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The Old Man of the Mountains
Stephen Malley
November 04, 1991
At 36, off-road cycling star Ned Overend is a formidable competitor in a grueling sport
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November 04, 1991

The Old Man Of The Mountains

At 36, off-road cycling star Ned Overend is a formidable competitor in a grueling sport

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Overend's cycling ability was obvious almost from the moment he began entering bike races in 1982. He won often, at first in races for beginners but later against some of the best cyclists in the country. The Raleigh team spotted his talent and invited him to race in its jersey in the 1983 Coors Classic, then the premier bike race in the country. This jump is roughly the equivalent of a baseball player's moving from a sandlot league to Triple A in one season.

"All the best teams in the world were there," says Overend. "The Italians, the French and the East Germans, who won. It was brutal, and I didn't do real well, but it was a real slice of bike racing for a guy who had only started riding a year earlier."

By 1984, Overend had begun working in Zink's bike shop in Durango, keeping busy with repairs during the week and racing on weekends. During a vacation in California, Overend took with him a $300 Schwinn mountain bike from the shop and entered four races in the Pacific Suntour Series. He did so well that Schwinn agreed to pay his way back to California for the series final three weeks later. Overend won, beating a local hotshot named Joe Murray, who would win the national mountain-bike championship in 1984 and '85. That taste of fat-tire racing was enough to persuade Overend to switch his focus from the roads to the trails.

"Mountain-bike racing is more of an individual sport," he says. "In road racing, you have to worry about teamwork and tactics. In mountain biking, you're on your own. The strongest and fittest rider usually wins."

By 1986, Overend was racing mountain bikes full-time, though he still entered 10 to 15 bike road races a year as part of his training. One was the '86 Crested Butte (Colo.) Munsingwear Classic. Most of the leading U.S. riders appeared, as did many European pros, including 1989 Tour de France runner-up Laurent Fignon. Overend finished second, behind American pro and '84 Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal, and earned a place on the U.S. Cycling Team's World Championship squad.

If that race is the highlight of Overend's road career, then the 1988 NORBA World Championships, in Mammoth, Calif., stand as his premier off-road achievement. Overend was the favorite, but on the first of the five laps, he punctured his rear tire. In mountain-bike racing, riders make their own repairs. By the time he had replaced the tube, he had lost four minutes. Still, Overend won the race, catching his last two opponents, Tomac and Rishi Grewal, Alexi's brother, on the final six-mile lap. "It was the most incredible ride I've ever seen," says Dave Farmer, a physical therapist who lives in Durango. "I was on the course giving him times and place. No one thought he could win."

Overend is standing on the rear deck of his house, peering out at his backyard and the piƱon trees and scrub brush that lead up the hill to Missionary Ridge. Some mornings, he can stand on the deck and watch elk roam the hillside. Black bears occasionally rummage through a neighbor's garbage.

Overend built this house with his earnings. It has three stories and a shop for his eight bikes. The house is filled with paintings that Overend has collected on travels to mountain-bike races around the world, and scattered about the floors are the kids' toys and rugs made by weavers on a nearby Navajo reservation.

Overend is one of mountain-bike racing's highest-paid competitors. He will earn more than $125,000 this year from Specialized. That plus performance bonuses and prize money could bring him as much as $170,000.

Question is, how long can he keep it up? At 36, this old man of the mountains, is, well, not 25 anymore. Mountain-bike racers liken their sport to riding a jackhammer, and Overend admits he doesn't shake and rattle as well as he once did. "I notice a difference, sure," he says. "I don't recover as quickly from training and racing, and the body doesn't mend the way it used to. I crashed my road bike this spring, and I ached for days. That didn't happen when I was 25."

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