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When it comes to riding bikes, there are few things I love more than finding the flow of a snaking singletrack trail, smashing the pedals out of turns and feeling my wheels leave terra firma, even if it’s only for a microsecond.
The latest trend of gravel bikes certainly lets you experience this thrill, but really, a mountain bike – or more specifically, a mountain bike made for cross country racing – does it best.
For 2020 Giant has overhauled the long-lived XTC hardtail platform by giving its geometry a tweak, adding a little comfort and putting it on a high fibre diet. What hasn’t changed is the XTC’s cross country racing purpose, and with a frame that’s stiffer than uncooked pasta, 29in wheels and a 100mm fork up front, this is one bike that loves to be ridden elbows-out and pinned.
Modern but not progressive geo
- What: Giant’s new cross country racing hardtail.
- Key updates: Much lighter, updated geometry, improved comfort.
- Weight: 920g frame, 10kg as tested (including 30ml sealant in each tyre, no pedals)
US$5,000 / £N/A / AU$6,299
- Highs: Impressively light and efficient, well-rounded racing geometry, durable and race-ready component specification.
- Lows: Could use a straight (and dropper) seatpost, ride quality still on the stiff side, resin-only brake rotors, gear cable rattles in frame, contact points.
There’s been a common shift in recent years with XC bikes taking on the geometry lessons of longer travel trail and enduro mountain bikes: think longer reaches balanced with shorter stems, slacker headtube and steeper seat angles, and lower bottom brackets. Much of this is the result of cross country courses increasingly becoming more technically challenging, while some of it is simply the realisation of what works best off-road.
The XTC follows some of these trends, but certainly isn’t leading the movement. Compared to the previous model, the 2020 XTC (in a medium size) offers a half degree slacker head angle (now 69.5-degrees), and a full degree steeper seat tube angle (73.5-degrees). The toptube is 10mm longer while the bottom bracket actually sits 2mm taller. On a drop-bar bike these would read like drastic changes, but they’re almost insignificant when you consider the current pace at which mountain bikes have been evolving.
The reach may have been lengthened, but it’s still ever-so-slightly on the short side compared to its direct competitors. I found the reach a comfortable match for the 70mm stock stem (medium frame size), but I also wouldn’t want it any shorter.
The XTC’s head angle may be an exact match to the Scott Scale WC, but it’s a full degree steeper than the new Specialized Epic HT, and half a degree steeper than the Cannondale F-Si. However, while the head angle hasn’t changed greatly, the fork rake has, and Giant’s move to a shorter 42mm offset fork has resulted in an extended 95mm trail figure (the previous XTC was 82mm). Along with that slightly slackened head angle, it’s a change that seems to find a comfortable balance between adding a smidge of high-speed stability while retaining the low-speed manoeuvrability.
Giant has retained the XTC’s shorter 425mm chainstay length, and in combination with that long reach and short stem, the XTC is a surprisingly playful ride. Unweighting the front wheel from the ground is certainly easier on a bike like this than a hardtail from five years ago, and along with the low weight, this is one bike that loves a little back wheel action and to pop up into the air.
While the XTC’s geometry may not be leading the charge amongst other fast bikes, it offers proven numbers that help to keep this bike feeling aggressive on the climbs or anytime you seek a change of pace. Similarly, they’re numbers that simply work for a wide spectrum of cross country or marathon racing needs.
That said, the XTC did have me wishing for a slightly steeper seat tube angle to help me get over the bottom bracket, and the issue was only exacerbated by Giant’s specification of a setback seatpost. An extra half-a-degree in the seattube – or at the very least a straight seatpost – would be welcomed, although such a change may need to be accompanied by a touch of extra length along the toptube, too.
Hardtails are about weight and efficiency
There are few disciplines in cycling beyond cross country mountain biking where weight plays as important of a role. Steep climbs, technical manoeuvres, rapid changes in speed, and the occasional hike-a-bike all take energy, and the less mass there is to move, the more energy is saved.
While a full suspension bike is likely the more efficient pick under many racing situations, what can’t be disputed is that a hardtail is lighter and more efficient under big efforts. And in this sense, the XTC Advanced SL is a very good hardtail indeed.
The new XTC Advanced SL frame is more than 200g lighter than its predecessor and is Giant’s lightest mountain bike frame to date. In a medium, the new Advanced SL frame is claimed at 920g, while the cheaper Advanced version sits at an even more surprising 995g weight figure. All told, my medium-sized XTC Advanced SL 29 1 tester weighed exactly 10kg without pedals – an impressive figure for a bike with Shimano XT and reliable tyres.
That 920g figure isn’t much but it isn’t quite class-leading, either. As far as hardtail frame weights go, the benchmark is the Unno Aora at 790g (and only available in a single size). Specialized’s new S-Works Epic HT can claim the lightest full-size production frame, with a claimed weight of 820g. And between these and the XTC sit the Open ONE, Canyon Exceed CF SLX, Scott Scale RC, Focus Raven and the Cannondale F-Si. Yes the XTC Advanced SL frame is impressively light, but there’s a whole lot of competition in this space.
