Essay: On the 2012 Hell of Hunterdon
Cover photo courtesy Brian Ignatin. The weather was so disagreeable, no photographers showed up that year. The men flanking Brian were both from Belgium and participating in the event.
There’s always that one ride you think about. Or try to forget. It’s the type of ride that pops up in your memory every now and then and – if it’s one to forget – sends a shiver down your spine. It’s one of those experiences that bookend questioning efforts. “Is it worse than that one ride,” you might ask. No? Well then let’s get out there. The 2012 Hell of Hunterdon was that ride for Jim, Mike (yes that Mike), and myself. None of what I am about to write is hyperbolic for authenticity purposes. When it gets cold, the ghosts of that day flare up to remind me of what I put myself through.
In 2012 I still had a pathetic collection of cycling kit. If the weather was cold I was ok. Anything warmer than cold, I was good to go, but if rain was entered into the mix, I was in trouble. That is exactly where I found myself in late March in the river town of Lambertville, NJ. The Hell of Hunterdon would start out in the thirties (or about three degrees C) with a fair amount of rain coming down. There was nowhere to hide. Remaining indoors was delaying the inevitable. My pathetic cycling attire was going to do me no good over the next six hours.
Parts of my memory are solid regarding this day. Much of the ride’s existence is hazy, though. I remember never being warm from start to finish. Luckily that year’s course had a long stretch of uphill from the start to keep the participant warm. Going slowly meant the cold would struggle to seep into the exposed parts of kit. Going slowly meant warmth was building up. Going slowly also meant road spray was kept to a relative minimum. Once finished the climb the route sent us along two unpaved sectors of relative stress. The first unpaved sector was tucked into the woods and got us gritty quickly. The second was a treacherous downhill technical section requiring extra attention because of the wet braking surfaces.
When the course became flat or downhill everything came undone. The cold temperatures would exhaust the built up warmth, the hands would go numb straightaway, and the tire spray would deflect itself off the back of the seatpost where it would drip downward into the instep of the cycling shoe and pool. The rain cape was basically useless in every sense.
As we reached the town of Ringoes, NJ, at over halfway through the course, I had had it. We crossed the major road of Route 202, and I hung a left into the Shell gas station. I dismounted my bike pushed my way into the office and did the best I could at removing my gloves. I had not felt my fingers for much of the ride, and the last few miles the numbness was replaced by burning. I knew enough to know that wasn’t healthy. By this point I’m sure the temperature had crept above the forty-degree mark, but I would not have noticed the slight uptick. I remember a youngish man coming into the office and being relatively pissed off to see a cyclist there holding ice cubes for hands up to his heater. I remember thinking, “This thing sucks at putting heat out.” Looking back I was extremely lucky he had a heater at all. He asked me what I was doing and I frankly responded I was warming my hands. He left me alone. Perhaps he could see the desperation in my face or he realized I was hardly a threat to robbing him. Ringoes is a town where one could bail on the rest of the course and return home. I was worried I would do that.
We struggled through the last half of the course, which at the time contained the notorious Pine Hill Road at the end. I began seriously doubting my ability to come out of the event safely. Mike and Jim were struggling, too, but neither of them had brought up the idea of pulling the plug. Once down to the Delaware River we could have easily peeled off and gone over the waterway to Jim’s house. I began to analyze every structure along the route for potential warming huts. Though good in intent, my gas station stop had brought Mike down. He had just warmed up on course when I forced a stop. He was now cold and my hands were back to being useless. The descent to the River on the unpaved section of Stompf Tavern was perilous as I began swinging my elbows to get leverage to squeeze the brake levers. I had progressed analyzing areas to ditch if need-be.
"As one of the Belgian riders I really enjoyed participating in the Hell of Hunterdon. It was an epic ride, that due to the cold and rainy weather conditions, truly evoked the spirit of the Flanders’ Classic. It was a pleasure as well as an honor to participate in this ride, the day before our idol Tom Boonen won the Ronde van Vlaanderen.”
Bruno De Geest, 2012
Up and down we swung along the river, still cold, still raining. If I recall correctly there was very little spoken among our group. I’d like to think we all wanted to cry out but ultimately fell back on the idea we were here voluntarily. Salvation was not far now. Being on Route 29 in New Jersey means being on the same road as Lambertville, NJ, and the finish line. I think around this time the rain had quit on us. The roll into the finish line was when the storm had let up.
When we finished it was easily identified as being the most challenging ride for each of the three of us. I don’t recall how many people chose to stay home that day but Jim, Mike, and I weren’t any of them. We still joke about the 2012 Hell of Hunterdon from time to time. But for an effort that required six hours in the cold and rain, all we respond with are one or two sentences. Maybe we’re glad that stays in our past.
Each year the Hell of Hunterdon gives away a beer glass or people win some incredible swag. That year I took home something more. Here’s where I could say something inspirational, instead I won't. I took my numb hands home thinking I would warm them up in the car then the shower. Bernard Hinault stated his 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege win in the snow reminds him every time it gets cold what he sacrificed that day. For more than a month I could not feel the tips of two of my fingers. Even now I am convinced my hands get colder sooner on winter rides because of that ride. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I do like little reminders of our determination. Then I’ll remember how gutsy we all were and then roll out of the garage even if the forecast is questionable.