For those who are new to the sport of mountain bike cross-country, seeing a huge bunch of riders set off at the same time – battling it out lap-after-lap, for over an hour – can be slightly confusing. Everyone knows that the first rider to cross the finish line is the winner, but what happens in-between the start and the finish at a Mercedes Benz UCI Cross-Country Mountain Biking World Cup race? What decides the start order and how many laps they're actually meant to do? Read on to learn everything you need to know about the discipline.
What is XCC and XCO mountain biking?
Wondering what on earth XCC and XCO racing are? Canadian National Champion Emily Batty runs us through the ins and outs of UCI MTB World Cup cross-country racing.
XCO, short for Cross-Country Olympics, is a UCI off-road mountain bike race format held over undulating, mainly dirt-based circuits that riders must complete several times. Courses should be as natural as possible, but can have man-made features in them, too. Riders start at the same time in a mass start, racing between an hour and 20 minutes and an hour and 40 minutes in the elite men and women's categories. Under 23s and juniors will race for shorter time periods than the elites, due to their age.
How long is an XCO course and what does a typical course look like?
A course circuit can be between four and 10km long, with the racers riding laps of a circuit. The amounts of laps each category of riders do is set to match their overall race time. A venue that has a shorter track will have more laps and vice versa. Generally, races tend to be five to seven laps long.
Although the XCO courses vary in technical difficulty and can look (and ride) very differently, they all have to be designed in a similar way. For example, they have to include a significant amount of climbing and descending, paved/asphalt roads cannot exceed 15 percent of the total course and extended singletrack sections must have pass sections. A typical course has steep climbs, technical descents, forest trails, rocky paths and obstacles contained within it.
The World Cup is the premier competition for XCO
The UCI, the governing body of cycling, organises a World Cup series of races, with rounds happening all around the world. Racers have to adapt to different courses, terrain and climates wherever they go. There are usually six or seven rounds of competition per year on average. For 2022, there are actually nine rounds.
UCI 2022 venue guide
Find out everything you need to know about the destinations for the 2022 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
Winning a World Cup race is a big thing! There's some nominal cash to be won, but more importantly you get points. Get more points than anyone else and you win the overall World Cup title. Finish in the top-38 in a World Cup race and an athlete will get points, so it's important to finish and fight for position when competing.
Points per position for the top-5 podium places are as follows:
1st = 250
2nd = 200
3rd = 160
4th = 150
5th = 140
The athlete who heads the overall XCO standings after each round gets to wear a special white jersey as series leader when they participate in the next round of the World Cup.
A good start is essential
Positioning is a key aspect of XCO racing. Getting a good start is all-important, so having a good start order position at the start gate is really beneficial. A top-ranked rider doesn't want to be stuck behind a bunch of riders on a track a few metres wide if they want to win the race. Valuable time can be lost to a rival or the leader in this way and the gap may never be recovered. Read on for how the start order for an XCO race is determined.
How is the XCO start order determined?
All riders (from the same category) start together. The start line is always eight metres wide and so there are usually eight riders per line. Cross-Country Short track (XCC), was a race format introduced in 2018 to shake up how the starting order for the main XCO World Cup race was determined. Basically, riders have to race XCC to have a chance at a good start spot in XCO.
If a rider finishes in the top-24 of the XCC race, their finishing position means that they occupy the front three starting rows of the XCO race, the first eight finishers being on the front row and so on. Spots after the top-24 are determined by UCI XCO individual rankings and for the unclassified riders by drawing lots.
What does an XCC race look like?
XCC consists of a 1km to 1.5km circuit course, with the race lasting between 20 and 25 minutes and having on average six to eight laps. Each lap is around two to three minutes long. A XCC circuit typically uses the XCO start/finish straight and may use parts of the XCO course, but can also be entirely separate.
XC short track explained
Have you ever wondered what XC short track racing is all about? We’re here to explain.
The XCC race takes place on the Friday evening of a World Cup weekend, ahead of the XCO race on Sunday. As the event determines who occupies the first three rows in the main XCO race, nearly all of the top riders in the field will have to participate.
