© Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool
We’re giving cross-country racing the credit it deserves and you should too
If you think cross-country is just tight lycra and fast laps around a field, think again. It's a discipline that requires insane fitness, intense focus and outrageous bike handling skills.
At the highest level of the sport, there's a mutual respect between the gnarly gravity riders and the cross-country whippets. Elsewhere, however, we sometimes see – dare we say it – animosity. If you're a big-rig downhill or enduro rider that feels superior to your XC compatriots, we think it's worth stepping down for a moment to share some cycling solidarity.
Here's a look at what makes cross-country more than worthy of being on your watch list.
So you've heard of cross-country, but what actually is it?
Cross-country mountain biking is a combination of phenomenal fitness, super-human strength and some pretty impressive skills to boot. It's mud, blood, sweat, gears and tears. It's physical exertion and exhaustion, grit and determination, tactics and dramatics.
Every cross-country (or XCO) race is its own story, with plot twists at every turn and a narrative that ebbs and flows with the course itself. It's bristling with excitement and action, punctuated with mechanicals and mishaps and always delivering an emotional conclusion.
Think XCO tracks are easy? Time to think again
Cross-country racing has come a long way in the last few years. Drops, rocks, whips and spectacular crashes are abundant in cross-country races, with big, technical features increasingly adopted by course designers. Cross-country races can no longer be won on fitness alone; instead there's an ever-increasing need for riders to be technically strong.
The descents in a cross-country course call on a similar skill set that downhillers employ and today's most successful racers are those with bike-handling credentials any gravity rider would be impressed by. Of course, the downhill discipline is bigger and burlier when it comes to the technical terrain, but it should be noted that cross-country races are now won and lost on the ability to gap doubles, take stupidly steep inside lines and pilot 100mm of travel through rock gardens.
All this is played out with riders' heart rates maxed out to such a point that they often can't actually focus properly. This is not for the faint-hearted.
Motocross-style madness and F1 pit stops
It's easy to think of cross-country in terms of being not as gnarly as downhill, but not as boring as the Tour de France. However, that doesn't really do it justice. What about mixing in some moto corner carnage and F1 strategies?
Green means go!
Just like in a lot of motor racing, riders start from a grid and when the lights turn from red to green, it's flat out with no quarter given, fighting for position, defending the best lines, braking late and accelerating hard. If there's not a crash from fighting to get into a corner first, it's an unusual day at the office.
Another point of comparison with motor racing is the pits. Every cross-country circuit has at least one pit, but usually two and often it's a double-sided pit, with riders passing on both sides at two different points of their lap. The pit is filled with team mechanics, who can change wheels if a rider has a puncture, or fix the bike if something goes wrong, such as a snapped chain or broken seat post. Also in the pits are the team's soigneurs, who are tasked with handing out drinks bottles and nutrition as the riders speed past.
Imagine all the cars in a Formula One race coming into the pits at once, with no speed restriction in the pit lane, some pulling in to stop and getting mechanical assistance while others swipe a water bottle in transit. Yep, it's semi-choreographed chaos.
Racing continues non-stop until the finish
There's no time to recover energy when racing cross-country. It's full gas for the athletes from the start of the opening lap until that finishing line approaches after an hour and half of non-stop action. Racing often ends up going right down to the wire and the riders are faced with having to go into the red physically with a sprint finish in an attempt to win the race. That's asking a lot given the physical exhaustion they've already experienced.
The best XCO sprints ever
Superstars with supercars, serious sponsorships and a fervent fanbase
Cross-country is not some backwater niche sport with its best athletes struggling to shine beyond the boundaries of its compact core. We're talking Ford Mustangs, Swiss bank sponsorship and TV shows when it comes to the cream of today's cross-country crop.
Switzerland is in many ways the heart of cross-country racing. It has the highest level of domestic racing and more than a handful of the world's best riders.
Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff – arguably the biggest names in the sport – are household names and national treasures in their country, often recognised in the street and spotted on billboards and biscuit wrappers nationwide. Schurter beat Roger Federer to win Swiss Sports Personality of the Year in 2018, while Neff includes Tissot Watches and Ford Switzerland among her personal sponsors.
What do the downhillers have to say about their XC counterparts?
It's not easy to appreciate the brutally physical and technical nature of a World Cup cross-country track without trying it in person and we doubt many people will have the chance to do that. Neither do we necessarily expect you to take our word for it, but you should definitely listen to what current world champions Myriam Nicole and Loïc Bruni, plus six-time overall World Cup winner Rachel Atherton, have to say.
Myriam Nicole often rides the XCO tracks at the World Cups, and her reaction says it all. "It's crazy, I'm always so impressed. I ride on my enduro bike and I struggle on some circuits, like in Mont-Sainte-Anne."
Having grown up with French XCO champion Victor Koretzky, she's seen first-hand the impressive technical skills, as well as the tenacity it takes to reach the top. But what is the biggest thing Nicole has learned from the cross-country world? "Taking care of your body with what you eat, how you recover and to always be able to push your limits harder."
Bruni knows a thing or two about handling a bike, but even he says that the top XCO guys would beat him down some sections of cross-country track. "I'm convinced I can follow the boys on some downhills, but on others they definitely would be faster. I do the lap at the races sometimes and there are some cool gaps and sections, but when you come fully toasted to them it's another story. I'm sure any cross-country guy would transfer to downhill more easily than the opposite; their skills are good and their engine is so strong."
Rachel Atherton is a huge fan of cross-country racing and can't emphasise enough the excitement of watching this discipline and the respect she has for the racers, especially the women. "When I started racing downhill World Cups, I was exposed to the cross-country race scene and it really blew me away. I'm so impressed by the women's racing and I love to watch them race the day after we race. It's awesome to see the ladies tearing up the course, beasting themselves, battling for the win and watching their approach to races and tactics."
So, there you have it. If these downhill legends advocate cross-country, it must be worth a watch.
Where can I watch cross-country?
If you're fortunate enough to be able to make it to an XCO World Cup, then this is the place to get a real taste of what cross-country is all about. Crazy crowds get up close and personal with the riders, running between sections of the course to cheer on their favourite riders. You can see the huge physical effort and almost feel the pain of the riders as they fight to the finish and watch the way they descend balancing the fine line of risk and reward.
Before and after the races, fans walk through the team area to get autographs and photographs with some of the most humble humans you could hope to meet.