Ned Overend Is the Champion Cyclist Who Never Grows Old
People thought Ned was a freak of nature when he was winning mountain-bike races at 40. That was 20 years ago. Now the sexagenarian is crushing fat-bike racers a third his age.
It’s two days after Ned Overend’s 60th birthday, his back hurts, and he’s staring into the weeds at Suicide Six—billed as one of the oldest ski areas in the East—puzzling out how to avoid a broken hip. He pushes his gray carbon cyclocross bike up a 30-degree slope, noting ruts, loose dirt, a toad, and the keen left curve that tomorrow he’ll be taking at considerable velocity during the finishing sprint of the Vermont Overland Adventure Ride. Overend—known to his fans simply as Ned, à la Sting or Prince—stands five foot eight, weighs 140 pounds, and walks slightly bowlegged, like a cowboy who has forked a horse every day for six decades.
“This isn’t good,” he says.
Ned is concerned about the myriad loose-gravel descents throughout the 52-mile grinder, essentially a cyclocross race on non-maintained roads. Event director Peter Vollers calls it a gentleman’s race, since the purse is a faux-plaid-flannel jersey and bragging rights. “You do stupid shit when you’re racing,” Ned says. It’s August now. He doesn’t want an injury to jeopardize his fall season, which would upset his winter fat-bike season—with a new national title to defend.
Ned’s backache was inflamed by the flight from California, where he spends part of the year working as a brand ambassador for Specialized. He arrived three days early to adjust for jet lag and check out the course. Vollers can’t believe Ned has come to his race in only its second year. Like gravel-grinder racing in general, the Vermont Overland is swelling in popularity, and there are license plates in the parking lot from all over New England. A racer himself, Vollers shakes Ned’s hand and asks if he’ll roll through to meet some riders. Ned obliges, but he’s anxious to recon the course, then get an IPA and hit the sack.
Watch: The 10 Commandments of Lifelong Fitness
Champion cyclist Ned Overend shares his secrets to crushing racers a third his age
The next morning at the starting line, a field of nearly 500, including six-time national cyclocross champion Tim Johnson and pro roadie Jesse Anthony, fiddle with their Garmins as Vollers runs through announcements. When he lists Ned’s greatest hits—the 1990 UCI Mountain Bike World Championship, his place in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, the recent 2015 USA Cycling National Fat Bike Championships title—there’s an eruption: We get to ride with Ned!
But make no mistake, this is no ceremonial lap. “You gotta do more than schmooze and be an ex-racer,” Ned says. And it’s no comeback; he never went away. Nor does he race with a handicap. “If you think, ‘Well, I’m doing pretty good for an old guy,’ then you’re not trying to stay at the front,” he told me. “You might be in the front of the old guys. But that’s not enough.”
The course climbs 5,900 feet over tarmac, ski slope, and “pavé,” Vermont-speak for crumbly granite and rooty two-track. Ned is in the running most of the way, chasing a breakaway of three. He drops the steep line to the finish, coming in sixth, eight minutes behind winner Jesse Anthony. He’s all smiles. Everyone wants to shake his hand.
Later I check on him at his motel, and he’s got the shades closed; his laptop is glowing, and his reading glasses are on. For 25 years, he’s been asked his secret. How does he cheat time, beat the clock? Finally, I’m gonna see Ned Overend’s Dark Web, the ass-numbing training plans and age-reversing nostrums he buys on the secret Internet. Instead he shows me the Overland course, mapped out on Strava, with the excitement of a kid demonstrating his favorite video game. He went 48.5 miles per hour down the Cox District Descent. “That’s pretty crazy speed on a dirt road,” he says. On the Oxbow Road Climb he’s got a King of the Mountain—the fastest time on a segment of trail or road—and tiny golden trophies are scattered across the screen. Ned’s geeking out over all the little races, 22 of them, within the big race. Strava is his New York Times crossword, his sudoku.
How can it be that a man who started riding when mountain-biking shoes were hiking boots is still relevant, still a threat, still a champion in the age of electronic shifting? Back in 1985, when I was in high school, I saved enough summer pay to buy my first mountain bike. The shop smelled of new tires, and Ned’s poster was on the wall. My ride was a champagne gold steel Schwinn Sierra, and I’d fantasize that I was Ned when I whizzed through the woods. Young gun John Tomac was a hero of mine, too, and fat-tire legend Tinker Juarez from his BMX days, but Ned had the Magnum P.I. mustache. I was certain he never used his granny gear.
If you think, “Well, I’m doing pretty good for an old guy, then you’re not trying to stay at the front,” Overend says.
