The Skull-N-Bones Gravel Challenge
By Walter Rhein
“Down with FedEx!”
I looked up to see the white truck with purple and orange lettering that had provoked Chris’s ire. His iPhone had exploded several weeks ago, and FedEx insisted on delivering the replacement to places like Best Buy, Walmart or Verizon instead of the home address he’d listed on the return form. He kept getting emails with messages like, “We’ve just received a phone for Chris.” He wasn’t getting phone calls because he didn’t have a phone. The process had understandably become frustrating.
Today, Chris was dressed as a pirate. Specifically, he had an official Captain Jack Sparrow hat with built-in dreadlocks. It was the date of his free gravel ride: The Skull-N-Bones 100, and now, in Year Three, Chris had cobbled together a pretty good pirate outfit. His other props included a massive Jolly Roger flag, a gnarly beard (his own), and a two-foot-tall window sticker declaring the event.
“Can you grab me another Tylenol cold capsule?” Chris asked.
“Aye, aye,” I replied, reaching into the glove box. We were both suffering from one of those fall illnesses that’s just bad enough to make you feel miserable, but not so debilitating as to keep you home. Chris would have driven a support vehicle regardless of his health, but the cold was what had put me in the passenger seat instead of the saddle.
Gravel rides are cool enough, but a pirate-themed event can’t be missed. The Skull-N-Bones starts and finishes at the fire hall in Bruce, Wis. It is a challenging course that winds through the Blue Hills. The Strada Fango Spring Classic uses some of the same roads, and anyone who rides in that neck of Wisconsin knows it’s no joke. Wisconsin gravel tends to be a lot softer than what you find at Almanzo, and there’s a 10-mile section on the Tuscobia trail which is rendered into a brutal, teeth-rattling washboard by ATV use.
The event went off bright and early at 8 a.m. The forecast was not favorable for riders, but the actual weather of the day couldn’t be beat. Slightly overcast and gray, the gravel was damp enough to hold together, but not so wet as to turn into mud. The air was pregnant with moisture, and a pleasantly cool wind kept riders from becoming dehydrated.
A perfect day wasn’t enough to calm Chris, however. Sitting in the support vehicle beside him, he continued to fret over his participants like a papa bear worrying about his cubs.
“I hope I didn’t mistakenly print out last year’s cue sheets for the 50,” he grumbled to himself. The comment was the event director equivalent of, “Did I leave the oven on?”
“Everybody seems to be on course.”
“Well, they’re just following each other right now … ,” his voice trailed off.
“It’s fine, Chris, they’ll still get in even if they have last year’s cue sheets.”
We picked a corner about 10 miles into the ride at the top of a big hill and counted off riders as they came through. Participants had come from as far away as Milwaukee. The vibe for free gravel rides is different than races. The athletes are a bit more mellow, and they become loyal to grassroots events like Skull-N-Bones.
“I’m coming up Friday,” one rider offered. “Any craft beer requests?”
“I’m curious about that habañero brew,” Chris replied. Sure enough, at registration one rider produced a bright red bottle wrapped in fine mesh.
There was a young guy who showed up who was about fourteen or fifteen. His mom signed him in as the kid commenced to do wheelie after wheelie in the parking lot. We couldn’t help but smile at the sight. It was obvious he didn’t even once think about saving energy for later. He was there to ride his bike, and gosh darn it, he’d ride it!
Back out on course, Chris was keeping tabs on Wheelie Kid.
“He seemed to be riding with a friend,” Chris muttered to himself. Just one of a thousand concerns carried by the man in charge.
“When Adam Altman did it the first year he was about that age, too,” Chris reflected. “I asked him how he was going to navigate, and his response was that he would find a guy with a GPS and ride with him.”
Chris laughed at the thought. Skull-N-Bones is advertised as an unsupported ride, but Chris’s philosophy is to under-promise and over-deliver. Race descriptions are written in an attempt to scare riders off: “It’s going to be miserable, we’ll leave you alone out there, actually don’t even come, you won’t like it!” Which is exactly the type of thing you tell cyclists if you want them to swarm to your activity.
“Adam’s tactic was sound,” I replied, “There are only a handful of people in about a four-state radius who can ride away from him.”
“Maybe not even that many.”
The riders came through and distracted us from our musings. The soft light and the changing leaves made for spectacular pictures. The strain of the climb could be seen on the rider’s faces, but so could the joy of the journey. Where else would you want to be on a gorgeous fall morning than at the start of a hundred-mile bike ride?
“This is a soul-cleansing day,” I said.
“Kind of makes me wish I was riding,” Chris replied.
A rider came through with a tail light so bright it could give you a sunburn from two miles away.
“I haven’t been hit by a car since I started riding with it,” the man replied with a grin.
His statement implied he had been hit prior to his use of the light, but we didn’t ask the follow-up question.
Wheelie kid eventually came through, a big smile on his face. Seeing me and my camera, he popped a wheelie, then he stopped.
“Where’s your friend?” Chris asked.
“Back there,” Wheelie kid replied. Then he turned around and went back for his companion.
“The kid’s here to ride,” I said. “Going up and down the course all day is going to wear him out.”
“You don’t get worn out at that age,” Chris replied.
A few minutes later, Wheelie kid plus one came rolling through and headed out again.
All riders accounted for, Chris and I jumped into the support ship and sailed off. We found a spot on the Tuscobia trail and awaited the riders.
Tuscobia is open to all kinds of use, but the practical effect is that it’s dominated by ATVs. Although the vast majority of the motorists cruising by were courteous, it takes only a momentary lapse for the situation to become catastrophic. The Skull-N-Bones uses Tuscobia for a short stretch, which serves as a reminder to what happens when a trail is opened to all user groups. It’s amazing how much 10 miles of gravel turned into sand and washboard by churning, motorized wheels helps motivate your advocacy efforts.
As we waited for our riders, a procession of ATVs rolled by, most of them sporting multiple American flags sticking out at all angles.
The first rider was a fit guy in his seventies. He’d left a little early because he had a video conference call in the afternoon. We gave him some words of encouragement as he cruised by, barely slowing at the sight of us.
Two more riders passed with smiles and nods before Frank Lundeen finally pulled up and stopped to chat a while. Reaching into his frame bag, he extracted a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and proceeded to chow down.
“Want some?” he asked, offering a cold and slimy chunk of ravioli skewered on a fork.
“Naw, but thanks.”
A couple more riders came through, and we loaded up the support ship and cast off to take a swing through the start/finish area. At the sight of the Jolly Roger, riders along the way gave us waves and thumbs up.
Closing in on Bruce, we caught up with Wheelie kid, who looked like he’d finally gotten tired. He was pedaling hard, but laying across his handle bars in an aero position.
“How’s it going?” we asked.
“Great!” he said grinning, “my mom just called and said she’s going to leave in about twenty minutes.”
“You’ll make it!”
We escorted him back in.
“Tonight that kid is going to hit his bed like a lawn dart and be out for the count,” I said.
“Me, too,” Chris replied.
The sight of Chris at the fire hall brought a round of applause from the riders who had finished.
“What a course!”
“Can’t wait for next year!”
The praise helped ease the stress lines around Chris’s eyes, but I knew he wouldn’t totally relax until every rider was accounted for. The camaraderie of cycling creates an ambiance that can be felt even when you’re not there to mash pedals. The small gravel rides are something special, the cycling equivalent of craft beers. Only cyclists in the know have heard of the best rides, and Skull-N-Bones is near the top.
About the Author:
Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler.” He can be reached for questions or comments at: WalterRhein@gmail.com