Racing your mountain bike in cross country (XC) and marathon (XCM) events may seem quite similar at first, but taking a closer look at both disciplines reveals key differences in terms of ideal training and equipment. In this article, we focus on the best bike setups for both and how it all comes down to balancing speeds vs. comfort.
Cross country or Marathon
Let’s begin with explaining what we mean by cross country and marathon. A typical cross country mountain bike race involves multiple laps around a fixed course, mostly or entirely off-road and with a significant amount of singletrack. Laps at the pro World Cup level are between four and six kilometers although they may be longer for standard amateur events. Most cross country events last between 1.5 and 1.75 hours.
Marathon mountain bike racing, on the other hand, tends to cover a course that is either one big lap starting and finishing in the same place or traversing a point-to-point route. Marathon race distances can vary widely from anywhere between 60 and 160 km, and it’s not uncommon for marathon stages to last between 2.5 and 6 hours, depending on category and terrain.
Marathon racers are more likely to compete on bikes with full suspension and more travel. Because marathoners cover greater distances over trails that are often more remote and get less traffic, riders have to deal with more varied conditions and more total physical abuse for any given race. Hence, comfort is a greater factor in deciding bike setup. Kilometer after kilometer, the physical toll of racing on natural surface or backcountry trails adds up, and having both front and rear suspension can take the edge off, significantly decreasing overall fatigue from all the jostling.
Cross country racers are only out there for one or two hours, so it’s easier to prioritize and performance and handle the extra abuse of racing on a hardtail for the shorter duration. Plus hardtails are on average lighter than full suspension bikes; thus pedaling a super lightweight hardtail up steep, punchy cross country course climbs can be a big advantage over pushing a heavier full suspension bike, especially at fast cross country race paces. And that climbing advantage often holds even factoring the extra jostling on descents and technical sections.
That said, depending on the course, cross country racers may still sometimes opt for full suspension for greater comfort. It can be the best choice for more technical courses where the weight penalty is worth the tradeoff because while riders may suffer a bit more on the climbs, they can flow faster over sections with roots, rocks and drops. A typical cross country racer will use full suspension with 100 to 120mm of front and rear travel whereas a typical marathoner will often go for 120mm.
When it comes to gears, cross country racers can get away with narrower gear ranges and larger gears in general. In part, this is because cross country races are shorter, so racers can power through the tough spots in a higher gear and not have to worry about the fatigue that will be felt a few hours later. Cross country races also have a higher average speed, so bigger gears are needed to be competitive.
In marathons, which are more likely to have longer climbs and descents, a wider range of gears is needed to sustain ideal leg speed and bike speed over the long haul. Marathons tend to be held in mountainous terrain, which means longer and steeper climbs and descents. It can be less fatiguing overall to spin a low gear up a long climb before switching to a high gear to fly down lengthy descents.
Fortunately, riders who use ROTOR’s Q rings have an advantage no matter what the discipline. Q rings help marathoners and cross country racers alike get the most out of each pedal stroke by optimizing when and how power is applied from their legs through the cranks and into the drivetrain. Whether you have just one bike or two separate bikes to set up to race cross country and/or marathon, you can’t go wrong using Q rings, and their design makes it easy to switch out chainring sizes to that which will best suit whatever your next event is.