What is a downcountry mountain bike?

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Cross-country, trail, enduro, downhill, and all-mountain, we’re all familiar with them. However, in recent years, a new term has emerged that’s becoming increasingly mainstream: downcountry. But what exactly is downcountry, and what does a downcountry mountain bike look like?

Even major brands are incorporating the term downcountry more frequently, with several downcountry mountain bikes now available in their lineups. Although downcountry isn’t yet an official category, it’s definitely worth taking a closer look.

In this article, you’ll learn everything about it and discover whether a downcountry mountain bike might be right for you…

What is downcountry?

From the term “downcountry,” you can already partly deduce what it entails. Essentially, downcountry is crosscountry with a little extra. Besides the “cross-country” aspect, there’s also the “down” part, which abbreviates downhill or descending.

While downcountry is a new term, if you look back at the current evolution in the mountain biking world, downcountry, especially in recent years, isn’t such a far-fetched idea anymore. Crosscountry tracks are becoming increasingly technical, so you’re seeing more and more dropper seat posts, wider tires, and mountain bikes with just a bit more suspension travel.

So, cross-country is evolving more towards downcountry, where not only speed is important but also where greater control in (technical) descents is becoming increasingly crucial.

What is een downcountry mountainbike?

In the cross-country world, a full suspension mountain bike is increasingly becoming the standard. Only in certain cases and depending on the course do the pros still opt for a hardtail. In most cases and on most courses, however, the cross-country full suspension bike is the go-to mountain bike. And even among recreational mountain bikers, such an XC full suspension bike is very popular, even for the flatter routes and environments in Belgium and the Netherlands.

With the new term downcountry comes new mountain bikes: the downcountry mountain bike. You could describe such bikes as the golden mean between a cross-country full suspension and a trail mountain bike.

A downcountry mountain bike is a full suspension mountain bike with shorter travel (compared to a trail bike) that remains light and efficient, akin to an XC hardtail or full suspension bike, allowing you to rip through trails quickly. Additionally, extra travel (compared to an XC MTB) provides comfort and confidence on fast descents and technical terrain.

In summary, a downcountry MTB combines aspects of both cross-country and trail mountain bikes. The downcountry MTB is adapted to perform smoothly and comfortably on technical trails and singletracks. These adaptations are primarily found in the geometry and the components used.

Geometry of the downcountry mountain bike

One of the major differences between a downcountry and cross-country hardtail or full suspension can be found in the bike’s geometry.

A downcountry mountain bike gives the rider more confidence and better control in steep descents. To achieve this confidence and control, a downcountry mountain bike’s head tube angle is smaller than an XC MTB. While an XC MTB typically has a head tube angle of around 68 to 70 degrees, a downcountry mountain bike tends to lean towards 65 to 66 degrees.

Due to this smaller angle, the reach (distance between the saddle and the head tube) becomes slightly shorter, and the wheelbase becomes longer. These parameters and geometry ensure you’ll have more control over the mountain bike in faster descents than a typical cross-country mountain bike.

The Scott Spark RC is a prime example of a contemporary downcountry mountain bike.

In summary, you will notice the following geometric differences in a downcountry mountain bike compared to traditional XC mountain bikes:

  • Steering tube and seat tube angles: These are often slightly more relaxed than those of a traditional cross-country mountain bike, providing stability during descents while still being efficient enough for climbs.
  • Longer wheelbase: This contributes to higher speeds and technical terrain stability while still being agile enough for corners and obstacles.
  • Lower bottom bracket: This lowers the bike’s center of gravity, aiding in cornering and providing a more stable riding experience.
  • Shorter chainstays: These assist in maneuvering through tight corners and technical sections while still providing sufficient grip and stability.
  • Extended reach: This gives the rider a more central position on the bike, improving control and stability, especially during descents.
  • Progressive suspension travel: The suspension travel of a downcountry mountain bike is generally shorter than that of a trail bike but is designed to provide adequate cushioning for large impacts while maintaining efficient pedal response.

Typical components found on a downcountry mountain bike

In addition to the modified geometry, several components look slightly different compared to a purebred cross-country bike.

Front Suspension

An important difference between an XC and downcountry mountain bike is the travel of the front fork. While most XC mountain bikes have 100mm of travel, most downcountry mountain bikes add an additional 20mm. These extra millimeters provide more comfort and control in fast/steep descents.

Tire and Wheel Size

Both the rims and tires on a downcountry mountain bike are wider. The rims can have an inner diameter of up to 29 to 30mm, with tires ranging from 2.3 to even 2.5 inches. Typically, a tire with more grip is chosen for the front, while a faster and more XC-oriented tire with less rolling resistance is used for the rear. The wheel size, like with an XC mountain bike, is consistently 29 inches.

The chosen tire profile can steer a downcountry mountain bike more toward XC or more toward trail riding. This is largely a personal choice and depends on the terrain you ride on.

The Vittoria Syerra and the Schwalbe Wicked Will are tires that embody a true downcountry character. The Maxxis Rekon offers the best of both worlds with its 2.4″ tire width.

