Events: Hell of Hunterdon 2019
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.
I would love to make this a dramatic recap about the eleventh annual Hell of Hunterdon. I would love to tell you there was some weather hurdle that occupied our concentration. I would love to tell you this was the year Hunterdon County Public Works decided to lay chunks of stone over the hard packed unsealed roads. I would love to tell you the wind burned our face from its constant shifting. I would love to spring the allusion prepared comparing the Hell of Hunterdon to the seven rings of Dante’s Hell. I would love to tell you that. Honestly I would.
But I can’t. In what were possibly the most perfect conditions for the Hell of Hunterdon, I immediately abandoned those pursuits and started thinking of how to capture the established Spring Classic that departed from Princeton Elks Lodge 2129 in Blawenburg, NJ. The 80-mile Kermesse Sport ride has become entrenched in the Hunterdon County countryside for over a decade, and this year showed its continued clout by the eager riders lined up early for a decent start position. This year’s Hell of Hunterdon had a different swagger to it. Riders were ready to explode into the 2019 season through nineteen unpaved sectors.
For my tenth traverse of Hunterdon County, I took a smarter approach. Instead of exploding out of the gate like years past, I surrounded myself with riders eager to block the wind. I chased down a few of the shelled stragglers from the lead group, but when a secondary group formed, I put myself into it. No way was I going to be subjected to the morning headwind. Since the route initially headed north – into the wind – this tactic was paramount. I put my ego aside in the name of preservation.
The opening and closing miles did not look the same for the reason of closed bridges. Either Hunterdon County has been struck hard by the extreme weather or some of their bridges are classified as dilapidated. The opening miles loosely resembled recent years because of the detours. Perhaps the bridge price tags were the reason some of the nineteen gravel sectors have not received a refresh of quarry stone.
The sustained power of the Hell of Hunterdon is few miles of the course cross developed areas. Many participants come from New York or Philadelphia – urban areas. Riding past farm after farm with hardly a motorist passed by felt the opposite of the built up east coast image. How does Kermesse make a route as remote as the Hell of Hunterdon? Perhaps that is why people like me come back ten times: to try to find the answer in the hills and unpaved sectors.
For the opening forty miles, things went as well as they could. I considered stopping at the first rest stop only to rail against it. I was with a determined group and topped with fluids. Depriving oneself of nutrition in the first forty miles is a gamble for the final half of the course. I gambled on my fluid intake, knowing the full measure of warmer weather and windy conditions. But still, I wanted to stay with a group.
I would love to tell those who missed the 2019 event that the unpaved sectors too were not fun. But that would be untrue. They were as fast as I have ever traversed them. Each turn closed in on one of the greatest unpaved sectors: Rocktown Road, a segment not in last year’s event on account of storm damage. A preliminary email sent out by the Hell of Hunterdon organizers stated the sectors would be muddy, but any mud encountered on unpaved sections had a twin groove of hardened earth. Down the right side was slick and reflective while the left lane was packed and quick. Every flat or downhill segment was lightning fast.
The hills, too, were rather enjoyable. Pine Hill Road, one of the more challenging climbs was dusted faster than any other year. The uphill-unpaved segments were endured with determination. A bit of drama began to creep into my consciousness as the route progressed and hills added up. Doubt about ten years worth of Hell of Hunterdon miles bounced in my mind. I entertained a suggestion I would have laughed off in the previous couple of years.
I arrived at the mid-point rest stop atop Strimples Mill Road. I gorged myself on the customary Fig Newton’s. I watched my group roll out, and instead of trying to exit the feed zone quickly, justified being unhitched by attacking another sleeve of Figgys. I hope Brian Ignatin, director of Kermesse Sport, thinks of me each time he picks up pounds of the cookies. I took stock of the fact I had consumed only one water bottle in two hours. The day was heating up, so I added some sodium to my water. One peanut butter Nutella for the road – one more fistful of Figgys – and I was back on the road with wobbly legs right into an unpaved steep descent to the Delaware River.
