Cross-country is one of the most exciting disciplines within mountain biking. Races are often close, with elbow-to-elbow action right until the line, and the best XC bikes combine everything we love about mountain biking – riding fast, uphill and downhill.
Cross-country race bike technology has advanced quickly in the last few years. XC bikes are now lighter, faster and more capable than ever, while many cross-country race tracks have become more demanding at the same time.
If you’re thinking about buying a cross-country bike, then read on. We’re going to run through everything you need to know about cross-country bikes, so you can find the best XC bike for you. Otherwise, if you’re tempted to start riding competitively, we’ve got a separate beginner’s guide to cross-country racing.
What is a cross-country mountain bike?
A cross-country mountain bike is designed to cover a variety of off-road terrain as quickly as possible. It needs to be equally capable of climbing on the ups as it is on the descents, while also being efficient when pedalling on flatter terrain, or picking a line through tight, twisting singletrack.
Cross-country bikes are usually the lightest type of mountain bike you can buy for a given price and are often made from carbon fibre, although more affordable aluminium options are also widely available.
XC bikes have less suspension travel than trail bikes and enduro bikes, so won’t be as adept on very steep, rough and technical trails. That being said, in the right hands – for example, a professional rider – a cross-country bike is surprisingly capable.
While cross-country bikes are mainly designed for racing, they’re equally at home on mellower trails, or a big day out in the hills when you’ll value the all-round capability of an XC bike on varied terrain.
What about downcountry?
Before we go any further, we need to quickly mention downcountry bikes.
Downcountry is a fairly new term within mountain biking. In essence, it refers to bikes that blur the line between dedicated cross-country race bikes and more forgiving trail bikes.
A downcountry bike will have a little more suspension travel than a cross-country race bike; normally in the region of 120 to 130mm at the front and 110 to 115mm at the rear.
It will also have geometry that leans more towards descending performance than pedalling efficiency. For example, a slacker head angle, longer reach and longer wheelbase.
Finally, the componentry will be chosen with descending in mind, with more powerful brakes, larger/grippier tyres and a dropper post.
For riders who want a fast, versatile bike for a variety of terrain, downcountry bikes fill that gap. If this sounds like the type of bike for you, then check out our buyer’s guide to the best downcountry mountain bikes.
Hardtail vs full-suspension for XC racing
The first decision you need to make when buying a cross-country bike is whether you want a hardtail or full-suspension bike?
A hardtail only has suspension at the front through the fork, while a full-suspension bike has suspension at the front and rear.
There are pros and cons to each for cross-country riding, and this will influence what option will be best for you.
Hardtail bike for XC riding
For a given spec, a hardtail will nearly always be lighter than a full-suspension bike. So if you live somewhere hilly, or just prioritise climbing performance above all else, then a hardtail could be a good option.
With suspension only at the front of the bike, a hardtail is simpler in its design, making it easier and cheaper to maintain than a full-suspension bike.
Finally, for the same cost, a hardtail can often come with a better spec than a full-suspension bike, so may require less, if any, upgrading in the future.
Full-suspension bike for XC riding
While a hardtail will typically be lighter, more affordable and simpler to maintain than a full-suspension bike, when it comes to descending performance, a full-susser will win every time.
They’re also more comfortable than a hardtail, which is especially important for longer rides or races.
On rough, flat terrain, full-suspension bikes will often allow you to pedal more efficiently because the rear suspension soaks up any bumps on the ground.
As we’ve already mentioned, they will usually be heavier. However, this gap has narrowed over recent years, and at the high-end, they may only weigh a kilo or two more than a hardtail.
For many riders, the relatively small weight penalty of a full-suspension bike is worth the benefits of better descending, more comfort and increased pedalling efficiency on rough terrain.
What to look for when buying a cross-country bike
Now you’ve decided between a hardtail or full-suspension bike, here’s what else you need to look out for when buying a cross-country bike.
Cross-country bikes have traditionally had ‘steeper’ geometry figures than trail or enduro bikes. The logic here was that the ‘quicker’ handling made cross-country bikes better in tight singletrack and elbow-to-elbow racing.
However, modern cross-country racing now takes place on much tougher courses, which are equal parts tricky descents and lung-searing climbs, so geometry has had to keep up with this trend.
Head angles as slack as 67 degrees and reach figures once only seen on trail bikes are not uncommon to see on modern cross-country bikes.
They will also have steeper seat angles of around 74 to 75 degrees, which puts a rider’s hips in a better position over the bottom bracket for pedalling efficiency.
If you want to learn more about geometry, and how any of the figures we’ve mentioned affect fit and handling, we’ve got an in-depth explainer to mountain bike geometry.
There are two main frame materials to choose from: carbon fibre and aluminium.
When it comes to professional racing, every rider will use carbon fibre; it’s lighter than aluminium and can be designed to be stiffer, so makes perfect sense if all you’re worried about is going as fast as possible, with little concern for budget.
On that note, the downside of carbon is that it’s more expensive than aluminium, and in certain situations, more susceptible to crash damage.
Aluminium is more affordable and better at resisting damage from certain impacts. This makes it ideal if you’re looking to save money or want your bike to be as durable as possible. The latest aluminium frames can be impressively light, too.
