66 YEARS YOUNG AND STILL WRITING HIS OWN HISTORY – THE NED OVEREND INTERVIEW
Mountain biking legends don’t come much bigger than Ned Overend
THE NED OVEREND INTERVIEW
By Steve Thomas
We caught up with Ned Overend for a look back at his ongoing career.
You started out as a runner and triathlete. How did that turn into mountain biking?
I was a mountain runner, and I moved to Durango with my wife. I was planning on doing rock and ice climbing and some backpacking. I wasn’t planning on being a professional athlete.
I had a bike that I brought with me, but I was mainly a mountain runner and was also doing some triathlons. I had some success running; I was second in the Pikes Peak Marathon two years in a row (in around 1980/’81).
I won several runs, but there was no real way to make a living mountain running, and so I worked as a car mechanic. Then I injured my hip in a mountain run on some pretty crazy downhill sections, so I turned to cycling. I was thinking of becoming a road racer, and in 1983 I did the Coors Classic with Andy Hampsten and Thurlow Rogers on the Raleigh team up against some of the best riders in the world. I got a job at Ed Zink’s bike shop. I thought he would help me to make some money while I trained and tried to get sponsored.
I was thinking I would get on a road race team, and then mountain biking came around, and it started trickling into the bike shop. We carried Schwinn bikes, and we had the Schwinn King-Sting with side-pull brakes—a pretty basic mountain bike.
They had some races starting up. I had raced motocross out of high school and was a pretty good climber on the road bike. I was also a mechanic, and it was a perfect combination.
I went out and did the Pacific SunTour Series, a five-race series on the West Coast. I won it overall, and so I called Schwinn. They said, yeah, they were just thinking about starting a mountain bike team. They put me on that. They paid some expenses and $300 to start a race and promised some bonuses. It all kicked off from there.
In those days, the UCI was not involved with mountain biking. What were the differences between then and the later years when the sport became “official?”
In the early years, it was pretty well-developed in the U.S., and we had the NORBA National Series, which started in 1984.
It was mostly Americans at that time. They were pretty competitive, and we all knew each other; Rishi Grewal and then later John Tomac. There were some good athletes in that series for sure.
Guys would then come over from road racing as some salaries started to come, and it also started developing in Europe then. They had a World Championship in Europe in 1987 in Villard de Lans. We had maybe 200 people, and everybody was on the front line. They started on a football field, which was pretty crazy, because you were sprinting to get to where it narrows. What was interesting is that Christophe Sauser was in that race. He was just a kid.
Guys started coming over from cyclocross, including Tim Gould and Thomas Frischknecht, and also guys from the road.
It got so big in Europe then, and even by ’89 the World Cup had gotten so big that they would even have a qualifier, with two groups of 100.
It was really aggressive and super fast. I’d never seen anything quite so aggressive as those World Cups. I remember going through the woods, and Mike Kluge and some guy were in front of me. Mike tried passing him, but there wasn’t enough room. Next thing I knew, they were on the ground wrestling with each other, which moved me up two spots.
That kind of makes it different. It certainly wasn’t like that when there were 25 guys racing in the U.S. Things escalated quickly; sponsors came in. Athletes came in, and then drugs came in, like with Jerome Chiotti. There were issues with drugs, but like in road racing, I think that has gotten better.
At what point did you realize that you could make a living mountain biking?
I’m going to say that 1987 was a very good year for me. I won the NORBA Nationals and also the two World Championships; the one in France and the one in Mammoth.
That’s the era I switched to Specialized. At the end of ’87, I had a lot of options, and Mike Sinyard (Specialized owner) came to Durango and said they wanted to build the team and that they wanted us to help them and to help develop the product. That was pretty compelling, and I’ve been with them ever since.
I started racing in 1983, and it was maybe ’85 when I was still working in the off-season at a Pizza Hut or something, just to get some hours to make some money, as I wasn’t making enough to fund my living.
I think in ’85/’86 I got a salary that was enough from Schwinn so that I could focus on racing.
How much of a blow was it just missing the selection for the first Olympic mountain bike race in ’96?
It was disappointing, but you accept it and move on. I’ve had a great career. The issue was that by ’96, if I thought I could be competitive and go for a medal, it would have been different; however, it wasn’t about that. It was about making the Olympic team, and those are two different levels.
If you’re going just to experience the Olympics and place as high as possible, then it’s less disappointing than missing the selection if you were a medal contender.
