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The dummies guide to the UCI Cross-country World Cup racing

Get a break down of what's involved in XCC and XCO racing in this guide on the ins and outs of UCI World Cup Cross-Country Mountain Bike racing.
By Hanna Jonsson and Rajiv Desai
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Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

For those who are new to the sport of mountain bike cross-country, seeing a huge bunch of riders set of 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 below to learn everything you need to know about the discipline.
MTB · 4 min
What is XCC and XCO Mountain Biking?

What is XCO?

XCO, short for Cross-country Olympics, is a UCI off-road mountain bike race format held over undulating, mainly dirt-based circuits which riders must complete several times. Courses should be 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 just mentioned for the elites given their ages.
Action from the 2018 UCI XCO World Cup in La Bresse in France captured from a high vantage point.
In cross-country racing, you take the rough with the smooth

How long is an XCO course and what does a typical course look like?

A course circuit can be between 4-10km long with 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.
Nino Schurter performs at the Albstadt World Cup in 2018.
One of Albstadt's many painful climbs

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 a year on average.
Competitors race at UCI XCC World Cup in Snowshoe, USA.
Snowshoe in the US was a new venue for the World Cup back in 2019
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 is important to finish and fight for position when competing.
Points per position for the top 5 podium places are as follows:
1st = 300 2nd = 250 3rd = 200 4th = 180 5th = 160

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 he wants to win the race. Valuable time can be lost to a rival or the leader in this way and the gap may never be got back. Read on below for how the start order for an XCO race is determined.
Men's start at the opening round of the 2018 World Cup in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Having a good start gives an advantageous position into the first corner

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 they occupy the front three starting rows of the XCO race, the top 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.
XCC racing taking place at the UCI World Cup in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, in 2020
Riders have to give the XCC race their full on commitment

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 of the XCO course but can also be entirely separate.
The elite men race at the XCC event at the Mont-Sainte-Anne MTB World Cup on August 10, 2018.
Men's XCC racing at Mont-Sainte-Anne
The XCC race takes place on 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 the top riders in the field will have participate. There are also World Cup points on offer for those who finish the race – with that and starting order being determined by the race it is in the interests of competitors to compete. The winner of an XCC race gets 125 points, second gets a 100, third gets 80 and so on. Points are awarded right down to 40th place.

In-race tactics in both XCC and XCO

With XCC you're basically going hell for leather for a sustained short period in a bid to keep position in the pack of racers. There is little time for recovery and athletes are almost at the maximum heart rate 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 throughout between the competitors. Racing at World Cup events can be full on and it is what makes XCO an exciting and hugely spectator-friendly sport. Sprint finishes in both XCC and XCO particularly gets the adrenaline running and fans hyped.
Bike · 11 min
The best XCO sprints ever

What do XCO MTBs look like?

Today's XCO mountain bike have an aggressive geometry that seats the rider directly over the cranks for maximum power through the pedals. It has 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 World Cup venue. The bikes have to be incredibly light.
Close up of rear shock on Henrique Avancini's bike
It's all about harmony

What makes a good XCO rider and what riders should you look out for in a World Cup race?

No person is built the same of course but one thing that is common with athletes who do 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, Annika Langvad 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 Evie Richards, Laura Stigger and Lorna Lecomte.
Action photo of a women's UCI Cross-country World Cup race.
Tight racing amongst the women
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. Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel is hot on his heels though as a possible contender to replace Schurter as the Swiss rider gets older. Henrique Avancini and Mathias Flückiger have had an excellent couple of years on the World Cup circuit and could be pushing Schurter and Van der Poel for honours in the future.
Bike · 12 min
XCO team changes in 2021
Among the young ones to look out in 2021 are Simon Andreassen, Milan Vadar and Tom Pidcock, a rider well known in cyclo-cross and road racing , who is giving mountain biking a try.
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