There are also World Cup points on offer for the XCO overall standings for those who finish the race (another reason why it's in the interests of riders to compete). The winner of an XCC race gets 80 points, the second gets a 60, the third gets 50 and so on. Points are awarded right down to 40th place.
The points from the XCC race that go towards the XCO overall standings have been reduced somewhat from previous seasons. This is because from 2022 onwards the XCC will have its own World Cup series, where a competitor will win an overall title and get a shiny trophy for doing so.
How do the standings for the XCC World Cup overall work?
Following the success of XCC racing, the UCI decided that XCC should have its own World Cup series with an overall World Cup winner for the format. So, as well as determining the start order for the main XCO race and earning points for the XCO World Cup overall as mentioned above, the XCC will have its own overall standings. The points earned from winning an XCC race and the top five podium places are:
1st = 250
2nd = 200
3rd = 160
4th = 150
5th = 140
In-race tactics in both XCC and XCO
With XCC you're basically going all-out for a short period in a bid to keep your position in the pack of racers. There's little time for recovery and athletes are close to their maximum heart rate almost from the start of the race. Really big efforts are usually contained until the final lap when a short, sharp advance in speed can break the field apart.
In the longer XCO races, opening laps can be very frantic, as riders jostle for position. The middle laps are where the riders tend to race within themselves and are careful in conserving energy. The last two laps are where the racing really hots up, with riders starting to attack each other to try and gain time gaps and move positions in the race. Mind games are always at play between the competitors. Racing at World Cup events can be full-on and it's what makes XCO an exciting and hugely spectator-friendly sport. Sprint finishes in both XCC and XCO in particular gets the adrenaline running and the fans hyped.
The best XCO sprints ever
Sit back and enjoy as we look back on some top XCO sprint finishes in recent UCI MTB World Cup history.
What do XCO mountain bikes look like?
Today's XCO mountain bikes have an aggressive geometry that seats the rider directly over the cranks for maximum power through the pedals. They have a lightweight frame and components for efficiency, plus big 29er wheels to help carry rolling speed over all surfaces. A modern XCO mountain bike is around about eight and a half to nine kilograms in weight. Most of the pros ride dual-suspension now. Hardtails (suspension at the front only) are occasionally still used, but it depends on the venue. The bikes have to be incredibly light.
The UCI have a rule for the World Cup when it comes to the use of an XCO mountain bike for racing. You have to use the same bike you choose for XCC for the XCO race, so the choice on whether to ride hardtail or dual suspension becomes very important to the athletes.
What makes a good XCO rider and what riders should you look out for in a World Cup race?
Everything you need to know about UCI MTB cross-country 2022
Find out what's new for XCO in 2022 and hear from the title contenders as we await another season of racing.
One thing that's common with athletes who compete in XCO is that they tend to be skinny, slight and light in weight. Power is derived from the big leg muscles.
The elite women's XCO field is widely-renowned for providing some of the tightest racing that the World Cup annually produces. Why? Because the talent pool is so deep. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Kate Courtney, Jenny Rissveds, Evie Richards and Jolanda Neff are just a few names among the big hitters that make women's racing so unpredictable. There's also a new generation of riders coming through in Mona Mitterwallner, Laura Stigger and Lorna Lecomte.
The men's ranks have been dominated for what feels like forever by Nino Schurter. The Swiss rider remains the man to beat in any race. Mathieu Van der Poel is a possible contender to replace Schurter as the Swiss rider gets older, but the Dutchman has commitments with his trade team Alpecin-Fenix to ride on the road in the summer, so we may see less of him.
Henrique Avancini and Mathias Flückiger have had an excellent couple of years on the World Cup circuit, the latter of whom won the XCO World Cup overall for 2021. In terms of exciting talent coming through, look out for Tom Pidcock. Pidcock is the current XCO Olympic Champion and has ambitions to win the XCO World Championship, a title he currently holds for cyclo-cross.
Born to mountain bike – Tom Pidcock
Tom Pidcock has his sights on the UCI MTB Cross-Country World Cup. Join him on his journey in Albstadt.