Events: The Hell of Hunterdon 2015
(2015) I think many of those who signed up for the 2015 Hell of Hunterdon had the same thought the night before the ride. “It’s slightly windy out there.” However, making weather a main idea of an article is cheating in my opinion. Article doping.
The Hell of Hunterdon was rescheduled due to snow and, if the Fool’s Classic is the forgotten older brother, the Hell of Hunterdon took its place on the calendar. Anyone who has ridden the Fool’s Classic knows it gets next-to-no respect and even worse weather. (As of today, the Fool's Classic has been tentatively rescheduled for June 27th - which will probably be a hurricane.)
So it was the ultimate slap in the face for the younger, more popular Hell of Hunterdon to take the Fool’s Classic date and then proceed to have some of the warmest temperatures of 2015 along with some balmy sun. The elder Fool’s Classic protested in the form of strong winds. The protest would not stick, and the Hell of Hunterdon became one of the best rides in quite some time.
Growing up is certainly a difficult process. There are many setbacks for every one advancement. There are digressions, there are changes in attitude, but there are also beautiful successes that shine through. After seven years’ growth, Kermesse Sport outgrew the parking lot starting venue in Lambertville and moved fourteen miles east to welcoming Blawenburg, NJ. Hundreds of riders would now start on what could best be described as the backstretch of the old route.
Some strong growth showed through in parking. Montgomery High School provided a great spot for the numerous riders to casually- and slowly- move their way over to the new home base: The Princeton Elks Lodge. The Elks Lodge was another great addition, more on that later. Since riders pedaled to the start, there were no SWAG bags this year; instead riders were given Ass Savers, a convenient snap-on fender, complete with the Hell of Hunterdon insignia featured. That meant nothing to carry, nothing to pedal back to the car then return for the start. Perhaps many possessed an eagerness to get the 2015 road season started and it started here.
Hunterdon County is a beautiful county. The ride passed through many peaceful hamlets and towns. It passed through the Sourland Preserve. For those who rode two weeks’ prior in the Sourland Classic (the newest addition to the Kermesse lineup and also rescheduled due to snow), there were familiar sights and familiar roads. This really is a great place to ride for 79 miles. What was also beautiful was the sight of so many riders taking part. Oftentimes one would struggle to find the road ahead void of cyclists.
Having done this event for five years now, there is a gamut of emotions: Will it rain? If it rains, will it be cold? Will the unpaved sections be terrifying? And yet, none of those emotions came out. It was purely fun. It was even fun when forming a pace line meant looking two or three bikes up and seeing them being angled into the wind.
The wind turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It had rained the day before and further overnight precipitation was to be expected. The heavy winds would dry out the paved areas certainly, but would we resemble the 1996 Paris-Roubaix and have beady white eyeballs underneath an icing of mud after the unpaved sectors?
Every year I look forward to the unpaved roads. It’s because they are different every year. Some years they are heavy gravel, newly minted by the Department of Transportation with crushed stone. Other years they take on a tractor path of sorts with ruts, potholes, or that dreaded sticky clay that makes sure to not only take away speed but also cramp the legs. This year the unpaved sectors were the smoothest ever experienced. Very little stone with just the right amount of moisture. Sure there were punctures, but not nearly as many as previous –and dry - years. I was especially nervous approaching Rocktown Road. The name was appropriate in years’ past. It had a knack for being large stone from shoulder to shoulder. Support vehicles may have spent entire mornings replacing tubes there. It got me a many times. But this year it was a sleepy unpaved road with little-to-no stone and lines that could be picked out well in advance. One could even accelerate the pace through the sectors. All the unpaved sectors needed were Belgian fans with plastic cups and plastic flags while being held back by fences demarcating fan from rider.
With the growth process came subtle attention to detail on the course. In previous Hell of Hunterdon installments, Kermesse slipped in a Dirk Hofman Motorhome sign that could often be seen on Spring Classic broadcasts. Not to be outdone, this year Kermesse Sport labeled the unpaved sectors in descending order. It felt great to see these numbers reduce as the day wore on. An even greater feeling was the second (and also new) sign each sector had: an end sign reminding riders which section he or she just conquered with a satisfying red slash through it. One sector closer to getting out of the wind.
Growth on display showed up at the bottom of Pine Hill Road. This road is in the back of each alum’s mind. “Turn out energy for sure, but save it for Pine Hill.” In years’ past, this stinger was the final cut to every rider dragging him or herself and the last remaining morale toward the finish. It showed up in the last third of the course. But this year, in the first third of the course at mile 26, after taking powerful pulls to keep the group moving through Sargeantsville, spent riders searched within, making deals with themselves, to power up the Pine Hill Road. The entertainment comes when new riders, who have never before witnessed its teasing ramp, audibly detest its existence on the course. Pine Hill is a funny climb because it hides the steepest ramp around an ever-so-laughable bend in the road. Protests can’t be uttered by newcomers at that point. The reward would come ten miles later for the first of two rest stops. Perhaps next year a sign with a slash over Pine Hill Road will give satisfaction.
The final punishment came with the introduction of another new, but curious sign. The word SHORTCUT? was featured over a green arrow. I couldn’t imagine why a shortcut would be featured, but there it was. Behind the sign was the continuation of Hopewell Amwell Road. In previous years, the Hopewell Amwell climb was some sort of anomaly of the area. It features a steep wall at the start shouldered by four driveways. So to quarter out the effort made it manageable. The horizon beyond gave one the idea that the climb would be over once the wall was dusted. But it continued. Having battled headwinds, having perhaps suffered windburn, having battled the first signs of sunburn for the year, and having nearly eighty miles in the bag, I started thinking about that SHORTCUT? sign and how I loathed its taunting flappyness. That thought got me up the next punchy climb. Which gave way to another ramp. I started to wonder how this was possible. To much concern, the route turned onto Springhill Road. No flat road ever has the word “hill” in it. The climb continued for a quick hilarity before giving way to the beautiful surprise of descent and bliss. With one more paceline formed of straggling soloists, we battled the headwind and aimed for the most wonderful set of lights seen that day.
Having as many riders as the Hell of Hunterdon had, growth showed up in several other places. Places such as outside the Elk Lodge, in Sergeantsville, and at the intersection of Mine Road and Route 31, among other locations were manned by local officers giving cyclists the right-of-way. The police support was the final reassurance that this event was accepted in its new location. It was the police lights in the distance on 518 that gave satisfaction that the Hell of Hunterdon, with its never-ending wind, was over. The sunlight glinting off parked cars at the Montgomery High School parking lot were waiting for each finishing rider.
Cycling is a social experience. There have been remarkable riders in the Hell of Hunterdon’s history. There have been race cyclists, tandems, L’Eroica enthusiasts, cyclocross riders, and even run-of-the-mill bikes taking part in the Hell of Hunterdon. Whatever rig people use to propel them over the nearly-eighty-mile course, the Elks Lodge hosted each and every cyclist with great food, great River Horse beer, and a seat to kick back and eat well-earned stew while recounting the events of the ride. (Kermesse even managed to have amazing attention to Spring Classics detail by having a freight train cross through like the 2006 Paris-Roubaix. Or, how about the ode to the 1997 Criterium International with the spooked horse in the road at the top of Hopewell Amwell Road?)
The evident growth to this year’s Hell of Hunterdon, with its rescheduled date as well as new starting venue, provided a great experience for many riders this year. While the Hell of Hunterdon has concluded, the cycling season proper has gotten started. There’s no better way to start a cycling season than passing under the Belgian flags and hope that one has earned the label of “Flahute!”