Cross-country (XC) Riding 101

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Cross-country (XC) riding

Cross-country (XC) mountain biking describes most styles of mountain biking. In recent years, there has been a push towards diversifying this group into other genres of MTB, which include all-mountain and trail bikes. These genres have been created to help differentiate the bikes' intended purposes and have helped specialize the diverse nature of XC riding.

Cross-country riding, for the purposes of this article, is any situation where a rider is able to ride the entire trail without having advanced technical skills -- like needing to cross a 6-foot gap to stay on the course -- and is able to start and stop from the same spot (no shuttle or lift is needed). Point-to-point riding is a part of XC riding, but you have the capability of going in the reverse direction without outside assistance. This leaves a broad spectrum of what's considered XC, which is why so many people have embraced this style of riding as it encompasses so many different skill levels.

Which bike do I choose?

There are many mountain bikes to choose from for this style of riding. The most common will be hardtails (HT), full rigid (rigid), and full-suspension (F/S) bikes.

>> See our Bikes 101 guide.

Rigid mountain bike


Rigid bikes are the most basic mountain bikes available. They have no suspension but are still quite capable. They are ideal for fast and flowy trails with little chatter, but they are still able to take decent abuse. They are the lightest bikes, as well, and are very common among the single-speed crowd as they tend to be a more solid pedaling platform, especially when climbing. In the hands of a capable rider who can choose good riding lines, rigid bikes can be used in many of the places other mountain bikes are ridden.


Hardtail XC mountain bike

Hardtail bikes have no suspension in back, with a suspension fork in front. This allows better control in the front end when riding over rough terrain. HTs require a similar amount of finesse as rigid bikes, but the front has an increased ability to stay planted to the ground for increased traction and control. Having a solid rear allows good acceleration and keeps the bike lightweight. HTs are the most common bike used for XC riding, as they're well priced compared to F/S and offer more comfort up front than rigid bikes. HTs are very common among the XC racing crowd, as well, and many HTs are oriented to faster riding.


Full-suspension XC mountain bike

Full-suspension adds travel to the rear end of the bike. These are more comfortable than HT's and offer good bump compliance to increase traction and generally have better control in rougher terrain. F/S bikes are generally more expensive, weigh more, and require more maintenance because of the added moving parts. They don't tend to climb quite as well as HT or rigid bikes on smooth climbs, but if the hill is a little rough the extra travel helps keep the tires planted, helping to keep the rear tire from breaking loose. F/S MTBs can be oriented for XC racing or have a little more relaxed ride for those not interested in racing who just want the additional plushness.

Trail and all-mountain bikes are F/S bikes with longer travel and a more relaxed frame design. While F/S bikes designed for XC racing have around 100mm travel, trail bikes tend to have travel closer to the 140mm range, with all-mountain bikes in the 160mm range. The extra range of travel allows bigger bump compliance, and they can take larger drops without using all of their travel. These can be thought of as long-travel XC F/S bikes, or short-travel freeride bikes. They need to be able to climb as well as descend, so they tend to be a jack-of-all-trades type bike.

To summarize, rigid bikes are usually the cheapest and are capable of being incredibly light, making them a favorite among single speeders. Hardtails are the most common and are available in the widest price point range; they are a favorite among XC racers. Short travel F/S's are good for XC riding and racing (depending on the design) and are usually favored for longer races like marathons or off-road centuries. The longer travel F/S bikes are good for more aggressive terrain and are better for more downhill, but they still climb pretty well to get you up the mountain.

I want to upgrade my bike. Where do I start?

As with any bike, eventually things are going to need replacing, or we just want to try something better or new.

First, make sure the bike is comfortable. I recommend doing this when the bike is new, with a new saddle, bars, grips, pedals, shoes, etc. Treat your contact points first; being comfortable while riding can completely change your riding experience if you are feeling excessive discomfort from riding. Your local bike shop or group ride is a good place to start getting recommendations. However, everyone is built a little differently so it may take some trial and error to find what's comfortable for you.

XC MTB wheel

Once you're comfortable on the bike, it's time to start getting at the performance aspect. Wheels and tires are the first two things most people will change. These are your contact points from your bike to the ground. Lighter MTB wheels tend to have quicker acceleration and are easier to control but can be less durable. If you pay enough, you can get light and strong wheels, the extreme being carbon fiber wheels which are often quite light while still being fairly strong. Carbon doesn't tend to crash as well as metal, though.

Tires should be selected based on the trails you ride. If you ride on only hard pack, get MTB tires that are good for hard pack; if there's a lot of sand, get tires for sand, etc. Wider tires tend to have a larger footprint and therefore a little more grip while not losing much in terms of rolling speed. The higher volume allowed by a slightly wider tire can also make for a little plusher ride. Play with the air pressure some, too; this can either deaden a tire's characteristics or bring it to life with a great feel and grip. Getting the right tires for your usage really comes down to a balancing act between all the needs we have from the tires. Having more than one set is always an option, as well.