I had some bad luck; I flatted in the NORBA National finals in Georgia in ’95. I was in a position to win the nationals overall. The first prize was a Jeep, and that was a big one. I would have also made the Olympic team, and there was a big bonus for that. I would have had a big bonus for winning the nationals.
My mechanic had taped the rims instead of using rim tape. There were a bunch of river crossings, and the tape broke down. The flat came from the spoke holes being exposed, and so that was a very expensive race for me.
Development of mountain bikes came fast and furious. You’ve been heavily involved with this at Specialized. How much input did you have?
It kind of depends on what it was. I was always out there looking at ways to make my bike cutting edge. When Stan’s started developing tubeless tires, I was on that pretty quickly. I knew they were the future, and we had to make it work. Stan’s had an elastic setup that was too hard to set up, and we’re still developing tubeless tires. The road still also has a long way to go, and that’s more of a challenge because it’s higher air pressure.
I actually went to the SunTour factory in Japan and was telling them the chain-set problems they had to solve with the chain suck and getting stuck on the front derailleur. I was pretty pushy.
I’d also always been an advocate of full-suspension bikes. I raced the FSR XC—without the BRAIN power. I won a couple of XTERRA World Championships in ’88/’89, and 2001 was the first year we developed the inertia valve technology. I didn’t have anything to do with that technology, but I was badgering them for a more efficient bike.
I was also working with the World Cup team management, and the racers would not use the FSR XC. They would train on it and saw some benefit, but they wouldn’t race on it. Working with the team and myself, we tried to work on what we needed.
We started with the Epic, and that was pretty primitive in the beginning. We still have it today, and it has won some pretty big races. It has been refined, but it has been a great product.
When the Euro riders came in, the balance of power changed from U.S. to European riders. You were one of very few Americans to still hold on at the top. Did the fun drain out of mountain biking then?
Umm, it was a highly competitive sport, and it became more competitive. If you were successful, it was still fun. If you were making some money and winning races, it was fun. If you couldn’t compete anymore, and there was a lot of travel, and you were racing these aggressive European races in bad weather—well, Americans didn’t travel so well. They weren’t used to racing in those weather conditions.
The East Coast in the U.S. is like that, but most of the racers lived on the West Coast or in Colorado, and so, sure, if you weren’t as successful, then it was less fun. It’s always fun to win, though.
You, John Tomac and Tinker Juarez managed to stay at the top during the ’90s. What was the difference between you and the other Americans?
I would say that John and I had the best success racing in Europe. Tinker won the World Cup finals in 1994. I think support was important, and I always had that in Europe with Specialized not just sending a guy over to Europe. We had a lot of people we were familiar with, support from local distributors, and a global team.
I also think we embraced going to Europe. I don’t like to travel, but once I’m in Europe I love being there. Rishi Grewal, he would get food poisoning literally every trip. It wasn’t really food poisoning; I think it was that the stress of the trip didn’t agree with his digestion. A lot of guys would get sick trying to work out how to sleep and get over jet lag,
A lot of Americans just hated going to Europe and would start complaining about it all of the time, and that kind of attitude doesn’t work.
Part of what discouraged me was that there were definitely drugs coming into the scene. Starting in 1995, it changed very quickly. I don’t think I even got in the top five then. I would not point the finger at anybody who wasn’t proven to be taking drugs after the fact. There were a lot of them; it’s not just speculation. It crept in from the road.
But, that’s not the reason that Americans have not been on the top step of the podium until this year. It’s basically because they didn’t get the support and they didn’t embrace going to Europe and living there. That’s what you need to do to be successful.
It’s a catch-22. Do we (Specialized) want to send an American rider to campaign in Europe with all of the expense and support. And if he’s one of the best in the U.S. and not racing there much, when he can actually win races here over going to Europe to maybe get in the top 10, then we don’t get the exposure through that.
There was always a rivalry portrayed between you and John Tomac, and you lived in the same town. What was it really like?
We have a kind of mutual respect for one another. There was never animosity between us.
He had a different style of racing from me. His strengths were my weaknesses and my strengths were his weaknesses, which made for some great battles. We had some very aggressive racing, but we were never mad afterwards. I think we always appreciated the effort the other guy put in.
