Mountain biking is an off-road cycling discipline that’s popular all over the world. It’s also a very diverse sport. There are many different sub-disciplines, race-formats and events including enduro, cross-country, slopestyle and freeride. Basically mountain bikers can be found riding everywhere from high mountains to verdant forests.
While all the different types of mountain biking require fitness, skill and lightning-fast reactions, there are still significant differences between them. Some such as downhill favour gravity-fuelled descents, while cross-country racing is more about high-speed, high-energy riding over an intense couple of hours. Then there’s trail riding, which is more about going out and enjoying local tracks and routes for pleasure.
Below, we break down the differences, similarities, the specialist bikes that are used and highlight where you can get your fix if you’d like to know more.
The different disciplines of mountain bike racing
Just like motorsports have numerous race disciplines, the same is true of mountain biking. The main disciplines are downhill, cross-country, slopestyle, enduro and four-cross. Some of the events, including downhill and cross-country, come under the banner of the UCI, the international governing body for cycling who run events like the World Championships. Other disciplines, such as enduro, have an independent organisational system, with the highest profile being the Enduro World Series.
The name is a giveaway here; in downhill mountain bike racing, you start the track at the top of the mountain and race until you reach the bottom. Whoever completes the race course in the quickest time wins.
Events are usually held at mountain resorts, so riders can use chairlifts to get to the top of the mountain – luckily there’s no need to ride up!
It’s one of the most thrilling and risky disciplines of mountain bike racing, with riders reaching speeds of up to 80kph and often having to clear jumps that stretch up to 19m long, or land off drops more than 3m high.
It requires a high level of strength, stamina and concentration as riders have to memorise the course based on practice runs. They must then focus completely for the duration of the race run, which is usually in the region of three minutes long.
- Premier race series: UCI Downhill World Cup series
- The bike: Downhill bikes are designed specifically for riding down steep tracks, so have a specific frame shape that put the rider in the best position to do this. They are full-suspension with around 200mm of travel to allow them to ride over incredibly rough ground.
Watch downhill racing from the Mercedes-Benz UCI MTB World Cup in Snowshoe, West Virginia live on Red Bull TV from July 29-31.
Cross-country is perhaps the most famous discipline in mountain biking as it’s the one you’ll see at the Olympic Games, though there are actually several sub-categories of cross-country racing.
It’s all about fitness and stamina, with cross-country race courses involving steep climbs and technical descents with features such as rock-gardens, rollers and drops. The courses aren’t as technical as downhill tracks, but riders have to exert maximum effort for the entire duration of the race.
Olympic cross-country, or XCO, was introduced in 1996 and sees riders compete multiple laps of a course that’s between four and six kilometres long, to complete a race duration of 1h 30m to 1h 45m minutes.
- Premier event series: UCI MTB cross-country World Cup series
- The bike: Hardtail mountain bikes with short 120mm to 130mm suspension forks, although full-suspension mountain bikes are becoming more popular. Bikes are incredibly light and efficient to maximise speed.
Watch a recap of the 2020 cross-country racing from the Mercedes-Benz UCI MTB World Cup in Nové Město, Czech Republic, on Red Bull TV.
Freeride makes for an incredible spectacle, with riders performing huge jumps, flips, tricks while riding on more natural terrain – such as the dramatic red rocks and cliffs of Zion National Park in Utah, USA where the Red Bull Rampage event takes place. The routes riders take can be either entirely shaped by nature, or might have had a little help here and there to allow them to pull off some amazing feats as they essentially ride off cliffs. It’s a sight that has to be seen to be believed.
In freeride competitions, the focus is less about the time a rider takes to complete a course, and is more about creativity, skill and technique. Riders can usually choose their own route down the designated hillside and may spend a couple of days with a small dig crew perfecting landings and takeoffs so it can be smoothly ridden. That’s the creative part; finding an elegant way down the hill.
The skills come in when it comes to the race runs, with riders combining a series of tricks and sometimes bringing out brand new moves, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on a bike. Judges score each run according to speed, style, flow, elevation, originality, creativity and other elements, with the rider with the highest score winning.
The non-competive side to freeride often involves riders exploring new and unusual locations to find fresh lines to ride and has a lot in common with freeskiing. The emphasis here is more towards discovery.
- Premier event series: Red Bull Rampage
- The bike: Strong, small and light, freeride bikes are designed to be easily manipulated while airborne to allow for tricks, and have around 200mm of travel to help land huge jumps.
Closely related to freeride, slopestyle is all about demonstrating aerial tricks on a specially designed course of huge ramps, drops, jumps and berms. In fact, the clue is in the name; how much style can a rider demonstrate while heading down the slope.
The course flows downhill and the features make it a little like a scaled-up skate park. Like freeride, the competition is focused around the technical skill and ability of the riders, rather than hinging on who completes the course in the quickest time. Judges determine the winner based on who demonstrates the greatest technical ability, the smoothest execution, the most original tricks and with the best flow in linking them all together.
