We got this submission from RKP reader Eric Herboth of Portland Titanium. Sounds like a great event—Padraig
Eastern Oregon’s vast high desert country is also an adventure cyclist’s dream, with a network of thousands of miles of remote, traffic-free, interconnected roads, paths, and primitive trails circulating through almost 5 million acres of public lands administered by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other Federal agencies. When word came that the inaugural Skull 120/60 gravel race would be running through the mountains above the town of Burns, REN Cycles signed on as a sponsor and recruited members of the Portland Titanium (PDXTI) team to register.
Measured at 10,226 square miles, Harney County, Oregon, is about twice the size of Connecticut. It is big, and with fewer than 8,000 residents it is also remote. It includes the massive Steens Mountain formation, parts of the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the United States, and a vibrant marshland ecosystem so critical to migratory bird populations it was established as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
The race was an easy sell for Seth Patla, a longtime Oregon bike racing veteran and multi-year Sea Otter Champion who grew up in neighboring Lake County. His teammate Andrew Coe, another veteran racer who has won Best All-around Rider honors in multiple US States in Road, Cyclocross, and Short Track MTB categories, would be having his first go at such a substantial distance on a route like the one the USFS and BLM had mapped out. Challenge accepted.
While Harney County is a veritable two-wheeled paradise, a bike park it is not. Eastern Oregon is rough country. Designations such as “gravel” are used more optimistically here than in the Midwest. Purists will rejoice that the routes of both the 120 mile epic and a shorter (but no gentler) 60 mile route contain plenty of the stereotypical grey rock roadbed, but there are also long stretches of rutted ranch path, cinder strewn dirt, rock slabs, and sections of trail that qualify as XC mountain bike courses. Dainty converted road bike builds with 28c tires and rim brakes need not apply.
The main event’s official breakdown is 123 miles with more than 79 of them on gravel or dirt. The route traverses virtually every type of terrain a backcountry bike racer could ask for: down washboard roads snaking through forest; over desert jeep trails gently curving toward the horizon; through small rock gardens and dry stream beds; past spring fed wetlands and over vacant coyote dens; through nearly three dozen cattle guards and two stream crossings (one with an optional bridge); and all with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing. If the Skull 120 registers as an instant classic, that’s because it is.
Despite it being the gnarliest “gravel” race we’ve ever come across, all-road bikes have the advantage over MTBs on the 120 course. Having air volume is crucial to success, but big knobbies and super slack handling would be sluggish on the dozens of miles of compacted gravel, not to mention the 20 or so miles of smooth tarmac on the final leg as the route drops back into Burns. Mountain bikes would make a few sections comfier but the weight penalty wouldn’t feel like much of a bargain while grinding up the 1600ft and 1800ft climbs that punctuate long stints of primitive roads rolling through open range land reaching to the horizon.
Our two PDXTI racers ran their REN Cycles ‘Omen’ and ‘Waypoint’ production bikes with their HiFi Mix Tape wheels shod with 35c tubeless gravel tires and carried a grip of spare tubes; the Schwalbe G-One had the perfect tread and was tough enough for the challenge with zero flats, but anything narrower would prove undersized on several parts of the course. Given that those bikes will accommodate much larger tires, next year we’ll keep the minimalist tread profile but step the width up closer to 45c for more flow through the roughest sections without sacrificing speed on the smoother roads.
The need to change up hand position over such a lengthy and rough track make drop bars the cockpit of choice. The PDXTI bikes ran both a 42T Gevenalle 1x with 11-40T cassette and a standard Ultegra compact double with 11-32T cassette; each proved suitable for the route, with the wide range Gevenalle and clutch derailleur being preferred.
For as intimidating as the routes are, riders of most skill levels will be able to conquer them without incident. The course is challenging for a lot of miles, but is run entirely on public land with extensive signage and trail markings making it remarkably easy to navigate for being so remote. Three aid stations and multiple checkpoints manned by volunteers from the local community and federal agencies are spaced far enough to keep the wilderness experience but close enough together to ensure that no one will be stranded on the course overnight.
Those wanting a challenge will find a worthy adversary in trying to win the Skull 120. The top finishers of this year’s maiden event maintained an average 15mph clip in spite of the terrain, and the overall speed will increase as more and stronger riders step up to test their mettle. That said, the entire vibe of the weekend is one of laid-back fun with a focus on enjoying our public lands, and visits to the pain cave are entirely optional. The PDXTI racers took that fun-loving spirit to heart; riding together and making stops for photos and aid station snacks proved to be a very effective strategy in the pursuit of a good time. In the end Patla and Coe crossed the finish line arm in arm, electing to share one of the beautiful wood trophies, and rounded out a podium fleet that also included a Breadwinner and a Co-Motion, making the top 3 spots all won by Oregon companies.
Adventure seekers, fun lovers, and endurance junkies should all take note: The Skull 120 is the real deal.
Details about the 2018 event, which will be held again in mid-/late-June 2018 and have revised 120 and 60 race routes along with a more casual 30 mile ride, will be forthcoming from www.adventureharney.com
(and, hint, the new 120 route has even less pavement than the 2017 course).