2019 Skull Gravel Weekend

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Whew! That was fun.
Let’s do it again next summer!

The 2019 running of the now annual Skull Gravel weekend officially went into the books earlier this month. Looking back a week on we can say it rated a solid A++ with an additional 👍👍 #2thumbsup.

For the past three years we have spent a weekend in mid-June out in #EasternOregon with a great group of Oregonians (and some Idahoans too!), collaborating on a project that we like to call great cubed: A great cause; with great people; and really great cycling.

The great cause this project champions is ultimately not the races but rather the mission of the local communities, which include our public land managers, to increase awareness of the abundant cycling opportunities in Eastern Oregon. The region is a virtual kingdom full of prime, always open, nearly car-free, and pretty well maintained gravel roads through beautiful landscapes that belong to all of us, and sharing this wealth with people visiting Burns and the surrounding areas is the end goal. The Skull 120/60/30 races are a well organized one day showcase of what is waiting for anyone to explore any time of year.

The great people are our wonderful partners from Harney County, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State Parks, and the local community. Together the group has created what is almost universally praised by participants, touted as the “best bike event out there” and “a bucket list ride” that lives up to its billing as The Gnarliest Gravel Race in America.

 

We can’t say enough good things about the land managers and public officers who make the Skull possible. Truly a remarkable group of individuals and the most comforting safety blanket a backcountry rider could hope for.

 

The great riding is on a mix of every type of gravel road you could think of, from lumpy fist-sized rocks on side cuts to hardpack arterial roads that roll smoother than a lot of the city streets you’ve ridden, and in tones ranging from white to yellow to red. Some of the most fun riding is in rowdier sections of terrain that is more the idea of a gravel road than it is gravel or road, but for every quarter mile of that there is a gradual downhill smooth enough to ride no handed. Most of the miles land in between the two extremes, challenging but never impassable, loaded with interesting vistas, dotted with livestock and wild animals, pitched at varying grades, and susceptible to the occasional rapid and dramatic change in weather. All of it runs through alpine forest, intermediate scrub, grassland, desert, and pasture that seems to spread off into the distance in every direction forever.

In the bigger picture of bringing bike tourism to the Public Lands of Eastern Oregon the Skull Gravel weekend is a chill and rewarding experience that is both truly epic and run of the mill. On one hand the Skull courses are like a highlight reel for gravel/cyclocross/alt-road bike nerds and on the other they are just a few of dozens of local loops one can ride out of Burns any day of the year. There are weekends worth of similarly epic mileage through Eastern Oregon and into Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Northern California, all on public lands.

Yes, the Skull Gravel weekend is technically a race, and the top finishers in the Men’s and Women’s fields are rewarded equally well for what are always impressive performances. But for most folks it is an at-your-own-pace group ride through one of the finest backcountry road networks to be found anywhere. For us casual riders the day is made that much sweeter by the comfort of knowing that there are aid stations stocked with watermelon, ice water, and snacks; that there are dozens and dozens of other rad people riding the same route at the same time; that there is a literal mobile bike shop out on the course; and come endo or exhaustion there is a platoon of Rangers, ranchers, law enforcement, and Search & Rescue personnel with radios in hand, at the ready.

As the previous two years the total number of registered riders increased for 2019 to nearly 150 deep; the Skull 60 saw the most wheels at the start line but the Skull 120 had an impressive number of newcomers, including some real hammers from the Kona and Ottolock teams. The Skull 30 got a bump as well, and it is always encouraging to see an increasing number of riders testing the waters on the novice route, knowing that many of them will return to take on the longer routes on future rides.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory, with riders starting at the shorter distance and moving their way up to successively more challenging routes. In reality we get a few real ambitious types each year who are living the YOLO lifestyle and jumping all the way in to the Skull 120 on their first go. A handful of these folks wise up at registration and switch to the Skull 60 straight away, another portion goes ahead and lines up for 120’s 6am start and switches at the first checkpoint after Skull Creek Road, one of the roughest sections of the route that comes only a few miles in.

With an unusually wet spring — it had snowed not long before and rained only two days ahead of the race — on race day Harney County was softer and greener than we had ever seen it in June. Eric spent Saturday out on the course, scouting for riders with mechanical problems, checking in with the community staffed aid stations, and shooting a few photos; Will put pedals on a new prototype model and tested it against the 60-mile route; Brand Ambassadors and Skull Gravel veterans Seth Patla and Mitchell Trux pulled on their PDXTI team kits and lined up for the marquee 120-mile route.

By the time our small REN crew rolled into Burns we were pretty sure that Skull Weekend #3 would shape up to be the most dialed event yet, and we weren’t disappointed.

The weather was clear, warm but not sweltering. Course marking was excellent. The field was deep with accomplished riders. Everyone was in good spirits.

Smokey the Bear shot off the starter’s pistol. There was a photo shoot with a giant skull and an old chair. A new course record was set.

It was a pretty good weekend indeed!

SRAM eTap AXS Mullet Build

Electronic component groups just keep getting better.

Most of us grew up on derailleurs with cables, which are still the most common parts found on bikes, and today’s mechanical components work better than ever. But while we still love the familiar feel of a shift lever clicking through the ratchet mechanism, for long-term livability we were quickly converted into big fans of the low maintenance, high accuracy electronic shifting systems.

Over the past few years Shimano Di2 has become our go-to for both the proven durability and the versatility of mixing and matching components for a rider-specific build. In particular the 1x drop bar Di2 configuration has been dreamy, and the ability to use a wide range cassette and a clutch derailleur with drop bars is what has given Shimano the edge over Sram’s road-only but otherwise fantastic eTap electronic group, which has the added benefit of being wireless.

It’s alive! Pairing Sram’s eTap components is a breeze, and seeing the wireless magic bring a “disconnected” derailleur to life never gets old.

All REN frames have been compatible with internal electronic wire routing for several years to accommodate Shimano Di2, Campagnolo EPS, and FSA WE group sets. We have had great experiences with all three component brands, and when Sram dropped their 12-speed generation eTap updates and brought cross-platform compatibility between drop bar shifters and a longer cage 1x capable Eagle mountain rear derailleur, we were hecka excited.

The first round of components in Sram’s new AXS 12-speed eTap systems do offer a 1x drop bar option, but are limited by a short cage rear derailleur and a 10-33T cassette. Even with a 40T chainring the gearing isn’t quite low enough for riding the backroads of Oregon. We. Need. Lower. Gearing.

The internet has taken to calling this setup a Mullet build, with the stereotypically less rowdy drop bar brifters up in the cockpit and the long cage Eagle mountain derailleur in the rear. Business in front, party in back, as they say.

R U N 2 it? Yes, we sure are!

The ability to set up a 12-speed eTap system without the proprietary AXS chain and cassette is made possible by the e*thirteen TRS+ cassette, a non-AXS 12-speed part that is compatible with XD and XDR freehubs. The TRS+ gear cluster is unique in that it has a 9-46T cog stack, giving it an impressive 511% gear range, and provides for using a standard Sram GX 12-speed chain and aftermarket 1x chainring. Stick a 40T or 42T chainring up front and voila!, you’ve got a truly wide range drivetrain with all the perks of an electronic setup.

None of the electronic groupsets on the market are difficult to configure and install, and setting up this Ivan with an AXS Mullet was easy enough to put a smile on our faces. To ice this fun custom build we did a subtle but beautiful custom finish with anodized bling and a couple of contrasting matte textures for depth. After all, there’s nothing better than a bike that rides as good as it looks, and vise-versa.

Look for more customized eTap AXS builds in the near future… Bangs, anyone?