Titanium and steel cross-country bikes do exist, but these are in the minority.
How much does a cross-country mountain bike weigh?
Your power-to-weight ratio is important for success in cross-country, so naturally riders want the lightest equipment possible, while still being able to withstand the demands of hard riding or racing.
At the high-end, you might find a top-spec hardtail weighing in at under 8kg, which is incredibly impressive considering what these bikes are capable of. More affordable models typically weigh anywhere from 9 to 11kg.
When it comes to full-suspension bikes, a top-spec model could come in just under 10kg, with more affordable bikes weighing anywhere from 12 to 14kg.
While overall bike weight is a factor, especially if you’re an elite racer, there are much better and cheaper ways to get faster when you’re starting out – such as training!
So try not to get too hung up with weight early on. There’ll be plenty of time to start counting those grams and emptying your wallet as you gradually progress through the ranks.
On modern cross-country bikes, nearly every model will feature 29in wheels.
While 29ers took a while to truly catch on, they’re now considered a smart option for many riders, thanks to their ability to roll over obstacles more easily, and arguably provide better pedalling speed.
In some circumstances, e.g. a particularly short rider, it may be best to go for smaller 27.5in wheels, but for most people, 29ers are the way to go for XC bikes.
If you want more information, we’ve got a guide to mountain bike wheel sizes, covering the pros and cons of 26in, 27.5in and 29in wheels.
Tyre choice comes down to a balancing act between rolling resistance/speed and grip, so the best cross-country tyres will usually have smaller tread blocks than trail or enduro tyres.
XC tyres may also have thinner sidewalls to save weight, and in some cases be made out of a slightly harder compound, which can roll faster.
However, remember a harder compound will, in theory, provide less grip, and thinner sidewalls offer less puncture protection. As we said, there’s always a compromise to be made somewhere.
Cross-country tyres were traditionally much narrower than trail/enduro tyres – but again, as the sport has changed, tyres have become wider, so you’ll now find cross-country tyres in the 2.2in to 2.4in range.
How much travel do you need?
When it comes to suspension travel, nearly all cross-country bikes will have 100mm of front and rear travel.
As we’ve already mentioned, downcountry bikes up this travel a little, with around 110-115mm at the back and 120-130mm on the front.
That said, it’s also worth bearing in mind how the all-new Scott Spark, a pure XC race bike, now has 120mm at both the front and rear. Like we said, XC race bikes are changing!
Scott knows a thing or two about making great cross-country bikes – the outgoing Spark was hugely popular on the XC scene – so it’ll be interesting to see if longer travel on dedicated race bikes will start to catch on.
Just like trail bikes, cross-country bikes have almost exclusively moved to one-by (1×) gearing, with Shimano and SRAM mountain bike groupsets dominating the market.
1× gearing means one chainring at the front (removing the need for a front derailleur), with a wide-ranging 11- or 12-speed cassette at the back to still provide a big spread of gears.
Super-strong professional riders have been known to run up to a 38-tooth chainring at the front. However, at the amateur level most riders will normally go for a 32- or 34-tooth chainring instead.
Cassette sizes usually range from a 10- or 11-tooth sprocket for the hardest gear, and a 51- or 52-tooth sprocket for the easiest climbing gear.
This is a pretty big spread and should keep those legs turning up the steepest of climbs.
Cross-country bikes will commonly be fitted with lightweight disc brakes. These will have smaller rotors, with most riders opting for 160mm front and rear.
Some particularly powerful riders may pop a 180mm rotor on the front, and super-lightweight riders may go for a 140mm on the rear, but in general, 160mm is what’s seen most commonly.
XC disc brakes won’t be quite as powerful as the brakes you’ll find on an enduro bike, but they’re more than capable for the job at hand.
On the most affordable bikes, these may be cable-actuated disc brakes, but from the mid-range and up, you’ll find hydraulic mountain bike disc brakes on all cross-country bikes.
A dropper post allows you to lower your saddle height at the touch of a button or lever mounted on your handlebar. This helps with descending because you’re able to move the bike and your weight around more easily.
Droppers were once unheard of in cross-country racing because most riders thought they were too heavy and unreliable. But as the sport and dropper technology has progressed, they’ve become more popular, with many pro riders making the switch.
Dropper posts aren’t necessarily cheap, but if you can afford one, or your bike already comes with one, they can be a great addition for a relatively small weight penalty (around 400 to 500g).
For many riders, adding a dropper post can really increase the descending capability of a bike, which is why it’s one of the smartest mountain bike upgrades you can make.
If you’re thinking about adding a dropper to your bike, we’ve got a buyer’s guide to the best dropper posts, as reviewed and rated by BikeRadar’s expert testers.
How much should you spend on a cross-country bike?
You can spend anywhere from £500 all the way up to £10,000 on a cross-country bike. While elite riders may want the best money can buy, most keen amateur racers will usually spend between £2,000 and £5,000 on their XC bike.
That said, more affordable bikes in the £750 to £2,000 range are still excellent options for beginners or riders looking to save money.
As ever, it’s a case of weighing up your priorities when it comes to price, component choice, weight and so on, before taking the plunge.