Events: Hell of Hunterdon 2017
(2017) Cover photo and all photos featured are courtesy of Mike Maney Photography. Be sure to check out his work; he is a fellow cyclist in the Bucks cycling community.
It was the moment I had waited for. I walked into the Princeton Elks Lodge in Blawenburg, NJ, after having completed the 82-mile Kermesse Sport spring classic, Hell of Hunterdon. I registered myself as having come off the course, was handed my complimentary pint glass and Hell of Hunterdon cap, and turned to see a full dance hall of finishers, volunteers, finisher volunteers, brewers, cooks, support crews, caterers, supporting family members, and Lodge employees. There were noticeably big smiles and wild gesticulations of participants engulfed in story telling of what had just transpired on the roads of Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
I eyed up a recently empty table to claim as my slice of sanctuary among the finishers. I managed to catch up with some friends in the meantime, some of the mechanics who graced the event with their reassuring presence. We talked about how much they were needed on the wooded gravel back roads. I mentioned one rider who stood on the side of the graveled Worman Road with a broken chain hanging off his bike. One road especially, Upper Creek Road, created all kinds of carnage. It was lumpy, loose, and damp to snag no fewer than six riders’ tires when I passed through. It was certainly the most technical unpaved road this year. I considered myself extremely lucky to have passed through without issue. Even if an issue arose, I knew either Doylestown Bike Works, Halter’s Cycles, V5 Cycles, or Hilltop Bicycles support crews were in the area.
At my table I was joined by a rotating bunch of riders who shared the same level of experience that was overwhelmingly present on the course. Nearly every rider I struck up conversation with while on the course was doing the Hell of Hunterdon for the first time. The comments made by these newcomers highlighted just how much this event has grown over the years; it’s a commentary on how much people want to challenge themselves over nineteen unpaved sectors. Riders came from mostly New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut, but there were registrants from as far away as Colorado and Oregon. It’s one of my favorite parts of Kermesse Events- the stories told not just by the returning participants, but also by the riders who have conquered the course for the first time.
I managed to convince myself to get out of my seat and head to the beer and food area. This was the portion of the ride many were claiming as inspiration to make it to the finish. It was the Rubber Soul Brewing and Bucks County Brewery beer specifically that focused riders to ascend the final difficult climb instead of taking the shortcut to the finish. Andrew from Bucks County Brewing created a Belgian ale just for this event. His other tap, an IPA, was being released for the first time, too. Next to him was Rubber Soul Brewing, all the way from Maryland that had an IPA and amber ale on tap. Rubber Soul Brewing was present for last year’s Fleche Buffoon finish party. It was exciting to have two great breweries serving the cycling community.
Once the complimentary pint glass was filled, I turned to the food line just as excited. I was looking forward to Blawenburg Café and Catering Company’s stoemp specifically. It was served last year and hit the spot so well. This mashed potato/ onion/ leek / carrot Belgian delicacy was hot, extremely flavorful, and oh-so-hearty after getting off the bike. Served around the stoemp was bread, salad with white balsamic, ziti, and chicken. This is where the event propels itself into a festival for the Spring Classics a continent away. For just a few moments one could forget we were in the United States; we could actually convince ourselves to walk outside and watch the Belgian Spring Classic peloton zoom by.
Returning to the table, conversation was again struck up, this time with three first timers who had also gotten food. Experiences swapped included the navigation on one of the most demanding sectors aptly named Hunter Road. Since I had come across numerous first-timers on the course I managed to sneak in a few warnings anywhere I could at the Wheelfine Imports rest stop, located at the top of Hunter Road. This is an authentic experience of acute turns, hedgerows, narrow passageway, deep gravel, and sporadic instances of deep mud. Add in the fact it had started to slightly drizzle and Hunter Road became a very focused and furious descent. As could be expected for this Kermesse event, traffic control was located at the end of this road, too, allowing safe passage back onto paved roads.
At the table, riders also talked about the variety of bikes on the course. Some expressed comical frustration over the remarkable pace of a rider on a fat bike. A single speed blew me away at the same time I swapped places with two randonneur riders. There were flat bar road bikes and ‘cross bikes on course, too. There were sporadic comments of what type of bike participants will bring next year based on their gravel experiences. Diverse origins bring diverse rigs. People already planned for next year.
Our conversations turned to just how appealing the weather was for this year. The temperatures stayed comfortable. The wind didn’t show up until later, if at all. Though in the final third it did start raining, many stated it was nice to wash the bike off amongst the precipitation. The skies stayed overcast for the whole day preventing preseason sunburn for just a few more days. The rain gave the ride an authentic Belgie feel.
Our conversations meandered to the climbs on course, of which three were notable. Montgomery Road’s climb wore riders down who had gone out a little too hard. The fast portions that followed created a false sense of confidence as Pine Hill Road loomed. Pine Hill Road’s steep parts ground riders down further. Some resorted to walking once they turned the corner to see a steeper part waiting for them. The ride’s final challenge came with the optional Hopewell Amwell climb that forced me to take a break halfway up its first portion. I wasn’t alone though. Many riders’ legs also cramped on the lower slopes. We returned loosely as a group to finish off the final relentless walls. Hopewell Amwell provided tantalizing relief with a short downhill. A few quick turns revealed the climb continued. Perhaps it’s the statistic most riders searched for in their Strava data while they hovered over their post ride meal.
I walked around the Elks Lodge a little longer, running into familiar faces, all discussing their stories around the course. It was amazing to see this amount of people so welcoming, so excited to relive tales only a few hours old. For some it was a major accomplishment to complete all 82 miles. Others seem to glow over the fact they did not take the shortcut. One rider was satisfied over his statistic of finishing the 2017 edition a full mile per hour faster than his previous Hell of Hunterdon. Some participants were simply in awe of completing an event with police assistance through major intersections. Whatever the reason those cyclists had to feel pride, it was earned just like the beer and the food. I’ve always bragged that this is one of the best events in this area. With the welcoming reception of one thousand strong, perhaps it’s time to revise the sentiment and say this is one of the best events in the country. With finishers being impressed by completing, so, too, should Kermesse Sport be proud of the solid product for 2017.
It was the moment I had waited for. It was the start of the 2017 cycling season the moment I rolled back to the car to head home.
If you feel you missed out, Kermesse Sport offers the ride that started the Hell of Hunterdon. The Fools Classic, similar in spirit but arguably harder, is scheduled for April 15. The event is limited to 200 riders and explores the unpaved roads of Bucks County, PA. It’s our neck of the woods. For those who like to go up, Kermesse offers their last spring classic, Fleche Buffoon scheduled for April 29. The event will have post ride food this year. Registration is still available.