When did XC racing get so gnarly?

U.S. World Cup racers Lea Davison and Howie Grotts explain

Cross Country
Hardtails used to be the weapon of choice for XC racing, but tougher obstacles for the elite field has caused a shift towards full suspension.

Hardtails used to be the weapon of choice for XC racing, but tougher obstacles for the elite field has caused a shift towards full suspension.

Mtbr: Do the elite men and women ride the same obstacles, or do some categories have an optional go around?

LD: The elite men and women ride the exact same course. There are B lines on a lot of these obstacles that the men and women can make the choice to take the A line or B line. That’s one of the coolest things about our sport. The level of technical difficulty is exactly the same for the men and women.

HG: Some technical features have A and B lines, but those are available to all racers all the time. So everyone from junior women to elite men actually end up racing the same course. The only difference is the number of laps.

Mtbr: Has this transition affected the way you train?

LD: Yes. USA Cycling has hired a skills coach, Shaums March, and this has really transformed the way I ride. It has made a huge impact on my racing, too.

HG: Since the climbs aren’t as long, my training intervals tend to be shorter and harder, more 2-minute intervals and less 10+ minute intervals. I also go out of my way to find tricky sections of trail around Durango where I live to practice on, especially steep, rough descents.

You wouldn’t expect an XC bike to feel at home at the bike park, but bikes like the new Scott Spark are capable of being pushed outside of their intended use. Full story here.

You wouldn’t expect an XC bike to feel at home at the bike park, but bikes like the new Scott Spark are capable of being pushed outside of their intended use. Full story here.

Mtbr: What about setup? Are you doing things differently?

LD: Sometimes when courses are really steep, I run the Specialized XCP dropper post. It just gives me the little bit of maneuvering room that I need in some tricky situations and it’s lighter. I find myself racing my Era, women’s 29er full suspension, more often because it handles so well and it’s light enough to climb.

HG: I play around with my suspension settings more than I used to. If a track is really rough I’ll take some pressure out of the fork and shock and dial the rebound back just a little. I haven’t used a dropper post yet, but a few top riders are, so it could be just a matter of time.

Mtbr: What are the positives from this shift towards more technical tracks? How about negatives?

LD: I think it’s caused everyone to really step to the next level of technical riding. A lot of the cycling world doesn’t really grasp the technical difficulty of our tracks until they actually experience it in person. A lot of times, my downhill teammates would ride the XC course early in the week and challenge themselves to ride with the seat high and not use the dropper post. There were only a couple of times they could ride without dropping the seat. The main negative is that it’s dangerous. We are riding big obstacles on XC bikes without any protection or padding. I believe there is a happy medium.

HG: It forces everyone to focus on their skills, rather than just fitness, which is a good thing. Mountain biking separates itself from road biking because the rider has to be very confident handling a bike over a variety of terrain, not just cornering fast. I think there should be a limit for how technical tracks are though. We don’t have the padding or bikes that downhill riders do, so course designers should keep that in mind to prevent major injuries. I think technical features should mainly distinguish riders by how fast they can go down them, rather than if they can go down them at all.

Even though XC race courses have become more technical, requiring athletes to become more well rounded, they’ll always be hard core contests of how much punishment your body can take.

Even though XC race courses have become more technical, requiring athletes to become more well rounded, they’ll always be hard core contests of how much punishment your body can take.

Mtbr: Does XC run the risk of becoming too similar to enduro if the tracks continue this trend of larger and more difficult obstacles?

LD: Cross-country is completely different than enduro. We have to climb uphill as fast as possible and then descend cross eyed while trying to recover. The fact that we have to climb fast will always keep the bikes as light as possible.

HG: Cross-country will always be unique because it’s a single, hour and a half long race, where how fast you climb matters just as much (if not more) than how fast you descend. So no, that’s not going to happen.

Mtbr: And finally, from an equipment perspective, what do you think the biggest changes will be over the next five years? Will things like full suspension and dropper posts became mandatory to stay competitive?

LD: We are already seeing more full suspension bikes becoming the ideal choice for some of the courses. Dropper posts are also being run more often. I think that trend is going to continue and there will be more of both. What is the lightest setup possible with the best descending/handling performance? The cross-country circuit will constantly be finding a balance between both those opposing factors.

HG: I don’t think the tracks will get much more technical, but the equipment will certainly progress. Full suspension bikes are already approaching the weight and efficiency of hardtails. Dropper posts add a decent amount of weight now, but they can only get lighter.

How do you feel about this shift in XC racing? Are you stoked to see the progress these changes have inspired in rider skill and equipment?


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  • bsurg says:

    I do think the Rio course was a bit too technical, but perhaps it was fitting for the top-level nature of the competition.

    I am also looking forward to dropper posts being developed for XC racing. The day a functional, reliable carbon dropper post arrives is the day the technology has matured.

    • WWthatRidesEnduro says:

      I’d love to see a sub 100 mm sub 400gr dropper.

      • pheller says:

        A sub 400gr dropper isn’t unrealistic, but it would require the use of carbon and a more simple locking mechanism ala Gravity Dropper (which are 460g for 3″ drop). A dropper with mechanical internals like the Gravity Dropper or the E13, or posts that use a separate cartridge would facilitate more carbon parts and they don’t need sealing surfaces like hydraulic or posts without cartridges (Transfer, 9point8, Reverb).

        • Christopher Slade says:

          Thing is, if they ever wanted to go dropper. An XC racer would want either full up, or full down most likely, so it would not need all of the infinite settings of most posts.
          This means it could have a very simple cable setup, and probably pretty darn light as a result.

  • Don says:

    Check out the 7 Seatposts from Eurobike article on the front page. KS is coming out with a carbon post, KS LEV Ci, that will be 150mm drop and only 420g. That’s close enough to 400g for me. The price though… but going with the $1/gm guideline, it might be only about $100 more than some posts that weigh 100grams more…

  • Sascha says:

    this is pretty much every race I’ve ever done, I race in New Jersey.

  • Fuzz says:

    Look up the Lemurian Classic. Who says today’s XC courses are technical? Meh.

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