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Southbound and Down: NMSU friends cycle across five states in 31 days

  • By Baylee Banks
  • 575-646-6340
  • baylee11@nmsu.edu
  • Sep 14, 2021
Two men standing with their bikes.
Two men standing with their bikes holding a NMSU pennant.

December 28, 2018, marked the beginning of a lifechanging journey for friends Shane Cunico and Raymond Johnson. The pair sat at their favorite local Las Cruces bike shop listening to a presentation given by an Iowa City cyclist who had 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. By the end of the presentation, both friends had vowed to participate in the race come June 2020.

“That’s how simple it is to get yourself into a situation that is overwhelmingly complex, dauntingly foreboding, incredibly exciting and so all-consuming that you set out to embark on the preparation (and hopefully completion) of a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor,” Cunico wrote in his blog documenting what would become an epic trek for the two friends.

At its next regular meeting, set for 9 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, the New Mexico State University Board of Regents will recognize the cyclists and their accomplishment. The meeting will be held virtually and will be livestreamed for public viewing at panopto.nmsu.edu/bor.

For avid cyclists, the Tour Divide is known to be the ultimate endurance bikepacking challenge. Participants venture off on a multi-day biking exploration with limited supplies and an excess of determination. The annual event attracts the most dedicated mountain bikers for its scenic yet rocky trails along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route which runs north from Alberta, Canada to Chihuahua, Mexico, crossing five U.S. states along the way. With 2,745 miles of rough terrain and more than 200,000 feet of elevation gain and loss between the international borders, the race requires unshakeable physical and psychological resilience. Yet for Cunico and Johnson, the Tour Divide was just another challenge to overcome.

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

Cunico and Johnson share a strong passion for biking. In addition to being active members of ZiaVelo, a Las Cruces cycling club, both men have considerable backgrounds competing in mountain bike and road races.

Aside from their shared interest in competitive biking, the two friends were also both employed at NMSU. After retiring from his position with the army in 2019, Cunico began working for NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory as a subject matter expert in electronic warfare. Meanwhile, Johnson was employed with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for 26 years. He worked as an inspector, assistant division director and division director for the Standards and Consumer Sciences division before his retirement in 2021.  

While gearing up for the 2020 Tour Divide departure 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 following summer season. Although disappointed, the pair 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 presented a chance to train more, and equally important, the opportunity to really wring out our gear, fine tune our camping and gear setup, and gain a ton of experience bikepacking.”

The cancellation of the 2020 race left the cyclists with nearly two and a half years to prepare. Little time was wasted; with decades of combined experience, Cunico and Johnson developed a solid training regimen that allowed them to challenge their athleticism and work to become race-ready.

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

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

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

“You begin 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 race, Cunico and Johnson documented everything from the status of their racing gear, to their sleeping arrangements and even the wildlife they encountered during their 31-day route from Montana to New Mexico. They did so by posting to their blog, Southbound and Down.

Not only did the blog allow Cunico and Johnson to update their progress for friends and family, but it also became a journal documenting names and faces of the many inspiring individuals they encountered along the way.

“My absolute favorite part of this experience was connecting to people who I would not necessarily agree with in a political or religious sense,” Cunico said. “You come to realize that people are kind and generous and it really restores your faith in humanity.”

After 31 days bikepacking through high mountain ranges, harsh weather, bumpy terrain and bouts of hunger and discomfort, Cunico and Johnson made it to the finish line at the U.S.-Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. A month of shared experiences left both riders with a strong sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

“There is simply no way to put into words the appreciation that Ray and I have for everyone involved in making this dream become a reality,” Cunico wrote in his last blog post. “Our perspectives on life have changed, as have our perceptions of people. In all honesty, we are different men than we were at the start.”

After completing the world’s longest continuous mountain bike race, neither Cunico nor Johnson anticipate retiring their biking gear anytime soon. Both have plans to compete in a 350-mile bikepacking race following the Monumental Loop through the Organ Mountains in October. Johnson is also training for the September Berlin Marathon, a 26-mile footrace running through the heart of Berlin, Germany. As for their plans to participate in future Tour Divide races, Cunico says his sights are set on competing again in 2023.