Do technical courses contribute to better MTB cross-country races?

We’ve heard it time and time again from both brands and the racers themselves, cross-country mountain bike courses are getting more demanding and more technical. But after watching Tom Pidcock’s legendary XCO World Championship win, it got me thinking: does the increasing challenge of XC racing really lead to good racing?

It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen happen in recent years where cross-country tracks have become more mental. To the point that the track chosen for the Scottish XCO World Championships included just about everything that mountain biking as a sport can throw at a racer. This track included brutal climbs, park sections with bike change and that infamous rock roll. That’s without mentioning that the Scottish race was the first time an actual gap jump was included in an XCO World Championship course.

What this does is showcase the sheer skill these riders possess as they carry the heavy, narrow and relatively conservatively shaped bikes through and over obstacles that we mere mortals wouldn’t even think of doing on something with less than 150 millimeter path. .

Longer, looser and lower happens for a reason

These days the average rider wouldn’t consider hitting these tracks on anything less than a trail bike – and that mentality shows in the progressive design of cross-country bikes. Cross-country mountain bikes are now experiencing a renaissance of the long, loose and low mentality, with some bikes taking the form of trail bikes a few years ago.

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Where the tracks get steeper, slacker head angles offer support, and where they get faster, bigger performance and wheelbases offer stability. And of course, some sections of the Scottish XCO circuit were actually sections of the bike park, so it goes without saying that the cross-country bikes have to match the riding expected.

Where technical features do not add to the race

However, as Scotland’s hosting of the XCO World Championships has shown, racers don’t make passes in these divisions. Taking this rock roll, for example, A-line riders would logically slow down to take it on without stalling. This leads to something of a traffic jam and, even then, very few riders would take the B line.


Then the jumps, while an impressive feat even on modern XC bikes, didn’t really add any loss or gain at the highest levels of the sport. Although sections full of line choices seemed to offer a similar effect to DRS in Formula 1, where if the rider took the fastest and most efficient line, this would bring them quite close to the rear wheel of the rider in front. This was used to help the attack on the next climb, where most of the overtaking took place.

Surprisingly, what the riders struggled with the most were the most intimidating features of the entire course, the turns. Van der Poel slipped a front wheel in the penultimate corner at the end of the opening lap and there were a few others who did likewise in a series of berms along the way. However, were these crashes in fatigue? As we know, Van der Poel came into this particular match with an existing ankle injury and further leaks occurred later in the match.

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If we compare it to the Downhill World Champs, for example, a type of racing that revolves around technical features and how best to navigate to get to the bottom as quickly as possible, any time gain is clearly visible through the rider’s body language . as they pass over a rock garden, for example. Viewers can easily see where time is being gained and lost, and where the simplest of mistakes can be costly all along the way. However, this is a very stark observation of how different these two sports are, and I admit that the downhill jumps don’t add much to the timing sheets.

Where technical features add to the race

It goes without saying that most of the overtaking done during an XC event is on the climbs, where nothing but raw power and total commitment reign supreme. That said, when it comes to cross-country racing ability, the specs are undeniably levellers.

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Technical sections aren’t exactly about overtaking opportunities. No – it’s more about creating them after the next turn or during the next climb. While facing the technology and trying to be competitive, riders must hang onto the rear wheel of the rider in front to create a chance. If a tail rider wasn’t as confident to hit a gap or hold the fastest line, any chance of making an overtake starts to diminish.

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While the riders at the Scottish race seemed to have no problem with one of the most progressive World Championship courses we’ve seen to date, there’s still a bit of that feature that makes mountain biking exciting as a spectator sport. Where some riders can conquer the technical sections with more confidence than others.

Aren’t you funny?

But at the end of the day, with cross-country now the most popular form of mountain bike racing, event organizers need to give fans a spectacle. Something to make them want to put money down for tickets and something to come witness and enjoy. And as I mentioned a little earlier, it was impressive to see these riders possess such technical characteristics. They add another layer of fear and uncertainty to a rider’s mindset that is a testament to why they are among the best on the planet. They are able to deal with such features while redlining almost everywhere on the track and continue to do so for eight laps.

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Features also create hype and, I won’t lie, it worked for me. All over Instagram and social media were photos of this rock roll and the riders confidently cleared the gaps. Knowing that the XC tracks are getting more challenging, this was proof and made me even more excited to watch the races.

So while the big technical features we saw during this weekend’s XCO World Champs may not have added much to the actual race, it’s the show, the spectacle and the inspiration where it really counts. Scotland’s entertainment value in spades. The ever-increasing demands placed on modern XC courses are not only a natural evolution of the sport, but add entertainment value that is hard to beat.

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