Besides a daily bicycle commute to and from WCCO-TV, I like to get out and ride for fun. For the past few years I have been participating in gravel century rides in the area. (A ‘century’ is just bicycle jargon for 100 miles.) The popularity of gravel rides and races has just exploded in the past few years, thanks in no small part to the hugely popular Almanzo 100. Chris Locke decided to seize upon the popularity of these rides by creating the Skull-N-Bones Gravel Challenge in Bruce, WI.
Saturday marked the inaugural Skull-N-Bones Challenge, offering three different courses of 25-, 50- and 100-mile lengths. I really appreciated the different length options, because it makes gravel riding more accessible to a range of riders, rather than just the hardcore crowd. It’s pretty daunting to get out on gravel for the first time and have to travel 100 miles before your day is over. Having ridden a handful of gravel centuries, I took on the 100-mile challenge, along with my fellow ‘CCOer Jose.
Riders of the 100 were required to depart by 8 a.m., and we had no desire to get up before sunrise and drive two-plus hours to the sleepy hamlet of Bruce prior to a full day in the saddle. So, Jose and I left for Bruce Friday afternoon and spent the night in the town park, which offers free primitive camping at five campsites. We had the park to ourselves and enjoyed a quiet night, after a few light showers passed through the area.
By the time we arrived at the fire hall for check in at 7:30 a.m., most of the riders had already departed. We signed the obligatory waivers, grabbed our cue sheets (with turn-by-turn directions), pinned numbers to our clothing and hit the road. (Although this was not a timed event, riders were asked to wear numbers so they could be identified at checkpoints, ensuring that no riders were left stranded on the course.)
The first quarter of the ride went splendidly. Smooth sections of black ribbon transitioned into stretches of chunky gravel. At mile 26, Jose and I made our first stop and got out of the saddle at a little crossing where Deer Creek flows out of Deer Lake. It can be easy to get tunnel vision when you are focused on the next turn, preparing for the next grueling climb, or barreling down a rocky gravel road at 37 mph. So, it was nice to get off the bike and take a look around. The rain held off and we were treated to a beautiful vista of still waters, treetops of radiant reds and lively yellows, all beneath a blanket of clouds. After a short respite it was time to ride on.
The next 25 miles weren’t remarkably different from the first, and then it was on to the Tuscobia State Trail. While the 74-mile Tuscobia State Trail is open to pedestrians and cyclists, it’s really geared towards ATVs and snowmobiles. In fact, the Wisconsin DNR does not recommend cycling on the trail because it is “not groomed or surfaced and may be rough or soft in many sections.” But, they don’t call it the Skull-N-Bones because it’s a walk in the park.
The next 13 miles were a mix of deep sand and rocky washboard that could rattle the common sense right out of your head. That, coupled with the constant buzz of ATVs cruising by made for an interesting stretch of road. (That being said, the majority of ATV riders were courteous and slowed down when they passed.) As we turned off of the trail, we arrived in Birchwood — 65 miles complete and a nice gas station for some much-needed supplies.
The last third of the ride went along the shore of Red Cedar Lake before meandering along rustic roads and bucolic scenery worthy of an Adam Turman print. Around mile 90 we were treated to a steep climb on Norwegian Road where I could only muster a pace of 3 mph prior to reaching the summit. The final miles flew by and we were back at the fire hall in less than nine and a half hours. It was a great day to spend a lovely Saturday afternoon.
All in all, it was a great ride. Chris Locke spent a lot of time and effort putting it together, for little more than a love of gravel cycling. We did miss a turn when the mileage didn’t quite match and there were a couple of intersections where turns were not marked on the cue sheets. But Chris marked the route with color-coded stakes, and we were able to get back on track very easily. Because the ride was free, any expenses came out of his pocket.
You can buy a T-shirt to support the ride. The Skull-N-Bones Gravel Challenge will roll next year on Sept. 19, 2015. If you can’t wait for 2015, you can download the GPS coordinates and ride it on your own time.
— Guy Still is an assignment editor for WCCO and a passionate advocate of biking.