Friends of NMSU travel five states in 31 days

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LAS CRUCES – December 28, 2018 marked the start of a life-changing journey for friends Shane Cunico and Raymond Johnson. The couple sat down at their favorite local bike shop in Las Cruces, listening to a presentation given by a cyclist from Iowa City who recently completed the world’s longest continuous mountain bike race, the Tour Divide. As skilled endurance athletes and competitive cyclists themselves, Cunico and Johnson were intrigued. At the end of the presentation, the two friends had pledged to participate in the race in June 2020.

“This is how simple it is to find yourself in such an extremely complex, dreadfully disturbing, incredibly exciting and all-consuming situation that you embark on the preparation (and, hopefully, the completion) of a unique event. in a lifetime. effort, ”Cunico wrote in his blog documenting what would become an epic hike for the two friends.

At its next regular meeting, set for 9 a.m. on Thursday, September 16, the New Mexico State University Board of Regents will honor the cyclists and their accomplishments. The meeting will be held virtually and will be webcast live for public viewing at panopto.nmsu.edu/bor.

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For avid cyclists, the Tour Divide is known to be the ultimate endurance bikepacking challenge. Participants venture into a multi-day cycling exploration with limited supplies and excess determination. The annual event attracts the most dedicated mountain bikers for its scenic but rocky trails along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that stretches through northern Alberta, Canada, to Chihuahua, Mexico, crossing five American states along the way. With 2,745 miles of rugged terrain and over 200,000 feet of elevation gain and drop between international borders, the race requires unwavering physical and psychological resilience. Yet for Cunico and Johnson, the Tour Divide was just another challenge.

“It’s one of those things on the to-do list where you can challenge yourself,” Johnson said. “I’ve done long mountain bike races, but not really the bikepacking side, so I thought ‘what better opportunity than to do it all at the same time?’

Cunico and Johnson share a strong passion for cycling. Besides being active members of ZiaVelo, a cycling club in Las Cruces, the two men have considerable experience in mountain biking and road racing competitions.

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Besides their common interest in racing biking, the two friends were also both employed at the NMSU. After retiring from his post in the military in 2019, Cunico began working for the NMSU physical science lab as an electronic warfare expert. During this time, Johnson worked for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for 26 years. He worked as an inspector, deputy division director and division director for the Standards and Consumer Sciences division before retiring in 2021.

As they prepared for the start of the 2020 Divide Tour known in the cycling community as the Grand Départ, Cunico and Johnson were faced with disheartening news: COVID-19 restrictions would delay the race until the summer season. next. Although disappointed, the couple chose to view the cancellation as a blessing in disguise.

“There is always a silver lining if you look for one and accept it as a gift,” Cunico said. “In our case, the delay offered a chance to train more, and just as importantly, the opportunity to really wring out our gear, fine-tune our camping and gear setup, and acquire a ton of gear. bikepacking experience. “

The cancellation of the 2020 race left cyclists almost two and a half years to prepare. Little time was wasted; With decades of combined experience, Cunico and Johnson developed a solid training program that allowed them to challenge their athleticism and work out to prepare for the race.

“We found the training simple, but that’s just because of who we are and what we’ve done in the past,” said Cunico. “We have experience and a defined routine of how we train. “

As June 2021 slowly approached, border restrictions were extended due to the ongoing pandemic, forcing authorities to shorten the Tour Divide route by a few hundred kilometers. The Grand Départ, which was originally scheduled to take place in Canada, was moved to Roosville, Montana, while the finish line was moved to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

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The weeks leading up to the race were crucial for the cyclists. The two friends spent days polishing the mechanics of their bikes, loading their racing gear, preparing clothes, sleeping bags and first aid kits, among other necessities.

“You start to question everything and all of your gear choices,” Cunico said. “Is my sleeping bag warm enough?” Are my gloves warm enough? Are my shoes warm enough? “

Throughout the run, Cunico and Johnson documented everything from the condition of their racing gear, to their sleeping arrangements, and even the wildlife they encountered during their 31-day trek from Montana to New Mexico. They did this by posting on their blog, Southbound and Down.

Not only has the blog enabled Cunico and Johnson to update their progress for their friends and family, it has also become a journal documenting the names and faces of the many inspiring people they have met along the way.

“My absolute favorite part of this experience was connecting with people that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with in a political or religious sense,” Cunico said. “You realize that people are kind and generous and that really gives you back faith in humanity.”

After 31 days of cycling through high mountain ranges, harsh weather conditions, rugged terrain, and bouts of hunger and discomfort, Cunico and Johnson reached the finish line at the US-Mexico border at Antelope Wells , New Mexico. A month of shared experiences left the two riders with a strong sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

“There is just no way to put words into the appreciation Ray and I have for everyone involved in making this dream come true,” Cunico wrote in his latest blog post. “Our outlook on life has changed, as have our perceptions of people. In all fairness, we are different men than we were when we started out.

After completing the world’s longest continuous mountain bike race, neither Cunico nor Johnson are planning to remove their cycling gear anytime soon. The two plan to take part in a 350-mile bike race after the monumental loop through the Organ Mountains in October. Johnson is also training for the September Berlin Marathon, a 26-mile running race that runs through the heart of Berlin, Germany. As for their plans to compete in future Tour Divide races, Cunico said he plans to compete again in 2023.

Baylee Banks writes for New Mexico State University. She can be reached at 575-646-6340, or by email at [email protected]

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