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120mm Mountain Bikes Are the Future of XC Racing

New XC race bikes like the Orbea Oiz and Scott Spark RC are offering 120mm of travel. In the past these would have been considered trail bikes, but XC racing is changing, and so must the bikes.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:MTB

Is the 120mm 2023 Orbea Oiz a sign of things to come? Photo courtesy of Orbea.

This morning I got a press release in my inbox announcing the new Orbea Factory Team and a particular quote caught my attention: “We aspire to be the benchmark project for modern XC. We want to lead the transformation of the category…”

Transformation of the category? What does that mean? Orbea has poured a lot of resources into professional mountain bike racing, so it’s clear that the Orbea team is not entering races to be pack fodder. It’s out to win. What's interesting though is the tool Orbea is giving its top XC racers is a 120mm bike. That's right, in case you missed it, the 2023 Orbea Oiz has increased suspension travel to 120mm front and rear. It also has a 67-degree head angle, and the reach has increased by around 15mm across all sizes. This purpose-built XC racer sounds a bit more like a trail bike, doesn’t it? 

Longer-travel bikes are actually becoming a legitimate option for XC racing. To me, this is the transformation. I think soon, 120mm bikes like the Oiz will become the new standard. 

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It turns out 120mm XC bikes are fast 

Nino Schurter Scott spark world championship

Nino Schurter winning his 9th world championship on the Scott Spark RC. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.

Scott is perhaps the brand that started it all. Its star rider, XC legend Nino Schurter, had already been using a 110mm RockShox SID on his Scott Spark since 2019, so he clearly had an appetite for more travel. The engineers at Scott were on the same page. In the middle of 2021, Scott introduced an updated Spark RC that had 120mm of travel front and rear, and similar head angle and reach measurements to the new Oiz. There was a lot to talk about the hidden shock design, but some commenters got hung up on the large bump in travel. Could it really keep up with the tried and true 100mm XC race bike?

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Schurter had a fairly lackluster (for him — he still got on the podium twice!) 2021 World Cup season aboard the new Spark RC, and some critics questioned if it might be because of the bike. If the most dominant XC racer ever couldn’t secure a win, then Scott’s experiment clearly had gone off the rails.

Fortunately for Nino and Scott, he came back at the end of the year to take the XC World Championship. 2022 went a lot better too with a World Cup win, five podiums, the World Cup overall, and another (his tenth!) world championship win.

The engineers and marketers at Scott surely breathed a huge sigh of relief when Nino finally took the top step aboard the new Spark. It proved that a 120mm XC bike was fast enough to win at the highest level. But it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Commenters have been saying for years that cross-country race courses are getting tougher. Having more comfort, capability, and confidence can give riders an edge on these new-school courses. In the hunt for marginal gains, gaining extra time on descents and through technical sections is critical. It was only a matter of time before a bike like the Spark RC came along to shake things up. Now, another big player in Orbea has joined the fray with its new Oiz. 

The rise of downcountry

Yeti SB100Early downcountry bikes like the Yeti SB100 helped redefined our perception of short-travel bikes. 

We probably wouldn’t even have 120mm XC bikes like the Spark RC or the Oiz if the new(ish) category of downcountry bikes hadn’t emerged a few years ago. The term “downcountry” was coined in a 2018 op-ed by Mike Levy when he described his ideal bike as a fast XC bike that has been modified and beefed up to perform better on rough trails — the perfect blend of climbing efficiency, downhill capability, and all-around fun. For better or worse, the term took off and it’s now as established category nestled between XC race bikes and mid-travel trail bikes. Manufacturers are making actual purpose-built downcountry bikes. I even built one for myself.

For decades XC race bikes had a reputation for being too climbing-focused and thus sketchy feeling on descents. But downcountry bikes showed us that climbing and descending performance aren’t mutually exclusive. Steep head angles were once thought to be essential for bar-to-bar racing. But we have since discovered that the improved stability and confidence riders get from a slack head angle far outweighs any perceived sluggishness.

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Adding more travel also used to mean adding too much extra weight. But now lightweight forks like the Fox 34 Step-Cast and RockShox SID Ultimate provide 120mm of travel and fantastic stiffness but weigh less than 100mm XC forks from just a few years ago. Despite having 120mm of travel, the top-spec version of the 2023 Oiz weighs a feathery 22 pounds. It turns out, we can have our cake and eat it too.  


The Future of XC mountain bikes

Nino Schurter Scott Spark WhipDo sendier bikes mean more whips? Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.

With the new Orbea Factory Team and Nino Schurter’s Scott-SRAM team, we will have two top-tier teams and eight riders competing in World Cups on 120mm bikes this year. If the results keep coming (and with their stacked line-ups, they probably will) then you can expect other manufacturers and teams to start testing out bigger forks and other upgrades to keep up.

Things might already be shifting. Last year, the 2020 world champion, Jordan Sarrou, raced Nové Město on the 120mm/110mm travel Epic Evo. The latest Giant Trance now comes standard with a 110mm fork. I think more and more racers are going to start experimenting with bigger forks and increased travel and we’ll likely see more manufacturers boost up travel when they release new 2024 XC bikes. Maybe we’ll see Mathieu van der Poel racing a 120mm/110mm Canyon Lux Trail over the standard Lux at some point. 

I think travel increases are also more likely to happen with the proliferation of electronically controlled suspension. I mentioned in my 2023 tech trend predictions, that many riders may start testing electronic suspension systems like Fox Live Valve and RockShox Flight Attendant this year in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympics. If riders have any efficiency concerns due to longer stroke forks and shocks, then adding an electronic brain to optimize compression damping in real time might be the perfect solution.

There is one bike, however, that might throw a wrench into my predictions: the Trek Supercaliber. The Supercaliber essentially takes the opposite approach to the Oiz and Spark RC. Its IsoStrut suspension system offers a piddly 60mm of rear travel. The design is supposed to combine hardtail-like efficiency with just enough suspension to get through rough terrain. It’s definitely been effective since the Supercaliber won Olympic gold and two world championships in 2021.

Ultimately, I think 2023 and beyond will be a battle of suspension travel ideologies. Orbea and Scott are leading the 120mm charge with their progressive, more downhill-oriented bikes. Many smaller teams will stick with the tried and true 100mm bike (for now). And Trek is doing its own thing with its efficiency-focused 60mm bike. I don’t know which concept will come out on top, but I’m rooting for Orbea and Scott. I’m also going to make a bold call now: the 2024 Olympic champion will be riding a bike with more than 100mm of travel. I’m a bad gambler, so there’s a good chance I’ll be wrong. Feel free to come back and mock me later if that’s the case!

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