Best cross-country mountain bikes 2022 | 10 top-rated XC mountain bikes and our buyer’s guide

The top cross-country bikes as rated by our expert reviewers, plus our buyer's guide for everything you need to know

Pack shot of the Specialized Epic Pro full-suspension mountain bike

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 cross-country mountain bikes combine everything we love about mountain biking – riding fast, uphill and downhill.

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Cross-country mountain bike technology has advanced quickly in the last few years. Cross-country 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 for our pick of the best bikes reviewed by our expert testers.

We’ve also put together a buyer’s guide so you can learn everything you need to know about cross-country bikes at the end of this article.

If you’re tempted to start riding competitively, we’ve got a separate beginner’s guide to cross-country racing.

Best cross-country mountain bikes 2022, as rated by our expert testers

Specialized Epic Pro

4.5 out of 5 star rating
The Epic Pro is built from FACT 11M carbon, as used on the previous-generation S-Works Epic.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • A race bike with razor-sharp handling and technical ability
  • Contemporary geometry for a race bike
  • £8,250 / $8,000 / €9,299 / AU$13,000 as tested

This Specialized Epic is one of the best cross-country bikes on the market, with its geometry proving both contemporary and more trail-oriented than XC.

The bike uses Specialized’s proprietary Brain technology to control the suspension system, using weighted inertia valves to open the fork and shock when a bump is detected.

We found the bike to ride calmly in the rough without feeling sluggish. The long 470mm reach on our large frame, in conjunction with the 67.5-degree head tube angle, enables the bike to easily roll over rocks and roots and instills confidence when tipping it into corners too.

The bike comes equipped with a SRAM X01 Eagle AXS wireless electronic groupset. Top-flight S-Works finishing kit and Roval Control carbon wheels round off the build. The bike doesn’t come with a dropper seatpost, but there is routing for one should you wish to add it.

There may be better-value bikes out there, but this is a hard one to beat.

BMC Fourstroke 01 Two AXS

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The Fourstroke turns heads wherever it goes, with a stunning paintjob, aggressive lines and tidy graphics.
Andy Lloyd / Our Media
  • Decent geometry and an eager climber
  • Great suspension feel
  • £8,300 / $8,999 / €8,499 as tested

BMC’s Fourstroke piloted Tom Pidcock to Olympic Gold. On our trails, it made for a fairly poised race-ready ripper.

The Fourstroke’s geometry is up-to-date and it climbs with near-impeccable pedalling manners. It pumps through rolling terrain well and the bike eggs you on to accelerate and push yourself towards your limits on a wide variety of trails.

The SRAM GX Eagle AXS drivetrain performed flawlessly and the Fox suspension package felt supple.

However, it does require a tyre change to fully unlock its potential because the stock Vittoria Barzo tyres made the ride feel nervous and skittery. We’re not fully sold on BMC’s RAD integrated dropper seatpost, but admittedly it looks aesthetically pleasing.

Cannondale Scalpel Hi-Mod 1

4.0 out of 5 star rating
This top-level bike gets an updated version of Cannondale’s carbon-legged Lefty Ocho fork.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • A bike that rewards plenty of rider input
  • Feedback-rich ride feel
  • £6,800 / $9,000 / €7,999 / AU$10,999 as tested

Cannondale’s latest iteration of the Scalpel sees a whole new frame with flexible chainstays, instead of a rear pivot. The geometry has also received an update and it’s built around a new Lefty Ocho carbon-legged suspension fork.

We found this to be an unashamedly fast cross-country mountain bike with firm suspension and wickedly fast tyres, the combination of which encourages you to push as hard as you can.

That makes for a slightly rattly ride on fast, rough tracks, but the suspension soaks up bigger hits. You also feel a fair amount of feedback through the pedals and handlebar.

The bike comes with a Shimano XTR groupset, with Cannondale’s own Hollowgram 25 carbon rims and an own-brand cockpit.

Canyon Exceed CFR Team

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The Exceed looks fast even when stood still.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Traditional geometry
  • A proper race bike
  • £6,299 / €5,799 / AU$9,099 as tested

The Canyon Exceed CFR is aimed at going as fast as possible in a race scenario.

