The best cross-country (XC) mountain bikes are about raw speed, making them lightweight, efficient and ideal for fast, flowing singletrack as well as racing.
A lean, mean collection of the best cross-country mountain bikes built for speed and put through their (race) paces as chosen by our expert team of reviewers. While all these bikes bring distinctively different approaches to what makes an XC race winner, there is a thread that ties them all together: all are rolling on 29in wheels. Time to don the Lycra and remove our helmet peaks to find out which one really is the fastest.
In many ways, XC racing is the foundation upon which our sport has been built. Yes, new styles and disciplines come and go, or morph in the way that 160mm-travel all-mountain bikes transformed into enduro rigs. Cross-country racing, however, has weathered the storms of fashion and remains ingrained in UK riding culture to this day and there are plenty of British bikers on the lookout for the best mountain bike for XC riding and occasional racing.
Like all survivors, XC racing has prospered by evolving. Long gone are the three-hour mud-fests on non-challenging terrain. Courses are now shorter and more demanding, challenging riders and equipment, while pushing the visual aspect to make it more appealing for spectators.
A typical XC race loop now features punchy climbs, descents worthy of any EWS stage plus more purpose-built features for the TV cameras. It’s this increasingly tech aspect to XC that is making some riders peruse the best down country mountain bike options too (slightly longer travel bikes with more progressive geometry). XC riding and racing is exciting and no longer purely a test of raw fitness; it’s about pushing skill levels and bike handling as much as your heart rate.
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: hardtail
- Trek Procaliber 9.7 review – WINNER
- Scott Scale 920 review
- Mondraker Chrono Carbon R review
- Specialized S-Works Epic HT AXS review
- Yeti ARC T1 review
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: full suspension
- Specialized Epic Comp Evo review – WINNER
- Cannondale Scalpel-SI Carbon 3 review
- Giant Anthem Advanced 29er 1 review
- Merida One-Twenty RC 9.9000 review
- Santa Cruz Blur XC CC X01 AXS RSV review
- Scott Spark RC WX AXS review
‘View Deal’ links
You will notice that beneath each best crosscountry mountain bikes summary is a ‘View Deal’ link. If you click on one of these links then mbr may receive a small amount of money from the retailer should you go to purchase the product from them. Don’t worry, this does not affect the amount you pay.
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: hardtails
Trek Procaliber 9.7
21st century soft-tail with amazing acceleration
Price: £2,250 | Frame: OCLV Mountain Carbon | Weight: 11.01kg (24.23lb)
Pros: Comfortable as well as speedy
Cons: Lacks a dropper post for modern XC courses
Given that Trek’s XC race hardtails top-out where most other brands begin, the Procaliber 9.7 can, and should be, considered top of the range. Not least because it possesses the ride quality of a flagship product too. The specification is standout, so the Procaliber 9.7 is also the lightest bike on test, albeit by the slimmest of margins. But just like in racing, sometimes that’s all it takes to win. This was no photo finish though, as Trek’s IsoSpeed de-coupler genuinely offers a smooth, fast ride that’s incredibly efficient yet very forgiving.
Scott Scale 920
Not many bikes with more World Cup XC heritage
Price: £2,199 | Frame: Scale 3 Carbon | Weight: 11.47kg (25,29lb)
Pros: A rapid all-rounder without any weak links
Cons: Redundant front mech apparatus spoils the aesthetic
Some brands use race teams for marketing, others focus on product development; Scott clearly does both. As such, the Scale 920 is a finely tuned XC race machine with a huge trophy cabinet to prove it. When efficiency matters, the Scale 920 transforms every watt of available energy directly into speed. Whether that’s grinding up a climb with your nose glued to the stem, exiting a corner, or simply changing gear. And direct power delivery isn’t the Scale 920’s only trump card, it’s equally adept at turning its hand to even the most technical trails.
Mondraker Chrono Carbon R
For fans of muscle-twitch response
Price: £2,399 | Frame: Mondraker Stealth Carbon | Weight: 11.12kg (24.52lb)
Pros: A surgical scalpel that rewards fit and skilled riders
Cons: Not very forgiving of tired pilots
When every second counts, the Mondraker Chrono R delivers. It’s light, fast and focused, with the sole purpose of being ruthlessly efficient. With Mondraker’s XC Forward Geometry, the weight distribution of the bike is superbly balanced too, so the Chrono R rails turns like no other, and you never have to second guess what the front tyre is going to do. It’s not the most forgiving race bike however, even with the slender 27.2mm seat post, so the Chrono R’s real calling card is short-course racing, on smoother tracks.
