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What is Mountain Biking?

By: Angelina Palermo  June 01, 2023

With so many cycling disciplines and so many more forms of racing in each discipline, things can get a bit confusing. Learn more about how each type of racing works and get ready to watch our teams compete at the Paris Olympic Games and on the international stage.

Modern off-road cycling began in the late 1970’s in Northern California and today it serves as a popular form of both recreation and competition. Like other disciplines of cycling, mountain biking encompasses many different formats including Cross Country, Short Track Cross Country, Ultra-Endurance, Downhill, Dual Slalom, 4-Cross, Super D and Observed Trials.

Cross Country Mountain Biking

Cross Country (XC) is the only recognized discipline of mountain biking at the Olympic Games. This endurance-oriented event is a mass-start competition which typically features 100-150 riders who compete over rough terrain that includes everything from unpaved fire roads to technical singletrack filled with rocks, roots and ruts. The distance and number of laps to be contested will be determined based on course conditions prior to the day of competition. A typical elite-level mountain bike race lasts approximately two hours and ranges from 22-28 miles for men and 16-22 miles for women.

A common cross country mountain bike course includes significant elevation gain and tricky descents. To accommodate the off-road conditions, competitors’ bikes are equipped with wide, knobby tires for better traction and suspension systems to soften the impact of riding over uneven terrain. Bike handling skills, a keen sense of awareness and an element of bravery are all vital characteristics of a successful cross country mountain bike racer.

Among the most prestigious cross country events other than the Olympic Games are the UCI World Championships, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup circuit, the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships and the USA Cycling Professional Cross Country Tour.

2019 UCI MTB W Champs 164350 6852

Short Track Cross Country Mountain Biking

Similar to a criterium in road cycling, short track cross county was introduced as a spectator-friendly discipline. Similar to cross country racing, short track cross country is an endurance-oriented events that features off-road racing on a short circuit. Traversing similar terrain, a short track cross country race typically only lasts 20 minutes as competitors start and finish fast.

Short Track was introduced to the Mountain Bike World Cup circuit in 2018. The Short Track race is the day before the Cross-Country race and results determine starting position for the XC race.


Ultra-Endurance Mountain Bike Racing

Ultra-endurance racing comes in many forms, but is best described as off-road racing that usually covers longer-than-normal distances and/or lasts an unusually long time. Held on cross country courses, marathons are defined by the international governing body as races that are 100 kilometers long or more. Ultra-endurance racing also comes in the form of 24-hour and 12-hour competitions in which solo competitors and relay teams attempt to cover the most distance over a given amount of time.

Notable ultra-endurance events include the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships, the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Marathon National Championships, and the National Ultra Endurance Series.

Downhill Mountain Biking

One of the many “gravity” styles of racing, downhill is exactly as it sounds. Competitors descend the face of a mountain in an individual race against the clock. The rider with the fastest time is declared the winner. Some of mountain biking’s most advanced technology comes from the discipline of downhill racing. Riders compete on bikes that have full suspension which allow them to experience a smooth ride as they descend down rocky trails, jumps and drop-offs.

Typically, a mountain biker specializes in either endurance or gravity-oriented events. A downhill rider will often cross over into 4-cross and dual slalom competitions. The athletes are also easily identifiable at events as the ones with full-face helmets, body armor and pads.

Although not an Olympic sport, downhill mountain biking is contested annually at the UCI World Championships, the UCI World Cup circuit, the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships and the USA Cycling National Downhill Series.

Downhill mtb

Dual Slalom Mountain Biking

Considered another “gravity” event, the dual slalom features two riders competing head-to-head against each other. Similar to the slalom events in downhill ski racing, competitors must weave themselves in and out of gates while descending the face of a hill. A course will typically have two identical runs – red and blue. Riders start at the top of the hill and race side-by-side on their assigned run. After the first heat, riders switch runs and descend the hill a second time. After each rider competes on the red and blue course, his or her times are added together and the rider with the lowest cumulative time advances to the next round, while the loser is eliminated.

The dual slalom was contested at the UCI World Championships until the 2002 season when it was replaced with the 4-cross event. Although it is no longer contested at the World Championships or on the World Cup circuit, USA Cycling features several dual slalom competitions on its National Downhill Calendar and alternates between dual slalom and at the Mountain Bike National Championships.

Dual slalom


Some would call endure a cross between endurance and downhill mountain biking. Enduro mountain biking racing started in Europe. It typically involved anywhere from 3-6 times stages. Those stages are normally extremely technical and can vary in the steepness. difficuly, and length. In between stages, riders are not timed while they get to the next stage. These “transfer stages” are mostly pedaling uphill but sometimes have chair-lifts or you might even be hiking your bike if its steep enough. Enduros are a fun form of racing because you get to hangout with your friend on the transfer stages and its just like one big group ride.

The UCI started governing Enduros in 2019 as they joined forced with the Enduro World Series. Their biggest event is the Trophy of Nations held at the end of the season. USA Cycling also crowns a National Enduro Champion at its events every year.



Also referred to as mountain cross, 4-cross mountain biking replaced the dual slalom on the international circuit in 2002. In the 4-cross event, gravity riders are seeded into four-person brackets following an individual seeding run. Once seeded into their respective brackets, riders descend a technical, downhill course with tight turns berms and jumps. Riders start four-wide and descend the course simultaneously after the start gate drops. From there, the idea is simple: the top two riders in each heat advance to the next round while the two losers are eliminated from contention.

Four-cross is contested annually at the UCI World Championships and on the World Cup circuit.

Observed Trials

Half entertainment, half sport, observed trials feature riders who negotiate an obstacle course on their bike. The goal is to traverse the course on your bike without letting your feet touch the ground. At an observed trials competition, competitors go from station to station where they are scored based on the number of times their feet touch the ground (dabs). The person with the fewest dabs at the end of the competition is declared the winner. Courses usually feature such obstacles as boulders, rocks, stumps and other natural hurdles in addition to man-made obstacles such as picnic tables, cars, and specially built structures.

The UCI annually holds an Observed Trials World Championships in conjunction with its Mountain Bike World Championships.