Skull 120: Americas Gnarliest Gravel Race

The Skull 120 is a 204 km Gravel Race across the rugged and remote landscapes of Eastern Oregon above the town of Burns.  It claims to be the “Gnarliest” Gravel race in America and is a non profit event used to support the public lands which are free for anyone to access. I was blown away at the beauty and diversity of this landscape and just how many old wagon roads and cow trails were scattered across the hills.  The race itself didn’t disappoint, and was in fact one of the best organized, laid back events I can remember doing.

It was a full team effort just to get to the race start from the High Rockies of Colorado. Friday morning my buddy Tyler sacrificed his sleep to drop me at the Denver airport at 4:30 am for a early flight to Bend Oregon.  Landing at 11 am, my buddy Patrick was there to get me sorted for the race, before my teammate Rebecca’s roommate, Nathan, picked me up in his Van life for the 2.5 hour drive East to Burns.  We arrived in Burns at 7pm, went for a short 30 min spin to check out the town, cooked some instant Quinoa, then swatted away at mosquitos before retiring at 10 pm.

4:50 am: Wake up Call.  Two mornings in a row waking up in the 4’s is never amazing but I was fired up for this race so decided not be tired.  Oatmeal was cooked, green tea was drank, bike chains were lubed and soon we found ourselves on the star line with 100+ other racers for the start of the Skull 120!  Smoky the Bear fired the start pistol and off we went into the East Oregon abyss. 

We hit some rough gravel 20 km in so I went to the front to test out the new prototype Fox Racing Development gravel suspension fork on my Kona Libre.  Immediately I knew it was a mechanical advantage over everyone, so started pushing the pace, hearing other riders behind flat and have troubles.  Pretty soon the group was down to 10, then 5, then 2, then off solo!  I wasn’t planning to be solo 30 km into a 204 km race but that’s what happened and I wasn’t in the mood for waiting for anyone. I had some built-up anguish from the last race in Kansas called Unbound, so figured to just giver while the going was good!  

This was a good idea as at the 60 km mark a big rock bounced up and hit my front brake on a fast descent, causing the brake to start rubbing and causing a terrible noise.  I figured it was just knocked out of place but I couldn’t fix it with the normal tricks. Eventually I took the wheel off to find out the brake spring had somehow bent into the brake pads and was now stuck between the pads and the rotor.  After being stopped 7-8 minutes, 2nd place caught up. I couldn’t fix the problem so opted to ride it to the next feed zone, crossing my fingers they had the tools needed.  It was a tough climb up to the top of Mount Snow at 7000 + feet.  The scenery was pretty epic with forested lands as far as the eyes could see.

To my luck I found the required tools in the feed zone, took the brake apart, fixed it with some pliers, went to reinstall it only to find out the pin which holds everything together had rolled off the table and either into the garbage or mixed into the loose gravel.   This was a show stopper.  The feed zone volunteers were amazing, and soon 4 of us were down on our hands and knees trying to find this little pin.  We searched a few minutes, my heart was sinking but that damn pin had to be there somewhere!  Eventually I spotted the little bugger, it was like finding gold as it meant my race was still alive!  3rd place was now catching up, and the leader was 4-5 minutes down the road but I was amped up and bombed down the next decent, catching back up to the leader, Brian, within a half hour.  From here I shifted into diesel mode to re instate the gap.  

The riding through this part of the course was rad with a healthy forest giving us some shade from the heat which had reached the mid thirties.  The course was great with a mixture of all types of riding, lots of it roller coaster style gravel with baby head rocks all around which required full alertness.  They organizers had done a great job with 5 fully stocked feed zones, and there were also park rangers in a few places in case things went sideways.  With my USWE hydration pack I could blow by a few of the feed stops, but had to stop at the 4th one as Smoky the Bear was there!  I figured the lead was comfortable at this point, so I opted for the photo shoot with Smoky on the Lazy Boy.  It was the highlight of the day as Smoky the Bear has been an idol since I was a young kid! From here it was another 50 km to the finish line, back into the sage brush and open rolling landscapes on some roller coasted gravel roads. It was now getting scorching hot but the finish line line was within grasp and I would likely hit it before any meltdowns sunk in. 

I had been eyeing the course record, but the brake problem put that out of reach, so I opted to set it on cruise control to the finish line, hopefully saving some diesel for the 5 day Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder coming up June 23-27th.  Hitting the finish line just after 2 pm capped one of the most memorable rides/races in recent memory.  What an amazing place Burns Oregon is to ride Gravel Bikes!  They cap this race at 200 racers, which sells out pretty fast. I’m sure they could double or triple that in no time as they put on one great event with a nice chill atmosphere surrounding it.

Post race, Nathan and I met some interesting locals down town, found some hearty Mexican food, and then headed over to the after race party.  It’s pretty cool how an event like this can bring a community together and at the same time support some local charities.  I will look forward to hopefully returning here in the future for another go at the Skull 120 as it’s a tough but amazing day on the bike!  

For now it’s time to eat some food, kick the legs up, find some Ice baths, and cross the fingers the body can bounce back in time for the 500 + km Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder which is on deck Wednesday!

Over and Out from Bend, Oregon.

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