Sunday, September 21, 2014

Crushing Gravel Part 8: Shaken Not Stirred at the Inaugural Skull-N-Bones

Me and Steve on the gravel.  Photo courtesy of Chris Locke
I can look back throughout my cycling life and honestly can't recall if I've ever had the pleasure of going to an inaugural race or event.  Although at times I like being part of something unknown and new, I also tend to be the type who likes to know what I'm getting myself into.  I call this behavior "weighing out out the risks", some may call it "taking all the fun out".  In a bizzaro world, I probably would have made a great risk analyst for some insurance company.  I'm sure I was born with a few of these traits--others were formed when I led wilderness trips with youth-at-risk where you take out all the surprises/risks possible in the beginning because more are bound to occur as the trip goes on.

I think it was mid winter when Chris Locke put Skull-N-Bones Gravel Challenge on Facebook.  I was instantly intrigued for many reasons.  First, I have this stupid obsession with skulls--from t-shirts to Jim Dine artwork.  Second, this ride would be in a part of Wisconsin I've done very little riding aside from a  bike tour my husband and I did several years ago.  Third, the Cyclova crew endorsed it heavily.  And finally, right from the get go, Chris seemed to have a passion regarding this event I rarely see and I wanted to support him.  The only partial downside were my edgy nerves after reading what type of gravel to expect from the ride recon done by Chris and Ben earlier in the summer.  Big, chunky, loose stuff with plenty of washout was waiting for me...not my forte by a long shot, especially on 33mm tires.

Our welcome in Bruce, WI

Chris Locke and Todd who was doing his first century 

So here's my version of the ride in a nutshell.  Steve Wasmund, a cycling friend from Utah who is currently residing in Madison, joined me and my husband up to Eau Claire Friday after work.  We were lucky enough to have a place to crash with a long time friend who welcomed us and our bikes.  While my husband and our friend slumbered peacefully, Steve and I headed North a bit over an hour to Bruce, WI.  Most of our drive was in the dark, and sadly it also included scenes from the killing field since thousands of frogs decided to congregate on the roads from Bloomer to Bruce.  That Buddhist in me was cringing each time my headlights flashed on them.  Thankfully as we were getting our bikes ready in a parking lot in town, the kindness of a complete stranger and non-cyclist just about floored me.  He pulled up next to us in his truck and we instantly thought we were about to get a lecture.  Instead, he pulled out a frame pump and said he had found it on the highway a few weeks ago, hadn't found the owner, and would rather it go to another cyclist.  It was one of those moments I wish I could freeze in time and watch over and over again.  What a great start to the ride!

Steve and I wound our way through the tiny town and found the fire station where we were to start and finish.  The threat of rain all week had scared many away and only a few of us were lingering around after filling out waivers and our starting times.  Around 7:45 we chose to roll out.  The skies were still overcast but partial clearing was called for so all of us were in pretty good spirits.

Go right!
As we followed the cue sheet, something went amiss early on.  We had missed our first turn--onto our fist section of gravel none the less--and got to add 2 miles to the ride.  A little chant of "eyes open, be alert" started going through my head.  When we got to our first section of gravel, I knew it was going to be different than other gravel rides I've done, but one can't fully comprehend what "different" means until one goes through it.  I'll be honest, my heart sank a bit and I wondered if I had made the wrong choice by leaving my brand new Salsa Fargo (with 2.2's) at home and opting to take my trusty Lemond Poprad (with 33mm tires).  My tires instantly started to bounce around and I found it difficult to find that "sweet spot" on the road where my brain and hands were calm.  This is what my first few miles consisted of:  swerve to the right of the road--nope too sandy, swerve to the left of the road--nope too chunky, ride the middle--damn this feels like a washboard, go back to the right.

Thankfully, I found my groove or at least became numb enough to not notice the jostling as much.  During this time, in my head I compared this type of riding to getting a tattoo.  In the beginning, the pain, discomfort and annoyance is high but after awhile, you stop noticing or caring and all goes numb. It was at that point I started to become acutely aware we were riding through an acid trip type landscape.  Technicolor trees were all around us and all I could manage were ooooos and ahhhhs in between climbing hills and fishtailing.  We had essentially gotten damn lucky and hit the jackpot since the trees were turning about a week or two early due to the recent cold snap.  This, we would later remark on, only got better throughout the ride.  It was as if the trees were changing color right before our eyes.


one of the many beautiful bodies of water we passed

After the hundredth time or so of telling Steve he could go ahead if he wanted (okay, I didn't say it a hundred times but he'll most likely tell you I did), I settled into a long day in the saddle.  Gravel road led into gravel road with the paved roads interjecting from time to time.  I didn't think of anything really, just enjoyed where I was...until the Tuscobia trail.  Prior to the ride I knew this was going to be the biggest challenge for me but my hopes were raised when Steve told me it wasn't going to be that bad since he had ridden a section further East the weekend before--this of course wasn't the section we would be on.  We turned left onto the trail and all I could see was deep sand churned up by the ATVs.  Yeah.  This was going to be "interesting".  It was of course since it kept me on high alert for the entire 13 mile stretch we had into Birchwood.  Now remember, I'm not a mountain biker and most of my cycling has been on smooth road, so when you throw washout, deep sand and millions of embedded rocks in front of me I'm not the happiest camper.  I didn't have time to bitch about it though since Steve was already some distance ahead and I just decided I'd have to keep up.  What this led to is exactly what happened in my first experience at Almanzo.  I became a more confident rider.  Sure I was rattled so hard my glasses and parts of my bike came loose and I got blisters on my hands since they were moving around on the bars so much, but I did it and at the end, pavement never felt so good.  We joked that I probably wouldn't have felt a thing if I'd been on my Fargo but then again, I wouldn't have improved my skills either.

No words needed for those who rode with us that day
After our refueling stop in Birchwood with other riders (one of which made this ride his first century ever), we rolled on for several miles of "butter like" paved roads.  When we reentered reality (aka gravel), the hills became bigger and bigger and we were joined by a fellow rider and friend of Chris.  The miles kept ticking by, with little peeks of creeks, lakes and flowages--all surrounded by more beautiful maples and ashes.  The wind was now at our backs and although we were tired, we picked up our pace.  The last few miles of gravel rides are always bitter sweet for me.  I always have a few aches and pains and want to get off the bike but at the same time, I don't want to stop--especially when it means getting back in the car.

After our hose bath at the Bruce firehouse, we hung out in the parking lot for a bit talking with other riders.  Our drive back to Eau Claire was uneventful and really only consisted of finding a food source.

I will end this with a huge thanks to Chris Locke and all the volunteers who made this happen.  It was a perfect day and a perfect ride!  Also an enormous thanks to Steve Wasmund, my partner in crime as well as cheerleader for this event, and our host Steve Spina who kindly not only housed us the first night but didn't lock us out when we came back dirty and quite possibly smelly.  Next year's ride will be even better!

Always a sign of a great ride--that's no tan line!


  1. It was a pleasure riding with both of you! Keep riding with passion and I know our paths will cross again in inspiring others to live a life of health on two wheels!

    1. Nice riding with you too Branden! And yes, I'm sure our paths will cross again!