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Q&A: Why Ned Overend is excited about NICA and e-bikes

We sat down with Ned Overend to discuss the state of U.S. mountain bike racing, the rise of NICA, and the launch of e-mountain bike competitions

Ned Overend attended this past weekend’s USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in Winter Park, Colorado.

No, he was not racing.

Instead, Overend rode the trails and patrolled the race expo to gather up the sights and sounds of the U.S. championships. We caught up with Overend—mountain biking’s first official world champion—to get his take on the dynamics that are currently steering off-road racing.

VeloNews: What’s your assessment of the overall health of mountain bike racing in the United States?

Ned Overened: It’s in a really great place. As evidence of what’s going on here at U.S. nationals, you can see mountain biking is thriving. And it’s thriving because of NICA. If you look at the junior fields here, compared to three or four years ago, some of them are five times bigger. We had 135 kids in the 15-16 [junior division] and that was unheard of a few years ago at U.S. nationals. It’s growing like mad, and it’s going to translate to us being more competitive globally. It takes a while.

If you look at kids doing Enduro and Downhill, there’s more of them too because they’re introduced to mountain biking from NICA, and then they go off and do other disciplines outside of cross-country. I’m excited. Its great to see this many kids out here. I think that once people figure out how many kids are competing at nationals we’ll see a bigger expo with more brands. Its not as big as its been in years past and I’m surprised at some of the people who aren’t here. I think once they see the numbers, they’ll show up.

VN: Where is there room for improvement?

NO: What we’re lacking is more U.S. riders racing at the World Cup level. Its good to see Giant supporting Cole Paton at the Under-23 level. We have Christopher Blevins, and [Stans NoTubes-Pivot] has Keegan Swenson. But really there are only about four or five Americans racing at the World Cup level. If you want to be competitive, you have to go over there and race World Cups. It’s expensive, but that’s an area I’d like to see grow.

VN: What needs to happen to increase the number of Americans racing World Cups?

NO: USA Cycling is doing what they can with [mountain bike performance director] Marc Gullickson’s program. He’s taking a bunch of kids over there, and the kids that are over there are doing well and being supported by USA Cycling. That’s great. That’s the whole point of the program, and hopefully those kids get picked up by a factory team after they’re out of the Under-23 ranks. So, that is the connective tissue, and USA Cycling is doing what it can. As kids get more competitive, the big hope is that sponsors will be more excited about supporting them over there.

VN: Electric bikes are gaining in popularity. What is your perspective on competitive e-mountain bike racing?

NO: It’s a big topic. Im an e-bike advocate. When they were first developing them at Specialized I was like, ‘I’m not that excited about these.’ But I travel a lot so I go to Europe a ton and I have ridden a ton of e-bikes now. Over there its one of the biggest product lines. We ride with groups of people, and you can see that people over there really love them. It’s a growing sport over there, and there’s not a bunch of problems with trails. If the U.S. wants to know if there are problems with e-bikes on the trails, all they have to do is look at Europe. There’s a ton of people using them on the trails and very few problems

As far as competition, it’s really interesting because there is very little of the cross-country style of e-bike racing here in the U.S. It’s more popular over there, and we see now that the UCI is sanctioning a World Championships race. I think they’re really going to have to spend time developing the rules. The UCI jumped on it quick, which is good, because they’re competing with the motorcycle industry for who controls everything. So, I think they’ve probably implemented the racing before they really figured out how to regulate it. How do they test the motors? Will there be protocols for how powerful they can be? I think it’s going to be interesting to see how they do it at the world championships.

VN: Do you plan to race an e-mountain bike anytime soon?

NO: Yeah, I do want to do some e-bike racing to check it out and investigate it because I think it’s interesting how the bikes are developing now with the batteries and motors. I actually like the fact that they are growing slower in the USA than Europe because it’s easier for us to prepare for them and to really see how they will impact bike sales. It grew so fast in Europe that it was kind of frightening. I did the HERO mountain bike marathon in Val Gardena and there wasn’t an e-bike category, but in town all you saw were people on e-bikes. It’s high attitude for them, and the climbing there is so steep that it discourages people from riding mountain bikes. So e-bikes were perfect for that place.

VN: I could see a scenario in which e-mountain bike races are perhaps more for entertainment, and less about serious racing. 

NO: They could do that, maybe put jumps and stuff on the field. But any time there’s world championship stripes on the line, people will be serious. And there are serious guys already who are racing on e-bikes.

VN: When people see you at a bike race, what’s the one thing they ask you?

NO: Are you racing today? Everyone always asks me that.