The top racers in the world ride on the best full-suspension XC bikes to give themselves an edge over the competition. With cross-country courses getting tougher all the time they’re increasingly taking handling, tire and component cues from the best trail bikes, and the best enduro bikes, too.
The great news is that it’s creating some really versatile high-velocity, short-travel machines that are as happy raving on your favorite singletrack as they are ripping up the race track. But which are the winning machines and what do you need to know to work out which is the best bike for you?
If you’re prepared to pay the price and possibly push a slightly higher weight up the climbs to kill it on the technical sections, these are the top full-suspension XC mountain bikes to take a look at.
Best full-suspension XC bikes
The Scott Spark is the same bike that MTB legends Nino Schurter and Kate Courtney race on the World Cup circuit, so you know it has to be good.
This 100mm travel bike features electronic shifting courtesy of SRAM's X01 Eagle AXS groupset, which is a great spec considering the price. To slow down, Scott has specced the Spark with Shimano XT brakes, and the fork and shock are from RockShox and Fox, respectively.
The Spark is clearly a race bike, but it's still super fun to ride. It can handle everything from short, punchy workouts to long marathon days in the saddle with ease.
The Izzo is YT's debut into the lightweight full-suspension bike category. At 130mm of travel front and rear, this may not be a pure-bred race bike, but it can handle those marathon days and keep up with the fast guys.
The suspension is Kashima-coated, Fox Factory series in both the front and rear, and the shock has a remote lockout. The bike is outfitted with a SRAM X01 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain and SRAM G2 brakes. The DT Swiss XMC 1200 Spline wheels are wrapped in Maxxis tires.
This bike is light, and due to its cockpit spec, is a bit biased towards the ups. However, swap out the stock components for a bigger fork, shorter stem, and longer set of handlebars and you'll have a lightweight mini-enduro bike.
The Epic has been Specialized's flagship XC bike for a number of years now, and this year the brand introduced an EVO version for those who want a bit more travel and handling prowess.
The suspension is bumped up to 120mm front and rear, which is handled by a RockShox SID combination. You also get a 150mm dropper post from X-Fusion to keep the seat out of the way. A SRAM groupset and brakes complement Roval rims wrapped in Specialized's own tires.
The Epic Evo is on the lightweight side of the downcountry bike segment, and can still keep up on technical race circuits. If you're looking for a bargain, the Comp version of this bike is even greater value for money.
The RC9000 version of Merida's XC race bike lineup features sorted suspension, a stiff frame, and improved handling. That suspension is Kashima-coated Fox Factory line in the front and back, and the groupset is a Shimano XTR. The brakes are also Shimano XTR, but they can get a bit squealy.
Even though this bike is a bit heavier than its competitors, it still features fast, race-focused geometry, and the build kit is great value for money.
Even NS Bikes acknowledges that introducing an XC full-suspension mountain bike is a 'WTF' move for the Polish company better known for bombproof gravity and jump bikes. The Synonym is clearly based on its intimate knowledge of chaos control though, with some truly radical geometry numbers. A 66-degree head angle and 76.5-degree seat angle, separated by a 490mm reach (large size) is swaggeringly slack and stretched for a 140-150mm travel trail-tamer. It’s literally far out in front for a 100mm XC bike and gives the Synonym outstandingly crazy section stability and control.
Despite the dropper post and a mixed SRAM spec (which is a bit disappointing given the price) the whole bike still comes in at 10.5kg according to NS. Both fork and rear shock get remote lockout for sprint speed too, and a 34 tooth chainring means potential for proper race speed. If you want to add more suspension to a similarly radical yet lightweight package then there are two 120mm travel Synonym TR models with suitably beefed up specs to match.
Orbea’s Oiz family has been a popular privateer racer for years. Partly thanks to the excellent pricing and custom configuration options of the Basque firm’s built-to-order delivery model but also because it’s always been a light and lively performer. The Oiz is a wholly new bike designed for Orbea's World Cup racers, complete with contemporary race geometry and neatly synced remote suspension built into a very light (sub 2kg) yet versatile frame.
By only building up complete bikes once they’re ordered and then supplying them directly to you or a local dealer, Orbea can strip costs significantly compared to conventional shop-bought bikes but still give you convenient support. It also offers a range of four different colorways or a complete custom paint option. While it’s excellent value for a SRAM AXS-equipped bike, this LTD is a bit pricey, but Orbea makes cheaper models as well if you're on a budget.
Cannondale’s superlight, single-legged XC racer has been honed for high-velocity smoothness over nearly two decades of ass-kicking competitions. That means even the more budget-oriented build kits will be lightweight.
No, the fork isn't missing a leg. It's Cannondale's signature Lefty Ocho fork, which measures in at 100mm of lightweight cross-country gobbling travel. The shock on this bike is a Fox Float DPS Performance Elite EVOL with a remote lockout for quick sprinting action.
The Scalpel is a pure-bred cross-country race bike. The Lefty fork is a bit weird to get used to and has some twitchy handling characteristics. But once you get used to it, the upside is racecourse-worthy speed.
The original hard-kicking Blur was a breakthrough bike for Santa Cruz, delivering its direct driving VPP twin link suspension tech in a short-travel but trail-tough format for blisteringly quick and punchy performance. Nearly 20 years later, the Blur shares the same high-velocity vibe by using an evolved - but still power-optimized - version of VPP suspension.
This top-end model features dialled-in Fox Factory series suspension along with a SRAM XX1 Eagle AXS electronic groupset. It also features Santa Cruz's own Reserve 25 Carbon wheels that are built around DT Swiss hubs and wrapped in Maxxis tires.
