8 defining features of an XC World Cup bike in 2023

A brief overview of current XC mountain bike trends

Tom Pidcock at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup

Cross-country makes for some of the most engaging mountain bike racing, with riders battling it out elbow-to-elbow over steep climbs and technical descents.

Advertisement MPU article

XC courses have become more challenging over the past decade. As a result, cross-country bikes have had to evolve so riders can climb efficiently and maintain speed through technical sections.

With the XC World Cup kicking off in Nové Město last weekend and an onslaught of new bike releases, such as the Pinarello Dogma XC, Cervelo ZFS-5, Wilier Urta Max SLR and Specialized Epic World Cup, we thought we’d run through some of the key features defining the bikes competing at the top end of cross-country racing.

Full-suspension dominates

Puck Pieterse at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
While full-suspension bikes are heavier than hardtails, they enable riders to attack descents with more speed and control.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Cross-country mountain bikes have to deliver high levels of efficiency for flat-out racing, while still remaining capable downhill.

This need for capability has seen a shift in bike design, with increased travel and aggressive geometry needed for the ever-more demanding courses.

The Nové Město round of the World Cup is renowned for its technical course, but the trend for challenging terrain is reflected across top-tier racing.

It’s not uncommon to see bikes sporting 120mm of travel, with Orbea’s Oiz and Scott’s Spark RC both packing 120mm of rear-suspension travel. Not so long ago, this would have been as little as 80mm.

We’ve also seen some manufacturers drop hardtails from their racing line-ups altogether, with bikes such as Specialized’s full-suspension Epic World Cup marketed for use on all course types.

That’s not to say hardtails can’t be found on the grid, with riders such as Kate Courtney still choosing a hardtail for less technical race circuits. However, full-suspension bikes now dominate the XC World Cup scene.

Top-tube mounted shocks have taken over

Cervélo ZFS-5.
Top-tube mounted shocks have become a sight on cross-country framesets.

Many of the latest crop of cross-country bikes share a similar silhouette, with the rear shock mounted on the underside of the top tube.

Pinarello’s Dogma XC and the BMC Fourstroke are two bikes that feature this tried-and-tested design.

Why? Well, the reason for this shock placement is to allow room for two water bottles in the front triangle.

This is especially important in the longer cross-country marathon events, where riders can be racing for more than 100km with only a handful of feed and water stops.

Having the shock under the top tube also protects it from mud and spray picked up by the wheels, leading to less wear on the seals during longer races.

Trek and Specialized have taken this design one step further, integrating the rear shock into the top tube of the Supercaliber and the Epic World Cup, giving the bikes hardtail-esque silhouettes.

Increased fork travel

Jenny Rissveds at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
Some riders at the Nové Město World Cup used Fox 34 forks, which feature 34mm-wide stanchions.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

For a long time, 100mm of fork travel was the standard in XC racing but, with the increase in course difficulty, a lot of bikes have seen an increase in travel.

While hardtails such as the Scott Scale remain at the 100mm threshold, it’s increasingly common to see 110mm and even 120mm of travel. We’re venturing into downcountry bikes territory here.

Lightweight forks such as Fox’s 32 SC and the RockShox SID have enabled bike manufacturers to increase travel without adding weight. This is crucial for XC racing, given the need for riders to scale climbs as quickly as they descend the other side.

However, any trade-off in weight is likely to be worthwhile, with many riders forfeiting a few grams for the ability to attack descents.

Dropper posts are all-but-standard

Martin Vidaurre at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
Dropper posts feature on the majority of bikes, with only a few sticking to rigid posts.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

While dropper posts have become synonymous with mountain biking, they’ve struggled to make waves on the XC race scene – until now.

The reluctance of top-tier riders to use dropper posts has been due mostly to their increased weight over fixed seatposts, alongside the fact they could more than handle a typical XC course without a dropper.

Tom Pidcock at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
Tom Pidcock rode to victory using a dropper post at Nové Město.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

However, we are starting to see more and more riders take the weight penalty in order to have more room to manoeuvre the bike on technical descents. That included men’s and women’s winners Tom Pidcock and Puck Pieterse in Nové Město, with the latter riding the Canyon Lux (another full-suspension bike with a top-tube mounted shock).

Notable exceptions were Trek Factory Racing’s Anton Cooper, who used a ridgid post in the XCO event.