The frame is stiff and fairly uncompromising with a short and steep geometry. Every ounce of effort you put through the pedals forces the bike forward through the short and stiff rear triangle. Be under no illusion – this is a race bike through and through.

The Exceed comes with Canyon’s one-piece CP08 bar and stem, which is shaped for an aero position and offers a neat, integrated aesthetic. However, the fixed shape and measurements may not work for all riders.

Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 1

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The new Giant Anthem has 100mm of travel at the back and 110mm at the front.
Russell Burton / Our Media
  • Excellent modern geometry
  • Agile yet confident handling
  • £6,999 / $7,500 / AU$9,099 as tested

The Giant Anthem saw a refresh in late 2021 with updated geometry, a longer 110mm-travel suspension fork and flexible seatstays and chainstay to simulate the articulation of a pivot point.

This particular model uses the Fox Live Valve suspension system. The system has electronic link sensors on the fork and frame, which automatically open and close the fork and shock’s compression circuit when a bump is detected.

With its modern geometry, the bike climbs reasonably well, although there is some bob. Heading downhill, the bike feels stable and secure over loose surfaces with supple suspension (Live Valve settings-dependent).

The Anthem is equipped with a Shimano XT drivetrain and brakes, which offer next-to-identical performance to Shimano XTR. The bike has own-brand carbon wheels and handlebars.

Intense Sniper XC Expert

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Intense’s XC bike is highly capable between the tapes.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Composed on climbs and descents
  • A carbon-everything frameset
  • £3,699 as tested

Although Intense is best known for its gravity-oriented bikes, the Sniper XC has an engaging ride quality that’s fast around a cross-country race course.

The geometry is nice and modern, with a long 468mm reach and a 67.5-degree head tube angle, which is slack for a cross-country bike.

The Sniper climbs well, bearing in mind there is no remote lockout. There is some pedal bob though, especially when sprinting.

The bike descends assuredly, offering a smooth ride on rough descents while maintaining stiffness.

Shimano’s third-tier SLX drivetrain performs excellently, as does the Fox Performance suspension. The bike comes with a dropper seatpost.

Merida Ninety-Six RC 9000

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Merida’s carbon contains nanoparticles to increase impact resistance.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • A classic-feeling race bike with inspired handling manners
  • Solid spec choices
  • £7,300 / €8,900 as tested

Although Merida’s Ninety-Six seems conventional with its 100mm of suspension travel front and rear, it features trail-friendly geometry with a 68.5-degree head tube angle and a steep 76-degree seat tube angle.

The bike features a Shimano XTR groupset, Fox Factory-level suspension and own-brand finishing kit.

We found it to be a rocket ship up the climbs, with the active suspension helping you maintain speed up rough and loose climbs. It has plenty of character through corners thanks to its reactive steering.

On descents, the Ninety-Six is slightly more nervous than the long reach would suggest.

The rear shock can lurch deeper into its travel than expected.

Orbea Oiz M-Team

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The M-Team comes equipped with a Factory-level Fox 32 Step-Cast fork and DPS shock.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Supple suspension that’s easily controlled from the handlebar
  • Fairly traditional geometry
  • £6,518 / $7,808 / €7,072 / AU$11,408 as tested

The Orbea Oiz M-Team comes locked-and-loaded for the race course, with a refined carbon layup and slightly shorter stays to reduce weight.

The geometry is fairly orthodox and that may hold you back on the most technical of courses. The bike comes with a Fox Factory 32 Stepcast fork and DPS shock, and a Shimano XTR drivetrain.

We were particularly impressed by Orbea’s Squidlock remote lockout lever for its ease of use. What’s more, using Orbea’s MyO programme, you can customise the paint scheme for free, but it will take a few weeks longer to arrive.

Santa Cruz Blur C X01 AXS RSV

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The new Blur XC is ridiculously light and blisteringly fast, with active suspension that maximises traction.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • The brand’s lightest cross-country bike yet
  • Inspired geometry with dependable handling
  • £8,099 / $9,149 as tested

This Santa Cruz Blur is a bang-up-to-date cross-country mountain bike, with 100mm of suspension travel both front and rear. The Blur’s geometry is just right – not so long and slack to feel sluggish, but stable enough for descents.

The bike offers a precise and composed ride, descending with plenty of confidence. It’s comfortable, fast and reactive, making it ideal for short races or marathon events.

