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A cross-country mountain bike race will normally involve the following – a course marked out with race tape, a commentator with a crackly PA system, a catering van, a muddy car park, a couple of uber-keen people warming up on turbo trainers and, most importantly, lots of lightweight, minimally suspended cross-country race bikes.

The thing is though, the majority of mountain bikers don’t go to a race course to race. You can race equally as well with a few of your mates and a stretch of your favourite trail. The phenomenal success of Strava shows that racing still exists, but now it’s often between you and your friends, or you and an unknown rival in a digital parallel universe somewhere.

So if you’re going to beat your friends, or get the KOM on a particular stretch of singletrack, you’re going to need the right bike. And in the somewhat fragmented world of mountain biking, where bikes are steadily becoming more specialist, that means you’ll need a cross-country race bike.

For the majority of dedicated cross-country racers, a typical race bike would be carbon-fibre framed, have 29in wheels, most likely be a hardtail and have somewhere around 100mm of front suspension. They will generally have quite steep angles (70–71° head angle and 72–73° seat angles are pretty common) to make them responsive and quick steering. And there won’t be a dropper post in sight!

Cross-country race bikes can look old fashioned, with their arsein-the-air-head-down layout. But if you own one (and particularly if you do actually race it), then the chances are that you will also wear brightly coloured Lycra and you may well shave your legs and in that case, the fact that your bike looks different to the on-trend big travel bikes you’re more likely to come across at your local trail centre is not going to bother you that much.

In recent years, manufacturers have produced ever lighter and stiffer hardtail cross-country race bikes – frame weights of some of the top-end models are now often within a few grams of a typical road or cyclocross frame. But with this extra stiffness often comes harshness. In the world of prolevel racing where racers are paid to be clothes horses for their sponsors, they will put up with the discomfort of their steeds because race results are everything – they know where their pay comes from after all. But for mere mortals, sacrificing a few extra grams for a bit more comfort might well be a trade-off worth taking, so this issue we’ve looked at three cross-country race bikes where the manufacturers have tried to add a little comfort to the pain of thrashing around a race course.

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About Singletrack

International Adventure: Patagonia – Barney travels to this remote region of Chilé to find some killer singletrack – and a fair bit of dust. We Work Here: Rocky Mountain – We take a trip to the distant (but still very wet) shores of North Vancouver, to see the inner workings of one of Canada’s oldest mountain bike companies. UK Adventure: Dances with Wolves – Andy McCandlish takes a chilly trip down memory lane with Ed Oxley and Andy McKenna. UK Adventure: Riding Through The Seasons – Sanny extols the virtues of riding all year round. Room 101 – Mark is the ultimate arbiter of your submissions to our Room of Shame. Classic Ride: Capel Curig – There’s more to Snowdonia than a few trail centres and a mountain. Grouptest: Wider Wheels – The Grinder team put six sub-£500 wheelsets through the mill. Bike Test: Flat-out Race Bikes – We take a look at three nose-to-the-wheel speed machines. Through the Grinder – A plethora of promising products, assessed by our accomplished assemblage of trusted and true testers. Grinder Bike: Pivot Mach 4 Carbon – Chipps takes a long look at Pivot’s swoopy carbon trail/race monster. 15 Years of Spine Lines – To celebrate our 15th year, some of the best – and the weirdest – of our Spine Lines. International Adventure: Suisse Rolling – Jérôme Clementz takes a busman’s holiday in the Swiss Alps. The Last Word – Antony de Heveningham wonders if we’re actually in the golden age of mountain biking right now.