Events: Hell of Hunterdon 2016
(2016) I actually took the Hell of Hunterdon seriously this year. I will even go so far as to admit I had a slight bit of nerves leading up to it. This course demands full attention and focus from start to finish. It also grinds riders who come unprepared. That was I.
My preparation started the night prior to the 2016 edition Kermesse Sport’s flagship event. I refused to go to the pub; I even refused any form of craft brews that could be to the next day’s detriment. The last dinner was straight from The Feedzone Cookbook. Pasta with bacon and corn loaded me up for the tour of Hunterdon County.
Naturally this experience involves Mike. We are more than aware of Mike by this point. We both looked forward to being a part of the eighth anniversary of this remarkable ride. We both had been part of difficult weather years; we couldn’t believe just how perfect the weather was for Blawenburg, NJ, the official start of the ride. There had even been a dosage of rain two days beforehand to moisten and firm the gravel segments. Most of all, the wind that beat us down last year were hardly to be felt. There were even disbelieving times when we sailed along with a tail wind.
We had unfortunately missed our opportunity for Tru- Brew Coffee and stroopwafels available at the start house. Mike and I hastened to the start and managed to squeeze into the second of six waves. Rolling out easy was the approach. Typically I fire off the front with a full gas tank only to be found asleep on the side of the road ten miles beyond. Instead, we tucked into the second wave group and made quick work of ticking off roads at a comfortable pace.
I’d like to focus on the group aspect for a moment. This was the first year large groups formed throughout the route. At the outset the group formation is unavoidable; riders are all fresh, they’re starting from the same point at the same time, and moods are positive. Today the groups would come back together after a hill or rest stop and return to their rotations. What’s more, the riders rode professionally. Double pace lines rode steadily and predictably. As someone who would ride alone for miles, it was immediately felt that the Hell of Hunterdon was transforming into a holistic experience this year.
The group participation felt more viscous than ever before. Entire teams were spearheading groups of riders. Teams that could be found at the front of long trains included Cadence from Philadelphia, King Kog from Brooklyn, and Hilltop Bicycles from northern New Jersey. The largest group I saw were the Watchung Wheelmen. This team can be found in large numbers at many of the Kermesse rides. I saw plenty Montgomery County-based teams including Sunnybrook Cannondale/ Limerick Chiropractic and Spinteck Cycling Team p/b Blue Bell Private Wealth Management scattered around the course. With such a remarkable presence of staffed teams, it's obvious how important this ride is on the cycling calendar.
Heavy participation in the Hell of Hunterdon was also unseen in the form of shop participants. Halter's had motocross support (which was cool to see). Sourland Cycles supported the ride as did V5 Cycles. Hilltop Bicycles' drone could be seen buzzing around the course for a third year. Riders were certainly taken care of if they needed to be.
The paved portions of the route, though, were merely transports among three separate types of points: rest stops, climbs, and the nineteen gravel portions.
The two rest stops, the first at mile thirty-five and the second at mile 57, were tantalizing versions of their previous years’ offerings. New items appeared on the tables, grabbed greedily by voracious cyclists hungry to keep fueling and keep moving. It also could make the difference between finishing or bonking. I helped myself to the Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. Ceremoniously I grabbed the Fig Newtons, a must for any Kermesse event. I felt myself recharge physically and mentally.
The second rest stop I naturally grabbed more Fig Newtons but a curious offering caught my eye. I had been looking for it after a departing rider blindly recommended it to Mike and myself. On the table were raw cuts of Yukon potatoes with toothpicks stabbed into them. A container of salt was placed smartly next to the foil bin. I grabbed a few and, acting on the recommendation of that fellow cyclist, gobbled them down. They hit the spot perfectly. How had I not tried this before? It was both flavorful and invigorating. These rest stops can lift the spirits of those hanging on by a thread.
The Hell of Hunterdon’s route has three remarkable climbs on its profile. Alums know and respect them. Kermesse Sport highlighted them as KOM/ QOMs on Strava. The climbs include Rileyville Road, Pine Hill Road, and Hopewell Amwell Road. These are the combinations of long grinders with steep pitches thrown in to demoralize anyone who has buckets of motivation. Pine Hill Road alone hides the steepest portion behind a dogleg in the road. Hopewell Amwell continues to hit the rider with climb after climb only to mock him with a downhill section that returns to climbing on Springhill Road. The countless smaller climbs around the course made these three climbs feel like mountains after zapping the strength of each rider.
