Hell of Hunterdon and a Better form of Bikes
As any regular readers of the Journal know, TBD has spent a lot of time in recent months and years thinking and writing about the State of the Sport as we offer our impressions on what is working and not working with traditional categorized racing and what is changing in the sport thanks to the continued rise of mass start events from Dirty Kanza to Rasputitsa. In a sense this past weekend served as a perfect dichotomy between those two trends: I spent Saturday racing (in the traditional categorized sort of way) with CRCA in Central Park followed by spending Sunday at the mass-start and mixed terrain Hell of Hunterdon in Montgomery, New Jersey. Both days were pretty terrific in their own right, but they also left very different tastes in my mouth.
Starting with the Hell of Hunterdon: this was actually my first trip out to HoH and we lucked out on the weather - according Jed Kornbluh, one of the race organizers, it was the best weather they have had in 11 editions of the event. But what’s also notable about the 2019 edition of HoH is that it sold out in advance. After starting with just 35 riders back in 2009 this year’s event featured roughly eight hundred riders who signed up for an early Spring adventure across 82 miles of New Jersey roads including 19 sectors of “dirt, gravel, and hardscrabble.” For comparison, CRCA’s largest event, the Bear Mountain Classic, peaked at 733 riders in 2009 and has averaged 517 registrants over the last three years. So by just about any local measure, Hell of Hunterdon is a popular day on the bike!
When we got to the Hell of Hunterdon start line it was easy to see why this was the case: the event seemingly brought out all manner of rider. Sure there were a few ‘racer’ types from CCAP and a small handful of familiar faces from the (categorized racing oriented) CRCA community. But overall it was a more diverse mix of riders, most of them wearing retail garb (rather than custom team kit) and nearly all carrying a big smile on their faces. Sure the weather didn’t hurt, but the mood on the start line was positive and welcoming as we waited for our start. Equipment choices ranged from the usual assortment of ‘adventure’ bikes to a few mountain bikes and more unique choices: like this rider in jeans that passed us mid-ride on a beautiful vintage steel bike with downtube shifters and toe clips:
I’m sure we could do some interesting analysis with the Hell of Hunterdon registration data, but my impression was that a significant portion of the participants had probably never done a traditional USAC categorized road race and might never be inclined to do so. But whether it was the challenge of 82 miles, the beautiful course at HoH, or the well stocked aid stations, the vibe was without a doubt friendlier than most USAC races I have been to in recent years - there was no built-in hierarchy based on USAC category or team association - it was just 800 odd riders getting together for a day on the bike and some post-ride beers. Which brings us back to the comparison with Saturday’s CRCA Club Race. As Travis wrote about, it was a pretty terrific day on the bike with lots of important and progressive components like a Women’s Development field (as Adam tweeted about a few weeks back, CRCA is doing good things on this front).
Unfortunately, in the afterglow of a successful first Club Race, the experience that lingered in my mind from Saturday’s Central Park race had less to do with the actual racing (which was fun!) and more to do with reports of higher category men in the A-field cursing at Category 5 riders who were cooling down on the course post race (which to be clear, the course is in Central Park and is not closed to other riders). No one wants a crash involving a fast moving peloton, but cursing at riders who are potentially in their first ever bike race probably is not conducive to growing the sport over the longer term. In many ways these reports seemed indicative of yet another example of a sport that ‘eats its young’ — part of a cycle that drives the massive churn in the lower categories that we wrote about in the Abbreviated Lifecycle of a Bike Racer. Some of this churn is due to the nature of the sport - it’s time consuming to train for racing and the risk of crashes is always going to be a detriment versus ‘safer’ athletic endeavors. But we keep coming back to examples of the complicated and insular culture that permeates certain aspects of traditional road racing. In that sense, the contrast with Sunday’s Hell of Hunterdon, where we experienced nothing but positive vibes along the way could not be stronger, even if HoH left us looking like this with post-race exhaustion:
There have been some interesting thought pieces on ‘the future of the sport’ published recently, including this one on LandRun from friend-of-TBD Andy Chasteen. In comparison this TBD Journal entry is not intended to be quite that far reaching - we’re not sure that Hell of Hunterdon, or any single event, can fully encapsulate the ‘future’ of the sport. Rather, HoH was a simple reminder that riding and racing bikes can take many forms. There are those riders, ourselves included, who are motivated by categorized racing and look forward to early mornings speeding around Central Park in a tightly wound peloton. But there are also riders who have no interest in the potentially unwelcoming path sometimes presented by categorized racing - riders who might rather focus on events like Hell of Hunterdon. Both are perfectly good routes to follow and this past weekend highlighted that it can be well worth dipping your toe into both sides of the sport.
Bottom line: whether you’re a die hard racer or a more leisurely cyclist, if you’re looking for a fun day on the bike we urge you to check out Hell of Hunterdon. Just hope for weather that matches the beautiful day we had for the 2019 edition.
Hell of Hunterdon: the Mike Maney Gallery
Photographer Mike Maney captured some terrific images from Hell of Hunterdon. We have shared a few below but highly recommend checking out the full gallery posted on his website. He is also on Instagram at @mike.maney.