After looking a bit, one of the things that I really wanted to do while in Maui was a climb up Haleakala by bike. Haleakala is the volcanic mountain which towers over the eastern portion of the island rising to a height of over 10000 feet above sea level. One of the bigger “touristy” things to do while on the island is to actually pay for a van to take you up to the top of the mountain where they set you up with some sort of bike (a cruiser, a mountain bike, or something similarly simple) and let you ride down the mountain. But the thing for a real cyclist to do is instead to start at sea level with a bike and ride up to the top.
The first thing to do was to figure out a route. As it turns out, this is pretty straight-forward. There are a few accounts online including a really good one here. Routes are also on all the usual sites so I loaded one onto my Garmin. Most of the routes are right around 35 miles starting in the beach town of Paia and finishing at the summit. 35 miles, 10000 feet. This is starting to sound like a ride.
Getting a Bike
The second thing to do was figuring out a bike to ride. Option one would be to fly with my bike. The airlines have worked quite hard to make this a pretty infeasible option as they’ve increased the costs of flying with a bike. It’s really pretty sad and unfortunate as (from what I’ve read; this predates my serious riding) you used to be able to box a bike and fly with it pretty easily. Oh well. So it goes. A second option tends to be shipping the bike via UPS or FedEx. But being that we’re talking Hawaii, that’s really not much cheaper as you have to do air shipment rather than ground. That basically left renting a bike
Now renting a bike in a place where you’ve never been before can be a dicey concept. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to end up getting. When I was on the Outer Banks a couple of years ago for my sister’s wedding, I rented a bike and while it ended up being something I could ride, it wasn’t really that nice. A lower-end off-brand aluminum frame with a 105/Tiagra mix. From some looking around, though, it looked like West Maui Cycles rented pretty reasonable bikes. So I called them up and arranged to rent a bike for the week. In terms of road bikes, they rent Cannondales and I was told I’d either get a Six Thirteen or a Synapse depending on which had been returned by the time I got there for the pick up. And the price seemed reasonable too ($200 for the week).
So when we got to Maui, I headed to the bike shop to pick up the bike. I took my own helmet, pedals, shoes and saddle to help ensure I was as comfortable as possible. I also remembered to throw in one of the stem mounts for the Garmin so that I could follow routes. When I got there, the bike they had was the Synapse with an Ultegra/Dura-Ace mix and a compact crank. Not a shabby bike at all. The guys were even nice enough to go ahead and swap the saddle for mine and put on my pedals for me. I did a couple of test rides in the area closer to Kapalua to get to know the bike and until there was a day I had enough time to make the ride up the volcano.
When to Ride
Basically everyone’s account of the ride is that the weather can be a bit of a mixed bag on the island and especially on the way up the mountain so to try to give yourself as many days of a window for doing it as possible. I really didn’t want to go before Kara’s family arrived (Thursday) since I knew it would be an all-day trip and Saturday to Monday were likely to be taken with wedding stuff. So I really only had two possible days — Friday and Tuesday. I had decided to try for Friday. Then, on Thursday I began to track the progress of the hurricane heading for the islands… okay, so Friday is really my only bet now.
Day of the Ride
This of course meant that Thursday night, I slept terribly. Couldn’t fall asleep until later as my body adjusted to Hawaii time. Then, I got one of the random telemarketer + hang-up calls at 4 am. So I missed my alarm going off. I woke up at like 6:30 and had intended to be out of the condo by 5:30 at the latest. Oops. Some quick thinking and packing and I decided that even though it’d be a later start, I’d be okay and that I should still make a go for it if I was really going to have the chance to make the climb.
As I’m driving from Kapalua to Paia I start to realize the things I had left in the condo due to my very hurried packing. The first I realized was the heart rate monitor strap. Oh well, no big loss; I can just go on effort. More about finishing than pacing perfectly anyway. The second is sunscreen. This one’s a bit more important but I decide I’ll find some in Paia before I get started. So I keep driving and get to Paia a little after 8. I look for the best parking place and decide that the municipal lot off of Rt 36 right as you come into town is my best bet. I park and find some crappy sunscreen at a gas station so that I can be on my way. I’ve got the bike, spare tube and pump, GPS, two bottles (one electrolytes, one water), a tube of electrolyte drink tablets (these things are nice if you think you can only find water on your route), lots of Clif Shot bloks, a few clif bars, arm warmers and my knee warmers.
Off I Go!
At 8:15 (rather than 6:30 or so), I’m finally on my way on the route I had loaded onto the GPS. Right away I realize that this is no picnic as the road immediately slopes upward with a pretty steady 5% grade. No warm-up, no stretching… just climbing the hill.
At two miles in, I’m beginning to wonder “what the hell was I thinking?” as I slowly grind along. But at the same time, I’m starting to get into some sort of rhythm of spinning along. Seeing the first group of the downhill riders gives me a little bit of a push and I get even more into a rhythm. But it’s still definitely a rhythm of pain as I can’t quite get to an entirely comfortable position on the bike. Not to mention that it’s quite humid and the wind has picked up a bit. I keep going, just telling myself that I need to keep going until the Sunrise Market — regularly pointed out as the last place to get food before things begin in earnest.
At around mile seven, a couple of cyclists turn off of a side road onto the road ahead of me. They were maybe a quarter of a mile ahead, but it gives me some amount of drive and I begin to pedal faster and close in on them. I speak briefly with them as I reach them, but I continue on feeling strengthened by having seen some others on the road. I considered the idea of trying to stick with them so that I’d have some company, but I know that at this point, I’m better off keeping my own pace than trying to tie myself to anyone else.
