February 3, 2011 by Brian Lockhart
Lately I’ve been trying to get in a bit more riding on my vacations, or at least, to the extent I can do it without making things less enjoyable for others on the trip (like my family). One of our frequent escapes from the Seattle rain is to Maui , Hawaii. Usually when we’re out there, my wife and I get in our exercise by running in the mornings. On those runs I’m always distracted whenever I see someone ride by on a bicycle – I love running with my wife (who’s an avid runner back home) but I’m much more of a cyclist than a runner. I wanted to ride bikes on Maui; time to do something about this…
One of the more common Maui cycling activities I kept hearing about was “riding the Haleakala Crater“. This consists of folks getting into a tour bus before dawn, and being driven up to the top of the Haleakala Volcano national park. There, they are issued big cruiser bicycles with big tires and drum / coaster brakes, and allowed to ride *down* the road back to sea level. The road is the longest paved climb in the world, starting at sea level and ending at the summit at feet. It’s 36 miles long (one way). Part of this was appealing, but for me it’s not really an honest bike ride if you don’t earn it by riding UP also, before turning around and heading back down. I wanted to know if I was capable of riding up the longest paved climb in the world. But there’s no way I’d want to try riding up that climb on those big cruiser bikes they rented to the tourists for going down it…
A few web searches and emails later, and it was Go Cycling Maui to the rescue! It’s a bike shop in Paia, Maui that also runs guides bike rides / tours led by the owner, Donnie Arnoult – a retired professional bike racer (and all around great cycling personality) from the mainland. And as opposed to the typical rental bikes I’ve seen over the years, Go Cycling Maui offers a selection of midrange to high end road bikes that are MUCH better suited to the kind of riding I wanted to do. And even better, they also offered supported group rides led by Donnie, and he was leading a ride up the crater later that week. Perfect, sign me up!
Showed up at the shop bright and early the morning of my ride, I had brought my own pedals, helmet, shoes, and riding kit. I picked out a rental bike (a nice Lightspeed titanium with Ultegra components and good quality clinchers). Perfect – comparable quality level to my racebike back home, except I didn’t have to deal with all the hassles of packing and traveling with my own bike. I’ve done that dance way too many times and now that I’m starting to find places that rent decent quality bikes at my destination I never want to travel with my own bike again. Way too much hassle, especially since my typical vacation baggage levels have already quadrupled now that I’m married with a kid. It’s bad enough hauling luggage + a child car seat through an airport, no way do I want to try wrangling a bike carrier along with us also.
A note about the level of participants – Donnie’s tours are aimed at performance-oriented cyclists. Racers, triathletes, etc. as opposed to more casual cyclists. That means he’s expecting to be able to lead a fit and capable group on rides that a less experienced cyclist probably wouldn’t be able to easily accomplish, or at least, not at that pace. It wouldn’t be fun for them, nor would it be fun to lead them. Perfect for what I was looking for though! I may not be as fast as I was 20 years ago, but I’m still stronger than the average casual cyclist… <fingers crossed>
We had about 15 of us on the morning I showed up, some had brought their own bikes and others were picking out rental bikes with me. Once we were all dialed in, away we went. Ahead lay 36 miles of constant climbing, followed by 36 miles of constant descending. I was both excited and intimidated. I had done my research and knew that the road wasn’t all that steep except for a short 20% kicker right at the very end. The vast majority of the climb was a 5% – 7% grade, which even my tired old ass can handle. The problem wasn’t the gradient, it was the distance. Most “big climbs” that I (and most cyclists) ride on a regular basis are anywhere from a few miles to 10-15 miles, usually with some flat -ish sections along the way. But Haleakala? Nope, it’s an honest climb – all the way up, for the whole 36 miles. I knew it would be a long day and I’d want to pace myself for sure, no way would I go my usual “power climb as best as I can” pace that I use to try to stay with real climbers during races. My plan was to watch my heartate carefully and deliberately keep it at least 10% lower than I’d normally climb at. Don’t venture into the red zone at all, if possible.
I was a little worried about being dropped by the group; we had a bunch of roadracers and triathlete types from the mainland US and Canada, some of which were quite a bit younger and fitter-looking than me. I’ve been easing myself back into cycling after a long absence, and this is my 2nd season back racing again. I’m slowly getting some of my old form back, but I’m 43 years old now(!!) and still a good 10 pounds heavier than I’d like and hadn’t been riding that much in the months leading up to our vacation. So jumping on a bike and sweating up the longest climb on earth? No problem… (facepalm)
Turns out my worries were unfounded. I kept in the pack no problem for the first 15 miles of climbing, then as we started to reach the middle of the climb I found myself up at the front of the pack riding alongside Donnie. We chatted about people we both knew in common from our shared days of racing back in the 80’s and early 90’s, we’re the same age and did a lot of the same races together – racing is really a small world and it was great to reminisce about big races, fun people, and a time in my life when I could eat whatever I wanted and still weigh 175 pounds. I envied Donnie for having the wisdom to parlay his time racing into not only an extended career in the world of cycling, but in a vacation paradise like Maui. Lucky man.