One of six kids, Ned was the only athletic bird in the family tree. His father, Edmund, was a fighter pilot turned diplomat, and Ned was born in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1955. The family moved back and forth between Bethesda, Maryland, and posts abroad, including Ethiopia and Iran, until he was in tenth grade, in 1971, when they settled in Marin County, California. Two years later, Edmund died of a second heart attack, at 56.
Ned credits his running coach in high school, Doug Basham, for emphasizing high-intensity, low-volume workout programs. In junior college, Ned was selected for the 1976 California all-state team in cross country. But then he stopped running and moved to San Francisco to wrench motorcycles before working his way through San Diego State University. There he shared an apartment with future Ironman Hall of Famer Bob Babbitt and began competing again—10Ks at first, then adding swimming and cycling with the goal of doing the 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. He and Babbitt trained in a 15-meter apartment pool, thousands of laps. Ned—a 2:28 marathoner—completed Hawaii twice.
In San Diego he met Pam Moog, a registered nurse, at a disco. They got married and settled in Durango, Colorado, where Ned took a job working on Volkswagen engines. They had two kids—Allison and Rhyler, now in their twenties and living in California. “Pam’s life is not being a Ned fan,” he says. “I can go to an important World Cup event, and I’ll be back home for a week before she’ll ask me how I did.” Pam still works part-time and spends some of the year in their second home in San Diego.
Ned was winning mountain runs until he injured his hip in 1981, which pushed him into road cycling. But the next year, he started riding a Schwinn Sidewinder in the dirt. He tried a mountain-bike race, won it, and was hooked. In 1984, at age 29, he got a contract with Schwinn and proceeded to dominate the National Off Road Bicycle Association circuit throughout the eighties; in 1988, he jumped to Specialized and won the first UCI World Championships, held in Durango in 1990.
But even at 35, Ned was considered old. In 1991, he told a Sports Illustrated reporter, “I crashed my road bike this spring and I ached for days. That didn’t happen when I was 25.” In the same article, John Tomac, then 24, said, “Age is really a state of mind. I think Ned can go until he’s 40.”
At 41, Ned finally retired from World Cup racing. He’d chosen mountain biking in part because doping wasn’t prevalent in the sport. But by the mid-nineties, drugs had bled into the European mountain-bike scene, and he decided to get out. He’s been outspoken ever since, going so far as to propose that future dopers be prosecuted as criminals. “It’s theft,” he says, “of millions of dollars in contracts.”
People thought that was the end. But Ned, incognito without his mustache, was quietly kicking ass in different mediums: off-road triathlon, singlespeed racing, cyclocross, hill climbing, even cross-country skiing. “I didn’t retire,” he says. He retooled and stayed on at Specialized to work in product development and marketing. In 1998, at 43, he raced his way to an Xterra World Championship off-road triathlon.
Pedal your time machine forward almost 20 years and Ned is dominating in the snow. He won the 2014 Fat Bike Birkie in Cable, Wisconsin—a race billing itself as the fat-bike national championships—and last year won the inaugural USA Cycling Fat Bike Nationals, at Powder Mountain, Utah, by 32 seconds. He trained by doing intervals on a snow-covered fire road above Durango. “It’s not often a win is a surprise,” he says. “I wasn’t just there to experience Fat Bike Nationals—I went there to win.”
If there’s another athlete in another sport who has pushed success as far into their dotage, I don’t know who it is. Diana Nyad is still out there at 66, performing remarkable feats of endurance in the water. But while Ned gets older, his competition gets younger.
“Ned lives what I preach,” says Joe Friel, 72, masters coach and author of Fast After 50. “He’s always been a fan of short workouts with high intensity.” Whittled down, the recipe for success as a geezer is this: 1) Decrease volume and increase intensity. 2) Recover, recover, recover. 3) Don’t stop training, ever; you can retain much of your VO2 max as you age, but once you lose it, it’s a lot harder to get it back. “When you’re 60, you can’t take a month off at the end of the season, have a good time like younger athletes can,” Friel says. “There’s an accelerated loss of fitness. Take Greg LeMond, for example—he just quit. Hung it up. Ned never did that.”
“Force times time,” says Northern Michigan University’s Scott Drum, an exercise physiologist who previously codirected the High Altitude Performance Lab at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. “The least amount of time with a lot of force equals longevity. After 30, we lose 1 percent a year in VO2 max, unless you continue to train at a high intensity.” Another benefit, Drum says, is that “high-intensity exercise can elicit greater concentrations of growth hormone and epinephrine, leading to greater metabolic and muscular adaptations.”
