Bespoken Word – Is cross country the country & western of mountain biking?

World Cup XCO racing
(Image credit: Paul Brett)

OK, cards on the saloon bar table straight away here. Last week’s “Is downcountry the new dubstep?” opinion piece was a surprise hit on Google for a throwaway headline inspired mostly by the Deadpool 2 movie. So obviously my mind started whirring to see what other musical parallels there were with other ways of pedaling through the dirt. I’m pretty confident that “Is gravel the grunge of off-road cycling?” is definitely a goer and “How metal is gravity racing?” are going to be pretty strong episodes. However, given the date I’m dedicating the second of this series of ill advised “matching mountain biking to music” themed mind farts to the idea of “cross-country and western”.

A mountain bike outside a wild west saddlery

Dirt Jumping might be the rodeo of MTB but it was XC cowboys who first kicked things off in the Wild West  (Image credit: Red Bull Content Pool)

Cowboys and Clunkers

Starting from basics, country and western and XC were both born from pulling in elements from all over the place. C&W is a mix of southern spirituals, bluegrass and other traditional American folk strains all mashed together over camp fires on long cattle drives across the US. Cross-country mountain biking was not only spawned in the US, but it also pulled in influences from all over the place. The bikes were a mash up of surfers' beach cruisers with road bike gears, touring bike cranks and cyclo cross brakes ‘controlled’ with motorbike levers and handlebars. The first races like Reseda to the sea saw a handful of mountain bikes line up alongside everything from cyclo cross bikes to BMXs. Even the early clunker uniform of plaid shirts, thick jeans, rigger gloves and work boots would look totally on point for any Nashville nurtured video production.

Fast forward to now and while XC and C&W are both relatively low key in the UK they’re massive everywhere else. There’s a very good reason why half of Scott’s global MTB sales are made up of their XC hardtails. Tens of thousands of people line up across Germany, Italy, Spain and France most weekends from spring to autumn to race XCO (XC Olympic) or XCM (XC Marathon) style events. And if you look at South America, the proportion of people pedaling furiously uphill in Lycra  massively outweighs the few plummeting downhill in MX styled pyjamas. The North American High School XC leagues have been incredibly popular in getting a whole new generation onto the dirt in a way that downhill never really has, whatever the ‘stoke’ slanted media coverage might say.

MTB suspension options

XC is the only part of MTB big enough to get its own Olympic races  (Image credit: Red Bull Content Pool)

Both are way bigger than you think

While generic oligangster rap, R&Bilge and mechanically retrieved pop pulp might dominate radio rotation, if you Google ‘biggest selling artists’ you’ll see Taylor Swift right at the top of most lists. And sure you could argue that she and others like Miley Cyrus are more pop than pure country and western these days, but their roots are still firmly planted in cowboy boots. If recent launches I’ve covered are anything to go by, XCO and crossover fast trail products are still massively important to manufacturers. If you agree that gravel is basically a hipster repackaging of old skool XC, then it’s importance in getting more people onto the trails and growing our dirty riding community is even more crucial than ever. In fact, gravel is the only area of the sport growing significantly in sales right now while other segments stagnate. And you’re not going to tell me that all those checked shirts, jangling tin mugs and sunset campfires on wide open plains 'all road' commercials don’t exactly mimic the dreams of the gold rush pioneers over a century ago.

There’s even a parallel in how country and western and cross-country are smashing their way into the mainstream too. Miley rode a ‘Wrecking Ball’ into our consciousness to crush poor little Hannah Montana into history and when the legendary Billy Ray Cyrus jumped into a remix of gay, black rapper Lil Naz-X  ‘Old Town Road’, that must have had his less enlightened fans reaching for another jug of moonshine. Similarly, a lot of riders (including Mathieu van der Poel) were stunned at the level of technicality of the Tokyo Olympics ‘Telly Tubbies’ XCO course and how riders like Jolanda Neff and Tom Pidcock styled the course tough features a lot of DH pilots would panic at. The increasing number of lightweight cross country influenced ‘downcountry’ or ‘fast trail bikes’ prove not only shows how capable these bikes are, but also that not everyone wants electric assistance to improve their uphill performance.

Swiss racer Jolanda Neff going fast on XC descent

Swiss XC legend Jolanda 'Jolene' Neff even used to have Dolly Parton style hair (Image credit: Red Bull Content Pool)

Misery loves company

And there we go again. While that header might be a Miley song, if you listen to most country and western songs and they’re basically the lyrical ‘type two fun equivalent of punishing yourself uphill. The heartrending pleas of Dolly Parton as she begs Jolene not to destroy her happiness are exactly where my mind goes when my ‘mate’ Ryan starts putting the hurt on me every climb. In fact, nearly all country and western classics come from the same parade of heartbreak and dashed hope disappointment that characterises most people’s experience of XC racing. And yet, loads of us still go back to it time and time again like some soothing, self-harming habit we can’t get rid of. Digging into the core of the music there’s also a shared familiarity and predictability between simple country and western tunes and lapping the same course several times. There’s no sudden changes to catch you out, just an inescapable rhythm that you can't help getting into. So yes, I’ll always go futilely hard on climbs for the same reason I’ll always have a Dolly CD in my van because in the words of the great Ms Parton, "Bitter-sweet memories, that's all I'm taking with me".

gravel racers in the Scottish borders

Gravel riding is definitely the new Gold Rush for the bike industry but we all know it's just old skool mountain biking repackaged with a Wild West vibe (Image credit: Roo Fowler/Red On Group)

Stetsons or skinsuits

Want more alignments? If you take it seriously there’s a silly 'uniform' for both and a strict code to follow if you don’t want the shame of getting awkwardly out of step. Both things that create a sense of belonging to a close knit family or tribe brought together with shared experiences of an adversity, passion and suffering based narrative. And yes, very few people can pull off looking cool in a stetson in the same way that even Nino looks a dork with a ‘Cornercard’ sticker stuck on his helmet where a peak should be. But when it comes down to a hoe down showdown even the most fundamental fashionistas can’t fail to respect the skills of a pro rodeo rider or an XC racer and be amazed at what both of them are capable of dusting themselves down from and carrying on.

And if you’re still wondering what the hell I’m on about, then I’ve got one final thing to suggest. When the Absa Cape Epic starts this weekend, just try watching some of the coverage on YouTube. It’s incredible dusty desert landscapes, epic stories of rugged resilience, quick draw saves, heroic comebacks and the whole tented village cattle drive vibe will almost certainly remind you of Clint Eastwood’s finest hours and make XC racing into your new guilty pleasure.

Guy Kesteven
Technical-Editor-at-Large

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg