If you’re anything like us at Cyclocross Magazine, even though it’s the off-season, you’re still craving days out on the cyclocross bike spending time with your friends. The best solution? Try a Sportif, Fundo or Ultra-CX, and it’ll feel just like cyclocross season. Some of them can be done on road bikes, like the upcoming Berkshire Cycling Classic, or if you really want cyclocross-specific riding, try something more Ultra-CX style, like Southern Cross. We have more coming out on this style of race, but for today, we’re looking at the Hell of Hunterdon as a prime example, since it’s promoted by the Philadelphia Cyclocross School.
LAMBERTVILLE, NEW JERSEY – It is the weather that everyone romanticizes, but no one actually loves. The fourth edition of the Hell of Hunterdon started with an ominous forecast – 43 and rainy for the day, making both riders and ride staff shudder at the thought of slogging 79 miles on dirt, gravel, and pavement in near-hypothermia conditions. Of course, cyclocross racers were not shocked by the weather as much as the mileage.
“I’m really going to kill you for talking me into this,” was overheard among the din of the grumbling, shivering 252 riders as Brian Ignatin, owner of Kermesse Sport and promoter of the annual event, addressed the crowd. Ignatin gave advice to the riders, including warnings about tire pressure and bike handling on the many pot hole-strewn farm roads that comprised the 19 miles of dirt and gravel sections.
Most riders were dressed for sub-zero weather, though some were ready to tackle the elements with only a thin layer of embrocation and their summer kit with arm warmers. The peloton was riding a mixture of crit-ready road, cyclocross, touring, and even a few mountain bikes, with a vary array of rider type from the elite squad of ride sponsor Pure Energy Cycling-ProAirHFA to the dusty downtube shifter-armed old guard. No matter who the rider, all looked cold and ready to start their journey as the riders were released in waves (in order to cut down on congestion through the sleepy village).
The hilly route has more than 5000 feet of vertical gain, but the real draw is the aforementioned cyclocrosser’s dream of 19 dirt roads. What Hunterdon County lacks in pave it makes up for in as what Brian Palmer of thewashingmachinepost.com refers to as “gravé” ; these are not smooth red loam roads, but are more often washboard sections of hardscrabble, gravel, and unsealed hard pack. A rider from Boston reported, the dirt and gravel roads were as expected, but that the paved sections were “undersold”, referring to a horrible stretch of chip sealed road not included in the tally of dirt roads. Ignatin joked, when resurfacing Harbourton-Woodsville Rd., the township ran out of gravel, so they resorted to a random placement of what they had left”, referring to the three mile poorly paved section in question. Of course many riders testify that the hardest part of the parcours isn’t poorly surfaced at all; Pine Hill Road is a unrelenting paved road with gradients up to 20 percent, before it turns to dirt.
The ride, originally a club ride, had roughly 35 participants at the inaugural event in 2009. It’s popularity has grown, and each year the ridership has nearly doubled, with 2012 pre-registration reaching 400 riders. Kermesse Sport has capitalized on the growing popularity of Classics-themed rides, such as Rouge Roubaix, D2R2, and others, which challenge riders with a demanding course, rough country roads, and a festival atmosphere generally reserved for Pro Tour UCI racers.
The event has sold out for the past two editions, proving that it is no longer the best kept secret in central New Jersey. Strangely enough, the tough conditions in part make for the popularity of the event, as many riders return each year. According to Matt Butterman, organizer of the Alleghany Gran Fondo, who rode the event for the second time “This event has a memorable quality and lasting appeal, even though the conditions were extreme, it is part of the challenge of the event, and when finished, all I can think about is coming back next year.” It is clear that the Hell of Hunterdon is becoming a strong east coast tradition, routinely attracting riders from as far away as central Virginia and New England.
Belgian ex-pat Kris Broekart, formerly of Gent, now residing in Manhattan said that, “This is the one weekend each year I get homesick”, referring to the fact that the Ronde is a defacto national holiday in Flanders, “but riding the Hell of Hunterdon gives me a little taste of home”. The event has a Belgian theme, and was accented by a variety of Belgian Flags around the course, and sponsors such as Ridley, Lazer Helmets, and QM Sports Care. All riders received a “L’Enfer du Hunterdon” logo’d Belgian style beer glass as a finisher’s trophy; many of which went directly into service, as River Horse Brewery sponsors the event and supplies beer for the post ride festivities. Broekart’s compatriat, Bruno De Geest, whose visit overlapped with the event agreed, stating that, “the weather was just like at home”.
To sum up the Hell of Hunterdon, Ignatin said, “We look at as a celebration of spring, and the beginning of the road season; it offers something for just about everyone, whether you race or not.” In conjunction with some specific training for it, it also helps bridge the gap between the end of cyclocross season and the summer road season.