Next thing I know, 10 minutes had passed. Donnie’s looking back behind us for the rest of the group and whoops, we had dropped them. Uh oh, had we been pushing too hard, and was I digging my own grave? I knew Donnie was way more fit than I was and could handle that pace and a heckuva lot more, but me? Hmmm… I felt fine though, and I had been able to carry a conversation the whole time we were riding which is a good indicator I wasn’t pushing too hard. All systems still go! We stopped at the side of the road where a member of Donnie’s team was waiting with a truck carrying food, drinks, and spare clothes + bike parts if needed. We reloaded our supplies while we waited a bit for the rest to catch up, but when they arrived it was clear we were going to have a smaller team making the summit attempt. Some elected to take an alternate route that would have less climbing and get them back to the shop sooner, while others were just fried and were ready to turn back. I felt kinda bad, we weren’t trying to shell anyone out the back! Donnie pulled me aside and asked if I minded going on alone to the top so he could stay with the rest of the group. Yikes, I wasn’t excited about riding the rest of the way above treeline solo, but I had been riding pretty strong so far, and I wasn’t about to turn back… So sure! Donnie and crew loaded me up with pockets full of food, 3 water bottles, and I took a rain cape + some full finger gloves. The weather can turn nasty up at the top and I didn’t want to freeze on the way down, assuming I summited….
Waved goodbye to the rest of the group, and headed on. Long story short, I made it. I was definitely fried at the top and I wasn’t climbing like a pro at all, but I made it. The elevation was clobbering me; I used my heartrate monitor as a tachometer, making sure to stay below 95% threshold and using tunnel vision as an additional guage of my condition. I’d make “deals” with myself also; make it up to that next switchback, and you can stop for a sec to recover. Let’s just say I was stopping to catch my breath way more often than I have ever had to do on a bike ride. Whatever it takes, man. Whatever it takes!
After a brief stop at the top (it’s chilly up there) I wolfed down the food and water I had left, then put on my jacket and longer gloves. The ride down was uneventful, and less exciting than you might think. For one thing the road’s not very steep at all, so you’re not going all that fast. If anything you’re just trying to stay warm so you stick it in the 11 and push. The tourist auto traffic also puts a damper on things, you can pass cars easily in the turns, only to have them come right back up on you on the long straight sections that aren’t steep enough for you to continue to drop them. So you end up passing and re-passing the same clueless retirees from Ohio in their rental Chevy Malibu over and over and over again. Still, 36 miles of descending is pretty cool because you go from one climate to another in less than 20 minutes. As you descend you feel the temperature climbing and climbing as you go from 35 degrees at the summit back to 85 degrees down below. It’s a bit disruptive to your system for sure, you’re already pretty shattered from all that climbing and now your poor body is being asked to temperature regulate from the arctic back to the tropics all at once. Whew!!!
Got back to Paia where I proudly returned my bike and shook hands with the staff at Go Cycling Maui. Great ride, very glad I found the shop that let me make it happen!!! Next time I’m out in Maui I’ll hook up with them again, although maybe I’ll skip the Haleakala climb and do the ride out to Hana instead…
Thanks again to Donnie and the whole crew at Go Cycling Maui. Highly recommend them, hit them up for your next trip to Maui and they’ll hook you up with a bike and all the riding you could ever want.
And (for what it’s worth) – here’s the Strava data for that day. I’m no record holder, but I’m proud of this ride all the same.
That’s enough climbing for me for awhile – I’m supposed to be a sprinter, dammit!
So now that you know how long it took me to ride up that beast, how long does it take for a REAL rider to get up there? As many of you know, I like to pretend I’m a bicycle racer. But despite my strong delusions, I’m VERY aware of the gap between my own performance level and that of folks who do it for a living. With that, here’s a cool video of the current record holding ride up the road to Haleakala, from Ryder “weight of a nation” Hesjedal – all around kickass pro rider. By sheer coincidence, the previous record was set in 1993 by the manager of his team, Johnathan Vaughters – who is an accomplished pro from the preceding generation. It’s impressive as hell that Vaughters’ record held up as long as it did, and I find it poetic and cool that when it fell, it fell to someone on his own team. Very cool karma. Ryder Hesjedal :: Haleakala Record
Photos? Ugh, I didn’t take any photos during my ride, but here’s a great writeup with lots of photos and other information about the climb: http://www.chainreaction.com/haleakala.htm
Go ride the volcano. You’ll suffer like a pig, but you’ll be glad you did it!!!
Bonus – if you fancy yourself a true climber, prove it! Enter the annual race and see if you can take down Ryder: http://www.cycletothesun.net/