Events: Hell of Hunterdon 2018
All photos are courtesy of Mike Maney Photography. Be sure to check out his work; he is a fellow cyclist in the Bucks County cycling community with multiple KOMs to his name.
In auto racing it’s called the groove. It’s the sticky line around the racetrack that gives the tires the best grip and has likely no debris to get picked up. To get out of the groove is a trip to the marbles. Those are the chunks of rubber that act like, well, marbles. Get tangled with them and the race is likely over after a trip to the outside wall. In dirt track racing the groove is located inside the cushion, a line around the outside of the corners were loose dirt has piled up. Going below the cushion is the shortest way around the track but not necessarily economically expeditious. Zooming around the cushion means keeping it wide open and hoping to exit up a position. Stay on the cushion to win races.
Getting to the cushions for 2018 was a remarkable effort. This year’s eighty-mile Hell of Hunterdon had more obstacles to deal with before the first rider rolled out than usual. Three successive nor’easters (with a fourth arriving as I edit this) in recent weeks bombarded the region with high winds, heavy precipitation in both amount and weight, and fluctuating temperatures. This caused trees to fall over onto power lines and roads to become canyons of runoff. Add in a closed bridge, a closed pave sector, and the route was forced to make minor adjustments. With the abatement of weather the past few days, the course was prepped for some fast riding. If only the wind could calm itself.
The Hell of Hunterdon, based at Princeton Elks Lodge in Blawenburg, NJ, is the start gate for the 2018 season of riding. Seven hundred fifty riders in several waves were released onto Hunterdon County roads in northern New Jersey. Blue skies dominated the horizon and early spring temperatures hovered near freezing. I met up with two mates and we carpooled to the Montgomery High School parking lot that granted usage for the event. We rolled to the starting line and scored a stroopwafel and Tru-Brew coffee before departing.
This year the headline was former pro cyclist Floyd Landis had registered to ride. He had taken part in a Q & A format the night previous, also at the Princeton Elks Lodge, and today he was present to experience the nineteen unpaved sectors. Having a former pro participating in the Hell of Hunterdon would mean only one thing: the front group would be fast. With the addition of the Van Dessel factory team also in attendance, it was certainly going to be a brisk pace. The front was where Brian and Mike (not that Mike, sorry), my two car mates wanted to be for as long as possible. I knew I was in for it with that approach.
We departed in the first wave with a police-assisted roll out. The route takes no time to find hills or sectors. In the first five miles a couple hundred feet have been gained and Dutchtown Zion Road, the first sector to sport a “Pavement Ends” sign, introduces participants to Hunterdon County’s unsealed roads. It was around this area I got unhitched from the lead group but luckily found shelter from the headwind at a pursuing group of riders rotating their way back to the front. Many times the same riders would come back as a group throughout the first half of the course. As a bit of mockery, the lead group was constantly around the distant bend to remind me know I was barely off the back.
One unique attribute of the Hell of Hunterdon compared to other fondos is the constant rider contact. While I may have been alone for portions of the route, I could look ahead or behind me – or both – and see participants. The thorough road signs provided by the Kermesse Sport crew, the cue sheets, and the Garmin file, plus constant rider contact all made course navigation a non factor for those unfamiliar with the route. And to those astute with Spring Classic traditions, I counted at least three recognizable signs that made me feel at home with this event: Tornado Tom Frits, Luc, and Dirk Hofman Motor Homes. Rider contact is an attribute, and so is attention to detail. Several times I was focusing on my computer when spray paint warnings surrounded a gigantic pothole grabbed my attention. But one is hardly ever alone while plying the Kermesse Sport course.
I won’t hold your suspense any longer. We all know why we’re here. Event coordinator Brian Ignatin went above and beyond by stopping at multiple grocery stores only to find exhausted supplies of (Fig) Newton’s for his two rest stops. He eventually located many packages, no doubt a survival item for the nor’easters. I was grateful because I talked myself out of grabbing my nutrition on account of having to remove my gloves or stopping on course. The aid stations were packed with cookies, Gatorade, pretzels, salted raw potatoes, pickle juice, cola, and Swedish fish. There were also stacks and stacks of various nut butter sandwiches made by the wonderful volunteers whose cheeriness helped propel riders onto the next station or the finish proper. My hanging out at the Cifelli stop prompted more distance between the lead group and myself since it was reported the lead pack didn't even consider stopping.
