Cross Country Mountain Biking (XC MTB) 101

What is Cross Country Mountain Biking?

  • Cross Country Mountain biking (XC MTB) is part of the set of off-road cycling disciplines (have a look here for an overview:
  • XC races are generally held on fire roads and single tracks in wooded and mountainous terrain, on circuits of around 4-6 km in length, often with lots of climbing and descending, which are to completed over several laps.
  • It is a mass start event.
  • The courses generally include technical components, such as going over roots, rocks and drops and expect a certain skill level of the riders to be safe and rewarding. It is advisable to have some experience riding technical terrain before embarking on a race. 
  • XC MTB is the only off-road cycling discipline in the Olympics.
  • There exist some sub-disciplines of XC MTB, with the main sub discipline being Cross Country Marathon (XCM): the long discipline version of XC MTB. The main difference is that this discipline is run over a much longer distance and generally in one long loop or point to point (P2P) race. There exist a number of stage races (none in Ireland) run over several days where each day is a long distance loop or P2P race, with the exception of much shorter prologues.
  • In Ireland there are very few MTB Marathon races on offer each year, with the Da Cooley Thriller being the only long running event held each year (, and the exception of the National XC MTB Marathon event where National Champs jerseys are on offer.
  • These events are generally held towards the end of the racing season, in August/September. More information about these races can be found here:
  • While mountain bikes generally come with a large selection of gears, there are some cyclists that prefer single speed mountain bikes, i.e. with only one gear. There are even some semi-serious Single Speed Mountain biking world champs and in fact these were held in Ireland in recent times, with the winner no one less than ex world class MTB racers Niall Davis, who now runs (, a bike rental company providing bike lessons in Ballinastoe and Ticknock.
  • Fat bikes have been a recent hype with some racers using these bikes in XC races.

What bike do I need?

  • A XC MTB has at least front suspension (front shocks) and often rear suspension, depending on the rider’s preference or race course (riders often choose dual suspension (front and rear) for more technical terrain/comfort, front suspension bikes are generally lighter and may be favoured in very climby courses). There are a variety of different suspension systems out there with manufacturers constantly providing new versions.
  • Handlebars are mostly straight and do not contain hoods/drops.
  • Most mountain bikes come with disk brakes these days, which provide more braking power and finer control, but some older or cheaper versions still have V-brakes.
  • Wide (2.1 inch +/-), nobbly (high profile) tires, run at low pressures: There are tubeless versions which instead of a tube contain a liquid sealant that self-heals the tire upon small punctures, these can be run at around 28 PSI (which is somewhat weight dependent). Tubed versions are generally run at slightly higher pressures (around 30 PSI). The low pressure helps making riding technical terrain easier by having the tire mould over obstacles such as rocks and roots, rather than bounce off them. Don’t be riding the pressure too low or you may risk puncturing.
  • Recently, there has been change in available wheel sizes, with 29 inch wheels (29ers) and 27.5 inch wheels now being favoured over the older 26 inch wheels. The bigger wheel size is said to roll better over rough/technical terrain.
  • Gearing: There are a number of options available for MTB gearing: Recently, a single chain ring (e.g. a 32 teeth) has become in vogue. A MTB usually has much smaller gears than a road bike due to the much steeper and technical climbing to be conquered in a course.
  • XC MTB racers generally race with clip in pedals for better bike control to avoid slipping from the pedals
  • Bikes should be equipped with at least 1 bottle cage.
  • Price: a decent beginner level MTB will start off at about 1,400Euro. It is advisable to buy a decent bike rather than a cheap “toy bike” as these are not safe enough to withstand the rough terrain.








What gear do I need?

  • Serious XC racers race in a one piece tight fitting skin suit, but cycling shorts and a jersey are just fine.
  • For colder/wetter weather add layers: arm warmers, knee/leg warmers, base layer, gilet, jacket, buff, rain jacket, shoe covers.
  • You will need padded gloves to protect your hands in a fall and also to reduce calluses in your hands, short finger gloves are perfect in the summer, long finger versions may give more protection, but may be too hot.
  • A good helmet is a must for XC MTB.
  • It’s advisable to wear cycling glasses during MTB, ideally with photochromic or clear lenses to adjust quickly to the difference in light going from a sunny fireroad into a thick dark forest.
  • Saddle bag: while many racers do away with a saddle bag during racing (because there are technical zones where they can exchange a flat wheel), it’s highly advisable to carry a saddle bag during training containing at least the following:
    • Mini pump
    • Tire levers
    • Tube
    • Tool kit (with Allen keys and chain breaker)
    • Optional :
    • CO2 for filling flat tubeless wheel and hope it seals or quickly filling a new tube
    • Patch kit
    • Chain links
    • During long training rides some people prefer to carry a cycling specific backpack for extra clothes, food and water, with the water often kept in a plastic “bladder” with a long lead for drinking while riding
    • Enough drink and food for a spin – a guideline would be to start off carrying 500ml of water + 1 bar/hour riding, but it entirely depends on personal preferences
    • Phone!

Where can I start Cross Country Mountain biking?

  • The best way to start mountain biking is by joining a cycling club in your area that focuses on off-road cycling, an list is given below. Many clubs also run beginner spins for non-members if you are not ready to commit to a club just yet.
  • You can also find a cycling club in your area using the club locator on the Cycling Ireland website (although they don’t specify which ones have an off-road section and you may have to contact them yourself to find out if they have an off-road section):
  • Coillte Forests: Over the last decade or so many mountain bike trail networks have been developed in Coillte forests, which are way marked to ability and free to use. These often include facilities for bike rental and bike wash and a coffee shop.
  • A list of Coillte MTB trails can be found here:
  • Similar trail centres exist in Northern Ireland:
  • Commercial MTB Parks: There are a number of commercially run mountain bike parks with bike rental, uplifts, bike wash and coffee shop facilities:

 Who can I ride Cross Country MTB with?






How can I start racing Cross Country MTB?

  • To start racing you will need to purchase a racing license from Cycling Ireland. More information on licenses can be found here:
  • The main races run for XC MTB is the National Points Series, a series of about 5 races run from April to July all over the country, leading up to the National XC MTB Championships at the end of July – more info about race dates can be found here:
  • Good beginner races/leagues
    • The Biking Blitz Series ( is an ideal beginners series run in 4 of Ireland’s Coillte trail centres. These races are run early in the year, before the main racing season starts (February/March)
  • Regional XC races are also held around the country
    • Ulster XC Race Series:
    • Connacht XC League:

Find out when you can start racing  XC in this calendar

Get involved in XC MTB by checking out these links