BMC Fourstroke against a wall
BMC has patented its automatic dropper post, which can be controlled via a remote on the handlebar.
Oscar Huckle / Our Media

BMC has gone as far as incorporating a dropper post into its top-end Fourstroke frame.

BMC’s RAD integrated dropper also features a clever air tank system that automatically raises or lowers the saddle so the rider doesn’t need to sit down to drop their seat.

More capable geometry

Laura Stiger on Specialized Epic World Cup at 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
The rock garden at Nové Město would prove tricky, even on an enduro bike.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

As race courses have become more technical, cross-country bikes have followed the trend of longer, lower and slacker geometry seen in trail and enduro bikes. The idea, once again, is to make XC bikes more capable on descents.

It’s not unusual to see XC hardtails or full-suspension bikes with 66.5-degree head angles. Specialized’s Epic World Cup and the Cannondale Scalpel HT share this measurement.

While there are still bikes featuring 68-degree head angles, most bikes are much slacker than the 70 degrees or above head angles of old.

Climb at at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
Climbs in XC races can be just as technical as descents.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Seat tube angles have remained steep, because this positions the rider over the crankset, centring their weight and keeping the front wheel grounded when climbing in the saddle.

Front centres – the distance from the centre of the bottom bracket to the front axle – have increased in length, giving riders more stability on steep downhills by enabling the bike to sit further into the rear travel and reducing the chance of going over the bars.

A sea of carbon fibre

Womens XCO startline at 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
All bikes on the World Cup starting grid feature a carbon fibre frame construction.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Thanks to the low weight and stiffness of a carbon frame, the material has been dominant on high-end cross-country bikes for some time. However, brands are also starting to get smarter about how carbon is used across the frame.

Pinarello Dogma XC
The rear triangle has compliance built into the carbon layup that enables the rear linkage to articulate.

Take Pinarello’s new Dogma XC, which utilises the compliance and ability to fine-tune the carbon layup in the flex-stay suspension system. Here, Pinarello says it has used the flex built into the seatstays as part of the linkage – reducing weight and increasing rigidity.

Like it or loathe it, headset cable routing is here to stay

Specialized Epic World Cup headset cable routing
The Epic World Cup is one of many new XC bikes with headset cable routing.
Nick Clark / Our Media

As is the case with most bikes, internal cable routing is commonplace on cross-country bikes.

While internal cable routing isn’t universally loved, with many mechanics cursing whenever they need to change a cable, in recent years a new trend has emerged in the form of headset cable routing, as seen on the Epic World Cup.

This routes the cables  into the frame through the headset, leading to a cleaner cockpit and less cable exposed at the front of the bike. It makes it, in theory, harder for cables to be pulled from levers in the event of a fall. There’s potentially a small aerodynamic gain, too.

It poses a new maintenance headache, though, with cables needing to be disconnected when replacing a headset bearing. That might be okay for World Cup racers with personal mechanics at their disposal – but not so much for the rest of us.

Pinarello Dogma XC MOST handlebar.
Some bikes feature internal routing through the handlebar.

While we’re talking cockpits, we’re also seeing an increasing number of new XC bikes with integrated handlebar and stems, such as the MOST bar on the new Pinarello.

Chunky tyre clearance

Nino Schurter riding a Scott Spark with 2.4in tyres at the 2023 Nove Mesto World Cup
Nino Schurter finished second on his Scott Spark with 2.4in tyres at the 2023 Nové Město World Cup.
UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Cross-country bikes have traditionally used skinnier tyres, the theory being that the smaller contact patch and lower weight made for faster lap times.

While this may hold true for certain courses, the technical tracks found on the XC World Cup circuit have seen many riders opt for wider tyres, which, in turn, has led frame designers to increase tyre clearance on their frames.

Wider tyres enable riders to run lower tyre pressures, increasing grip and reducing the chance of pinch punctures. There’s also a greater understanding of the fact that a wider tyre may not always roll slower.

Pinarello Dogma XC rear triangle.
Pinarello’s Dogma XC has a spit rear triangle, allowing for wider tyres.

Pinarello’s new Dogma XC features a split rear triangle, removing the bridges connecting the sides. This allows clearance for a 2.35in tyre, although Tom Pidcock opted for 2.2in Continental Race King Pro Ltd tyres.

Advertisement MPU article

However, men’s world champion Nino Schurter maximised the 2.4in tyre clearance on his Scott Spark, once again indicating how the lines are becoming increasingly blurred between XC bikes and their long-travel siblings.