Red Bull and half water. But if your race is longer, you might want to consider carrying something quick release like a gel, too.”
Is XC MTB racing safe?
“Although professional racing might look quite fast and furious, it’s a safe environment where all the riders are looking out for each other. A local event series will have a friendly, welcoming atmosphere where you’re able to take the race at whatever pace you feel comfortable,” says Richards
Plus, if you do fall off, you’re probably a lot less likely to hurt yourself than if riding on the road. Not only does the technical nature of the terrain and obstacles mean speeds are generally a lot slower off-road, but the mud and grass courses are a lot more forgiving than crashing on tarmac.