From the river I took in the experience. There was a considerable tailwind on Route 29, the road that parallels the Delaware. The sun beamed brightly. I was officially in the second half of the course. A paceline trucked by but my legs lacked the snap to grab the last wheel. I was ok with that. Up, down, paved, unpaved, we wound to the last rest stop at Wheelfine Imports bike shop where I had one of the finest stroopwafels and a Philly pretzel. I was back on the road with even more wobbly legs right into an even steeper unpaved descent. I began doing the maths to question my ten-year itch. A decision was to be made soon.
The back half of the course is traditionally a lonely affair for me. This year was no exception. Doubt, exhaustion, exhilaration, enjoyment, all pushed me up the next hill past farm fences spectated by apathetic farm animals. Each time I saw a cyclist in the distance I made it a point to chase the rider down. Sometimes that worked. The afternoon heated up more and I questioned whether to swap out my fleece-lined long sleeve for the team jersey and arm warmers. My gloves were drenched then ditched. Fewer riders ahead meant participants were spread out in their quest for the finish. They distracted me from my doubts. The sector numbers declined until Aunt Molly Road, the final unpaved challenge of the route. Here were multiple riders with mechanicals so close to the finish. It was conquered as the sector banner flashed with a red strike through it meaning the unsealed experiences were over.
The wind shifted but my doubt manifested in my ability to ascend the mean climb in the final seven miles. Hopewell-Amwell Road is a mocking affair that gives Hell of Hunterdon riders one last ring of Hell to deal with before the post-ride party. Before one gets there, Kermesse Sport baits riders to question their experience with a sign that says, “Shortcut?” and an arrow pointing to the flat road back and comfortable tailwind to central command. I figured I had ridden ten years, 800 miles of Hell of Hunterdon, shouldn’t I claim an earned shortcut? Would I take the Purgatory of Hunterdon option to inhale Blawenburg Cafe and Catering’s great food and Weyerbacher libations? The trees, the summit turned for a tailwind, would block the wind; a secondary climb meant a ripping decent. Did my legs have enough for one final incline?
I went up Hopewell-Amwell Road behind a rider whom I had caught an hour prior. He rolled along almost effortlessly with his 30 mm tires and randoneur bars. He looked back at me often, possibly goading me into working with him. Truthfully I had very little remaining to help him. Up and over the final climb I enjoyed the descent across the train tracks and onto the flat final mile with a generous tailwind. Somewhere the last of the Easter egg signs showed up – Luc, Tornado Tom Frites, and Dirk Hofman Motorhomes – to give me a chuckle regarding the detail.
Post finish was collecting time. Signing off the course I was handed my finisher’s prize of a pint glass and Hell of Hunterdon Buff. One more glass for the Paris-Roubar, one more piece for the Kermesse kit. Princeton Elks Lodge, Kermesse Sport’s base for the Hell of Hunterdon, provided the final quality touch to a great experience. The food was savory. There was pasta primavera, frites with an aioli sauce, and savory chicken. A quick spin and one could fill the recently acquired beer glass with Weyerbacher beer.
The Hell of Hunterdon is more than just a bike ride. It is lining up with more than 700 fellow cyclists to tackle hills and dales, asphalt and gravel. It is helping first timers by alerting them what is around the corner as well as a new experience each year for return riders. It could be witnessed simply by sitting in the reception hall of the Princeton Elks lodge as finishers sat with friends and newly-acquainted friends to discuss the day. The Hell of Hunterdon is an event that is a cycling educated guess, but this year turned out to be just right. That is a good way to celebrate some 800 Kermesse miles, my tenth Hell of Hunterdon.
Feel like you missed out? Kermesse Sport offers two more Spring Classics in their series. The Fleche Buffoon, an ode to the climbing classics rolls out April 27 from New Hope, PA. The final Spring Classic - but the original - Fools Classic rolls out a new century route on May 25 from Point Pleasant, PA. Register soon, rides are filling faster than normal.