But passing the two of them is enough to keep me moving for quite a while. The next section actually has tiny little sections of a brief downhill or flatness which helps me a lot as I can rest even briefly on them. The number of downhilll riders is also increasing. The leaders of those groups as well as the drivers of the vans following them frequently wave or give an encouraging word. So I make it pretty easily to the Sunrise Market at about mile 12 and around 3000 feet of elevation
Given that this is one of the three total places to stop for water, I figure it’s worth refilling my bottle and hit the restroom. By now, it’s hot out so I want to be sure I keep drinking. I’m not stopped that long, but long enough. As I get back on the road, I see a rider down the road a little bit behind me. I make the turn onto the road up to the national park itself and the guy behind me eventually catches up to me. We talk briefly and then he’s off. Again I consider trying to ride with him, but realize my own pace is better to keep.
I keep him in my sight for a little while, but the path of very sharp switchbacks takes him away from my sight after a while. I keep pedaling, looking to just notch off every 500 feet of elevation gain. As I pass the 5000 ft marker, I realize that I’m having to breathe a lot harder — the air really does get quite a bit thinner as you go up in altitude. I grit my teeth and keep going. At this point, I see an occasional car going down or get passed by an occasional car going up, but it’s mostly just me and the mountain. As I reach 6000 feet, it’s kind of cold as I’m now into the clouds (!). I pull out my arm warmers and put them on as I keep riding along knowing that the next stop of the lower ranger station isn’t that far away.
Finally, when I don’t know how much more I can go, the sight of the sign for entering the real area of the national park and the lower ranger station appears. I stop to take a quick picture and then pay my $5 park entry fee and ask the ranger if there’s somewhere I can get some water. He points me to the spigot on the side of the station where I gratefully refill my nearly empty at this point bottles. He also asks if I’m training for the Cycle to the Sun race in two weeks. I’m not, but the thought of that suffering helps to push me on again. Well, that plus the fact that I now paid $5 to enter the park 🙂
If the previous leg was hard, this one is mentally mind-breaking. The physical hardship is, at this point, mostly a dull throb. The real pain at this point is the mental effort required to keep pushing forward. I know that I have only about eleven miles to go, but I also know that I still have over 3000 feet of climbing in cloudy/misty/cool conditions while in the clouds. But I’m not going to let the mountain beat me. And so I continue on. My mind concentrates on very few things during this time. Pedaling in small circles. Keeping my eyes on the road ahead of me, but trying not to look up the slope much. That I want to beat the mountain.
As I continue to make my way up, there are now no trees lining the way and the hillside is scattered with just small bushes. In addition, you’re really starting to be able to tell that this is a volcanic mountain. The side is covered in the sort of rocky look that you just associate in your mind with a volcano. Or Mars. I think I zoned out a little and was delerious for a bit of this chunk of the ride. The guy who had passed me eventually passes me going down when I’m about 4 miles from the top and he gives an encouraging word as he passes.
The upper visitor’s center is a mile from the summit and 600 feet down. I pull over slightly and consider for a second stopping there. But I know that if I do, I will never let myself live it down and so I climb back upon my bike and slowly pedal my way upwards. It helps that at this point I’m above the clouds and can see the sun again. As I approach the parking lot at the summit, I get a burst of energy and stand to do some sort of victory yell as I enter the parking lotand I stand to dance on the pedals, unleashing my suitcase of courage with a scream as I enter the parking lot in victory
Four hours and thirty-four minutes. 35 miles. 10000 feet of vertical gain. The single hardest thing I think I’ve ever done on a bike, both in terms of physical effort required but even more from the amount of mental effort. It was like being dropped off the back of the field at a race but orders of magnitude more difficult.
The summit has a fair number of people and some of them look on with disbelief that I did the entire ride up. Some of the others had passed me multiple times as they stopped at scenic lookouts on the way and congratulated me. I pulled out my phone as I sat on the top of the world for some pictures and a brief rest before making my way back down the mountain.
And then, it was time to make my way down. I stopped at the upper visitor’s center to again refill my bottles and use the restroom. I also pull on my knee warmers as I realize it’s a lot cooler on the way down given the fact that I basically am coasting in a high wind. As I make my way down, I also notice the third thing I had forgotten for the day — my long fingered gloves. Oh well. I start down and also sort of wish I had a wind jacket or a rain jacket as the misting picks up as I hit the cloud layer.
The way down is pretty boring. It’s a mix between coasting, braking for the sharp turns that aren’t banked and feeling the fact that I’d been sitting on the bike for 5+ hours. Also, trying to pedal a little to keep from cramping badly after the difficulty of the ride up. I honestly don’t know at this point why anyone would want to do that much less pay to do it. But it’s definitely still a lot faster. Less than two hours for the entirety of the ride down, even when you include the stops I made including for pictures at 5000 feet.
I make it back to Paia and navigate the now significant traffic in town to get back to the car. I gladly dismount and am glad. In the battle of Jeremy vs Haleakala, I beat the volcano.
After doing it and having a little bit of time to reflect on it, I’m even more glad that I did the ride. It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done on the bike. I think it even can count for the use of the word epic. After looking at the times of the finishers in the race which the ranger had mentioned to me, I’m even more glad as I think that my time was quite respectable given that I was doing it solo and not as a race. I might have to do some of the New England hill climbing races as it was a lot of fun.
Equipment-wise, I think I was pretty well prepared. A compact crank was definitely good to have. I can see where a triple could help. Arm warmers and knee warmers was okay for August. I wish I had remembered my long fingered gloves for the way down. A jacket might have been nice, but having to carry it up probably negates the value of it. Leg warmers vs knee warmers is probably a matter of personal preference — it’s six of one, half dozen of the other for me until it’s quite a bit cooler.