Ned Overend is, quite simply, a legend. Coming to mountain biking from marathon running and road racing, he found himself racing against, and beating, riders ten years his junior. He became the first official UCI World XC Champion in 1990 at the age of 33. During his racing career Ned was almost synonymous with Specialized, and these days he’s doing product development and promotional work for the big S. He came over to the UK to ride the Specialized EnduroPlus, and we took the opportunity to catch up with him…What do you think of the UK race scene, and how does it compare to the US?
It seems more oriented to endurance events. Typical XC has been declining in popularity, and endurance has been growing. It’s kind of different to the US in that respect. You guys tend to be some hardy riders, because of the weather. It makes it tougher for sure, to do 24 hour races in the rain. The only two times I’ve raced in the UK it’s been sunny and beautiful, so I haven’t really sampled the typical UK stuff [laughs].You mention how XC is in decline. Do you agree with this?
I don’t think it’s dead. What attracts people is the quality of the event. A lot of times in XC you get a pack of people and it’s a short loop race and they’ve got to start at 7.30 in the morning because they’ve got so many classes to run and the courses aren’t big enough to run everybody at once. It tends to be kinda intense, [but] if you have a quality course then XC can still be successful. There’s less pressure at the start [of endurance races] because the event is so long, you don’t have to fight everybody into the first singletrack. There’s not as much anxiety at the start like there is in a XC race, when you’ve got to go off in a sprint.You’ve been mountain biking for years – does it still excite you?
It does. I love being out there. I get with a few guys, dicing it out – it’s great, really exciting. This wasn’t a technical course but it was hard because the ground was so slow. It’s still a challenge to get into shape. It’s more of a challenge every year. But when you finally have those good events, when you’re in the zone, doing fast singletrack, you can have it at all different times in 24 hour events. For instance, in the middle of this event I started to fade. I was doing two lap stints, and my third or my fourth one, for my 7th and 8th lap, I was really starting to blow up and then I had to do one more. But the last one was good, made the whole thing end on a good note.What do you do when you’re about to blow up?
You gotta anticipate when it’s happening ahead of time, so you don’t actually get to that point. You gotta downshift, stay in the saddle, pour some calories down. The key is to feel it ahead of time when your legs are starting to go and then you go into a survival mode before you actually crater. Because once you blow up, it’s hard to come back.You say it’s a challenge to stay in shape – do you still train hard?
Yeah. I train and have fun, going riding with the guys. On certain days you can’t push yourself. The older you get the less intensity you can do. But we do some hard training. Todd Wells lives in Durango, we do some rides together. I really like the group scene. In the old days I’d go out by myself and do hill repeats, but now its much more of a social thing, Tuesday night rides and stuff like that.
But I enjoy it, when you get out and you start dicing it out with the guys, going fast down hills, it makes it fun. I enjoy the product, the product changes a lot, I’m testing a lot of new products for Specialized, so that keeps it exciting.
And it’s nice to go out riding with my son [Rhyler, 14], he tries to get me to do jumps.Do you jump?
I do small jumps, pitiful jumps [laughs] – I’m not going to end up learning to jump too well I don’t think. But we do some pretty technical riding, I’ll take the Stumpjumper, my son has a Demo 8. There’s a DH series at the local ski area that we both do. It’s not super technical, but it’s about a five minute DH, and they have one every couple of weeks.Some people laugh at XC riders’ lack of technical skills – is that fair?
These days on the national circuit, XC riders have to ride fast downhill. It’s not enough to be just a good climber. Guys like Liam [Killeen], they’re jamming on the downhills. It’s an eye-opener to go fast on a downhill on XC bikes.Do you think courses are more technical now?
They’re all different. Like Sea Otter isn’t that technical, yet a ton of guys hit the ground hard. JHK [Jeremy Horgan-Kelboski] cracked a few ribs, Bart Brentjens went down, Trent Lowe went down… These guys were right up at the front, I guess because its so high speed, and you’re riding in a group, sometimes your line of sight isn’t that good. So sometimes it doesn’t seem that technical, but the higher speed make it more technical.Do you look at the old days at the ‘good old days’?
There were times when the salaries were pretty good. So in that respect the good old days were good – there was more support, there were more sponsors out there. But I think it’s good now because it’s so diverse. People ask me where it’s gonna go, and I think it’ll just keep spreading out. It started with just XC, then DH, dual slalom, 4X, then 24 hour racing, enduro, freeride… It’s going to keep on expanding into different kind of niche events. Which I think is great, it’s healthy.Is there any particular event or race that stands out in your long career?
I won a couple of the Xterra triathlons, World Championships in Maui, and those are big because I figured after I retired from mountain biking that I wasn’t going to race at that level again. That was particularly rewarding because of the running and swimming.
[In mountain biking] I won two World Cups in 1994, in Italy and Switzerland. Winning World Cups in Europe is hard for Americans, because of the travelling, and for whatever reasons, the Europeans race tough in Europe. There’s a really competitive field, so those two victories stand out. Obviously the 1990 World Championships [the first UCI Worlds] at Durango, those two World Cups I won were more competitive, so for me they are maybe more satisfying.
Well, I think Tomac did both [DH and XC] so well. To me he’s impressive he’s a good climber but the he made himself a great climber. He’s a big, heavy-set guy naturally, but he got into shape to be able to race at the very top level. And he’s always been a great downhiller. So he’s the most versatile. But [Thomas] Frishnecht to me is the best XC rider in history. He’s still going, he’s been there forever, it’s been great racing with both these guys, We’ve got great relationships and we’ve had some great battles with those two.Do you still do much mountain bike racing?
Not that much. This is my first race of the year. I cross country ski race until the end of February. I start slow in the spring, start riding in March, and then try and build up in the summer, but I’ll pick a few like a NORBA national in Park City, Utah, because it’s close to Durango. It fits an opening in my schedule. But I got a lot of travelling which is just promotional stuff. Travelling is the hardest part. People think travelling is OK, but they don’t realise that it’s hard. And out of Durango you got to take a lot of flights. It makes for a long day.You test a lot of bikes for Specialized – which is your favourite?
I like the Epic. It’s a good race bike. I have a Stumpjumper and an Enduro too, and the Stumpjumper is a lot of fun in Durango because it’s rough, and you end up jumping and dropping in off more stuff. It’s a very versatile bike, but for racing, when you’re dicing it out with people, the Epic is so efficient. It’s a fun bike, it handles quickly, it’s a great development.Finally, the question of retirement must come up often?
Well, you know, I’m kinda already retired. I’m in a unique posiition because I have no contract with Specialized, I just work for them. They don’t say ‘do this race, do that race’, racing’s not part of it. I have to be at the product meetings and product launches, as the product develops. So I can race at my own leisure, I’m not under any pressure, so I don’t have to race that many times. There’s a good racing scene in Durango, a lot of young kids are going fast and stuff. That helps me get in shape and stay excited about it so, you know, I could be a career racer. Maybe not in the Pro class [laughs].