Reduced weight is all good, but this new model does so while retaining the stiffness that the XTC Advanced range has become known for. Here the carbon frame retains its deep, thin, asymmetric and dropped chainstays, which use almost the full width of the PF92 bottom bracket (which is made with proper tolerances for a creak-free ride). The boxy downtube takes advantage of the available width, and the head tube is no less stout.
With its low weight and high stiffness, this bike begs you to rip into a corner, throw up a cinematic-friendly amount of dust, and then get hard on the gas to disappear before that dirty cloud does. In this way, the XTC loves, almost begs, to be ridden with aggression, and it’s in its element when you’re out of the saddle and trying to rip the handlebar in a different direction of the cranks. That’s nothing new for Giant’s XTC series: it has always been an impressively stiff bike that rewards aggressive efforts, and the new model simply retains those characteristics with the added perk of a lower mass.
A little added comfort, but there’s a trade-off
Borrowing a trick from the road, Giant’s new XTC claims improved frame compliance from thinned out and dropped seatstays, along with a toptube that’s now wider than it is deep.
The old XTC was brilliant under acceleration, however, it was also blatantly stiff and chattery when trying to get the power down over inconsistent terrain. By comparison, the new bike is more compliant and planted, and I don’t feel like I’m being forced from the saddle as much as I did with its predecessor. However, while Giant has indeed added a little forgiveness to the frame, they’ve done so with a larger diameter seatpost that’s naturally stiffer than the 27.2mm post of the previous generation bike. As a result, the new XTC is still a stiff bike, one that requires attention to detail of where and how you place your wheels and weight, and one that’ll still force you from the saddle when the going gets rough.
That increased seatpost diameter is the result of the new XTC offering easy dropper seatpost compatibility (and there’s a spare cable port provided for internal routing). Dropper posts are increasingly common in cross country riding, and there were times in my testing where I’d wished Giant had equipped one as stock. However, it’s obvious that this shift back to thicker seatposts has resulted in the corresponding loss of one of the easier and more common comfort features. Thankfully the stock composite post still offers a detectable amount of flex, even if it’s not to the same level of a skinnier post.
Frame compliance aside, the new XTC has room to fit some generously wide and forgiving rubber. The bike comes stock with quality Maxxis Rekon Race tubeless tyres in a 29 x 2.25in size, and I had no issues in fitting a noticeably meatier 2.4in trail tyre into the rear end. Run at low pressures, you can certainly gain plenty of control and comfort through the right tyre choice.
A reliable and race-ready build where it counts
Location dependent, the XTC Advanced is available in a number of different price point models. The model I tested, the Advanced SL 29 SL 1 (US$5,000 / AU$6,299), sits as the second-tier racing option, with the AU$10,699 Advanced SL 29 0 priced well above it, and a handful of models (which use the slightly heavier Advanced frame) below it.
Those looking to race without compromise will likely find the model I tested to offer the best value for money, or if you’re in the UK, that’ll be the XTC Advanced 29 1 (£3,999). These are bikes that straight from the shop floor are truly race-ready, right down to the factory-set tubeless tyres and supplied tubeless sealant.
While a fair chunk of the bike’s expense is in the top-tier frame, the RockShox SID Select+ DebonAir fork, Giant XCR 1 composite wheels and Shimano XT 12-speed groupset leave little to complain about.
That fork is the newest model in RockShox’s long-standing cross-country racing range and offers 100mm of well-controlled travel. It shares a similar weight, the same chassis and a number of other features with the top-end SID Ultimate, but does so with a simpler damper that lacks external compression adjustment.
RockShox has been refining this fork for well over a decade now and rarely was I even aware of it. The stroke is smooth and controlled, and you can customise how linear or progressive you want the air spring through the use of volume spacers (aka, tokens).
Giant has specified a handlebar-remote lockout for the fork which occupies the space where a dropper seatpost remote otherwise would. I found myself using the lockout more frequently because it was accessible, but those keen to move to a dropper seatpost will also need to budget for a new fork topcap that caters to a manual lockout lever.
With rims that measure 24.5mm on the inside and 31.6mm on the outside, Giant’s own composite wheels do an admirable job of keeping the bike rolling. The rims are plenty stiff and I had no issues of tubeless burping on the hookless sidewall. These wheels only just sneak under the 1,600g mark and so there’s some weight to be saved, but they certainly didn’t feel sluggish.
At the centre of those rims are rebadged DT Swiss 360 hubs which offer a modest 36T points of engagement and easily-serviceable internals. My only complaint is that the disc rotor mounts are of the 6-bolt variety, and I’d rather see the centerlock system provided on a bike that’s likely to see some travel use (and plus, Shimano’s latest XT and XTR rotors are only available in centerlock).
Wrapping those wheels are Maxxis Rekon Race tyres, a well-rounded and noticeably fast choice for a variety of conditions. Those riding particularly rocky or soft trails will want something with more bite for the front, but you’ll surely be happy with the stock tyres in more hard-pack conditions. And I’ve said it before, but Giant deserves two thumbs up for supplying its bikes setup ready-to-go as tubeless.
