What is Cross Country Mountain Biking

While our previous article on What Is BMX talked about just that, this article will dive deep on exactly what Cross Country Mountain Biking is, or XC MTB for short.

So, What Is Cross Country Mountain Biking?

As the name may suggest, XC mountain biking more encompasses the distance travelled on the bike, as opposed to the complexity of the terrain covered.

At a glance, trail and cross-country riding seem indistinguishable; however, upon a further analysis, there are many differences in the two, and each has its own purpose and enthusiast.

What Is A Cross Country Mountain Bike Trail?

Before we can address the above question, we need to garner a fuller understanding of exactly what Cross Country Mountain Biking is.

As we mentioned, conventional trail mountain biking is often defined by drops, dips, climbs, berms and all the adrenalin spikes in between.

The MTB trails, as we covered in our trail reviews, are predominantly short and punchy, and typically filled with challenging terrain – graded on difficulty from green to double black diamond.

However, XC trails are slightly different. Instead of speed and thrills, XC riders value time up hills. This means, that cross country riders are more apt to tracking and bettering times, rather than technicalities of the ride.

And of course, this stems from the fact that XC is mainly spoken about in terms of races. These races generally take one of three main forms:

XC Eliminator (XCE); where the last two riders across the finish line are disqualified from the race, and obviously the last rider standing wins. This can go on anywhere from 3-24hrs!

Then, there is XC Marathon (XCM), which are typically 78-100 km in length.

This discipline of XC has become especially popular in recent years, mostly because of the fact that riders of all skill levels are welcome to compete – much like why beginner downhill MTB tracks are always so popular and busy.

For many, just completing an XCM is considered a major life accomplishment.

Finally, the most similar to downhill trail MTB is XC Olympic (XCO). Riders generally complete laps around a short, 4-10km intense trail circuit. This requires the highest XC riding skill – as well as some hardcore endurance.

Anyway, I digress. Why that is relevant, is because the type of race being participated in will largely affect the trail and riding style.

However, a rule of thumb is that rather than seeking out the fast and flowy trails that include rock hopping or death-defying drops, XC riders stick to either long distance or short circuits that will allow them to post the best possible completion time.

Navigating difficult trails quickly requires much skill, particularly when reading unfamiliar trails on the go. These paths can be anything from singletrack paths to backcountry roads, and even fire break paths on the sides of mountains etc.

How are these trails ranked for difficulty then? Well, the colour grading systems generally still apply, but because some tracks can be over a whopping 100km long, the trails are generally gauged on average time taken vs distance, and usually rather mild in gradient or obstacles etc.

What Is A Cross Country Mountain Bike Used For

As we can see above, there are various uses and disciplines. These different disciplines incorporate different distances and intensities which in turn affects the requirements for bikes. Let’s discuss these more in detail.

Firstly, XC mountain bikes. While the look of these bikes hasn’t changed much in over 30 years, the feel certainly has. These bikes are constantly innovated and optimized to chase speed and track times.

However, the drawback is that the pursuit of speed and weight reduction can often mean less comfort. These bikes are all about going fast – whether that be fast up hills or going fast around race tracks, fast means light.

And thus, many XC mountain bikes are constructed from tough and lightweight carbon fibre for weight reduction. XC bikes can be full suspension or hardtail (meaning that the rear tire has no suspension travel) designs, and usually have 100-mm of suspension travel.

They can also feature front forks for more ground feel, which can be assisted by means of an air spring. However, this can be less in some cases to maximize pedalling efficiency.

Next up, we get MTB bikes designed specifically for enduro/marathon purposes. These bikes are purpose-built to accommodate for marathon racing, stage racing, and casual trail riding.

They’re still focused on climbing, but with more consideration for how the bike will descend. This means slightly more suspension travel to accommodate the less smooth paths, up to 120-mm, and designed to be bearable and comfortable for long hours in the saddle.

These bikes are great overall, because they can be used for general trail riding as well as XC, and their suspension caters for some unexpected fun stages like drops etc. Generally, on XC bikes, the wheels are between 27.5 and 29 inches, but for the most part 29.

They are also narrower; usually under 2.5 inches. Also, XC bikes use a rigid carbon fibre or aluminium seat post. These are the min differentiating factors in suspension, wheel and post setups as opposed to trail. There are of course other differences, but these are the main ones.

So, what do these machines cost? Well, in general it is difficult to give a broad price, as prices can differ hugely – just as they do with any other discipline of biking. Good, professional models generally start at around $3000, and this can go up into the tens of thousands. Rather pricey, but it’s a pricey sport no matter what discipline you go into.


Now that you are well informed as to what XC mountain biking is, is it up to you to decide whether competitive cross-country mountain biking is your thing, and then whether XCE, XCO or XCM appeals to you most.

It is quite competitive and can be a serious niche of bike riding, but if you’re a beginner looking to get into it – since it’s rather expensive, our recommendation is to buy an entry-level Enduro-style bike.

Enduro bikes have more forgiving and adaptable suspension that is suited to less specific trails, and see whether you enjoy it from there. Whatever you do, make sure you have fun doing it and stay safe!