Specialized S-Works Epic HT AXS
For the uncompromising XC racer with deep pockets in their lycra
Price: £7,999 | Frame: S-Works FACT 12m Carbon | Weight: N/A
Pros: Power delivery that doesn’t beat you death
Cons: Cutting edge costs money
Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the new Epic HT wasn’t some nervy, neurotic race bike that you need all you wits about you just to navigate a straightforward trail. Sure it’s crazy light, the frame alone weighing 790g. And let’s pause to think about that for a minute. That makes the S-Works Epic frame lighter than the average thin-walled trail tyre. More impressive still, the frame used for the Expert, Pro and regular Epic is only 140g heavier.
Yeti ARC T1
Channels the spirit of ’90s XC legends like Furtado and Tomac
Price: £4799 | Frame: Yeti TURQ Series Carbon | Weight: 11.38kg (25,11lb)
Pros: It’s hard not to feel special when you sling a leg over the iconic ARC
Cons: Not really a pure cross country race rig with its 130mm fork
Bear with us here. We know this isn’t really a XC race hardtail but for some riders (of a certain age maybe) the Yeti ARC will be the bike that gets them around the XC race course the quickest. This is purely an emotional attritibute. You can feel John Tomac and Julie Furtado watching you as you pilot this blue baby along the trails. What exactly is this bike for? Truth be told, it has no logical place. Which is why we love it. If push came to shove we’d call it a dreamy Down Country hardtail.
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: full-suspension
Specialized Epic Comp Evo
Capable enough to be classed as Down-Country as well as XC
Price: £4,800 | Frame: FACT 11m Carbon | Weight: 10.70g (23.59lb)
Pros: Ditching the chainstay pivot has only improved its speed
Cons: No everyone likes auto-adjusting The Brain suspension
The Epic Comp Evo, with no uncertainty, retains its XC roots thanks to the Brain shock and race geometry. For weekend racers who want to have fun on the trails midweek it’s a great choice. Yes, the Brian shock still has a quirky response, but if you’re transitioning from a hardtail to your first full-suspension race bike you’ll love how efficient it is. The increased fork travel isn’t enough to transform it into a trail bike, but it stops the Epic Evo feeling too nervous at speed and increases the versatility of the Epic well beyond the confines of the race tape.
Cannondale Scalpel-SI Carbon 3
The purest – and best – version of the legendary Scalpel
Price: £3,699 | Frame: Scalpel-SI BallisTec Carbon | Weight: 13.15kg (28.99lb)
Pros: Proprietary frame and fork design makes for an awesome pairing
Cons: System integration will always be rather restrictive when it comes to upgrades and maintenance
There’s no mistaking the Scalpel for anything other than a Cannondale. Thanks, in no small part, to the unique single-sided Lefty fork and the unmistakable, bean can sized headtube. The ‘Si’ in the name stands for System Integration and whether you like it or not, Cannondale ploughs its own furrow when it comes to a lot of the technology found on the Scalpel. The frame gives you power and stiffness in spades and with the short wheelbase and stays, makes it a pleasure to slam through the turns. The rear shock’s supple action gives the bike great traction and small bump sensitivity.
Giant Anthem Advanced 29er 1
Ideal mile-muncher for longer distance marathon events
Price: £4,249 | Frame: Giant Advanced Grade Composite | Weight: 10.59kg (23.35lb)
Pros: A very nice place to be for hours on end crossing country
Cons: Very active suspension may irk some efficiency-obsessed watt-counters
The Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 has to be one of the most versatile race machines on the market. The mix of trail-bike handling and XC weight makes it a real blast as a short travel, every-day use machine. But its versatility is also its downfall. As a true race bike, the Anthem lacks a bit of the upper-end urgency to truly be the best.