The most exciting part, and arguably the reason everyone shows up to the Hell of Hunterdon, is the nineteen unpaved sectors. We were all treated to hard packed gravel with nearly no heavy stone coverage. These roads were more comfortable to ride than some of the paved portions on the course. Furthermore riders could fly over the sectors with confidence.
Since these are the romantic portions of the course, they are looked after with the utmost attention to detail. At times the sector started with an apocolyptic PAVEMENT ENDS sign and a very tactile line to the start of gravel. The Kermesse authenticity involved the Hutchinson Tires - sponsored sector signs. (Hutchinson specifically sponsored the sectors because of their Sector line of tires perfect for the nineteen unpaved sections.) One sign would appear at the start of the segment, while another would appear at the end with a vengeful red slash through the number. As in the Pro Tour Spring Classics, the numbers counted down. It gave each rider the sense of progress. I really wanted to get at least one photo of the signs but these sectors required quite a bit of concentration and oftentimes speed was a factor. Other times there was quite a group following and hitting the brakes would probably have been frowned upon.
My favorite sector, Rocktown Road, was in inspired condition. Mike and I flew over the tire tracks forming tiny clouds of dust. We focused on our lines through the quick bends. This is why we ride. Other technical portions such as Strompf Tavern Road not only required concentration with the tight turns, but riders had to decide how stunting to be down its steep gravel descent to the Delaware River. Bike handling confidence is a must here. We can say this now without jinxing the ride, neither of us ever flatted. This is a testament to how suitable the unpaved sections were.
Further segments that were excitedly ridden over included Grafton Road, which was extremely technical with new stone, as well as the nostalgic Lakeview Road, the old opening sector of the Hell of Hunterdon when it used to depart from Lambertville. Just last year I layed eyes on the lake for the first time after six passes over the road. Hunter Road was also a technical descent patrolled by EMTs. This road certainly had a remarkably deep patch of new stone that was avoided by riders trampling down the grass embankment Roubaix-style.
Of course every rider is constantly searching for the finish flags. Mike rolled in ahead of me; he was feeling great and rode on taking advantage of his fitness. I hung in there, refusing to admit the Check Engine light had been on for some time. But one of the recent upgrades to the Hell of Hunterdon includes the start/ finish line at the Princeton Elks Lodge at mile marker 81.4.
Riders could rack their bike, remove their shoes at the Princeton Elks Lodge's request, receive the finisher’s beer glass and knitted gloves, and begin the recovery portion of the Hell of Hunterdon. Excitedly Wyerbacher Brewing from Easton, PA, was the featured brewer (this motivated me through many of the darkest moments). Further encouragement to hurry to the finish included the flavorful food of the Elks Lodge. The offerings, catered by Blawenburg Cafe and Catering Company, included chicken, stoemp, and ratatouille more than hit the spot. Stoemp is a Belgian delicacy; it's a combination of mashed potatoes with onions or leeks and carrots, perfect for a Belgian-themed event. The food was so rich and flavorful the line stayed at a minimum ten people long.
Throughout the ride I looked for the quintessential Hell of Hunterdon description in hopes cyclists all over the world consider this challenge and I found it at mile 50, among the largest group of cyclists I had been in all day. In front of me was a guy riding the new Cannondale Slate. Next to him was a rider on a single speed who was attempting to ride 300 kilometers that day. Next to me was a female road rider asking about the current sector we were approaching. Behind me was Mike with a guy who normally rode mountain bikes but was road riding for today. This is the Hell of Hunterdon. Participants will ride for moments alone, but mostly the diversity of the cycling culture descends on this event to cultivate excitement about cycling. Sure a guy passed Mike and me on a gravel grinder bike (quickly and uphill too) and I saw a tandem at the start. But I lost count how many times I voiced to him just how incredible this ride was. The beer at the finish made it worth skipping out the night before. The day was the best-case scenario: Everything was beautiful, but everything hurt.
Feel like you missed out and want a crack at a Kermesse offering? Try the Bucks County version of the Hell of Hunterdon, the Fools Classic, on April 23. It involves unpaved roads on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. It's also the original event of the Kermesse spring classics. The weekend after that, April 30, is the Fleche Buffoon, which is gravel-free but seeks out the most difficult climbs surrounding the Delaware River.