Face it: There’s a certain (healthy) percentage of gravel riders who are seeking tests as much as rides – tests of their bike-handling, endurance, navigation, mechanic and even survival skills. They love that gravel rides take them where few others – motorized or not – ever go, and the on-the-precipice thrill of riding in a remote and rugged area with only their legs, their bike, their brains and ascant few carry-able resources to get them through.
The Skull 120 race route is for these riders. It’s the site of one of the country’s most grueling single-day gravel endurance races... but you don’t have to be a racer (or maybe even a masochist) to enjoy the ride.
To start with, the setting: When you roll into Burns you pick up on the Wild West vibe. Adventurers of all sorts use this dusty and gritty town as a base. There’s a spirit of self-reliance here that’s right up your alley, even if your steed has two wheels and most of theirs have four hooves.
Then, the land: Eastern Oregon’s vast high desert country is an adventure cyclist’s dream, a network of thousands of miles of remote, traffic-free and interconnected roads, paths and primitive trails circulating through almost 5 million acres of public lands.
And, of course, the riding: You’ll be challenged by rocky, barely-there hardpack dirt roads; true gravel traverses (more than half the route); and stretches of lonesome pavement. Purists will rejoice at the abundance of stereotypical grey-rock roadbed along this ride; however, there are plenty of long stretches of rutted ranch path, cinder-strewn dirt, rock slabs and sections of trail that qualify as cross-country mountain bike courses.
So, take note: 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. Dainty converted road-bike builds with 28c tires and rim brakes need not apply.
The route traverses virtually every type of terrain an adventurous cyclist could hope 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; and through nearly three dozen cattle guards and two stream crossings (one with an optional bridge). And all this comes packed with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing.
The sense of isolation permeates your environment out here – you might go hours without seeing another person if you’re riding solo. But if this route description appeals to you, that’s probably what you’re after. Good luck on the test.