Posted by: Ian | April 7, 2010

Haleakala

Shortly before we left for our vacation I was checking out Twin Six gear and came across the following t-shirt:

Now, Haleakala is the volcano that rises up in the centre of Maui. Even though we’d been here twice before, I’d forgotten that it was cycleable. A small amount of research revealed that there are companies that will drive you up to the top and then put you on a bike to freewheel back down. Our Lonely Planet guide reported that these tours had been put on hold following an average of a couple of ambulance call-outs every week and a brace of fatalities in 2007. LP also says, when advocating the 37 mile drive up to the 10,023 foot summit by car, that in so doing what “you’ve just completed is the highest elevation gain in the shortest distance anywhere in the world”. I still can’t make any sense of this but it did make it sound like a good training ride for the Tour of Wessex, especially as I’d already arranged to hire bikes while we were staying on the island.

At Maui Cyclery (where we rented the bikes) on Sunday the guy told me that about 5 to 7 people do this ride (from his shop alone I guess) every week and that for that day only he’d upgrade the Scott Speedster I’d booked to a Titanium Litespeed. So yesterday morning Paula and I went back in at opening time (8 am) and made the swap.

While we were hanging out waiting to get the bikes sorted we met a group of people who planning to do the ride together on an outing organised by the shop. Part of me felt it would be nice to go with them but on balance I felt like going up at my own pace. Besides, I hadn’t booked to go on the ride.

One of the guys there noticed that I wasn’t going up in bike shoes: “You’re not going up in tennis shoes?!” he exclaimed incredulously. Since we’d travelled with four lots of skiing gear and I’d wanted to be able to cycle and run in Maui I decided this year to bring some light running shoes and leave my SPD’s at home. When I picked up the Scott the bike shop man had offered to rent me some bike shoes. I tried them on: they were much less comfortable than my runners and I imagined the world of knee pain I’d be in for after 37 miles of ascent if I didn’t get the clip/shoe/pedal adjustments right. So I had flat pedals fitted to the Scott, and then the Litespeed, and thought little of it.

Realising, perhaps, that he may have sounded less encouraging than he intended, the guy followed up his comment on my “tennis shoes” with a compliment on my top (a red/white Rapha). He himself was wearing a very decent Swiss flag Assos jersey. The rest of the tour group was clad in standard logo-dense lycra: all very good, no doubt, but not to my taste.

I attached my Garmin 500 to the Litespeed – the Garmin’s new ring-mounting system really is well thought out – and set off. I had preset the Garmin to a scrolling two page display with no power or cadence readings (since I wouldn’t be measuring them). On the first page I had my main progress readings: Heart Rate, Time, Elevation, Distance. On the second page I had supplementary info: Time of Day, Speed, Calories, Heading, Grade. My plan was to stick to a heart rate of 165 +/- 5 bpm, setting the gears and speed appropriately. My goal was simply to get to the top. I read a couple of posts on the internet about the ride up. The one that I based my route on was this, although I didn’t feel obliged to take my rental bike down onto the beach before I started. I also read this description and found it helpful.

Almost as soon as I was on my way I began to see groups of downhillers speeding towards me from their sunset summit rides – these tours, it appears, are back on. All the riders had mountain bikes and wore motorbike helmets and the groups were each led out by an experienced looking rider (easy to pick out from the rest) and followed by a van. Most of the drivers and lead riders gave me the Hawaiian “hang loose” sign.

After around an hour I got the only view of the summit that I would get until I was virtually at the top:

The tiny blips on the central peak are the observatories of Science City (see below), although I didn’t know that, or even see them, at the time.

For anyone else doing this route, the one navigational point to note is the importance of not missing the turning onto Hanamu Road after seven or eight miles – it has a standard green roadsign but I saw no sign directing you to it and I can see how others have missed it.

I stopped at the turning to send a text and as I did so the group from the bike shop came speeding along. I joined with them for about a mile – the only woman in the party was riding the Scott Contessa that Emily rides – and enjoyed the ease of being part of a bunch.

