Good morning and welcome to the Dolomites, Ned. Or, should we call you by another name? Among the many nicknames that you have been given, "The Lung", "The Pump", "Deadly Nedly", which one do you like best?
I like "The Captain", I was called that when I was the top athlete of the Specialized mountain bike team.
Your career was incredible. You won the first World Championship in the history of cross country in 1990, finished the 1991 World Championship in Italy in third place, was six times the winner of the prestigious NORBA title, the holder of the U.S. Championship in 1986 and 1987.
Don't you have a slight regret that you were 35 years old already in 1990 when mountain biking became a global sport?
I have no regrets, I was among the protagonists of a new sport at its inception and I saw it grow quickly until it became an Olympic discipline. I'm happy that mountain biking is still fun for me and that I can enjoy all the developments in the field of products. I don't look at age like most people do. On the contrary, I feel like I've just started my journey.
What is the most beautiful memory you have of Italy? Perhaps the stage of the Cup in Capoliveri on the Island of Elba in the spring of 1994 when you triumphed in a gruelling stage race, with long climbs and technical and rocky descents. What do you remember about that hot day under a blinding sun?
The World Cup on the Island of Elba was a real battle with Johnny Tomac, and we fought each other along the entire route: I gained ground uphill and John reduced it downhill. Winning a World Cup race in Europe was a very important achievement. I have a good memory of all the races I competed in in Italy. I competed in Bassano for the World Cup, and I also took part in the Garda Marathon three times. On one of those occasions I started out in a freezing rain that slowly turned into snow as we climbed the mountain. It was a really long day. I also raced in a race in a beautiful park in Rome. Well, to tell the truth, I can't wait to have the time to visit Italy.
In the course of your career you were practically unbeatable in high-altitude races with considerable height differences and steep descents. Today's cross country races are getting faster and faster, with technical areas and short circuits. Today the World Cup races last about an hour and a half, almost half as long as when you were competing. Compared to 20-25 years ago, has cross country become a different sport?
The cross country challenges in the 90s were more similar to the marathons of today, and certainly it is true that more and more XC races are changing: they last less and have shorter circuits, so the climbs are more incisive. But that's okay, it's a lot of fun to watch the World Cup, also thanks to better television coverage. Marathons are a great experience for all fans, me included.
Who was the toughest opponent to face in your golden age? Maybe the legendary John Tomac?
Interesting question: John was a really strong rider and, above all, he was well supported by his sponsors. He had a lot of media exposure in the magazines, and I felt I had to contend both with him and his public image. I was motivated to beat him because I thought I had better results while he was more highly regarded by the press. John and I have always had a good friendship and always mutual respect for each other. We had a great rivalry from 1896 to 1990, but then along came Thomas Frischknecht, a really very competitive rider who proved to be a tough adversary to face in the World Cup.
US dominance in cross country ended (at least as far as men are concerned) in the mid-1990s. It was the European cyclo-crossers who first raised the level and got to you. Bikers such as Thomas Frischknecht, Henrik Djernis, Peter Hric, Mike Kluge, Tim Gould and Beat Wabel. How did they get to outdo you? Was it scientific methods of preparation (taken from road cycling), better nutrition, programming skills, greater adaptability to race rhythms?
I think it's physiological that U.S. athletes could not dominate forever in cross country races, also because mountain biking has grown and developed enormously in European countries. In Europe there is a deeper appreciation for cycling and a better system for the development of young runners: a country like Italy has the same number of registered athletes as the United States, despite having a much smaller population. My hope is that American cycling will experience a period of transformation, also considering the fact that competitions are now being organised at high school level. We have several junior races and I am convinced that this will turn into a greater competitiveness of our riders in the coming years. Chris Blevins from Durango, Colorado, finished second in the U23 World Championships and has a great future ahead of him.
If you had to indicate, among both men and women, the five most important figures in the history of mountain biking (including downhill) what names would you give?
It's really hard to choose five riders. There are champions from the very beginning of the discipline who have helped to promote the sport with their stories and their rivalries. People like me, Tomac and Frishy. Women like Julie Furtado and Missy Giove have been important figures since the beginning of this sport, and then there is Paola Pezzo who won the gold medal in Atlanta and Sydney! Nico Vouilloz and Anne Caroline Chausson have taken the downhill to a new level with their dominance in a sport where it is complex to control the variables at stake. Julian Absalon and Nino Schurter have increased the competitive and technical content of cross country competitions to a higher level. That's more than five, isn't it?
You are still competing, although you officially closed your career as a cross country professional in 1996. And like you, also another legend of American cross country, David "Tinker" Juarez continues to race. How do you explain this choice?
I like to try out a wide variety of bicycles: mountain biking is my first passion but I have fun on the road, on the dirt tracks, doing cyclocross and with fat-bikes. I live in the mountains of Colorado where there are wonderful routes and beautiful roads to explore. Cycling keeps you young if you have the right respect for your body...and you don't fall too often.
Many people do not know, but you also competed on the road, and did some difficult climbing too about 30 years ago. Like the one in Colorado from Idaho Springs to Mount Evans. What was and still is your relationship with the road bike?
Mount Evans is a classic climb, it is the highest asphalt road in the United States with its 4,347 metres, and the route reaches the top. I have a history in both road cycling and triathlon. I took part in the 1983 Coors Classic stage race with Andy Hampsten in the Raleigh team. I also did an Ironman in 1980. But in 1984 I discovered mountain biking and since then I have considered the road bike only as a great way to train.
You are historically linked to one of the top brands in cycling, Specialized: what does it mean to have matched your name with one of the leading brands on the market?
I have worked with Specialized since my first race and for more than 30 years, it has been one of the keys to my sporting longevity. After my retirement from the World Cup circuit in 1996, I continued to train and compete without the pressure of a professional contract. I became an integral part of the staff, helping with product development and collaborating with the sports marketing department. There's a lot of enthusiasm for cycling in Specialized and I'm riding the wave.
Do you think that marathon races today represent the culture of dirt roads and single track better than cross country?
I think marathons give participants a rewarding experience. Long, demanding climbs and magnificent views, team spirit and a festive atmosphere all contribute to making the marathon a positive experience. Cross country is a lonely animal, made of high intensity and aggressiveness, it manages to be beautiful in a way all of its own.
What future do you see for long-distance endurance races like marathons?
I think marathons will continue to grow. There are many events to choose from and those that will last over time are those where the organisers will be able to guarantee the participants a quality experience. A challenging course in a beautiful area with an enthralling landscape are always popular elements among riders.
It is said that the popularity of the HERO has also reached the United States. What does it mean for you to compete and try to overcome your own limits? Is it still a challenge?
Before a race, I still have the same excitement as I had 25 years ago. I've looked at the characteristics of the HERO and they're really intimidating. I also talked to Howard Grotts who competed in the 2015 World Cup in Val Gardena to ask him for some advice. I'll have to be good at focusing on the right preparation. It will be important to respect the nature of the climbs and the altitude and adapt accordingly. But then again, I can't wait for the party to come once the race effort is over and done with!