The changes in the tensile mechanical properties and biochemical composition of the superficial zone of articular cartilage were examined in a canine model of early osteoarthritis generated by transection of the anterior cruciate ligament. Sixteen weeks following ligament transection, the tensile stiffness of the articular cartilage was decreased by 44% and the ion‐induced stress relaxation of the tissue was increased by 57% compared with the contralateral control. Biochemical analyses indicated that the water content of the experimental tissue was increased by 13%, which was reflected as an apparent 37% decrease in the proteoglycan content and a 36% decrease in the collagen content (expressed per wet weight). The hydroxypyridinium crosslink density was decreased in the experimental tissue by 11%. A significant negative correlation was found between the ion‐induced stress relaxation and the hydroxypyridinium crosslink density in both control tissue (R = −0.56) and experimental tissue (R = −0.70). No correlation was noted between the tensile stiffness and the biochemical composition of the tissue. These results suggest that, in the superficial zone of articular cartilage, the structure of the tissue may play a more important role than the composition in the determination of its mechanical properties. A major event observed in the model of early osteoarthritis appears to be the disruption and remodeling of the collagen network in the superficial zone of the articular cartilage.