After around a mile we turned onto the Haleakala Highway. Then the group speed picked up and the shade that we’d been enjoying on the quieter roads disappeared. The intense heat of the sun troubled me and I knew that if it didn’t cool as I gained altitude I’d have a very tough time finishing the ride. Although the solitary woman in the group had fallen off the back the rest of the guys seemed oblivious to the temperature and powered on. With my heart rate was rising into the 170’s I let them go – after all, my goal was to justify getting my t-shirt, not to win a competition.

For a while I had also been getting troubled by the saddle. It was a very respectable Selle Italia but I would have given a lot for one of the other saddles that I use at home (a Charge Spoon, two Specialised BG’s and a Felt).

Five miles further on I passed the group having a food stop at a cafe in Kula. By now I’d burned 1,500 cals and was ready for some food myself. A mile further on, at the 14 mile point, Paula swang past me in our rental jeep and pulled out sandwiches and Gatorade. Normally, I like to use 4:1 drink mix on long rides but the Gatorade was most welcome. I also swallowed a couple of Neurofen, primarily for the saddle pain but also as an antidote to any altitude headaches I might get on the road ahead.

I resumed riding feeling better after my little break and didn’t see any other (uphill) cyclists again until I got to the half way point at 5,000 feet of elevation and around 19 miles. (I might note that my Garmin elevation reading, which is not adjusted to correspond to mapping, came within a few percent of all the elevation signs.) Taking a rest, I saw the Assos guy alone cycling towards me. I waited for him and we had a chat. It turned out that the rest of the group had decided not to come up to the crater and had done a gentler circuit back from Kula. Assos guy was on the same model of Litespeed that I was using, which comes equipped with a triple chainring. Whereas I had spun up in the middle ring he had more sensibly switched to the small ring a while back. Since the ride was now getting hard I tried the same. Since I do  the majority of my bike miles on a 48×16 fixie, spinning in a low gear at high cadence doesn’t come naturally to me and I struggled to get any rhythm. The Assos guy went on ahead and, sticking to my plan, I made no effort to stay with him.

A couple of miles further on I came to Paula and the jeep again and took another sandwich and a break. My Neurofen was wearing off and I was not at all certain that I would finish the ride. With the benefit of hindsight, many things that seem hard seem hard because they are actually hard. Later, the Garmin charts would show me that the three or four mile stretch leading up to about the 22 mile mark is the steepest section of the ride. Coming when it does, with (I believed) 16 miles still to go, I regard this part as the crux. In a couple of miles the 6,500 foot is reached, and very soon after that the entrance to the Haleakala national park. Even though there was still a third of the climbing to do, by now I reasoned that I could meet Paula again in four or five miles, which I would make, and then I’d have under 10 miles until the finish – and I wasn’t likely to stop that close to the end. Failing a calamitous muscle failure, I was home. Later, back at the bike shop, I learned that a cyclist riding up on the same day turned round right here and went back down.

Then, on entry to the park (cost $5, even for cyclists), I had two boosts. First, the attendant at the booth told me that I only had 11 miles to go to the summit, not the 14 I had believed. Secondly, the gradient fell off a little. When I met Paula for the final time before the top for the last of the Gatorade I only had about seven miles left to go.

With around two miles left another cyclist passed me on the way up. “Good job,” he said as he rode by, “And in tennis shoes too!!”.

About a mile from the top the Assos guy passed me going down. We waved, clearly very pleased for each other.

Around the time I was expecting to get to the top I came to a visitor centre and also saw a round building higher up ahead. Having seen a mirage cyclist there, I turned into the visitor centre car park, hoping against hope that it was the official summit point. Of course it wasn’t and I had to get back out again and do the final stretch. This was a real killer, the opposite of ” the last part makes it all worthwhile”. Although the gradient was no worse than 12%, after 35 miles of continuous uphill my legs didn’t want to go up. Thankfully, it was short.