Dropper Seat Post

The dropper seat post is a must-have for a downcountry mountain bike. Because a downcountry MTB is built to descend quickly and handle technical terrain, a dropper seat post is indispensable for this type of mountain biking.

Brakes, Handlebar, and Stem

A downcountry mountain bike that plunges downhill at high speeds must also be able to come to a stop efficiently and safely. Therefore, a downcountry bike is often equipped with more powerful brakes or larger brake discs.

Additionally, the handlebar of a downcountry mountain bike is often wider and equipped with a shorter stem. This makes the bike more maneuverable and provides more control, especially on technical terrain.

Benefits of a downcountry mountain bike

All those differences, no matter how small or large they may seem, naturally serve their purpose and bring various benefits. If you’re not entirely familiar with the whole downcountry story, let’s summarize the benefits for you once again:

Versatility: Downcountry bikes offer a versatile riding experience, suitable for climbs and descents on various terrain types.
Improved Descending Capability: With slightly more suspension travel and modified geometry, downcountry bikes provide better control and confidence on technical descents than traditional cross-country bikes.
Efficient Climbing: Despite the enhanced descending capabilities, downcountry bikes retain efficient climbing characteristics, making them suitable for tackling steep ascents.
Comfort: The additional suspension travel and wider tires provide a more comfortable ride, absorbing impacts and vibrations on rough trails.
Adaptability: Downcountry bikes can be tailored to individual preferences and riding styles, allowing riders to fine-tune components and settings for optimal performance.
Enhanced Control: Features like dropper seat posts, wider handlebars, and shorter stems contribute to improved handling and control, particularly in technical terrain.
All-Day Performance: Whether it’s a quick after-work trail ride or an all-day epic adventure, downcountry bikes provide a balanced combination of efficiency and capability for extended rides.
Fun Factor: The combination of agile handling, efficient climbing, and confident descending make downcountry bikes a joy, encouraging riders to explore new trails and push their limits.
Photo taken by Sportograf.

Who is a downcountry mountain bike suitable for?

If you want to climb quickly but also descend quickly, comfortably, and with more confidence, then a downcountry mountain bike might be right for you. It’s the ideal combination of a pure XC full suspension bike and a trail bike without being exclusively one or the other. It’s like finding the golden mean, allowing you to ride fast while also handling challenging and technical trails with ease.

A downcountry mountain bike is truly versatile, allowing you to enjoy mountain biking confidently almost anywhere. On the other hand, you can just as easily participate in fast XC races with it, and it’s also well-suited for long marathon routes and adventurous day trips where fun is the priority.

Considering purchasing a downcountry mountain bike?

Are you now intrigued by the concept of downcountry riding? If so, you’re probably wondering which mountain bikes exactly fall under this category. For this, I took a look at several prominent brands, and I didn’t have to search very hard to identify the downcountry mountain bikes… Interestingly, they are often categorized under cross-country mountain bikes.

  • Trek Top Fuel (120mm / 120 mm)
  • Specialized Epic EVO (120mm / 110 mm)
  • Scott Spark (130mm / 120 mm) / Scott Spark RC (120 mm / 120 mm)
  • BMC Fourstroke 01 LT (120 mm / 120 mm)
  • Canyon Lux Trail (120 mm / 110 mm)
  • Cube AMS One (120 mm / 110 mm)
  • Transition Spur (120 mm / 120 mm)
  • Cannondale Scalpel (120 mm / 120 mm)
  • Orbea Oiz TR (120 mm / 120 mm)
  • Santa Cruz Blur TR (120 mm / 115 mm)
  • Giant Anthem Advanced Pro (110 mm / 100 mm)

The above are various 2022 models that have specific downcountry geometry, suspension, and components. Particularly in the rear suspension, there is often a difference between brands. The head tube angle varies by brand but is consistently several degrees smaller than purebred cross-country mountain bikes.

The front fork travel is always higher than the “standard” 100 mm found in pure XC mountain bikes and is also less compared to the true trail, especially enduro mountain bikes. It’s the golden mean.

Final thoughts: Hype or lasting trend?

All-round, trail XC, XC trail, or perhaps downcountry? Whatever label you give to this new type of mountain bike, in my opinion, they are here to stay and may even completely replace cross-country full-suspension bikes.

The golden mean between speed, comfort, and confidence is certainly something that will resonate with many mountain bikers. Unless you’re a true trail or enduro enthusiast or, on the other hand, a purebred racer, a downcountry mountain bike might just be a bit too much of both.”

However, if you’re more inclined towards being all-round and want the best of both worlds, then a downcountry mountain bike is the perfect compromise between the speed of an XC bike and the comfort and confidence of a trail MTB.

Hype or lasting trend? I’m curious to hear what you think. Be sure to let me know in a comment below.

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Geert is a recreational marathon mountain biker, trail runner, and athlete who continually strives to push his limits and challenge himself to achieve his athletic goals. He has completed the Stoneman Arduenna and the Limburg 200 MTB ultra in one day. Additionally, he is a certified bicycle technician.

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