Mark your calendars! As of tomorrow there are exactly 6 months to prepare for the 2019 edition of the Skull 120/60/30. This year makes it the 3rd Annual running and as a founding and ongoing sponsor of this event REN Cycles is extremely excited to be teaming up with Harney County, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State Parks, and Renaissance Cyclist to gather with good people in a great environment to ride bikes for all the right reasons.
As per the first two iterations this year’s Skull will take place on Father’s Day Weekend, in the window between the last of the snow finally melting off at higher elevations and the heart of forest fire season that follows soon after and requires the attention of the staff and equipment that the BLM, USFS, and Harney County generously provide to support the event.
Registration is open and the smart money is on those who start planning now, with help of cue sheets, an annotated map, and both .KMZ and .GPX route files already available for download. Scouting trips to preview the route can be done any time of year though it is recommended to keep an eye on the weather for adventures in the winter months. Check in with the BLM, Forest Service, or the County Chamber of Commerce for tips on current conditions.
For those intending to tackle the 120 route who aren’t supremely confident in their legs, heart, and grit — consider yourselves officially on notice. You’re probably going to need all two dozen weeks from now until then to train, especially if you hope to have any chance of crossing the line with the first wave of finishers.
As has been the case each of the past two years the 2019 event has seen a few tweaks and changes over the one previous, a bit of tinkering that comes as a perk of the Skull organizers commitment to incorporating rider feedback and volunteer insights accumulated each year. These small changes fine tune what is by any measure of bike race promotion a large scale logistical endeavor, and the end goal is a benchmark backcountry gravel event.
By the numbers the routes aren’t terribly different from 2018. The 120 course is a smidgen longer at 127 miles total, but drops about 350ft of cumulative elevation. Sure, that is only a 3.5% decrease, but on a challenge of such scale your body will surely appreciate it. 😃 Lest that information serve as impetus to back off your training and down another doughnut, an additional 15% of terrain has gone from pavement to gravel or dirt. A change doesn’t mean easier! 😉 There is one less cattle guard on the long route but there are 3 water crossing to make up for it.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, we will repeat: The Skull 120 is no cake walk. There are support staff on the course at all times, with BLM rangers, USFS officers, and Harney County officials including Search & Rescue teams from the Sheriff’s Office, and safety is of course everyone’s top priority. To ensure that the fun stays fun! But don’t let that security blanket fool you — there are a million ways to ruin your day if unprepared in terms of equipment or resolve.
The Skull 120 is not 80% pavement. There is no air conditioned sag wagon if you run out of CO2 cartridges. There are no convenience stores or other comfortable bail out spots anywhere near any section of the course. There is no Interstate Highway or any other infrastructure nearby that might leak a cell phone signal in your direction.
Make sure you and your bike are up for the challenge. Carry a pump. Start out tubeless or with puncture protection and carry spare tubes, and a patch kit too. Carry enough water and consume enough calories to stay alert — riders have been known to wander off course on one of the many cattle trails that zig zag the countryside and skip over an aid station.
For a single day bike race the Skull 120 is just plain hard, but that makes it all the better that it is also nowhere near impossible. Everything is 100% rideable, and it is also challenging for the entire duration. It really is kind of perfect that way!
Did we mention that the mid-June race date affords some certainty that the higher elevation passes will be clear of snow for the year? Don’t let that contort in your mind to think that fair weather is assured, because it surely isn’t. In 2018 a high desert storm rolled overhead in the late afternoon, blowing winds and dropping snow, sleet, and hail on racers in the vicinity of the route’s highest point near the USFS lookout on top of Snow Mountain.
While the 120 course gets a lot of attention for the high levels of stoke it embodies, it in turn attracts some very optimistic folks. Which is of course great — no pinnacle of personal greatness was ever effectively pursued by taking it easy — but can also be problematic. Organizers realized in 2018 that the grueling nature of the 120 route, combined with a plethora of Can-Do attitudes, was not a beast to be left unchaperoned. A 6am start meant that anyone dropping below an average pace of at least 10-12mph would still be out on the course as afternoon turned to evening turned to dark and potentially cold night. This would in turn mean that some of the volunteer staff, many of them on-duty emergency personnel and first responders, were also tied up for a dozen or more hours on the course waiting for the back of the pack.
One of the changes for 2019 is a mandatory 12-hour cut-off, at which time any riders on the course will be pulled at the next checkpoint and directed on the shortest route back into Burns. Yes, you have to ride back to the start/finish, even if culled from the course at 6pm. Again, there is no comfy sweeper bus to gently float you back to town. If you can ride, you’re gonna have to ride. Luckily we all love riding bikes, and checkpoint and aid station staff will let riders know if they’re getting way behind schedule.
All of this, of course, is why the Skull race weekend consists of three excellent routes. Expecting to complete the 120 in 12 hours is unrealistic for most cyclists. A more measured attempt is the intermediate 60-mile route which will once again be every bit as challenging, technical, and beautiful as the marquee 120 route, just half as long. In fact it is the same route as the 120, utilizing a convenient short cut to more or less jump from the 1/4 to the 3/4 point of the longer route, cutting out the middle. At 65 miles in total length and more than 4500 feet of climbing the 60 is essentially a half portion of the 120, though we would wag a finger at anyone who considered it a kids meal. It is still 75% unpaved, with a baker’s dozen cattle guards and the two regular water crossings of Skull Creek and Immigrant Creek to provide a proper level of Harney County exposure.
For those with the notion to get their backcountry gravel feet wet at a premiere event like the Skull, the 30-mile route serves as a fantastic introductory course. Mountains and valleys being what they are with roads and trails generally resigned to indirect routes, in spite of the classification the shortest version still offers almost 40 miles of riding. In contrast to the two longer offerings however the 30 is almost 50% paved and has about half of the 60’s elevation profile. And while it doesn’t go deep enough into the Malheur National Forest to have any water crossings there are still a dozen cattle guards for some picturesque photo ops and a true high desert vibe. The Skull 30 offers a great venue for novices, families, friends, and the more chill riders amongst us to get in on the fun of this annual weekend and celebrate our public lands.
REN Cycles is thrilled to continue our support of this fantastic event and will once again be on hand in Burns to participate in what has quickly become a legendary institution. For those interested in a full Harney County immersion weekend, race organizers are once again partnering with Burns area residents to host a meet-n-greet meal on Friday night with a facilitated dialogue between race participants, Public Land Managers, Race Directors and locals at Doverspike Ranch, which has been operated by the same family for 128 years.
As with previous years there will be equal cash payouts for the top Men and Women finishers for the 120 and 60 races, on-course emergency support, specially brewed commemorative beers from Steens Mountain Brewing, and enough ear to ear smiles to make a dentist blush.
Join us, won’t you?
Earlybird Registration is open through the end of February with sign-ups available up until the day of the event or until the start list fills up. And while there has been a correction toward an entry fee that is closer in line with other single day events — the relatively paltry $60 rate for the first two years of the Skull 120 was a real outlier on the economical end — the new $105 rate for 2019 includes a calorie refill at a post-race dinner & awards party in downtown Burns and is still a fantastic bargain.
Are you ready to experience Harney County?