Cross country mountain biking (or XC MTB for shorthand) is one of the most exciting sports around, full of speed, skill and the occasional sprint finish.
What is XC MTB?
XC MTB does what it says on the tin – riding mountain bikes in the countryside off-road. When it comes to racing (rather than recreational riding), the most common type is ‘Olympic’ (named because – you guessed it – it features as an Olympic discipline). Events see competitors race around a predetermined off-road course for a set number of laps or duration with the winner the rider who crosses the line in first place.
Why does it differ from Trail MTB?
XC MTB and trail MTB are both ridden on fireroads, singletrack and technical off-road terrain, so it can be confusing deciphering the differences between the two.
Unlike trail MTB, where the general focus of a ride is about going downhill as fast as you can while tackling technical obstacles (jumps, drops, gaps) along the way, XC MTB is all about your speed both up and down the hill – so there's no relaxing on the ride back to the start of a trail.
While you can ride trails on a XC MTB and vice versa, the more you get into the sport, the more a lightweight, race-ready bike will start to make sense. They tend to have less suspension travel (making them less forgiving on the big, gnarly jumps), but the reduction in weight and more aggressive on-bike positioning makes for a faster, more responsive ride.
Not sure where to start on your cross-country journey? We spoke to Red Bull athlete and recent cross-country world champion Evie Richards to find out the best tips she can share and why we should all be getting on our bikes…
Know the course
“Racing a XC MTB course is so much easier if you’ve already ridden it at a slow, steady pace before your event,” says Evie. But that doesn’t mean you need to scout out your upcoming race’s venue for months beforehand. Most events allow for a practise session either the day before or on the morning of the race, and Evie uses this time to make mental notes that will come in handy come race time.
As you and your skills progress, recceing the route becomes a great way of finding the fastest lines and potential passing points
“It’s important to try and get a feel for the various technical sections that are dotted around a course. For example, tackling a rock garden is so much easier if you’ve already had a couple of goes at it. When you’re starting out, knowing the course will help you manage your speed when entering these trickier sections or help you figure out if you need to skip them completely and take the alternative line. As you and your skills progress, recceing the route becomes a great way of finding the fastest lines and potential passing points.”
Nail your nutrition strategy
“It’s taken me time to perfect my eating and drinking both for training and on race day, but my best advice is to not sweat the small stuff,” explains Evie. “If you’re training and racing regularly, it’s important to refuel and hydrate properly with a well-balanced diet throughout the week, rather than simply carb-loading the night before a race.”
Red Bull really works for me and ensures I can put in explosive bursts deep into a race
When it comes to the day itself, Evie has a breakfast of porridge and fruit but makes sure she doesn’t have anything too substantial within three hours of the start. From there, she has a gel just before heading to the start line to top up her pre-race energy levels, while keeping a secret weapon up her sleeves in her on-bike water bottle.
“I mix 50/50 Red Bull and water in my bottle so I get that hit of energy while staying hydrated throughout the race,” she says. “It’s something that really works for me and ensures I can put in explosive bursts deep into a race.”
Evie is quick to add that post-race nutrition is just as important as everything that has come before it, as it can help with recovery and the dreaded DOMS. “I’ll always have a shake that is a mix of protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes as soon as I can after crossing the line, and a proper meal when I get back to the pits.”
Ditch the baggy mountain biking kit
Out-and-out cross-country racing bikes are refined machines made for going fast. But you don’t have to splash the cash if you’re just getting started.
“When I first began racing, I rode a pretty basic hardtail that was the same bike I used for riding my local trails and to and from work,” says Evie. “It wasn’t particularly light or fancy, but made the sport quite accessible as I didn’t need to buy anything else.”
When it comes to kit, it’s best sticking to tighter, lycra-based clothing commonly found in road cycling rather than the traditionally baggy mountain biking attire.
Remember to warm up
Kit ready, course learned, and fuelling sorted, it’s time to head to the start line. But, there is a crucial final thing to do that will make all the difference when the start gun is fired – warming up.
“Coming to the start line cold will not only mean you’re not going to be as fast out of the blocks as the other racers, but it could also lead to an injury if your muscles aren’t properly prepared,” says Evie.
She takes to the turbo trainer within the hour before a race, starting with a gentle spin before ramping up with some harder efforts to get the blood pumping.
“Before I started using a turbo trainer, I would warm up by riding up and down a nearby road or fire road, and throw some sprints in for good measure,” adds Evie.
Don't forget it’s a marathon, not a sprint
A lot is made of getting a good start in an XC MTB race – the tight, technical nature of some courses means that there can be bottlenecks early on, meaning those towards the back of the pack can get held up. But it’s important not to put in an effort at the start that you aren’t able to recover from.
“I always try to keep something in reserve, especially at the start of a race,” says Evie. “If I’m not able to get the best start, I use my experience to reset and not let it get the better of me mentally. It’s better to try and pick my way back to the front of the pack over the course of a race rather than put in loads of efforts that are going to leave me burned out come crunch time.”
The one tip only Evie knows
“Always have a warm coat packed in the car and ready for you at the end of a race. When it’s wet and muddy, there’s nothing worse than standing around getting cold!”