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Conquering the Dirt – The Hell of Hunterdon

I marvel at the pros in races like Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, bouncing around on dirt and cobbles, still riding at speeds of 25+mph, pushing their road bikes to the limit of what they were meant to do. They have to have complete faith in their skills and just keep their heads up and their eyes on the road ahead, pushing on through any obstacle that comes their way. The cycling pros who race in these one-day spring classics have to contend with dirt, gravel and cobblestones all while still riding their skinny tire road bikes. These races are a test of strength, skill and grit.

There are many amateurs who want to experience this kind of dirt road riding and there are several races and rides geared toward just that. Locally there is a recreational ride called the Hell of Hunterdon that allows riders of all ability levels to come out and try their hand at conquering the dirt and hills of Hunterdon County, NJ. The Hell of Hunterdon is an eighty-two mile ride with nineteen dirt sectors and close to six thousand feet of climbing. So if the dirt isn’t challenging enough, the hills will add the extra difficulty riders may be seeking. This ride is extremely popular and normally sells out its eight hundred slots in just over twenty-four hours.

The 800 cyclists who rushed to sign up for this event wait patiently for the start.

The 800 cyclists who rushed to sign up for this event wait patiently for the start.

Why would anyone want to ride their road bikes on the dirt, let alone 800 people racing to sign up for the challenge? That’s just it, they want the challenge to their riding ability and skills, to see if they have what it takes to even ride a fraction of the way the pros do in the spring classics. You can imagine that you are Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara, or any of the professional legends of the cobbled classics. For those of us who are inexperienced in this style of riding it can be disconcerting to be bouncing around on dirt and gravel roads like you would be on a mountain bike with your skinny 25mm tires, but once you settle into the groove with it, it’s kind of fun.

Riding on the dirt roads of the Hell of Hunterdon the first year I rode in this event.

Riding on the dirt roads of the Hell of Hunterdon in 2013, the first year I rode in this event.

So how do you approach the challenge of dirt road riding? Riding your road bike on the dirt means you have to be willing to let the bike bounce around in ways that you aren’t used to. You have to trust in yourself and just let the bike move and have faith that if you just keep moving forward, chances are, your bike will stay upright. To think about it scientifically, Newton’s first law of physics states that “…an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Therefore, if you keep pedaling and looking ahead, your bike will more than likely continue to move forward in that direction and stay upright because according to the laws of physics that’s what the bike wants to do.

Some other keys to riding a road bike on dirt are to loosen up your upper body and let the bike move a bit more. Don’t grip the handle bars too firmly to try and control the movement, if you do this you are just working against the bike instead of with it. Also, keeping up your speed while you go over the dirt and gravel makes the ride smoother and actually makes it easier to handle the bike as well. The little bumps and bounces come and go more quickly if you allow the bike to have a bit of speed. Don’t slam on your brakes or you may just skid out and wind up laying in the dirt. If you need to slow down a bit, feather the rear breaks more than the front and just gently slow yourself gradually.


Learning to ride your bike on the dirt roads can definitely be a good way to improve your handling skills and give yourself a change of pace and scenery. This past Saturday was my third time riding the Hell of Hunterdon and the thought of riding eighty-two miles of hills and dirt, especially this early in the season, is always a bit intimidating to me. Nevertheless, I do like the challenge and the fact that the ride takes you on roads less travelled by. When I can take a few moments on this ride to enjoy quiet roads and beautiful scenery it turns from the Hell of Hunterdon into a cyclist’s piece of heaven.