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!


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.

"No photos of the roads would ever really do justice to how difficult and technical they actually are. You’d have to just see and feel for yourself and go through the pain and diverse terrain." Sean Claughton

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.

"This is probably the hardest / most epic / well organized gravel race I have ever done." -- Chas Christiansen

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.

“The Skull 120 was everything I hoped for and more. The route was simply magnificent. Will definitely do this again.” — Jonathan Maus

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.

"Did you know Burns has some of the best gravel road riding in the country!? So legendary! It’s insane in all the good ways!" -- Matt Faunt

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.

"The Skull lived up to its name today. I can’t think of a better way to explore Eastern Oregon." -- Mark Hall

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?

Rugged. Remote. Adventure.

SSCXWC18BE with S&S Coupled Travel Bikes

Our good friend and Brand Ambassador extraordinaire Seth Patla has an affinity for single speed cyclocross that just might meet the clinical definition of addiction. We wouldn’t necessarily call him a junkie, but he has managed to drag his fellow Brand Ambassador (and wife) Maria into his dirty (literally muddy) habit, at least on special occasions.

Case in point: Having skipped the 2017 SSCX World Championships in Italy, our man in the orange SingleSpeedo packed up his and hers IVAN race bikes, grabbed teammates (and fellow REN Brand Ambassadors) John and Rick, and boarded a plane for the historic homeland of cyclocross and frites for the 2018 SSCXWC in Belgium. Click over to the PDXTI Blog to read up on Seth’s travel reports and check out a host of photos from the trip.

Trips overseas are made infinitely less expensive and more practical with S&S Couplers, a fantastic upgrade that is available for any REN frame. Below find a nifty little set of photos documenting some of the steps for packing the Patlas’ S&S travel bikes.

HIS // 55 IVAN