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Tour Divide: Interview with Kevin Cunniffe

I met Kevin during the Welsh Ride Thing in 2010. We sipped whisky in the Claerddu Bothy and chatted about the bike adventures we wanted to do. At the top of Kevin’s list was the Tour Divide. When Wildcat Gear was still in its infancy, Kevin contacted us to make a frame bag for him for his 2011 attempt. Now that the event is all done, we put a some questions to Kevin about his experience.

Briefly describe your preparation in the UK before heading out to race the Tour Divide?

I read about this route in around 2000 and decided this was something I wanted to do when I retired.  I finished work in October 2010 and started preparing in November from a low base after not much riding in 2010 due to work.  I went to Majorca for 2 weeks in March and this got me on track.  After this I rode 5/6 times a week with two successive days carrying full TD kit.  I also did a C2C and my longest ride was 300km and I aimed to do 2,700 miles between January and the start of TD, which I achieved.

With that level of preparation, how did you feel after each successive week of riding?

You can never do enough preparation for the TD! My first bad spell was after 6 days when I had a doze at the side of the road and finished about 3pm.  You just had good and bad days depending on food and rest throughout the 4 weeks.  Getting to food, and the ability to eat it, was key.  I struggled at breakfast for instance and was chastised for ‘not having enough calories’ by Amy at Platoro.  Yet I could eat no more.

Talk us through a typical Tour Divide day?

Eat, sleep and ride!  I got up at 6 to 6.30 most days and either ate what I had bought from the night before or had breakfast if in a town.  I tried to stop every 3 hours or so for a bit more to eat or drink to supplement my on the bike feeding.  I rode until evening but it depended on factors on town placement and food spots.  I rarely rode in the dark as reading cue’s, bike computer and seeing where I was going was compromised and progress slow.

In terms of equipment, what was your most vital piece of gear?

I used just about everything I took.  I did not need my bike tools or inner tube though!  My Wildcat frame bag was important though.  It allowed me to carry 4-5 litres of water on my bike without straining my back – something I was concerned about before the race.  In New Mexico this was particularly crucial.

A lot is said about the mental pressures associated with Divide racing. What was your low point and what did you do to overcome it?

I have lived alone for about 20 years and most of my preparation was on my own so loneliness was not an issue although many riders talk of this.  Overall, I was surprised how much company I had though I did spend most of day 1 alone which was particularly surprising.  My lowest point was probably near Del Norte after a couple of bad days even though I had eaten well.  Gary and Patti Blakley who I stayed with said I would have to go to Abiquiu to retire which was 150 miles away over a 12,000 foot mountain, but also some good advice how to tackle the mountain.  I set off mid-afternoon and nearly turned back a few times in the first 18 miles but suddenly my energy came back and I cruised over the summit.  I also thought about my partner Marion, friends and family who were following my Spot and would see me fail.  In addition Pete and Leire at www.alwaysriding.co.uk had provided me with some clothing and again I did not want to fail because of that support.  On my own I might have quit – it was explaining my failure to people I knew that kept me going.

On the occasions where you were riding alone, how isolated did you feel?

I rarely felt too isolated due to the large field in 2011.  I knew other riders were a bit ahead or a bit behind.  If it was not for the race a couple of sections, such as New Mexico, you could imagine it would be a long time before you saw anybody if anything went wrong.

How did you feel as you embarked on your last days riding toward Antelope Wells?

Once I made it to Cuba in my mind I decided that I would finish in 5 days unless anything went drastically wrong.  The final day was 125 miles of which 85 were on tarmac and reasonably easy as we lost 1,500 feet of elevation.  It was 100 degrees plus though, and I knew a rider had fallen and failed to finish in 2009 so I could not relax too much until I reached Separ.  As I approached the last couple of miles I was re-united with Joel Martinez from Barcelona who I had ridden with quite a bit over the previous 4 weeks and we finished together in the early evening.  It was a feeling of relief more than elation to finish something I had targeted over a decade earlier. I thought of all the places where I suffered, the wonderful people I met, and the high points.  The satisfaction has come since and also what next?

What was the physical toll on your body after 28 consecutive days of riding?

I was lucky that I had no real issues during the event other than a struggle to eat in the mornings.  I had taken pro-biotic tablets for about 3 months before and during the race itself to keep my digestion in check.  I also had a bike fitting a couple of months before heading to Banff to ensure I was in the correct position for a month on the bike.  My back was sore for a couple of days early on but this disappeared quite quickly.  I did also take anti-inflammatory tablets regularly as well.  I also spoke to my osteopath for advice on exercises to do before and during the race.  Not sure if this was good luck or good planning.

You were using Wildcat Gear frame bag, which is now one of the farthest travelled bags we’ve made. How did it hold up for you?

The Wildcat frame-bag stood up to the test very well, absolutely no issues at all.  I could have used a bit more capacity but the frame has a significant sloping top tube reducing the size of the ‘hole’.   I was able to fit water in the main compartment and maps in the smaller pocket.  In total I put 4,000 miles on the bag in the USA and Canada plus preparation over here.

Same again next year?

Never again!  I am a poor climber and despite being in good shape before I went I still struggled massively.  I got a good weather window with generally good conditions and still took 28 days.  At 52 years old there are still I number of things I want to do before I get too old in Europe and the USA.  Next year I fancy the Grenzstein Trophy in Germany and LEJOG.  A USA coast-to-coast appeals, but at touring pace.  I will perhaps look at some shorter one week races in the USA and do more UK bike packing now that I have the kit.

I’m sure there were some very inspiring/joyous/memorable moments. Are there any that stick in your mind in particular?

My over-riding memory of the TD, taking out the scenery, solitude and other competitors will be the people I met on the route.  The American people were so friendly and interested in what we were doing.  A warm welcome from Kirsten at Brush Mountain, David in Como, Amy in Platoro and Gary & Patti in Del Norte who are used to the race coming through was perhaps anticipated.  The bike shops Orange Peel, Absolute Bikes and Gila Bike and Hike also could not do enough for you.  But regularly when stopped at convenience stores the passing public would stop and ask where you were going to or where you had come from and strike up conversations despite how much we must have smelled!  A young ‘punk’ at 10.30 one night in Kremmling passed me with a ‘have a good ride’.  On four occasions I was offered a lift.  One of those occasions I had just stopped to put on a light as it was getting dark and another time it was with a family of 5 I had checked directions with earlier in the afternoon.   Vehicles gave you plenty of room as they passed.  I was also offered food and drink on a few occasions and only accepted water once in the Gila Wilderness on a particularly long, hot day.  Simon, from Whales [sic] got tremendous help from a small car parts centre when he had a tyre issue which could have been a major issue for him.

My best riding memory was climbing up the Boreas Pass at 11,500 feet.  I had been up twice in 2004 and found it hard.  This year I cruised up holding back all the way incase I blew up.. After a few photo’s on the summit I dropped into Como to find I had passed 7 riders in Breckenridge and to a free beer provided by a fan of the race.

Kevin completed the 2,745 mile Tour Divide in 28 days 11 hours 38 minutes, with an average daily distance of 94 miles. Congratulations on a fantastic ride Kev.

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