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The Old Man of the Mountains

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

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."

"Getting beat early in the season always makes me a little worried," says Overend. "That's part of my motivation. That's what enables me to work hard. If I'm not worried, I'm not going to win. I think one of my strengths is that I'm not satisfied with what I've accomplished."

He has accomplished quite a bit in the past six years, five times winning the NORBA national championship (including this year's), which is determined by points earned over a series of six races. In September 1990, in Durango, he won the first world championship to be sanctioned by professional cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale. Overend defended that title in Lucca, Italy, on Oct. 5, finishing third.

Overend trains from March to October, either alone or with Daryl Price, a Specialized teammate who also lives in Durango. One of their weekly rides is a hill session on road bikes, the description of which alone saps one's energy. "We ride four times up this milelong hill, spin for a couple of miles to recover and then do the hill four more times," says Price. "You'd die if you tried to do eight of these in a row."

On another workout, Overend and Price ride mountain bikes into the nearby La Plata Mountains. Within an hour, they hit Tomahawk Basin, which marks the beginning of a series of steady climbs up and over two mountain passes. Both passes ascend more than 4,000 feet, to 11,000 feet above sea level.

Overend's training regimen is based on a program that he developed over 15 years as a competitive runner, and it combines hard days and rest days with weekend races. Overend also has the rare ability to perform at altitudes from 6,000 feet to 14,000 feet, where the air is thin. "Ned is an incredibly efficient oxygen processor," says Ed Zink, a Durango bike-shop owner and longtime friend.

"We used to call Ned the Human Lung," says Scott Molina, a champion triathlete who has trained with Overend. "He's lung from his head to his toes." In addition to his physical powers, Overend brings two other formidable weapons to the starting line: fine bike-handling skills, which he developed in motocross competition while attending three colleges in California, and the tenacity of a pit bull.

In the Memorial Day race in Durango, Overend is in sixth place on the first lap when he gets caught in a pileup on a downhill section of the course known as the Chute of Death. It's a narrow, 40-yard trail of loose rocks and dirt with a 50% grade and a sharp right turn at the bottom. Another rider rams Overend from behind, knocking his chain off and twisting his front derailleur. Overend must stop three times to get things fixed. He loses more than four minutes, and he drops to 37th place. By the end of the 28-mile race, he has worked his way back through the strung-out field and into fifth place.

Overend did not have many chances to play organized sports as a kid. His father, Edmund, worked for the State Department, and Ned was born in Taipei. The Overends also lived in Teheran and on a plantation outside Addis Ababa, before settling in Marin County, Calif., when Ned was a high school freshman. He ran cross-country in high school and college, and he continued to compete in road races while living in San Diego as a college student.

On a whim, he decided to enter the 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Overend had trained little for the 2.4-mile swim, and he was so inexperienced as a cyclist that he rode the 112-mile bike leg in sneakers and running shorts. However, thanks largely to his performance in the 26.2-mile run, he finished 24th among 108 starters.

In 1980, after he moved to Durango with Pam, a nurse he met while in San Diego, Over-end found a job repairing transmissions in a foreign-car shop. On weekends, he continued to enter an assortment of events. The more difficult the course, the better Overend fared. He finished second twice in the Pikes Peak Marathon, in 1980 and '81. He set the record in both the 13-mile Kendall Mountain Run, which climbs from 8,500 feet to 13,000 feet in seven miles, and the Estes Park Triathlon, which begins with a 26.2-mile mountain run, entirely above 8,000 feet, and follows with an 80-mile bike ride through Rocky Mountain National Park and a one-mile pool swim.

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 piñon 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."

Other riders may be aware of Overend's age, but they learned long ago not to make a big deal out of it. Back in 1986, when he won his first national mountain-bike title, Overend was 31. Tomac, who finished second, was 18. "Ned will be 32 next year," Tomac said after that race. "He'll probably retire soon." Now Tomac knows better. "Age is really a state of mind," he says. "I think Ned can go until he's 40."

"You'd think he would hit a peak and wouldn't get any better," says Rishi Grewal. "But he keeps progressing. It's amazing.

"I try to go hard at the start, get a little time on him, get him caught up in traffic and then just motor. Even then, you're always looking back. If you see Ned coming, you hope he won't catch you. But it's more than likely he will."



At the nationals this summer at Mt. Snow, Vt., Overend motored to his fifth title.



Overend trains to become fitter as the season progresses.



The "Human Lung" is especially fond of ferocious ascents.



Overend's sinewy pins enable him to get down and (very) dirty on off-road trails.

Steve Malley is a senior editor at "Sports Illustrated For Kids. "