7 Best Cross-Country (XC) Mountain Bikes in 2021 – Short Travel Monsters

The Cross country or XC bikes are becoming better with modern geometry, but their prices are also shooting to the roof. Choosing the right XC bike can be challenging for a first-timer.

In this guide, we will let you know the features to consider when choosing an XC bike and the available options. 

Best Cross Country Mountain Bikes for 2021

1. Scott Scale 920 and Scott Spark 940

Scott Scale 920

You cannot get it wrong with a Scott Scale, a hardtail, and its full-sus sibling, the Scott Spark. The Scott Scale series, especially from 900 to 950, has conquered so many races and has a trophy cabinet to show off.

The Scale 920, which I have had a lot of experience with, is an XC race jet, and you would be amazed at how fast it cuts through the wind. 

You cannot talk about XC racing without mentioning Scott bikes. They’ve been known to dominate the races around the world and yonder.

If you are going to race on a rocky and bumpy track with roots and dirt, the Scale alternative would be the Scott Spark 940, which I was lucky to ride as well.

The suspension of the Spark 940 is perhaps better than all the full-sus bikes I’ll mention here.

However, there’s one thing Scott missed about this model – the weight. Its acceleration is poor, unlike the hardtail sister, Scott Scale 920. 

2. Trek Top Fuel and Trek Procaliber

The Trek Top Fuel is not just an excellent budget XC mountain bike, but it acts as your link to the XC world with the confidence that comes with it. Damn right, that’s a Trek, and you know it’s a sure deal.

As Trek says, Trek top Fuel is “both efficient and ready to party,” so grab one and ask where’s the party at?

The bike is built for endurance and is bigger than the Supercaliber. Never confuse the Top Fuel with the Fuel EX. The latter is larger and a trail bike. 

Top Fuel is a full suspension bike, and its hardtail counterpart is the Trek Procaliber 9.7. This is yet another top-of-the-range XC MTB from Trek that means serious business.

Not only is the bike light in weight, but it’s incredibly efficient with a jaw-breaking speed.

Both Top Fuel and Procaliber have aluminum or carbon frame options. How deep is your pocket? You’ll need to dig deeper for the carbon frames. 

3. Santa Cruz Tallboy

What’s a top XC bikes list without a Santas Cruz Tallboy? I’ll be doing it no justice failing to mention it here.

It’s been one of the models dominating the XC races, and for its reputation, the bike comes with a 130mm front and a 120mm rear.

The latest Tallboy was launched in 2021, and the manufacturer has nothing but the sweetest words for their model. “downhiller’s XC bike,” as Santa Cruz describes the Tallboy, is one of the toughest yet fast and stable XC bikes I have ever tried. 

You can say that Tallboy is a short travel bike in the XC category and its spacious cockpit is something you cannot ignore.

What’s more, they have aluminum, carbon C, and carbon CC options, and you can also request a custom build. 

4. Mondraker Podium

When a friend allowed me to ride his Mondraker Podium, I felt something special about the bike.

That’s why this list couldn’t go without me mentioning one of the bikes that have given me a beautiful experience between my legs.

The bike frame alone weighs 775g, and that’s light. When you add other components, you get what we call a featherweight bike. 

The geometry of the Podium clearly says it all, that the bike is a serious deal and any rider’s dream two-wheel cruiser. It features a headtube with a 68.5-degree angle and a 74.6 degrees seat angle. The Podium doesn’t just have the good looks. It also has the potential to win those cups and medals. 

5. Cannondale Scalpel Carbon SE

Every bike manufacturer has something to say about their top-of-the-league flagships. Cannondale says that their Scalpel SE is a “World Cup fast and all-mountain fierce!” That’s quite something.

A bike that would roll towards the finish line without you having to worry about the terrain you are riding on is your best bet. 

According to the manufacturer and riders having had first-hand experience with the Scalpel SE, the bike is more sturdy and squish than its sibling, the Scalpel. What’s more, you will not need to buy a dropper post because the bike comes with one.