Our only major reservation is that the TwistLoc lever-based lockout is not as intuitive to use as others. We found we needed to twist it quite far around the bar to lock the shock and it’s not the lightest either.

Scott Spark RC Team Issue AXS

4.0 out of 5 star rating
The Spark is certainly distinctive with its hidden shock layout.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • A radical but modern XC bike with an internal shock layout
  • Bang up-to-date geometry
  • £4,699 as tested

Scott’s latest Spark RC underwent quite a radical update, getting a new internal shock suspension layout and upping the travel to 120mm at both ends.

Despite the shock not being visible, setting up the Spark was incredibly easy and there’s a sag meter printed on the non-driveside seat tube and seatstay junction for guidance.

The updates result in a bike that’s dominant on the descents, despite not being specced with a dropper seatpost or particularly wide handlebars. Grip is excellent uphill and Scott’s TwinLoc remote lockout lever is incredibly easy to control from the bar.

The bike is specced with a SRAM GX Eagle AXS wireless electronic groupset, which impresses all who test it, and the suspension comes courtesy of RockShox, with Scott’s in-house brand, Syncros, featuring heavily for the rest of the build.


Also consider…

The following XC bikes scored fewer than four out of five stars, so they haven’t been included in our main list. However, these are still some compelling options suited to a variety of budgets:


Cross-country mountain bike buyer’s guide

What is a cross-country mountain bike?

Lightweight and fast, XC bikes are exciting to ride.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

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 and descending, 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 designed mainly 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

Full-suspension bikes require more maintenance, but they win every time when it comes to descending.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

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 which option will be best for you.

Hardtail bike for XC riding

Specialized’s S-Works Epic HT has a super-light sub-800g frame, making it great for climbing.
Harookz

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

Orbea’s 2021 Oiz OMX LTD uses a special carbon fibre to save 250g in the frame.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

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 today’s rougher XC courses, a full-suspension bike can make a big difference.
Svoboda Jaroslav/BSR Agency/Getty Image

On rough, flat terrain, full-suspension bikes will often enable you to pedal more efficiently because the rear suspension soaks up any bumps in 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 and full-suspension bike, here’s what else you need to look out for when buying a cross-country bike.

Geometry

The BMC Twostroke has a slack 67-degree head angle and steep 75-degree seat angle.
Jérémie Reuiller / BMC

Cross-country bikes have traditionally had ‘steeper’ geometry figures than trail or enduro bikes. The logic 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 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.

Prime examples of modern cross-country geometry are the Specialized Epic and the BMC Twostroke.

Frame material

Cross-country bikes such as the Orbea Alma come in carbon and aluminium alloy versions.
Orbea

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.

The downside of carbon is 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?

XC racing is defined by savagely steep climbs.
Alex Whitehead / SWPix.com

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 progress gradually through the ranks.

Wheel size

29in wheels are now the de facto standard on XC bikes.
BikeRadar

On modern cross-country bikes, nearly every model will feature 29in mountain bike 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, such as for particularly short riders, 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.

Tyres

Seemingly treadless tyres can still offer a lot of grip and control.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

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 or enduro tyres – but, as the sport has changed, the tyre sizes have increased, so you’ll now find cross-country tyres in the 2.2in to 2.4in range.

How much travel do you need?

The new Scott Spark has 120mm on the front and 120mm at the back. This is rare for an XC bike, but might be a sign of where things are headed.
Alex Evans

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 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.

Gearing

Cross-country bikes almost exclusively have 1x gearing with 32- or 34-tooth front chainrings and cassettes with a 51-tooth sprocket for climbing.
Harookz

Just like the best trail mountain bikes, cross-country bikes have almost exclusively moved to 1x drivetrains, with Shimano and SRAM mountain bike groupsets dominating the market.

1x drivetrains have 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.

Stronger 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 to 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.

Brakes

Cross-country bikes usually use 160 or, less commonly, 180mm rotors.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

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 the lightest 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.

Dropper posts

Dropper posts on XC bikes is the new normal.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

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).

Tough, technical courses define modern cross-country racing, making dropper posts a good choice.
Svoboda Jaroslav/BSR Agency/Getty Image

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.

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.

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