When you’re out on the trails, there’s no doubt you’ll see a variety of different mountain bikes. You may even scratch your head as to what bike makes the most sense for you. But before we talk about bikes, let’s take a look at the differences between cross country riding and trail riding. Once you determine what type of rider you are, it will make choosing a bike easier.

(Please note: These descriptions are intentionally general. We know the two types of riding styles often cross over and that some trail riders compete in cross country events and vice versa.)

The Clif Bar team trains on the AIR 9 RDO

First off, let’s limit some possible confusion. Cross country riders do ride on trails. These trails range from fire roads to technical singletrack. Cross country riders participate in everything from short, hard efforts to longer endurance events. A cross country rider generally enjoys twisty singletrack, hilly efforts, the occasional jump or rock drop and smaller adrenaline inducing trail features.

A group of cross country riders may find pleasure in putting the hurt on each other to see who gets to the top of the hill the fastest or who hard charges to win the race. They may also challenge each other on who can clean the trickiest uphill section of a trail.


Stu and Linda test their trail bike skills

Trail riders lean more towards the adventurous side of the sport. They may do some of the same things as cross country riders but look for bigger features and obstacles. A trail rider doesn’t mind a long climb as long as the downhill gets the adrenaline pumping with jumps, drops, rock gardens and berms.

Trail riders often ride a wide range of trail types but always keep an eye out for black diamond type trails. They seek out fast and flowy and more technically challenging riding. A group of trail riders are more likely to compare downhill times on Strava and who had the guts to go over a big drop. They aren’t generally concerned with uphill speed. Getting to the top of the hill is merely payment for the fun of the down.


Due to the differences in riding styles, cross country bikes and trail bikes are designed and built differently. Below are main things to look at:

  • Front fork travel
  • Rear travel (If any.)
  • GeometryOK
  • Wheel size options
  • Dropper posts


A rigid, carbon fiber mountain bike fork


    • The fork may be fully rigid and made of either carbon fiber or steel. A fully rigid front fork offers trail sensitivity that a front suspended fork can’t and is generally a lot lighter than any suspension fork. A rigid fork makes handling more precise.
  • XC suspension forks rely on an air spring to keep the weight down. The fork will generally have between 100mm and 120mm of travel.


  • A trail fork will be heavier and burlier with fork stanchions (legs) between 34mm and 36mm to increase stiffness and steering precision when a rider is plowing through rough stuff at speed.
  • A trail bike fork will be between 130mm and 170mm of travel in order to handle more technical terrain, bigger drops and jumping.
  • A trail fork will generally have an air spring but there are some coil spring options available. (Coil sprung forks tend to be heavier.)
  • A trail fork will have a fork lockout and may have travel adjustment to lower the front of the fork when climbing.


  • Niner’s 90 mm travel XC bike – the RKT

    A XC bike may be a hardtail meaning the rear tire has no suspension travel. A hardtail channels all of the rider’s pedal power into moving the rear wheel along. Efficiency is the name of the game for a hardtail. A hardtail offers more trail feedback but may get overwhelmed in rougher terrain.

  • A XC bike may have rear suspension meaning the rear tire moves along the trail and reacts to impacts from the trail using a rear air sprung shock. Rear suspension travel will run between 80mm and 120mm and will have a lockout to make climbing and riding on the flats more efficient. Rear travel on a XC bike allows for more control and less fatigue on more technical terrain.


  • Full suspension is the rule for trail bikes although some hardtails are available that are designed with slacker trail bike geometry and longer forks.
  • 150 mm of rear travel – Niner’s RIP 9 RDO

    With rear suspension that ranges from 120mm – 160mm of travel, trail bikes are designed to chew up rocky, technical terrain at speed, handle drops and catch air. Trail bikes often can be pointed straight through the rough stuff. Line choice isn’t as crucial as it is with a cross country bike where a rider will have to be more selective with line choice.

  • Shorter travel trail bikes lean more towards the XC category while long travel trail bikes lean more towards the enduro/downhill category. The longer travel bike can handle more aggressive, black diamond-like trails.
  • Most trail bikes have a rear air shock with a lockout switch to firm up the ride during climbing and spinning along on flat terrain.

GEOMETRY SPECIFICATIONS (Or how the frame is designed and laid out.)

  • XC bikes have steeper head angles generally ranging from 69-71 degrees. This allows for sharper handling. Top tubes may be shorter which also allows for sharper handling.
A sample geo chart for a cross country bike


  • The trend in trail bikes has been to shorten chainstays (The length between the rear axle and the seat tube) and lengthen top tubes. This allows the rider to be more planted over the bike’s center of gravity. It allows the rider to run a shorter stem which keeps them further behind the front wheel offering a more stable platform, especially when things get technical and rowdy.
  • Trail bikes also have slacker head angles generally ranging from 65 degrees to 68 degrees. This puts the wheel out in front of the rider allowing for more stability and less of a chance of going over the bars.


  • You’ll generally find XC bikes with 29” wheelsets. The tires will be narrower than trail bikes. (Less than 2.2”). These tires tend to have a lower rolling resistance and less aggressive traction. 29er wheels roll over obstacles easier and the momentum of the larger wheels makes them faster. You may find some cross country bikes with 27.5 wheelsets. Aside from kids bikes, the 26” wheel diameter is pretty much extinct at this point but may still be found on used bikes.
A 29″ wheelset


  • Trail bike wheelsets come in several shapes and sizes. 27.5” and 29” are the norm. 27.5+ wheelsets have entered the discussion in the past couple of seasons. You’ll find all sorts of discussions as to which diameter is better and each has its pluses and minuses. In general, the 27.5” and 29” tires will be 2.3” or wider with the 27.5+ tires running up to 3” wide. These tires tend to have a more aggressive traction profile.


  • Traditionally, a XC bike comes with a rigid carbon or aluminum seatpost. These posts are lightweight and maintenance-free. In the past few years, lighter weight dropper posts have become available allowing the rider more control on downhills and in technical sections without adding too much weight over a rigid seatpost.
A dropper post gets the seat out of the way.


  • These days, most trail bikes come stock with a dropper post from one of the many dropper post manufacturers. With travel ranging from 100mm to 150mm, a dropper post allows the rider to move the seat down and out of the way when hurtling down a hill and in technical sections. With the seat out of the way, the rider has more control. A dropper post is a must-have on a trail bike.

Cross country or trail bike? Or somewhere in between? What type of rider are you? Of course, with all bike categories, there is always crossover. Can you ride a trail bike in a cross country race? Sure. Can you ride your XC hardtail on rocky, technical terrain with your friends who all ride full suspension trail bikes? Sure.
In the end, your personal riding style and trail options are what’s important. When making a buying decision, ride before you buy. Find a shop that has demos or keep an eye out for a manufacturer’s demo truck coming to a trail near you.


  • XC hardtail: AIR 9 RDO
  • XC full suspension (90 mm of rear travel) : RKT 9 RDO
  • Short travel trail bike (120 mm of rear travel) : JET 9 RDO
  • Long travel trail bike (150 mm of rear travel) : RIP 9 RDO

P.S: Think a trail bike is for you but not sure between a shorter travel trail bike and a longer travel one? Read this article.