Merida One-Twenty RC 9.9000
Impressively light yet capable bike that straddles XC and fast trail
Price: £7,300 | Frame: One-Twenty RC CF4 Carbon | Weight: 10.71kg (23.61lb)
Pros: Genuinely lightweight XC race bike that doesn’t throw you over the bars if you sneeze
Cons: Spoiled by a couple of sub-optimal component choices
Yes, you’re right. This isn’t technically Merida’s XC race bike. They have the Merida Ninety-Six for World Cup duties. BUt for our (entry fee0 money, the One-Twenty is better bike for speed freaks. The Ninety-Six just has geometry that is outdated for modern race courses. The One-Twenty is a slightly longer travel 120mm bike but it is still insanely light and responsive under pedal power. It’s not a marathon marshmallow. This thing still wants to win bike races.
Scott Spark RC WC AXS
Ruthless in its efficiency
Price: £7,299.00 | Frame: RC Carbon HMX, 0/80/120mm | Weight: 11.12kg (24.52lb)
Pros: Super clean lines reflect the bike’s rapidity
Cons: Suspension could be a touch more supple in Descend mode
Fast, efficient and responsive, the new Scott Spark RC is an outstanding XC race bike. With 120mm of travel, it has the suspension to tackle the toughest courses, but reserves a sharpness to its pedaling response that won’t leave you languishing in the finish-line sprint. It’s stiff too, so if you’re not under 65kg dripping wet, you’ll still have the confidence to charge hard. Scott has missed a trick with it’s TwinLoc remote though, as we think the Spark RC would be even faster if the suspension was a touch more active in the 120mm Descend mode.
Santa Cruz Blur XC CC X01 AXS RSV
Punches well above its weight
Price: £8,099.00 | Frame: CC carbon, 100mm | Weight: 10.41kg (22.95lb)
Pros: Borderline trail bike territory
Cons: Rear suspension is not the firmest under power
This is no average XC race bike. Yes, the Blur XC is light, only has 100mm travel and all of the components have been selected with durability and compatibility in mind. Stand up to sprint and it’s tight and reactive. Bomb down the descents and it’s remarkably composed. Spin along the flat or grind up a climb, however, and the rear suspension is, how do we put this, overly active. So unless you use the remote lockout, the Blur XC feels slightly laboured on the climbs. It’s the bike’s only shortcoming. But in XC racing, you can’t afford to show any weakness. If you’re not racing however and just want a fast bike for trails…
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: hardtail advice
We love hardtails at mbr. XC race bikes have never been in a better spot, the bikes rising to the challenge of modern courses and the demands of the next generation of racers.
And while most of the racing elite have smoothly transitioned to 29er full-suspension bikes, if you’re just getting into XC racing, a trusty 29er hardtail is a much more affordable way to get your hands on a lightweight, efficient bike. Which is why we have XC 29er race hardtails lined up on the grid for this test.
Here we have bikes cut from exact same cloth — probably Lycra — and all designed with one goal in mind: getting to the finish line first. We’ll want to see which of these bikes offers the best power delivery without leaving you battered or broken. And to uncover which bikes can handle technical terrain when your legs and brain are both starved of oxygen, we’ll be razzing around the woods in an ultra-fatigued state to replicate the intensity of racing.
Best crosscountry mountain bikes: full-suspension advice
As XC courses have evolved, so too have the bikes. As such, modern XC races will probably see very few races won on a hardtail, with lightweight full-suspension bikes proving to be the most efficient over the majority of race courses. Even at the highest level of World Cup racing, the pros have realised that effective suspension and confidence-inspiring geometry can bring bigger gains than just weight saving and efficiency alone.
To reflect these changes, we’ve assembled full suspension XC race bikes for this guide. All come from the new breed of race bikes based around carbon fames with 90-100mm travel. Most enjoy a plethora of carbon components, as well as on-the-fly suspension adjustments to make them every bit as efficient as a hardtail when the terrain demands it.
Best crosscountry mountain bikes verdict
Best hardtail XC race bike: Trek Procaliber 9.7.
This test wasn’t decided on price though, even if the bike with the best specification won. Weight wasn’t really a consideration either, yet it was the lightest bike that reigned supreme. No, the Trek Procaliber 9.7 crossed the finish line first because it’s the fastest hardtail here. And in XC racing, that’s all that counts.
Best full suspension XC race bike: Specialized Epic Comp Evo.
We were won over by the urgency of the new Specialized Epic Comp Evo. And even if the Brain shock isn’t quite as sharp as Specialized would have you believe, there’s no denying that the Epic Comp Evo feels like it is running on high-octane fuel when you step on the gas.