Ned Overend talks about his history in mountain biking, racing, and life
Anthony Nocella: I am excited to interview you, Ned, for Cycling West. I had posters of you all over my room growing up. You are a big reason on why I raced mountain bikes professionally. What was your motivation to get into cycling, and what kind of support was significant when you were starting out?
Ned Overend: In 1980 I was living in Durango and having some success as a trail runner (Pikes Peak marathon etc.) and like all runners I got injured. I couldn’t run, but I could still ride, and cycling was an outlet for my fitness and desire for competition.
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was a big local event and it inspired me to try road racing. I started racing the Colorado road race circuit and in 1983 I got picked up by the Raleigh team to race the Coors Classic. My teammates included Andy Hampsten and Steve Tilford, two athletes that I would learn a lot from in the following years.
At the time, I was working at a bike shop and trying to decide whether to be a pro road racer or a pro triathlete when mountain bike racing was taking off on the West Coast. The biggest series in the US at the time was the Pacific Suntour Series. I drove out to the West Coast and won a couple of those events.
The bike shop was a Schwinn dealer so I called Fred Teeman at Schwinn; Fred was the manager of their BMX team and he said he was interested in mountain bike racing, so that was the start of a relationship that lasted until 1988. Then I met Mike Sinyard, the owner of Specialized, and I have been with them for the last 30-plus years.
Ed Zink, the owner of the bike shop and the promoter of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was an important mentor for me, not only in those early race days, but all the way up to last year when he passed from a heart condition. Before working at the Mountain Bike Specialists bike shop, I was a car mechanic. Ed let me work at the shop while I focused on training and racing.
AN: Could you imagine in the late 1980s that mountain biking would be as huge as it is now? What has been the most exciting advancement in mountain biking, in your opinion?
NO: Ha! There are so many technical advancements, the early bikes are primitive compared to what we are riding now. We're talking about fully rigid bikes, 26 inch wheels, 45 PSI in the skinny (1.9) tube type tires to keep from flatting, pedals with toe clips and straps, friction shifting (no indexing clicks to find a gear), rim brakes, etc. In spite of that it was still fun.
I would say efficient full suspension made a huge difference in control and performance of mountain bikes, followed by the 29-inch wheel. Disc brakes are a big advancement as well.
AN: A lot of people wonder this, but you might have the answer on why doping has not been as significant an issue in mountain biking compared to road cycling.
NO: That’s a complicated question. In the mid 90's doping was a problem in mountain biking.
It seemed like in a few short years the US riders like Tomac, Tinker, and I went from winning several World Cups a season to struggling to place in the top-five. This is not an unfounded accusation, but many riders from that era went on to test positive or admit to doping during that time, including Jerome Chiotti, who was the 1996 World XC champ. Chiotti had come over from road racing where they had a serious drug problem.
I believe mountain bike racing is pretty clean these days, especially in the US. There is a strong anti-drug culture that has been reinforced by education from USA Cycling and by programs like NICA that focus on fairness and strength of character over just winning.
The fact that mountain bike racing is not as hard as road racing is also a factor. The Pro Tour road race schedule is so arduous that it lends itself to drug abuse. Mountain bike races are not as long, and there is more time between races for recovery. Also, the fact that there is not a lot of money to be made as a professional mountain bike racer means there is less incentive for riders to cheat.
[Editor's Note: Ned Overend won the 2015 Fat Bike National Championships. Check out Cycling West's report on the race here.]
AN: What social issues would you like to see the bicycle industry focus more on?
NO: A couple of big ones are the obesity epidemic and Global Warming. Regular bikes and E-bikes especially are a massive opportunity to get people to drive less. With the right infrastructure that can protect riders from cars there is a lot of opportunity to grow commute cycling. I am an E-bike advocate because I have seen how many new people E-bikes are bringing to cycling.
A lot of the obesity issues in this country starts with the unhealthy eating habits of kids. Specialized's Foundation “Outridebike.org” focus is to get kids on bikes. They have a variety of programs to support cycling in elementary and middle schools. NICA's philosophy of having everyone participate and fostering team members support of each other is powerful movement that’s getting kids started in a healthy lifestyle .
AN: Out of all the races you have won, which race would you say was the most amazing for you and why?
NO: That’s hard to choose, I'm reminded of winning the first UCI World Mountain Bike Championships in 1990, whenever I see the rainbow stripes on my sleeves, so of course that title is a big milestone for me. I had won several un-official World Championships before that in 1987, ‘88, and ‘89 in Europe and in Mammoth California, but I really wanted to win the first official UCI rainbow jersey to back up my previous titles.
In 1994, the UCI World Cup was super competitive, and with the logistics it was harder to win in Europe. That year I won the World Cup races in Italy and Switzerland. It’s been a long time since an American has won an XC World Cup.
[Editor’s note: While no American male has won the World Cup overall since John Tomac (USA) in 1991 or an individual race since the mid-1990s, Kate Courtney (USA) won three rounds of the World Cup, as well as the overall Series in 2019.]
I retired from the World Cup circuit in 96 and started racing XTERRA triathlons. It took me a few years to develop my swim and run, but I won the World Champs in Maui in 1998 and ‘99. That was satisfying because learning to put the three disciplines together was a big challenge.
AN: What is your favorite three trails to ride in the southwest and why?
NO: My daughter moved to Scottsdale, Arizona and I have been doing some riding in McDowell Mountain Park. I am really enjoying chasing some Strava segments on the Pemberton trail. Its fast and flowy which is different than the rocky trails around Durango.
Not all the trails around Durango are rocky, the shale dirt trails in Overend Mountain Park west of town are some of the smoothest. One of my favorites there is the Spirit Trail, so named because it skirts around The City graveyard. It's up-and-down with some tight switchbacks climbing and descending.
The Hermosa Creek trail is a classic 20 miles of single track that follows the Hermosa Creek drainage from above Purgatory ski resort towards Durango. It’s a beautiful alpine ride, I never get tired of it.
I've ridden some amazing trails across the southwest, in Park City, Moab, and Crested Butte. We are spoiled out here.
Anthony J. Nocella II, Ph.D. is a full-time professor at Salt Lake Community College, author of numerous books, trail runner, triathlete, competitive cyclist, and in his free time works at Hangar 15 Bicycles Millcreek.