This was my first long-term experience with Shimano’s new XT M8100 12-speed groupset, and I’m impressed. The shift quality is truly exceptional and there’s nothing else on the market that shifts as well under load. I constantly found myself shifting like an idiot while sprinting just because I thought I could fool it, but nope, it didn’t miss a beat.
I particularly like the textured surface on the shift levers, and the I-Spec clamp that sees the shifter mount to the brake lever is a nice touch, too. Shimano has even solved the issue of heel rub on its cranks with a simple protector sticker fitted as stock.
The gear range afforded by the 10-51T cassette is impressive and I certainly wasn’t wishing for a front derailleur, even though the frame can technically handle one. That said, such an enormous cassette makes a mockery of the supplied 32T chainring, and a 34T chainring would be more appropriate on this dedicated speed machine. In almost all cases the 32/51T combo was too low (and slow) for even the steepest of climbs, and a larger chainring would have made riding on the road or fast gravel sections just a little more efficient.
At least for those in Australia the bike ships with an optional top chain guide to guarantee chain security. I use a similar product on my trail bike, but I found zero reason to fit the supplied guide to this bike.
Back to the topic of brake rotors and I was surprised to see a bike of this price point feature resin-only rotors – a common cost-cutting measure. This means the rotors are limited for use with resin disc brake pads, and the use of more durable and harder-biting metallic pads would require a change of rotors, too. Yes the brakes worked perfectly well during my testing, especially with the larger 180mm rotor on the front, but I’m disappointed to see such cheap 6-bolt rotors used here.
Clearly I have only praise for the big and expensive components, but it’s a different story for the finer details.
For starters, the supplied alloy stem is seemingly left-over stock from when Giant equipped its mountain bikes with “OD2” 1 1/4in steerer tubes (as opposed to the industry standard 1 1/8in). This features a shim to size it down, and while it works perfectly fine, it’s also a tad heavier and more likely to creak compared to a stem with the right clamp diameter.
That stem holds a modest alloy handlebar in a hilariously-wide 780mm width that’s unusual for a cross country bike. Still, it’s easy to cut down in size and I can’t blame Giant for providing the choice. I would, however, warn not to get too saw-happy at first, and at least try the bars at a 750-760mm width – the leverage and stability provided by a wide bar has benefits.
I believe Giant are equipping their bikes with saddles that are too narrow for the masses, and what’s supplied on this XTC is no exception. Likewise, the lock-on grips are pretty comfortable but surprisingly slick in the wet. Certainly, the touchpoints are the pieces I’d be swapping first if this bike was my own.
Finally, some of the finer details of the frame and build leave just a little to be desired. Bikes are getting so damn good these days and it means that sometimes it’s the tiniest of details that can spoil the fun.
For example, I believe Giant has kept its internal cable routing too simple (although it is done in a way where cable rub on the frame is a non-issue). The cable/hose goes in past the headtube, and then is run loose in the frame until its exit port. The rubber grommets that sit at the entry and exit ports are designed to seal and retain tension on the cables, but they don’t offer a strong enough hold and so the cable housing for the rear derailleur bounces around internally through slackness. The brake hose is given a foam insulation housing to keep it quiet, but annoyingly the gear cable hasn’t been forced to shut-up in the same manner. Get some insulation foam installed on that gear housing and you’ll enjoy a quiet bike.
Giant moved from an internal binder wedge to a more traditional external seatpost clamp on the new XTC – and I thought this was a smart move. However, I was surprised to find just how much torque on the bolt and carbon paste in the frame was required to secure the post reliably. Thankfully my saddle height has remained stable since being more generous with the carbon paste.
On the plus side, Giant has done a great job with protecting both the driveside chainstay and bottom of the downtube with durable rubber guards. These will certainly make a difference to the durability of the frame. And on a similar note, the team-like metallic blue and gun-metal grey paint is lovely to look at as it glistens in the sun and has proven durable.
Conclusion: A bike for specific racing
Testing the XTC reminded me that a bike like this is truly the superior choice for a lot of my local off-road rides. Yes, a gravel bike is faster on the tarmac and on well-kept gravel roads, and of course there’s something particularly fun about “under-biking”. However, a lightweight and efficient cross country bike is still the best pick for unkept paths, firetrails and actual trails.
With such stiffness and low weight, the XTC accelerates like a greyhound escaping a life of competitive racing. Just be warned that such rapidness does come at the expense of absolute comfort, and so this playful racer will best favour those who frequent smoother and flowier trails over rock and root-strewn ones.
The new XTC Advanced SL may not offer the lowest weight, the most comfort, or the most progressive geometry, but none of that seems to really matter when you’re looking for a bike to ride fast. Giant has done a stellar job at keeping the XTC’s racing edge and value for money alive, however, they’ve done so at a time where the likes of Specialized, Canyon, Scott and Cannondale all have impressive products, too.