You also get a shorter stem to give you much control of the bike. One of the unique features of this model is the use of flexible carbon plates instead of the pivot point on the chainstays, which complete the bike’s rear pivotal system. 

6. Canyon Exceed

Since hardtails have cemented their place in the XC scene, it would be unfair not to mention them. One of the largest bikes on the list and with a big name is the Canyon Exceed.

No change has been made to the frame, except coming with a CFR carbon in 2021. Now you have three carbon frame options, namely, CF, SLX, and CFR. 

You can expect a 69-degree head angle is the standard angle for most XC bikes. When riding your bike, your eyes are always hovering over the cockpit, and that’s where Exceed’s beauty is.

The one-piece bar stem combo is something that we haven’t seen in other bikes, making this model outstanding.

The reason to get an Exceed is that it comes with an XTR groupset, yet it’s more affordable than all the bikes on that level.

7. Giant Anthem Advanced 29er 1

The list should not end without mentioning one of the most incredible bikes of all time. It got to be no other but Giant Anthem Advanced 29er 1.

It’s not just a versatile bike, but also a mix of trail-bike and XC and makes it a conquerer of both.

If you are looking for a bike that you can use on any terrain and still participate with it on an XC or trail bike race, then this Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 is the ideal bike for you. However, the versatility makes the bike a poor performer in the races. 

All is not lost, though, if you consider this bike a fast-rolling machine. Its light and stiff to reduce fatigue to the rider while participating in longer races.

Some professional riders claim that the bike is too fun to be a proper XC bike, and it lacks the characteristics associated with an XC. All in all, this is a bike you can have fun riding and enjoy some XC adventure. 

What to Consider When Buying an XC Bike

  • Geometry
  • Suspension
  • Drivetrain
  • Cockpit
  • Wheels 

Going into Details:

Something About the Geometry

What defines a mountain bike? It must be the geometry, of course, and it applies in every MTB, including an XC bike. This discipline has changed a lot over the years.

Bikes have become more aggressive than they were before. Seasoned riders and racers can tell the difference with the feel and the handling that there have been significant improvements on the frames in the past few years. 

The head angles, for example, are slacker like they have always been for trail bikes. This keeps them stable on steeper terrains and maintains the rider’s weight towards the cockpit for traction. 

The seat angles are about 75-degrees. The chainstay length is also shorter for traction and better power transfer.

The geometry improvements have been made on the bike’s wheelbase, and they have been stretched for stability.

Riding an XC bike feels better than it has ever been because of these significant improvements. 

What About the Suspension?

When buying an XC bike, there’s one consideration you should hold dear – the suspension. An XC bike can either be a hardtail or a full-sus, but most racers have been known to use the full-sus option, but it doesn’t mean hardtails are not good enough.

Traditionally, hardtails are known for their lightness, while full-sus have been considered weighty. 

However, some improvements have been made to make full-sus lighter, but hardtails have not been receiving the same blessings, considering that there are fewer options here.

While you digest that, it would be good to tell you that you are better off starting with a hardtail. It would be best if you also considered your style of riding.

A hardtail is a better option if the terrain is smooth or not a very rough track. A full sus is the king of the most challenging trails, with roots, rocks, and natural tracks.

If you are going to race, it would be advisable to train with both bikes, as hardtails don’t perform well over rough terrain with lots of rocks and roots. 

And the Drivetrain?

I flashback to the time when I thought my 3×10 drivetrain was a big deal. I always bragged about the many options I had when my friends were doing 3×8 and 3×9. Deciding what gear to use was a challenge that we never spoke about.

Then came the 2x, which made things easier, then we got 1×11 which was more incredible. Now, most bikes are coming with the standard 1×12 speed drivetrain. 

The XC bikes get the best drivetrains, which are also the most expensive and more advanced. In fact, when Shimano and SRAM work out new features, they are first featured on the most expensive groupsets, and then they scale downwards. 

The advantage of a 1×12 drivetrain is that it’s easier to maintain, and it’s simpler to use than a drivetrain with a front derailleur.