At the top I rode past Paula and the jeep and up the path to the summit viewpoint, where I met the guy who had cycled past me moments earlier. He had made it up in something over four hours of cycling on his own Scott Addict, which is a fabulous time. He did the ride last year and I wish I’d asked him what time he did it in then. I had been riding for just over five hours, with an elapsed time of getting on for six.

Close to the summit are the Science City observatories that you can see as blips on the photograph above. According to Lonely Planet, the telescopes there are not used for star gazing but are owned by the Department of Defence for military research including “Star Wars” programme missile interception. There is no public access.

I hadn’t given any thought at all to the ride down and wasn’t especially looking forward to it. But from the moment I set off it was fantastic. The road was virtually empty: I passed only a pair of riders whom I’d seen at the bike shop and who were now close to the finish. The road also had a perfect smooth surface. Its gradient was shallow enough to avoid building up excess speed, especially since I slowed for the hairpins, taking a proper line through the gentler bends. In Corsica last summer I had found myself unintentionally building up speeds over 50 mph. Not wishing to die on the road, I prefer slower speeds that are still exhilarating.

Someway down I ran into a rain cloud and got soaked and here I rode conservatively over the frictionless wet road. By the time Paula caught up with me in the jeep I was back out of the cloud and onto dry tarmac again. Travelling at a pretty constant 30 mph, ultimately I got back to the bike shop before she did since I didn’t have to queue at the red lights at Paia.

In the shop I found myself in yet another discussion, this time quite extended, about the impossibility of me having done the ride in “tennis shoes”.

Looking at my Shot of the Day later, I noticed that the Litespeed had been given to me with the front brake caliper open. My bad for not checking it.

One of the write-ups on the ride that I linked to above claims that, “Though the ride was not easy, neither was it particularly difficult”. I think that’s misleading. For a start, I’d like to know the success rate of people who attempt it – I’m betting it’s less than 70%, even given that cyclists who try to cycle up two vertical miles will be relatively thin on the ground. To put it in context, there is almost twice as much ascent as on the Hell of the Ashdown. What’s really hard about this ride, though, is that on the way up you never get a chance to relax and let your mind wander: because it’s always on an up gradient you’re always aware of it. If asked whether I’d recommend it, I’d answer two different questions. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely, definitely yes! Would I do it again? Almost certainly not.

But I have ordered the t-shirt.

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Responses

  1. […] Tuesday I rode up Haleakala for the second time, having sworn three years ago that I’d never do it again. It’s a 35.1 mile climb that rises 10,000 […]

  2. […] route rates 175 – below each day of the Tour of Wessex, the 2010 Tour Ride and, of course, Haleakala but above all of my other rides from last […]

  3. […] the Difficulty for the whole. This measure does not have that quality. This is well illustrated by the climb up Haleakala. On the chart above I reflect the difficulty rating calculated from my round trip up and down. This […]

  4. […] has been a great cycling year for me. I’ve done over 5,000 miles, including the ascent up Haleakala (and the ride down), the Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the […]

  5. […] of continental Europe? I plan to do some to see for myself. Certainly, earlier in the year I found Haleakala’s 35 miles of constant 4-8% incomparably harder than anything I’ve done in England, but that’s something else […]

  6. […] 100 climbs book says that geographically we can’t compete with climbs like Mont Ventoux and Haleakala. I looked both of these up on climbbybike and found that Mont Ventoux only manages a ranking of […]

  7. […] obvious rational reason to rule out titanium. I love the ride of both my Van Nic and the Litespeed I used in Maui, and Ti is sturdy, relatively light and rustproof. It’s often said to be expensive but I […]

  8. […] from Maui I was excited to find my Twin Six Haleakala waiting for me at home, which I had earned by cycling 35 miles up a volcano. For the past couple of months or so I’ve also been enjoying wearing my Twin Six merino […]

  9. […] over the closing section; there was a strong and unhelpful wind but it was essentially flat. Once again, traffic problems in the tiny town of Paia led to the Litespeed and the jeep reaching Maui Cyclery […]


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