Drum suggests training 10 to 15 hours per week, tops, for athletes over 40. With that recipe, Ned’s at no risk for overtraining syndrome. He pedals hard for an hour and a half, rarely much more, three or four times a week, and does easy rides on off days. In the winter, he mixes in nordic skiing and weight lifting, although the fat-biking season has taken time away from cross-training. “I tried yoga, but I didn’t have the focus for it,” Ned says. “It’s amazing how little discipline I have for simple stretching and strengthening exercises.”
Ned is geeking out over all the little races within the big race. Strava is his New York Times crossword, his sudoku.
With the exception of Specialized lunch rides when he’s in California and his weekly group rides in Durango—the Tuesday Night World Championships—Ned trains solo. “I do a lot of things by myself,” he says. But the Tuesday rides are more than his bridge club; they’re his weekly check-up. You can’t be too upset about getting dropped when the regulars include current national mountain-bike champion Howard Grotts, Israeli national champion Rotem Ishay, and pros Ian Burnett and Keegan Swensen. National cyclocross stars Todd and Troy Wells regularly come to hammer. All but the Wells brothers are under 30; none are over 40.
Ned has never had a cycling coach. “I don’t like structure,” he says. He doesn’t wear a heart-rate monitor or use a power meter. He relies on what he calls “perceived effort”—essentially going by feel. He does not appear to have a VO2 max that’s off the charts; he just knows how to train smart.
“There are people as talented as me,” he says. “What I’ve done is put together a few good races in a season, then manage to put a bunch of good years together.” Tinker Juarez, 54, one of the last old-schoolers still in the saddle, broke his hip in June at a race in Mexico. Bike racing is a bone game, and for nearly 40 years Ned has managed to avoid a serious injury.
Sounds simple. But the man isn’t rustproof. “Shit wears out,” he says. He pinches his forearm. “Your skin wears out.” Did he mention his back is aching?
Durango, late September, and Ned’s just gotten off the mountain, a demanding 42-mile solo over Coal Bank Pass on Highway 550. He’s training for the Mount Diablo Challenge hill climb in California in October; now he’s gonna soak away his inflammation in the Animas River, as he does after hard rides.
The water has cleared up, but rocks along the bank are still yellow and orange from the Gold King Mine spill in August. “Just don’t eat the mud,” Ned says. No one else is swimming. He walks out into the current, chest deep, slips, and is carried ten yards downriver. He pops up laughing and spits out a mouthful of the 60-degree Animas.
The next afternoon, we ride the flowy singletrack at Overend Mountain Park. Ned stashes his reading glasses in his jersey pocket, in case he needs to adjust something small, like derailleur screws, or study the fine print on the Garmin. He’s bashful about the park being named for him. “I don’t need to be any more famous in this town,” he says. The trails follow the natural contours of the Mancos Shale and are lined with burr oak, juniper, and piñon. Back in town a guy hollers, “Slow down, old man!” Even without the mustache, everyone recognizes him.
Durango is Ned’s town. He swaps his trail bike for a step-through Globe with a wicker basket and a sticker on the frame: THIS BIKE CLIMBED MT. WASHINGTON. (Ned won the famous hill climb in 2011, on his 56th birthday.) He’s known for his love of American IPAs; on a wild night he’ll have two. At Carver Brewing on Main Street, there’s a beer on tap called Ned’s Nitro Pale Ale. An aluminum Fat Boy—lucky race number 13, his winning ride from last year’s fat-bike championships—is displayed in the window of Mountain Bike Specialists.
“It’s pretty cool when you’re 60 and improving your time from a couple years ago,” Ned says. “That’s always a good indicator, right? I had the KOM on Rafter J until I made the mistake of telling my neighbor, then he went out and took it.” You live and you learn.
Ned had skipped the Tuesday-night group to ride Coal Bank, sneaking out early between rain showers to get in some intervals. “Where were ya?” asks Todd Wells when we see him at his house. But Ned’s just as happy riding solo with Strava.
“I’m getting old one day at a time,” he says. “I only know how age affects you based on my own experiences. Otherwise you base it on what everyone else tells you. When my dad died at 56, I remember thinking, Dad died of old age. I mean, he had gray hair. People shouldn’t just assume it should be so hard to hold onto your fitness.”
When will he hang it up for good? Never, says Ned. But he can foresee a time when he switches from elite to master-class competition. “When I’m midpack,” he says. “All it would take is to back off on my training.”
Ned podiums on Mount Diablo, placing third. He broke away with the top three, but the leaders dropped him with a half-mile to go. “I was OK with the result,” he says. “My back felt OK, but I think it had an effect on my preparation and maybe my motivation leading up to it. I noticed on Strava that my volume was down in September.”
I got a text from him on the Sunday evening after the race: “The guy who won was 18!” He was referring to Jason Saltzman.
But Ned got it wrong: the kid was 17.