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Right away you notice his legs, first because they are shaved, which strikes you as odd. Then you realize they're straight out of an anatomy textbook. They're not oversized, grossly steroidal, but lean, almost delicate, the skin shrink-wrapped around strands of muscle. These are serious gams.
The legs belong to Ned Overend. He has sculpted them over years of road and mountain running, triathloning, bicycle road racing and, most recently, pedaling a bicycle with fat tires up and down the sides of mountains. Aside from the legs, Overend is wiry, almost scrawny, at 5'8" and 140 pounds. A thick mustache makes his face seem fuller than it is, hiding the fact that rigorous training has drawn his cheeks so taut he could use his cheekbones to open a bottle of nonalcoholic beer.
It's Memorial Day weekend, and the 35-year-old Overend is eating dinner at his home in Durango, Colo., with his wife, Pam, and their two children, Allison, 5, and Rhyler, eight months. He is trying to finish a second helping of spaghetti and at the same time assist Pam in feeding Rhyler, who is not happy that pureed carrots have been selected for his dinner. "Your turn," says Pam, handing the spoon to her husband.
Ned swings it in a slow looping circle above Rhyler and makes airplane noises. Rhyler forgets he doesn't like carrots and giggles. The carrots swoop low and then disappear into his mouth. Rhyler wants to play this game again. "Here we go, here we go," says Ned. "Rrrrroooommmm."
He is wearing long, baggy shorts. He is slightly bowlegged, and his legs stick out of the shorts like rounded exclamation points. The shorts are red, the tone muted, which reflects Overend's quiet, self-confident style. True, Overend has a bit of the thrasher in him, which he reveals whenever he points his bike down a frighteningly steep mountain trail and lets go of the brakes. But he prefers classic rock on the radio to Megadeth on MTV. It's easy to forget what this father of two does for a living while he's tricking his son into eating carrots.
Then you notice Overend's eyes. Even when he is relaxing, they flash with intensity, as if his spaghetti were laced with nitromethane.
These are serious eyes.
The first race of the National Off-Road Bicycle Association's (NORBA) championship series was held on Memorial Day in the trails cut in the mesas above Durango. The day before the race, Overend, who's riding a bright red $2,500 mountain bike given to him by his sponsor, Specialized Bicycles, is spinning easily up a section of the course called Horse Gulch, a rutted dirt trail that becomes slick rock and then, farther up, a bed of canteloupesized rocks. In two miles the trail climbs 800 feet, to 7,400 feet above sea level. The course is typical of those on the mountain-bike circuit. It features about 1,200 feet of climbing on each of the four eight-mile laps. Riders must contend with huge rocks, trails that are wide enough for only one bike and twisting, 25-mph descents.
Horse Gulch is Over-end's favorite part of the course. He is an excellent climber, and he figures this is a great place to pass tired riders on the third and fourth laps. "I like rough, ugly courses with long climbs," says Overend. "These courses work your arms, shoulders, back and abdominals. When the other guys are suffering, that's when I seem to do better."
Overend wins about 20% of the 40 or so races he enters each year. He structures his training program so that he becomes increasingly fit as the season progresses, and then wins when it counts. "Ned's a little like Greg LeMond," says John Tomac, 24, who has been one of Overend's chief rivals since 1986. "They both focus on key races late in the season. They take a beating all year, and that's tough to do. But they come around when they need to."