My biggest rivalry, what I resented most, was how famous Johnny was, because he was so flashy. He had all those sponsors, like Tioga, and they would do creative advertising. He had Raleigh at one point, and the Sugino disc wheel. Mountain Bike Action would have him on the cover almost every month. I resented not Johnny but how famous he was. I think he was making good money. It was well-earned, but he had a flashy style. I resented that, but not Johnny; you can’t—Johnny is a straight shooter.
During your career, which riders have really stood out to you?
There’s a lot of them. Certainly Tomac. What’s amazing about Tomac to me is that he had the downhill skills above all else, and he had to teach himself to be a climber. He developed the ability to climb and have success. He couldn’t necessarily do it consistently all year long, but there were some big races where he had gotten his climbing fitness where it needed to be to make a real difference.
Dave Wiens, he was a real mellow guy and an incredible athlete. He still is an incredible athlete, and he’s doing some long events and doing well, especially his run at Leadville. He won a lot of marathon national titles.
Todd Wells is a personal friend, but Todd Wells is a big guy. He’s won multiple national championships. He’s won short track, Leadville several times, the National Cyclocross Championships several times, so races from 20 minutes to marathon length.
Thomas Frischknecht; he’s not only a great guy, but what he’s done with the Scott team, to put together a successful team for that many years, as well as being an incredible athlete himself. He’s figured out how to bring out the best in the athletes he has.
You still manage to perform against top-level guys half your age. How?
The recovery is the hardest thing, especially with stage races. I definitely have reduced ability with stage racing day after day. I still have some strong one-day performances. For instance, I was seventh in the Iron Horse Classic in 2021 and was in the mix with a lot of good riders.
Again, I’m encouraged by Strava and will still set KOMs against strong riders. When you set a KOM in Durango, you’re talking about guys like Sepp Kuss, Chris Blevins and Todd Wells. There are some big names there.
This tells me I can still race against these guys, but everything has to go right for me to be able to compete or even hang with those guys. The race has to be right for me.
Word has it you’ve also been racing e-bikes?
I actually raced e-bikes a few times last summer, racing in the Open class, and I had some good success.
The reason I’ve been racing e-bikes is because it’s big business for Specialized, and I wanted to give feedback to the high-performance e-bike product managers. I’ve been able to do that and learn about them. It’s been interesting.
This e-bike racing has been motivating, because it’s so different. You have to work with the motor, figure out what’s the best cadence, and you’re racing a 50-pound bike. It’s really different from the cross-country bikes I race, with enduro geometry. These are long-travel bikes, and it’s really different from normal cross-country.
Even so, right from the start your heart rate is up. It’s very physical, and it’s been fascinating to learn about it. I love how the product changes over the years.
How was it for you moving into XTERRA racing after mountain biking?
I’d had some triathlon experience on the road. I wasn’t a strong swimmer. In 1994, I still wanted to race, and there were a lot of classic races in the U.S. that I’d never done. Hill-climbs, road races, marathons, and so I thought I’d stop chasing the World Cup and focus on different races.
Then I saw the XTERRA, with mountain biking and trail running, and it was in Maui, which was appealing. In the first one I did, I was third.
The next year I got second, and then in ’98 and ’99 I won it, and I continued to race it for a number of years. It reminded me of the early days of mountain bike racing.
It was so difficult; you might be going out into rough surf, and they tried to make the mountain bike courses challenging. Then you’d do some really rough trail runs.
The organizers were awesome. There was always a party and an award ceremony afterwards. They created a lot of camaraderie. You were not only racing your fellow competitors, you were racing the course.
What have been the biggest faux pas from your years in mountain biking?
We were developing some mountain bike shoes that were atrocious. The first thing you would do when you finished a race was take your shoes off. You’d be standing there in your socks doing an interview because your feet hurt so much.
Our shoes are incredible now, but there were times when the product managers were trying to figure out how to develop a good mountain bike shoe. The cleat would break out of the bottom of the shoe, so there would be a piece of shoe with a cleat attached to it on the pedal.
We also had a tire called UmmaGumma, a grey tire, and it was super slippery. If you rolled that tire through mud, it would come out looking perfectly clean. Whatever that rubber compound was, it was super slippery, and that’s how it rode. It was a mud tire and had an aggressive tread, but we quickly realized it was treacherous.
We developed a monocoque carbon full suspension frame. It was ahead of its time, and we made a small run of them. The frames started cracking and breaking, and so we killed them before it got out of hand. There were very few of them around, but the manufacturing and QC weren’t quite up to that level for a carbon monocoque.