The drivetrain offers quicker gearing options for climbing and descending. Some riders still prefer the 2x drivetrain even with a 12 speed rear because it gives them more choices and speed.

Some change the front chainring to 36T or 38T, depending on their power. 

I Want to Hear About the Cockpit

Back in the day, the handlebars used to be narrow. We never noticed, and we didn’t even care. Then came the 29er bikes, and someone must have realized that the bars needed to be wide to control these beasts.

I must admit it feels so great, a feeling that you cannot explain when riding these large wheelers with wide bars. The bars are stable and responsive.

The stems have become shorter to offer stability and lowered to bring more weight forward. With the rider’s weight shifted forward, the front wheel gains more traction, which translates to more stability even on the most challenging corners. 

Wondering what to look for when selecting bars? Anything between 720mm and 760mm is quite acceptable.

The stem should not exceed 60mm. With that set, you can ride with much confidence as your hands comfortably relax on the grips.

Usually, you’ll have the rear trigger shifter on the right side of the bars, just near the grips, and on the left, front shifter if you are using a 2x. the left side of the handlebar could also hold the remort forks or dropper seat post levers. 

The Wheels Too…

I can’t help laughing when I remember those good old times when 26 inches was the standard wheel size.

Now, the wheel debate is ranging, and no one, just anyone, is courageous enough to call for halftime.

29ers are the dominant ones here, and even though 27.5-inch wheels are still common, they are on the slow walk towards the exit door. 

But why the 29-inch wheels? Larger wheels roll over rocks better, and even though they accelerate slower than the younger siblings, they are faster and carry more speed for longer.

Pop that bike with a set of carbon wheels, which will definitely smoke your bank account, but here is what you get with those wheels, lightness, stiffness, and responsiveness. 

Otherwise, if you are on a budget, you can get alloy wheels of the same quality but slightly cheaper. Then comes the tires, and there are tons of options on the table.

Maxxis Ikon, Continental RaceKing, Vittoria Barzo are just a few of the tires you can run your bike on.

Of course, these wheels come tubeless ready but with tubes. All you need to do is get yourself a tubeless kit, and you’ll be good to go. 

Other Basics to Consider

Brakes: For the brakes, you are looking at an SRAM or Shimano set. The high-end XTR set is most suited for XC mountain bikes, but there are also cheaper Shimano options like SLX or XT. SRAM’s best brake sets can be found on newer XC bikes. All these brakes are hydraulic disc brakes.

Pedals: Even though most bikes come with custom pedals that I would consider low quality, you have the option, and it’s like they know that, to buy a set of pedals. Clipless pedals are one option that will save your pedaling power but will injure you if you fall.  Alternatively, you use the flat pedals. 

Seatpost: A carbon or titanium seat post is a sure way of making your bike feel lighter, but when it comes to descending, you are going to have a hard time. A dropper post may be heavier than rigid posts, but you can remotely lower it down without coming off the bike. 


Q: Does your bum get sore for sitting on the bike for too long?

A: Bottoms up and down. You should not sit on the saddle for a long time when riding your bike, and yes, your bum might develop some sores if you don’t wear the right gear. Then there’s the cream you should apply to your bum before wearing some padded shorts. 

Q: What suspensions do these bikes come with?

A: XC bikes are bikes on another level. Most of them are high-end bikes. You’ll likely see them with top-of-the-range Fox or RockShox front and rear, or a mixture of these if it’s a build. Considering the punishment these bikes get on the trails, you don’t expect them to have cheaper front and rear suspensions. 

Last Remarks

You already have a rough idea of the kind of XC bike you want and the models worth looking into.

There are other tens of XC bikes that are worth the dollar and can win races. It’s not just about the bike you are riding but also about your fitness and preparation.

In case you have any questions, contact us, and we will try our best to help. 

From riding to school since the age of 13, attending BMX races and events with his dad to himself conquering 10+ trails across the globe, for Rob, his Giant Stance 29 2 2020 is the friend that makes everything better. He is also a proud member of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

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