Slopestyle events are a major draw as it’s an incredible spectator sport. It’s also one of the core events of Crankworx.
- Premier event series: Crankworx World Tour
- The bike: Slopestyle bikes are very similar to freeride bikes as they have to endure similar stresses and strains. So think small, light, strong, easy to manoeuvre and with enough travel to land some significant air.
Watch the Crankworx Innsbruck Slopestyle contest from Crankworx Innsbruck 2020 on Red Bull TV.
Four-cross (4X) and dual slalom
Four-cross, usually abbreviated to 4X, is a mountain bike race discipline that takes place on a track similar to a BMX track. Four riders race simultaneously and head-to-head, with the winner the first rider to cross the finish line.
Courses are short and intense, require stamina and explosive power, with jumps, bermed (or cambered) corners and other features. Racing takes place in rounds with the winner of each heat competing in subsequent rounds until the overall victor is crowned.
In dual-slalom, two riders compete on identical parallel tracks, similar in style to 4X tracks. Riders race head-to-head twice, swapping tracks for the second run, and the total time from both runs is their overall result. Elimination rounds are held with the winner of each round progressing to the next.
- Premier event series: UCI 4X World Cup series + Crankworx World Tour
- The bike: These bikes are usually hard-tail mountain bikes with front suspension forks, designed to be ridden mostly standing up.
- Some athletes to watch: Jill Kintner and Thomas Slavik
Watch the Dual Slalom contest from Crankworx Innsbruck on Red Bull TV.
How fast is it possible to go without pedalling? The answer is very fast indeed if your pump track skills are up to scratch.
A pump track is a short looping track consisting of whoops, rollers and bermed corners, and the idea is to ride it without pedalling. Instead, riders ‘pump’ the bike through the course using their arms and legs, gaining speed and maintaining tight control of the bike. It’s an excellent skill to perfect and can be transferred over to trail riding where it’ll give you an advantage while riding as you can generate ‘free’ speed. It’s also an incredible work out, so the athletes that compete in this discipline are very fit and strong.
In a competitive pump track event, riders are timed for one complete lap of the track and the rider with the fastest time wins. In some events, such as at Crankworx, riders compete head-to-head on two tracks that are the mirror image of each other, making for short, dramatic races with riders progressing through rounds until an overall winner is crowned.
- Premier event series: Red Bull UCI Pump Track World Championships
- The bike: Pump track bikes are somewhere between a BMX and a hard-tail mountain bike. They are small, strong and efficient. There are suspension forks at the front and the saddle is low with a very short seat tube as the rider will be standing up for the duration of the race.
- Some athletes to watch: Jill Kintner, Vaea Verbeeck, Kyle Strait
Watch the RockShox Innsbruck Pump Track Challenge contest from Crankworx Innsbruck on Red Bull TV.
Speed and style
What do you get if you combine the creativity of slopestyle and the head-to-head competitive style of dual slalom? The answer is speed and style, and an event where athletes not only need to get down the course quicker than their competitors, but also try and out-trick them along the way.
Expect high-speed whips, jumps, spins and more in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it race format that’s as exhilarating to watch as it is to ride (though perhaps a little less of a workout).
Athletes compete in a series of rounds, elimination style, with two riders competing at a time. The winner is decided based on a combined score from the tricks executed and the speed at which the course was completed.
- Premier event series: Crankworx Speed and Style
- The bike: Unsurprisingly, the bikes used for this discipline are similar to those used for slopestyle and dual slalom, so expect a compact design and suspension to soak up big landings.
- Some athletes to watch: Brendan Fairclough, Mitch Ropelato, Casey Brown, Vaea Verbeeck, Jill Kintner
Watch the CLIF Speed & Style Innsbruck contest from Crankworx Innsbruck on Red Bull TV.
Rising to meteoric popularity in the last eight years, enduro is a discipline that has its roots in the early days of mountain biking. In many ways, it is the most similar to how leisure mountain bikers ride generally outside of competition. It’s all about a long day (or days) out riding in a beautiful mountain location, riding up climbs and racing down technical descents.
There are two key elements to enduro racing as a format. The first is the ‘special stage’ or ‘timed stage’; this is where the competitive action takes place. Riders are timed down these marked downhill tracks or courses, they can take anywhere between two and 20 minutes to complete and there are usually between three and six during the course of an enduro race – which are themselves one or two days long. The winner is the rider that has the lowest cumulative time; the rider who completed all the special stages in the fastest time.
Linking these special stages are the liaisons. These are often climbs and link the end of one special stage to the start of the next. While not individually timed, each rider does have a time limit in which to reach the start of the next stage. If they are outside of this time, they are penalised.
- Premier race series: Enduro World Series
- The bike: Enduro bikes are full-suspension mountain bikes with between 120 and 180mm of travel. They’ll have dropper seatposts and are designed to be durable as racers must do all trail-side repairs themselves with no outside help.