Rides We Like: Hell of Hunterdon Recon
(2017) Being a fan of winter, there are times where one must get out and take advantage of optimal conditions. So when it’s sunny and in the sixties in February, the order of the day is to get out and log some miles. When the trainer tries to get in your head and tell you it’s not worth going outside, a goal must be set to keep the focus. I’m sure you can guess who came along for another impromptu ride around Hunterdon County’s unpaved roads. That’s right, Mike. If we’re not careful, all this fame could go to his head.
Let’s back up for a moment, though. This route was planned a few weeks ago as an off-the-cuff suggestion. There is a near-perfect unpaved experience called Rocktown Road. It has some history among the multiple year participants of the unpaved celebration sponsored by Kermesse Sport called the Hell of Hunterdon.
There is a pattern when it comes to unpaved roads. They firm up and become dirt roads with crushed gravel between two stripes of tire tracks as well as on the shoulder. Perhaps someone realizes just how small the gravel has become and orders the department of transportation to seek out fist-sized chunks of stone and cover the surface. Once the department of transportation is satisfied the road is nearly impassable, they neglect the thruway for a few years before their shifty eyes start wondering if it’s time to lay more destruction. It’s happened more than a few times during Kermesse events like the Hell of Hunterdon, Sourland Semi-Classic, and the Fools Classic.
It happened several years ago to what would be regarded as the flagship unsealed portion in the Hell of Hunterdon. Rocktown Road is a slightly downhill affair, which means elevation is traded for speed. It starts out in a wooded area before bursting down the middle of a large field. Its trademark half chicane is adorned with a line of trees before a slight uphill and a right turn that leads to the reestablishment of sealed roadway. Years ago, Rocktown was the sight of carnage. The neutral service vehicle would have done itself a favor by parking a short ways into the sector. The large stones leapt up often and bit the tube/ tires of numerous participants. Since it was slightly downhill, riders hit it with speed and had little control over the punctures. The story was worse in the gutter, with piles of pushed aside rocks.
Over the years the teeth grinding anticipation softened as much as the abrasiveness of Rocktown Road. Each year a sigh of relief was let out as each rider’s epiphany that the road was no longer the savage segment. Each year the passers through averaged faster and faster speeds. Are we getting soft as cyclists?
It was today Mike and I targeted Rocktown Road. It was perceived numerous other riders were making it part of their route as we ultimately witnessed over a hundred cyclists taking advantage of the balmy weather throughout our ride. We zigged and zagged along Hunterdon County back roads before the recognizable commencement came into view. It started with a paved downhill, a white house in front of us, a right hand turn, and a distinct line demarcating the stopping point of the paved road. We negotiated those aforementioned quick turns and then hammered through the sector.
How liberating it is to ride this sector. As Mike said, “It’s not hard to imagine Belgian fans lining that portion [of Rocktown Road].” The openness of the whole thing makes it a soul-searching experience. I slowed up to snap a photo of Mike attacking the segment only to see him get smaller and smaller toward the horizon. He was clearly in his element. Once I snapped a photo, I grabbed the drops and enjoyed the remainder of the segment. For such a short time, it felt all was right with the world. I carried more speed than expected into the left turn to indicate the waning portion, but I let the bike wander and came out just fine. That’s the greatest part of this little part of Hunterdon County: I’ve never seen a car on this road (except for the neutral service cars). I apexed the left turn and came out right where I wanted to for the right turn exiting the segment.
Mike and I continued our meanderings and cyclist spottings. Kermesse had posted a missive telling riders to get out and reconnoiter the Hell of Hunterdon/ Sourland Semi-Classic course. Perhaps that was what all those riders were doing. Upon our return to Stockton- and ultimately Bull’s Island State Park- we rode several unpaved segments of the Hell of Hunterdon backwards. It provided a new perspective of some of the more challenging gravel descents when we climbed them.
I’m still a fan of winter, mind you. I always hope for a cold front to move through and drop snow during a ride. I refuse to get discouraged when the average speed of a cold weather ride is noticeably slower than mid-summer. Yet getting out on a warm winter day of the weekend is hard to pass up. That and Rocktown Road’s Spring Classic status makes it easy to fold up the rollers and push the pedals on an unseasonably warm, sunny February day.