Back in 1990, the very first official UCI World Mountain Bike World Championships took place in Durango, a small and remote mountain town in the far southwestern corner of Colorado in the Rocky Mountains.
On that historic day, it was justly fitting that local residents Ned Overend and Greg Herbold would take the first-ever rainbow stripes, while a whole bunch of other Durango and Colorado converts also made their presence felt on the other result boards.
Durango, was the secret then out? Well, I guess the race well and truly put Durango on the great and yet-to-be-charted map of iconic mountain bike destinations. Long-time Durango resident, and “accidental” mountain biker Ned Overend explains his early relationship with the town.
“I was a mountain runner, and I moved to Durango with my wife. I was planning on doing rock and ice climbing and doing some backpacking. I wasn’t planning on being a professional athlete.
At that time, it was the accessible and rugged mountain life that was on Ned’s mind, not bikes.
durango1.jpg, by Durango Devo
“I had a bike that I brought with me, but I was mainly a mountain runner and was also doing some triathlons.”
Soon enough Ned was about to take a fateful side trip, so to speak.
“Then I injured my hip in a mountain run on some crazy downhill sections. I turned to cycling, and we have a local event – the Iron Horse Classic, and that’s how many people get into sports, because of getting into a local event. I’d seen the race and so got a road bike and started racing.”
The Iron Horse Classic is a high-altitude road race that takes on a race against the Durango-Silverton steam railway and, for many years, there was also a mountain bike race on the same weekend. The race was co-organised and promoted by local bike shop owner Ed Zink, who was also a big part in ensuring those first World titles happened in Durango.
Ed’s shop, Mountain Bike Specialists, has long been a haven of opportunity for local bikers and was to also show Ned a change of life direction. after he saw his first-ever mountain bike – a Schwinn, in the showroom.
“I quit working on cars and got a job at Ed Zink’s bike shop and thought it would help me to make some money while I trained and tried to get sponsored.”
On the opposite side of the street
Durango3.jpg, by Durango Devo
It didn’t take long for Ned to dominate this new-fangled support and get introduced to Specialized, where a relationship was honed, one which still rides strong today.
However, one of the sport’s greatest rivalries was also playing out in Durango – that being the classic 1990s duel between the hard-cut and humble Ned and the equally humble and yet star-studded and mildly flamboyant John Tomac, who also just happened to have taken root in Durango, as he explains.
“I’m in Cortez now, which is a bit west of Durango. I was in Durango most of the time while I was a mountain bike racer and then in the last two years of my career I was in Cortez.”
The Durango effect
While the epic cross-country battle for top-dog status in the early 90s was played out between the two Durango locals, the town was fast becoming something of an off-road hotbed. The likes of Greg Herbold, Missy Giove, Myles Rockwell, Elke Burstat, Ruthie Matthes and Bob Roll all rose to prominence during this era.
Sitting more than a mile high and with some 19,000+ residents, Durango is a small but well-facilitated mountain town. It’s a laid-back and picturesque place with rolling desert-like plains and high snow-capped mountains, making it a great place for high-altitude training – and, of course for off-road riding of all kinds, which is largely what initially drew Ned, Tomac and other cyclists to the town.
Huldiging Sepp Kuss - Durango.jpg, by Bram Berkien
Needless to say, cycling has thrived here over the decades and this has led many more of the US’s top riders to migrate here and, for a whole new generation of home-brewed riders to follow in their hallowed wheel tracks.
The lead of Ned and Tomac was largely taken on by Todd Wells and Travis Brown during the mid-2000s, with that role being of nurturing and encouraging the young local riders. On any given summer Tuesday most of the local riders still meet up for an evening ride, and here you are still likely to encounter Ned, Todd Wells and other stalwarts of the Durango cycling archive. Although if you’re lucky you may well also come across one of the younger Durango-born stars of the current era, such as Specialized mountain bike pro and former short-track World Champion Chris Blevins, top road pro Quinn Simmons or if you’re very lucky a certain 2023 Vuelta a Espana winner - Sepp Kuss.
Kuss who and born in Durango started his career as a mountain biker here. He was inspired by the dirty side of the sport as a youngster and went on to become a Collegiate National MTB Champion and U23 World Cup XCO racer before finding that his talents were better suited to riding uphill on the hard stuff.
Huldiging Sepp Kuss - Durango-1.jpg, by Bram Berkien
We asked Sepp just what it is that makes the place so special in mountain bike terms, and why it produces so many great riders.
“I think it’s the lifestyle. It’s a very outdoor-driven lifestyle, and it’s also very “Colorado” – very laid back, and I think helps to breed the mountain biker archetype; very skilled, very physically fit, but doing so in a way that it’s not competitive – (as opposed to) a road racer, where it’s a more and more cutthroat world, but (in Durango), it’s all love, it’s all good, and people are just happy to do any exercise outdoors. There’s no pressure to do this and that, just healthy living, and it’s a tight-knit community.”
Recently Sepp made a flying visit home, where he got quite the regal reception following his Vuelta win, as he recounts.
“It was just incredible, it’s a pretty small town, and so most of the people there I knew or remembered from many years ago.”
Much as Ned & Co spurned and supported the two-wheeled dreams of Kuss, Blevins and others, Sepp was happy to see that he was becoming an integral role model in continuing the Durango story.
“For me, it was really cool seeing how many kids were on bikes, and you can see that the next generation of people will grow up with cycling and riding bikes from the numbers in the parade.”
Being one of the world’s top road pros carries a lot higher status and reward when compared to being a pro mountain bike racer – could we ever see Sepp return to the dirt, maybe for something like the Absa Cape Epic?
“It would be cool to do it at some point but it has to fit in at the right moment.”
Wouldn’t it be great to see the Durango dream duo of Kuss and Blevins taking on the race together? Maybe even Ned and Tomac re-uniting for the masters race, too – now that would truly be something.
Words by Steve Thomas. Photos by Durango Devo and Bram Berkien.
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