XC suspension fork

Suspension is usually next on the list. The better the suspension, the better your control over the bike and the more confident you will be riding the bike. Lighter suspension does not mean better suspension. Characteristics to look for are: adjustability so you can tune the suspension to you and your riding style, better dampers, different air or coil springs (the volume of the air spring suspension can be altered with oil or springs, depending on what the manufacturer recommends), or simply having a professional mechanic tune the suspension for you. A well-tuned suspension system is much nicer to ride than one that is not.

Once all this is done, it's time to start upgrading parts of the drivetrain and brake system. Mid-level parts are about as good as the high-end parts. The lower tier options weigh a little more but only perform mildly worse. The drivetrain, more than any other components in my opinion, experiences a large amount of diminishing return, meaning the increase in cost often doesn't match the increase in performance.

Racers are willing to pay for this marginal increase because sometimes that marginal increase is the difference between 1st and 2nd place. If you want the best, by all means go for it, but the biggest increases in performance per tier upgrade happen at the lower ends of the ladder. The best value tends to be in the middle tier groups, as they balance performance and cost fairly well.

XC clothing and accessories

People are going to wear different clothes when XC riding based on what they're comfortable riding in. If you're not comfortable with more technical sections and think you might fall a few times, don't feel bashful about getting some knee and elbow pads. They can save a lot of skin. I always recommend gloves, both for grip and protection. The knees, hands, hips and elbows are usually the body parts to hit the ground first if you go down.

MTB shorts

Wearing shorts with a pad (called a chamois) are also recommended, since they're much more comfortable to ride in. These are available in skin-tight shorts, seen on many racers, or baggy MTB shorts that are also very common amongst mountain bikers.

A good MTB helmet is essential. For the most part they all offer the same level of protection, so what you start paying for in the higher level lids is better ventilation, lighter weight, and a little more customizable fit.

One common accessory is a cycling computer to record speed, time, distance, and other measurements. Generally, the more serious you are about training, the better computer you should get. Getting a cycling computer that allows you to upload the data to a personal computer is fantastic, as it will allow you to compare different rides and monitor changes over time.

Pedals can be a big deal. Some people like clipless (you clip into the pedals with cleats), and some don't. If you choose platform pedals, it is recommended that your pedals allow good grip between your shoe and the pedal body. Clipless MTB pedals have the advantage in terms of keeping the foot in place, because you are locked into the pedal and your feet can't slip off (under very hard forces they sometimes can come out, but they're not supposed to). If you go clipless, make sure you are comfortable getting in and out of the pedals before you go out riding. Clip in and out in a doorway or other location where you can support yourself while on the bike to get used to the feeling.

Multi-tool with chain tool

Carrying a pump (or CO2), spare tube and tire lever is recommended. Flat tires are the most common mechanical problem while on a bike, so it's good to be prepared. Having a multi-tool to make some adjustments or emergency repairs to get you out of the woods isn't bad either. The chain tool on my multi-tool has been a ride saver on a few different occasions.

Getting a water bottle or hydration pack is also essential. Without water, your rides will be limited in duration because you will get too thirsty to continue riding. You don't want to suffer from dehydration either. Water goes with me anywhere I ride, even if I just bike down to the store. You never know when you might want to adlib a ride.

Quick tips for XC riding

Here are a few tips to help improve your riding experience:

  • Choose a line that allows for a smooth, fast path. Avoid large roots, rocks, and soft soil/sand to allow better traction. Don't be afraid to wander off the beaten path a little if the main paths runs through a sand or mud pit.

  • Use the berms to turn.

  • Use the berms to turn. They allow for much higher speeds while cornering without requiring as much grip to make the turn.
  • Get out of the saddle over rough terrain. Allowing the bike to move underneath you lets the bike work its magic to keep traction and to transmit less trail chatter, which decreases the amount of stress you will experience.
  • Steer the bike underneath you, like a motocross racer. Think of it as sticking the edge blocks of the tire tread into the ground for cornering grip.
  • While climbing, resist the urge to put too much weight over the handlebars as it will decrease rear wheel traction, meaning you could break the rear tire loose and lose a lot of forward momentum.
  • Don't brake in the corners. This can upset the suspension and/or cause decreased traction, causing a slide and/or crash.
  • Look through the corners and scan ahead of where you're riding. Don't focus on what's going on underneath of you. Your body/bike tends to go where your eyes lead it.
  • Keep the rubber side down; it's more fun that way (though many good campfire stories are created from not following this guideline).