XC Mountain Bike vs Trail Bike : Which One For What You Ride?

The two main types of mountain bikes are XC bikes and Trail bikes, but what’s the real difference between them and which should you be using?

Everybody starting in mountain bikes just pictures the one mountain bike used for everything.  You could use a hardtail bike like the one above for both cross-country (XC) and trail riding, but it would a a rough ride taking a trail in a bike with no rear suspension.

Bike have many parts so let’s look at them now and what’s different between each type.

Bike Riding Terrain

Cross Country (XC) Riding

Cross-country bikes, or XC bikes for short, are generally ridden on forrest paths, smooth roads, singletrack (bike-width trail through the woods), and paved roads.  XC riders generally prefer twisty trails and hills instead of the more mountainous paths that trail bikes generally go on.  These riders do both short, intense races to longer endurance races.  Generally speaking XC is more for speed than adrenaline.

Trail Riding

Trail bikes are used on forest paths, rough roads, jumps, good-size rocks, and generally anything that creates a little adrenaline.  Trail bikes are more for conquering terrain rather than the simplest and fastest routes.

Differences Between XC Bikes and Trail Bikes

Because XC and Trail bikes are designed to be used differently, there are differences in the design and parts used.  It all comes back to what the bike is meant to handle.

Front Suspension

XC Bike

  • Medium suspension travel of up to 4 inches for mild trails
  • The main goal is a light-weight bike.

Trail Bike

  • The front suspension is heavy-duty to handle the stress of jumps and rough terrain.
  • The front suspension travel can be up to 10 inches.
  • Usually the front suspension is an air spring.
  • Tail bike front forks may include a lockout to limit suspension travel.

Rear Suspension

XC Bike

  • Cross country bikes can either have a medium suspension of up to 4 inches of travel or no rear suspension at all (which is a hardtail bike).

Trail Bike

  • The rear suspension can have up to 10 inches of travel.
  • The rear suspension may have a lockout to limit travel suspension either partially or totally.  A total travel limit would let the bike act like a hardtail which has no rear suspension.
  • With a full suspension, a trail bike will absorb rough technical terrain.  If the bike is a hardtail, the path through the terrain will have to be selected carefully.

Wheels and Tires

XC Bike

  • Most of the cross-country bikes have 29 inch wheels and tires under 2.2 inches in width.
  • XC bike tires are skinnier than trail bikes to lower the rolling resistance and thus makes the bikes go faster.

Trail Bike


  • The tires can be either 27.5 or 29 inches although 29 inches is getting more common.
  • The tires are wider up to around 3 inches.
  • The tire are more knobby in general to help get better grip on slippery rocks for instance.

Saddle Position

XC Bike

  • As these are built for speed, the rider leans more forward and down for aerodynamic reasons.

Trail Bike

  • Trail bike riders sit more upright mostly because the rider needs to be very agile and shift their weight around to keep the balance of the bike.

Which One Is Right For You?

While some of it is personal preference, there are some basic questions to help direct what bike fits your needs:

  • Is the mountain bike only going to be used on mild paths and roads?
  • Is the mountain bike going to be used on downhill trails with rough technical terrain?
  • Is the mountain bike going to be used on a wide variety of terrains?

If the bike is only going to be used on smooth surfaces like roads or mild trails, then the XC mountain bike is going to be your best choice.

If the bike is only going to be used on rough terrain for the thrill, then a trail bike is going to be your best bet.

If you are going to use the mountain bike on a variety of both mild surfaces but also rougher trails, then you’ll want a trail bike with front and rear lockouts for the suspension.  With this, you can limit the travel so that on smooth surfaces you can waste less energy by limiting the vertical movements of the bike.  On smooth surfaces, you want a less cushiony ride.

Whichever you choose, just make sure you choose the right mountain bike size so you can truly enjoy it.  Remember to prepare and bring with you the essentials so you enjoy mountain biking safely.

Can You Turn One Bike into the Other?

This is a question I get quite often.  Can you turn a XC mountain bike into a Trail bike or vice-versa?

XC bikes and trail bikes have different geometry, saddle position, and suspension (though you can limit the trail bike suspension to be a little better on only smooth surfaces).

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