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Skull-n-Bones Pre-Ride and Course Description

The end of a long day
Chris called me up the other day to pre-ride the Skull-n-Bones Gravel Grinder course.  His plan was to set up the cue sheets and he wanted some company...and he knew I was probably stupid enough to come along.

"I've got 32s on my wheels, do you think those will be wide enough?"

Silence followed by, "I guess we'll find out."

Since this is a brand new event, I thought there might be some people out there who are curious as to what the course is like.  To provide some context, I'll mention that I dropped out of Almanzo this year at mile 70.  That wasn't due to the fact that I was suffering--I dropped out because I ran into one of my friends who was sitting on a case of beer (I'm stupid...but I ain't crazy).  Also, I went into Almanzo more focused on marathon training than cycling.  Since then I've ridden my bike about 1,500 miles and run four marathons (well, actually two were just before Almanzo), but that gives you a general idea of my fitness.

On Friday, I hit my alarm at 5:30 AM and headed up to Bruce, WI to meet Chris for the historic first riding of the Skull-n-Bones course.  The forecast called for rain, which would have been welcome, but we never got it resulting in pretty much a perfect day.

Chris was riding a Salsa Fargo with 2.2" tires so we pretty much had the extremes covered.  I went ahead and pumped my 32s up to 80 psi because I'm a roadie at heart and I just can't make myself ride on soft air...although I might now be more willing to attempt it.

The Gravel
The first thing I'm going to mention is that Wisconsin gravel is not like Almanzo gravel.  Almanzo is basically like pavement with a little dust on top.  Around Bruce, you're sinking in a little bit (you can see the tire track in the above picture).  Still, even on 32s at 80 psi I got through this fine.

In terms of bike handling, I'd say that I'm on the bottom rung of competent.  Ever since I had kids I stopped taking any kind of risks and I'm kind of a wimp on the hills--especially early in a ride.  Throughout the whole Skull-n-bones, there was only one moment when my back end spun out sideways a little bit (sort of like Greg LeMond on the L'Alp D'Huez in the 1990 TDF...except LeMond slipped because he had a broken finger and couldn't pull his break, and I slipped because I'd just been bitten on the back by a horsefly).  I also walked down one hill early on because it was a little sketchy due to wash outs.  Chris seemed to get through everything fine on his 2.2" as you might expect.

We had a nice, pleasant ride for the first 45 miles or so.  Overall, I'd say this ride is about 65 miles of gravel and 35 miles of pavement.  The pavement to gravel ratio is a little higher than normal, but the gravel sections are pretty tough, and you're happy to get on pavement every now and then.  The pavement is also well placed--it comes just when you're needing it and is long enough to help you recover adequately for the next gravel section.

At 45 miles our average speed was 9.8 mph.  Then, at mile 50 (approx.) we hit the Tuscobia State Trail.

The Tuscobia State Trail
Here I am taking a surprise selfie in front of the Tuscobia State Trailhead--oh, and the idea of a "surprise selfie" is mine, so remember that when some Kardashian tries to take credit for inventing it!
So stupid me, I thought the Tuscobia trail was going to be a "break" on this ride.  I even said as much to Chris and he gave me the same look he flashed when I mentioned my plan of riding 32mm tires.  For those of you familiar with the Gandy Dancer trail, you really need to get out here and ride the Tuscobia state trail.


Because they allow ATVs on the trail which makes the surface almost impassible for cyclists (it makes you want to join an advocacy group to keep the Gandy non-motorized--what a special trail that is!).  Again, Chris was pretty much OK on his 2.2s, but I was rattling the teeth out of my head.  You'd get hundred yard sections where the going was pretty good, then there would be these washboard sections that took all your concentration to stay upright.  I found maintaining about 13mph minimized the jostling, if you went slower, you dropped down in the ruts of every little bump...faster allowed you to skim the peaks.

We were on Tuscobia for about 14 miles and I was ready to be done with it.  It's pretty much the presence of this trail on this course that makes me want to recommend a minimum of 40mm tires.  But honestly, if I can get through it on 32s, I'd say all the real cyclists out there will have zero difficulty.

We rolled into Birchwood which is about 64 miles into the ride and had a huge meal at the first gas station we came across (there's a restaurant in's perfect).  There really is nothing between the start and the 64 mile marker though, and most riders probably aren't going to be carrying enough liquid to get them that far.  The route goes very close to another small town at about mile 35 (I think the town is Exeland...I'll get Chris to confirm that), and I'd recommend people stop there and find some water if it's a hot day.  Heck...if it's 50 degrees you'll probably make it to Birchwood fine, but I'd rather ride an extra two miles to fill my water bottles than to be stuck riding 25 dying of thirst...(being thirsty takes the fun out of things).
After Tuscobia

Once you're done with the Tuscobia trail, you're home free.  There's actually about a 15 mile pavement section, and then some really fun gravel sections before the final 7 or 8 miles of pavement back to town.  There is a super big hill at about mile...90 or so?  It's a nice little cherry at the end of a tough day.  Also, as you're coming down from that climb you hit a gravel to pavement transition which Chris referred to as "reentering the atmosphere."  It's true, high speed and washboard conditions make you lose track of the horizon line briefly.  The only thing you can do is close your eyes, keep 'er pointed forward, and wait to land.

On the way into Bruce, we saw a black bear cross the road in front of us.  That was fun, it was an excuse to accelerate.  They say that most people go through their whole lives without seeing a bear in the wild, maybe all the Skull-n-Bones riders will be as lucky as we were!

Strava Data

All in all, this is a very fun, challenging route.  Here are the stats from the ride:

  • Ride time: 8:38:51
  • Total time: 12:01:14
  • Distance: 102.4 miles
  • Elevation: 4,691 ft
You can access the Strava Data here.


This is a great ride and you really need to plan on being at the Bruce Fire hall on September 20th at 8 AM!  The official Facebook pages for this ride can be found here and here.  Plan on spending the whole day, and maybe even stashing some jugs of water out along the course!  Skull-n-Bones is EPIC, I think that's the longest amount of time I've ever spent on my bike!  But hey, if it were easy, everybody would do it!

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