For 2021, Santa Cruz has breathed new life into its World Cup cross-country program, so you might see a very similar bike on-course at the Tokyo Olympics.
Pivot didn’t mess around when it set out to speed up its well-proven Mach 4 29er race bike, with the all-new Mach 4 SL carving 340g of carbon off its predecessor to come in at 1.84kg for a medium frame and shock. It has not sacrificed control either as you still get a custom-tuned DW Link suspension system from go-fast guru Dave Weagle.
While the twin linkage system holds a superb skill and fitness boosting line between pedal efficiency, tenacious traction and drop control, the Mach 4 SL is also one of the few Fox Live Valve-ready frames. This system uses an array of sensors, a central battery and brain to monitor trail inputs and automatically adjust fork and rear shock damping to respond perfectly to every load, from peak pedal torque to the ugliest impacts or rock garden charges. Shimano electric fans should note it’s not Di2 ready, but there are SRAM AXS Live Valve versions on the complete bike menu if you can pony up €14,400.
Geometry is still spicy from a trail bike point of view, but the 69-degree head and 460mm reach (size large) are reasonably confident and roomy for a race bike. There are 120mm fork options to tip the head back to 68-degrees and there’s space for aggressive 2.35in tires if you want to fit tougher rubber.
Pivot’s bikes are always beautifully put together and relatively rare too, making them a genuine premium head-turner as well as a fantastic podium-hunting machine.
Mondraker was the first major brand to use extreme DH bred slack and super-long geometry on its trail bikes and now it has gone super-progressive on the new XC FS bike. A 68-degree head tube is slack but not crazy for a 100mm bike, but the short offset fork increases stability further. It’s the 480mm reach (size large) and 76.5-degree seat angle that pushes the Podium’s Forward Geometry into the flat-out freak category. If you’ve not ridden it before - and we appreciate a lot of XC riders won’t have tried numbers anywhere close to these - the most obvious gain from a longer, slacker bike is the sense of time to deal with trouble on the trail.
The 2021 model is outfitted with a SRAM XX1 Eagle AXS electronic drivetrain for 12-speeds of shifting prowess to match the fast geometry. This model features an excellent combo of RockShox suspension front and rear, plus a DT Swiss wheelset wrapped in Maxxis Recon Race tires.
The only thing missing from this bike that we think it should absolutely have is a dropper post!
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Best full-suspension XC bikes: everything you need to know
1. Why full suspension?
On a smooth surface such as a fire-road climb or flat-out sprint down the start/finish straight, nothing is faster than a super-light hardtail like the ones in our sub 10kg XCO bikes buyers guide. If you’ve got the skills you can skip and skim them through some pretty technical terrain, too.
When the surface gets relentlessly rough or there are big drops and rocks involved, full-suspension sucks up bike-stopping impacts to help you sustain speed. It also keeps the rear wheel more consistently connected for better technical climbing traction and cornering speed. In most cases, full-suspension mountain bikes for racing will have a remote lockout so you can turn them into pseudo-hardtails at the flick of a switch for sprinting. That’s why you’ll rarely see multiple World and Olympic champion Nino Schurter off his Scott Spark or his nemesis Mathieu Van Der Poel not riding his Canyon Lux.
2. How much travel?
100mm (4in) is definitely the default amount of real-wheel movement for race bikes. It’s enough to make a noticeable difference in control off drops and through rock gardens but not so much that it disturbs pedaling or geometry even at full travel. There’s no saggy middle stroke section for suspension fettlers to worry about and it syncs well with the lightest suspension forks. You can get that much travel from flexible stays rather than pivots and linkages, chainstays and rear shock lengths can all be kept to a minimum which saves weight.
There are some 120mm bikes that are still light and tight enough for racing though, as well as shorter travel bikes like BMC’s TeamElite softail or Trek’s recently unveiled 60mm travel Supercaliber, with its unique ‘pump-action-shotgun-style' shock arrangement.
Because they can go faster on more challenging courses, the latest full-suspension race bikes tend to have slightly more ‘trail-style’ geometry with 67-69-degree head angles for more stable steering. Top tube reach figures are growing slightly on some bikes to compensate for shorter stems. We’re still talking about race-focused bikes built for close-combat responsiveness, not short-travel trail bikes for flat-out mountain descents here though. So while there are some 120mm (5in) travel bikes with identical geometry to 150mm (6in) travel enduro bikes, they’re in a different listing.
4. Capable components
The more progressive riders on the circuit are also fitting trail-style components to their race bikes and we’re seeing that reflected in some off-the-shelf bikes, too. In terms of specifics, that can be as simple as wider handlebars (that you can trim down to taste) or enough space in the frame to run wider tires. Trek is the only brand brave enough to fit 2.4in rubber as standard on its new Top Fuel though. Most of the latest short-travel suspension frames can take an internally routed dropper seatpost too, and it's becoming more common on XC bikes.
5. Worth the weight?
While recreational riders have been enjoying the full suspension benefits of better control, reduced fatigue and increased speed sustain over rough terrain, the true test of what’s fastest will always be pro racers. From that perspective, the fact that most top male racers choose FS for the majority of their races (just using hardtails for the smoother, high altitude courses) is very telling. However, it’s worth noting that take-up tends to be lower among female racers where the effect of an extra kg of frame weight is proportionally a lot more significant for lighter riders.
Full suspension isn’t just a cost in weight either, as more complicated frames equipped with several hundred bucks of shock absorber and pivot bearing, along with increased construction costs will always hit your wallet harder than an equivalent hardtail.