What is Cross Country (XC) Mountain Biking?

When many mountain bike enthusiasts first start out, there is often a great deal of confusion about the differences between cross country (XC) mountain biking and trail mountain biking, especially for a beginner mountain biker. At first glance, the two seem somewhat indistinguishable: both ride trails, both use similar bikes, and both are competitive. If you dig a little deeper though, these two styles of mountain bike riding are vastly different from one another. Let’s take a look.

What Exactly Is XC Mountain Biking?

So what exactly is XC mountain biking? In brief, it is a form of mountain biking that focuses more on distance and endurance over technical challenges of negotiating difficult terrain or complex, obstacle-ridden downhills.

It’s not that XC riders don’t love a fast downhill, but they are also focused on negotiating the uphill as quickly as possible for the best trail completion time. XC riders push hard on the uphill and focus on speed for the down hill rather than seeking out the most challenging ride to the bottom.

To help you better understand XC riding and what to look for in a good XC bike, here are some other distinctions that set XC apart from trail riding:


Racing Disciplines

There are various long and short distance races for XC riding, including official Olympic competition races. Check these out:

XC Eliminator (XCE)

Last two riders across the finish line are out of the race.

XC Olympic (XCO)

Riders complete laps around a short trail circuit. This requires the highest XC riding skill.

XC Marathon (XCM)

These 78-100 km. races have become especially popular in recent years, largely due to the fact that riders of all skill levels are welcome to compete. For many, just completing an XCM is considered a major life accomplishment.


Type of Trail

Rather than seek out the fast and flowy trails that require significant rock hopping or steep 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 a significant amount of skill, particularly when reading unfamiliar trails on the fly.

Front Fork Suspension

XC bikes use fully rigid or near rigid front forks constructed from either carbon fiber or steel. Fully rigid front suspension offers superior “ground feel” during the ride and reduces weight compared to trail bike spring suspension forks. Additionally, most XC bike front suspensions forks use an air spring to reduce weight, and usually allow between 100-120mm of travel when absorbing impacts or shocks.


Rear Fork Suspension

Bikes used for XC riding are typically hardtail designs, meaning that the rear tire has no suspension travel. This style of suspension is preferable for XC since it allows riders to more efficiently channel their pedaling power into acceleration, particularly on uphill stretches. Some XC bikes offer rear spring suspension, but also include a lockout control for riding on flats and uphill climbing. These suspensions typically rely on air springs with 80-120mm length of travel. It’s not going to be as shock absorbent as a spring suspension, but it will provide a better climbing and flat riding experience.

Wheel Sizes

Since the riding style and objectives are different when XC mountain biking, the preferred wheel size is 29-inches. Tires also tend to be much narrower as well, usually below the 2.2-inch range. Some XC riders prefer a narrow tire 27.5-inch wheel for negotiating tougher terrain, but the standard is largely 29-inch wheels across the board for mountain biking.

Seat Post Design

Last but not least, the seatpost design for XC bikes is different from trail bikes. An XC bike uses a rigid carbon fiber or aluminum seat post. Some XC riders have taken to using lightweight dropper posts in recent years (like trail riders), since it gets the seat out of the way when climbing or descending with just the flip of a switch under the seat. All things being equal, a fixed ultralight post design is preferred.


XC mountain biking presents its own unique challenges compared to trail biking, but in the end it all comes down to personal preference in personal style. Many thrill seekers and trail riders also ride XC for the unique challenges it presents. Others ride XC to develop their fundamental mountain biking skills and technical abilities when trail riding.

Whatever your reason, XC mountain biking is an excellent way to experience cycling over difficult terrain in the backcountry. Unlike trail riding, XC presents you with more opportunities to learn trails before attempting a trail ride later on. If you are looking to start your mountain biking journey, XC is definitely a great start for any aspiring off-road bike enthusiast.

More info about cross county mountain biking can be found here.