A lean, mean collection of cross country mountain bikes built for speed and put through their (race) paces
Modern XC race bikes are all about raw speed, making them light weight, super efficient and ideal for fast, flowing singletrack as well as between the tape.
Best XC race bikes: hardtail
- Trek Procaliber 9.7 £2,250 – WINNER
- Scott Scale 920 £2,199
- Mondraker Chrono Carbon R £2,399
- Specialized S-Works Epic HT AXS £7,999
Best XC race bikes: full suspension
- Specialized Epic Comp Evo £2,900 – WINNER
- Scott Spark 940 £2,999
- Cannondale Scalpel-SI Carbon 3 £3,999
- Giant Anthem Advanced 29er 1 £3,449
Modern XC racing
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.
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. XC 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.
All this top-notch kit does mean that your typical entry-level XC bike tends to cost more than the equivalent enduro or trail build. So, if on the surface some test bikes look relatively expensive, most actually represent the entry point to race-winning performance from each of the respective brands.
And 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.
Hardtail XC race bikes
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.
Trek Procaliber 9.7, £2,250
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, £2,199
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, £2,399
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, £7,999
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.
Full suspension XC race bikes
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.
Specialized Epic Comp Evo, £2,900
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 respone, but if you’re transitioning from a hardtail to your first full-suspension race bike you’ll love how efficient it is. Thei ncreased 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.
Scott Spark 940, £3,099
With a bias towards trail riding, the Spark 940 really is an engaging and capable bike. The suspension performance is certainly the best of the two bikes in this category (the other being the Specialized Epic), and if you are looking for versatility you can instantly switch from performance XC to all-mountain ripping with the TwinLoc remote. However, the Spark 940 doesn’t bring quite the same level of urgency that made the RC version our test winner in previous years. The additional weight and wheel package stifled its acceleration, allowing the Specialized Epic Evo to win by the narrowest of margins.
Cannondale Scalpel-SI Carbon 3, £4,500
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 unmistakeable, 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, £4299.00
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.
Best XC race 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.