Back in 2011, intrepid adventurer & friend of Always Riding, Kevin ‘Blackhound’ Cunniffe successfully completed the legendary Tour Divide, and here, this true Giant of the Road recounts his trip for our readership.
Race day arrived – June 10th, and there I was in Banff, Canada, ready but nervous at the start line of the Tour Divide – a 2,700 mile unsupported race to the Mexican border that I would be completing along with 70 other budding competitors.
I started very steadily as despite a lot of training I had no idea how I would feel a few days into a month of racing across the mountains. I knew that I was in good shape but also that climbing was a weakness – not an ideal chink in my armour if I was to successfully complete the 200,000 feet of definitely upwards pointing trail during the race.
Due to record levels of snow and melt there were a number of diversions at the Northern end of the route and as we progressed, forest fires in New Mexico caused another large diversion to the traditional route.
Very quickly y I found myself riding alone through some singletrack leading on and over the Smith-Dorrien Highway gravel road enjoying beautiful views on a lovely sunny day. I briefly met some riders at a store after 60 miles and rode with them to the foot of Elk Pass, which was a push job due to the building snow. On the descent towards Elkford at 81 miles my GPS unit bounced off my bike which caused some delay as I tried to locate it. I never found it and was a bit concerned about navigation over the rest of the route, but there was nothing I could do about it. I ended up wild camping 100 miles into the route in bear country and with every flap of the tent I was worried that I was about to be eaten by a monstrous grizzly! At 4.30 next morning I got up and rode 12 miles into Elkford for breakfast and met some other riders.
The next couple of days it rained a little off and on with sunny spells and this allowed me to get on with the race, eating, sleeping and riding and some good progress was made. On day 6 I had my first bad day with a complete lack of energy. A couple of days earlier I had arrived in town about 9pm and concentrated on a shower and laundry. I went for food about 10pm and no hot food was available just a convenience store. This was not a mistake I was to repeat. The following day I had breakfast but by day 6 I had not had a big meal for a few days and struggled badly into Seeley Lake in mid afternoon and elected to stop early.
The day after Seeley Lake I did 125 miles into Helena, the biggest city we were to see during the trip, and whilst passing through some beautiful Montana scenery I began to feel strong again.
Day 9 proved to be the longest day in the saddle. I left a lovely little camp site near Wise River early to ride over a pass and get some breakfast. I struggled to eat, a recurring problem for me, so continued to the small town of Grant. Unfortunately nothing was open so I set off a few miles down the road to cross a 60 mile stretch of the old Bannack Road notorious for its clinging mud. It had been a dry for a few days so I was hopeful of a good crossing. However I was feeling very tired on the steady lower slopes and in to the evening it began to rain. oon afterwards the sticky mud was gathering around my tyres until the wheels would simply not turn. I started to walk through the sage growing on the side of the road, making very slow progress. Eventually about 9pm I reached the summit with 30 miles of descending to go before 7 miles of tarmac into Lima. The mud continued for a couple of miles beyond the summit before the surface improved. The 37 miles took me 5 hours and it was 2am before I arrived into Lima with nothing open and a hotel with a ‘no vacancies’ sign outside. In the end I sat in a rest area for a few hours dozing until the cafe opened at 7pm. I was thinking of having the day off but I bumped into another racer, Joel Martinez from Barcelona, during breakfast, and who I had ridden with a lot over the previous week, so I decided to push on with him into Idaho, a good decision on my part. Despite a couple of miles of clinging mud we made good progress and I was in Idaho by nightfall.
A coupe of days later we entered the Great Basin a 134 mile stretch of nothing but sage, antelope and wild horses. Some riders dislike this section but I found it very beautiful and despite a 1,000 foot drop I found it one of the most demanding stretches physically of the route. I seemed to be climbing forever and at about 10.30pm I got off the bike completely spent, still 25 miles short of Rawlins.
The next day Rawlins was as far as I got and this took me 3 hours despite being on tarmac! I was afraid at this stage I would be unable to finish but plenty of food, including the first pasta of the trip, and a rest and I set off again the next day. Again it was a day of suffering on the climbs and incessant headwind and I struggled into Brush Mountain Lodge at 9pm. I was met by Kirsten who runs the hunting lodge and looks after passing riders. Joel had arrived earlier and two other riders appeared later that day and we got a feed of pasta, vegetables, fresh fruit and homemade lemonade. I was still concerned about my ability to finish after two and a half bad days but I set off for Steamboat Springs with a hug from Kirsten and suddenly the riding was easy. After a pass pushing through snow I descended into town early Sunday evening but knew I had to wait here as I needed a lot of work doing on my bike after 1,500 miles of racing.
The next few days through Colorado over the high mountains went fairly well, I easily cruised over the 11,500 foot Boreas Pass in the late evening but my good form was about to come to an end. Despite eating well for a few days, including Como and Hartsel, the run into Salida was hard into a strong headwind and the next couple of days into Del Norte were incredibly tough. Again I considered quitting but Gary and Patti Blakley who allow passing riders to stop at their house in Del Norte pointed out the place to quit was Abiquiu which was 150 miles away along the course. Gary gave me some advice about other riders setting off in late afternoon to partly tackle the lower part of Indiana pass which at 11,910 feet was the highest point of the Tour Divide. This sounded like a good idea but I got over the summit in the late evening and did a few more miles before camping high in The Rockies. The next day I managed 143 miles over three separate passes in excess of 10,500 feet and knew then that I was going to finish barring disasters.
Two days and 180 miles in the Gila wilderness in New Mexico was as tough as I expected. Day 1 was 100 miles which I found one of the most beautiful sections of the route. On the way to Beaverhead work station I had been thinking of all the fizzy drinks available at the machine I had read about in my research. As I approached the work station I feared that the machine would be empty. I was in luck though and I bought 5 cans to share with Joel for the evening and next morning.
Day 2 on the Gila was really tough. A succession of steep climbs followed by a painful 12 mile descent on some severely washboarded surface had me beaten up by the time I reached tarmac. After a short respite I decided I had enough food and water to get me 26 miles into Silver City including a new 12 mile section of singletrack which I estimated would take 3 hours. The 12 miles took me 4.5 hours and nearly put me in difficulty with food and water. An unexpected bar in the ghost town of Pinos Altos was just what I needed to fill my bottles and an ice cold coke, and allowed me to speed into Silver City, the last major settlement on the route.
The last day from Silver City was 125 miles and I started with over 5 litres of fluid on the bike, and bought 5 litres more during the day, and hoped this would just be a steady ride. The profile was that we would lose 1,500 feet and 80 miles was on tarmac. This is how it worked out, no major issues, although the temperature was over 100 degrees again, but 125 miles on a loaded mountain bike is never easy.
The last few miles I was reflective on the journey, all the high and low points of the race, the people I had met over the last 28 days 11 and half hours. I had been looking forward to this ride for over 10 years and it was my main focus after retiring from work last October. And what was next for me?
Throughout my ride, the miles were made a lot easier to bear by the provision of some excellent kit from Always Riding, and I would like to thank both Pete & Leire for supplying me with Exteondo Oinatz Mitts, Attaque & Dicolor shorts, Brea Overshoes, a Craft Warm Wool Base Layer & Performance Rain Jacket – all of which worked brilliantly and made my ride a lot comfier – reviews posted on the respective website pages. In addition I wore a Craft cool T base layer and Performance light gilet, Ibex merino arm warmers and Race Face socks which I had previously purchased from Always Riding. I had no issues with the kit and the Ibex arm warmers were worn throughout the race and for a further months touring afterwards without being washed. I even slept in them twice. They still did not smell!