A beginners guide to cross-country and trail riding

So you're thinking about getting stuck into the world of mountain biking? The thrill of tackling exciting off-road trails and getting some serious speed as you zip downhill has an obvious appeal for the biker looking for more than just the weekday commute. But where should a two-wheeled thrill seeker start? Trying to figure out which mountain bike is best for you can be a winding and tricky route as it is. You might be surprised at just how many types of mountain bikes there are to choose from! To help you decide on what your newest hill-obliterating machine should be, we've put together a guide to two of the most popular categories of mountain bike there are on the market.

If you like to get your thrills from pure speed, cross country MTB racing is the place to be. With more rigid frames even with a little suspension, it won't be the most forgiving ride of your life, but you don't get into MTB for an easy ride, do you?

What is a trail bike?

If you close your eyes and imagine what a mountain bike looks like, you're probably thinking about a trail bike. A wide-ranging group of mountain bikes, these beauties can be found in either a steel, carbon-fibre or an aluminium frame so there's something to fit all skill-levels and budgets. Highly versatile, trail bikes relish those long, steep climbs and also come with a huge variety of different wheel sizes to fit. Which size is best of course depends on your riding style and personal preference.

Trail riders are likely to be seeking out the more technically challenging course. The route which has more dips and jumps and corners, the better. But trail bikes can also double-up as a practical everyday ride. Geometry and sizing are very important in getting a trail bike that suits you. It might mean trying out a bike in-store in order to find the correct frame-size for yourself.

Features of a trail bike

  • The trail suspension fork on your trail bike will need to be able to handle the more technical terrain and bigger drops. The travel will therefore be larger than you'll find on a cross-country bike. These forks could be either an air spring or coil spring – coil spring forks tend to be the heavier option.
  • Trail bikes tend to come with fairly long top tubes. These allow the rider to be further behind the front wheel and perch upon on the bike's centre of gravity, which is handy for technical courses.
  • Many trail bikes come with a dropper post as standard. This means you can move the saddle down and out of your way before making your way through a tricky downhill course. For the off-road racers this is a vital feature as it can give you maximum control over the bike.

What is a cross-country bike?

If single-track, flat-out speed is what you're after, then a cross-country - also known as an XC - mountain bike might just be for you. At home on the gravel trail as well as an off-road course, cross-country bikes are the sleek and nimble lightweight racers of the mountain biking world.

Features of a cross-country bike

  • XC mountain bikes are all about keeping the weight down. As such, they may be fitted with lightweight air spring suspension forks rather than the heavier coil spring alternative.
  • Cross-country mountain bikes usually have a steeper head angle than trail bikes. These steep angles help the bike's steering response which is great for downhill racing.
  • You'll find that XC bikes typically have narrower wheels than trail bikes. Many bikes are fitted with 29" wheels, but you can find 27.5" attached to smaller-framed bikes.

Trail bikes v XC bikes: what's the difference?

So which is best? Whether you opt for a trail bike or whether XC is more your game will mostly depend on how you're planning to use it. Mountain bikes, or MTB's, are a wide-ranging genre of bikes and each have their own unique advantages.

Trail bikes are the all-purpose, jack-of-all-trades bikes of the MTB world, capable of eating up those steep climbs as well as holding its own as a day-to-day rig. Essentially, trail bikes are designed with a suspension to haul you up hills and get you back down them quickly and in style. These are a great MTB if you aren't quite sure which discipline you want to get into first, or if you want to try a range of off-road courses.

Cross-country mountain bikes are less about the technical style of trail riding and more about getting you from A to B as quickly as possible. That's not to say that XC bikes can't hold their own when it comes to tackling some ascents, however. Lightweight and packed with speed, the XC range are nimble enough to get around most trails, but with many models coming in a hardtail, front-suspension only variety, you might feel the bumps of the downhill route a bit more than you would do on a trail bike.

The answer is subtle. XC riders do ride on trails, they like an occasional jump or obstacle and certainly like a climb. But it's a slightly different challenge.

XC usually requires more precision and riders can compete in short sprints on twisty technical tracks or long endurance races, all with a mixture of hills and differing surfaces.

This means a slightly lighter bike, more carbon fibre and a locked or no suspension. This results in more power being transferred from the pedals into the back wheel. There will be shorter top tubes and fixed seating to assist in better handling.

Also because XC riders don't need to deal with thrusting their bike or leaning forward with a core behind the seat for regular jumps and downhill elements, the frame is tailored to put the centre of gravity of the rider in the middle of the bike. They'll have thinner wheels and tires too.

To find out more why not read about a day in the life of a cross country cyclist.