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Skills in MTB XC Racing

Back when MTB XC racing was just dirt road racing, skills didn't really matter. Bikes were terrible, tracks were easy and brakes didn't work. If you didn't get a flat tire, you were just suffering for the whole 2-3 hours on the biggest hills possible. Sound fun?

These days, cross country or XCO racing is all about having the rad technical trail features we all love. The climbs are hard and the downhills are harder.

To be any good at modern XC racing, you need Tour de France level aerobic capacity, Usain bolt level sprints, and more skills than Loic Bruni.

Climbing prowess is still the name of the game, but races are won and lost in turns and downhills. Everyone is racing with 2.4 inch 29er tires, full suspension and dropper posts, so it's not the bikes holding us back anymore.

MTB XCO skills - Caleb Bottcher at the world cup
Caelb Bottcher has the skills to pay the bills! PC Piper Albrecht

A lot of times we think about braking as being only important for downhill racers, but that simply isn't true. In fact, the idea for our first-ever brake sensor came from an XC race!

During a head to head battle, Matt was able to keep up with Steve, a fit road cyclist, by braking more efficiently on flat turns in a local XC race. Of course we didn't have sensors, but Steve's brakes were so noisy and Matt wasn't braking at all. We can use braking to assess skills, and given the two riders in that head to head battle, we know for a fact that Steve would have won that race if he had better skills.


Any mountain biker who cares about improving their fitness is using a power meter paired with an app like TrainingPeaks. This way they find their weaknesses and can use their training time to improve the right kind of fitness instead of just guessing.

It's also a must to work on your skills. It's no longer reasonable to work on just fitness and pretend that skills don't matter in XCO.

The ability to carry speed out of corners allows you to save energy for when it matters. Being able to ride smooth on a descent allows you to save time and energy. And being able to confidently ride the A-line saves seconds per lap.