The real reason participants flock to the Hell of Hunterdon is the gravel sectors, there's no denying this fact. This year they were the best I had ever experienced aside from the occasional large pothole. The sectors were mostly a firm-packed brown sugar base with little to no gravel down the tire tracks. To stay within the groove meant fast passage. To wiggle out of the cushion, to get into the marbles, sometimes sent riders into a tizzy and some loss of speed. It was like they were trying to negotiate through, well, marbles. This year, with these conditions, the Hutchinson Tires sector signs seemed to count down faster than normal. In previous years these were the locations of many punctures but impressively not this year. These sectors are my dirt track dates, or is there another relationship budding?
One of the unsung enjoyments of the Hell of Hunterdon is winding road, particularly multiple cases of ninety-degree bends, some in rapid succession. To have the dusty tires hook up either on pavement or pave added to my excitement. I felt the experience of rider, machine, and road becoming one unit. These were the moments where the headwind wasn’t a thought. The late winter chill was hardly felt. There were no paceline concerns here. I placed confidence in my setup and nailed these turns with persistence. The turns were grin-inducing and beautiful. I imagined these were the curves bike manufacturers thought of when designing their product.
I rode the final miles with Dave and Kristen, two riders who reside along the course. They have logged scores of Hunterdon County miles throughout the year. It was nice to catch up with them as the race pace idea was abandoned. The legs had given out miles back and at times I needed them for a tow. The wind had polished any rough edges by this point. Riders were making final pushes for the finish by flying by or lowering the pace. With a remarkable climb in the final five miles, many riders dug deep to summit the ridge and plunge back down to access the final road. This year no freight train sliced through the descent, ala Tom Boonen's 2006 Roubaix.
Once the sectors and 6,000 feet of climbing were accomplished, riders plopped down into the chairs of the Princeton Elks Lodge and satiated their hunger and slaked their thirst with culinary greatness the Hell of Hunterdon finish line has become known for. This year riders could celebrate with several varieties of Weyerbacher Brewing beers. Weyerbacher, a remarkable brewery from Easton, PA, brought their newer brews for riders to sample after a successful day. The food consisted of salad, pork and chicken stew, baked pasta, and (of course) frites with several options of mayo to plop down. This was the tastiest meal of the year after battling the Hell of Hunterdon route for the year. Each year the debriefing at the table reveals a slight tinge of sunburn. Perhaps this year it was windburn.
It feels like I continue to say this but the post-finish celebration is what makes the Hell of Hunterdon a fully enjoyable day of riding. Once the bike has been dismounted, the Princeton Elks Lodge fills with participants imbibing on finisher beer and finisher food. Naturally the libations had to be poured in the commemorative Hell of Hunterdon beer glass. Some finishers comically forgot to remove their helmets and dug into the food still sporting the headgear. Some whispered about taking the shortcut after the wind gusts proved too fierce to go up the final climb.
While riders warmed up, the command center was continuously buzzing with activity. Floyd Landis remained accessible to sign autographs or offer to talk to people about Floyd’s of Leadville products. Finishers were hopeful as they scanned the prize board to see if they had won sponsorship gear. EMTs were filtering through, reporting an easy day. Organizers could be seen on their phones to SAG support. Mechanics coming off the course were mingling with the participants. Moto support joined the riders for food. The finishing dance hall was buzzing with activity when we decided to roll out of our chairs and head back out into the cold air and back to the car.
After the event we passed around emails stating just how much the day hurt, but that’s what the cycling culture does. We push ourselves to capture as much enjoyment in as little time as possible. The inside cushion is usually the fastest line around the dirt track. Racers will put their cars right up to the cushion to get the best speed out of the corner. At this year’s Hell of Hunterdon riders sailed down the nineteen dirt sectors to get the best speed out of each section, and then returned to the finish line to reap the rewards. How long one stuck around was up to the legs. Sticking around could demonstrate the command center’s cutting loose after a successful day of stress.
Feel like you missed out? Kermesse Sport's original spring classic, Fools Classic, departs from Point Pleasant Fire Company on the morning of April 7. The route has more gravel sectors and more mixed surface variety than the Hell of Hunterdon. You can register here. If you want to know what to expect, you can read about last year's ride here. Like going up? The final Kermesse Sport spring classic, Fleche Buffoon, departs from St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in New Hope, PA, on April 28. The route has no gravel sectors. It simply looks for some of the toughest climbs in eighty miles. You can register for the event here. You can read about our previous experience with Fleche Buffoon in 2016 here.