Maui Mountain high

Cycling up the Haleakala volcano is no day at the beach.

In the mountain of literature devoted to sports nutrition, surely someone has made the point that Eggo waffles are not the ideal fuel for an endurance event. And if said event involves riding a bicycle from sea level to an elevation of 3,000 metres, over a distance of less than 60 kilometres, even the most slothful of souls — someone who thumbs a remote for exercise and knows little about sports or nutrition — might question the wisdom of preparing for such a ride by eating toasted flour paste covered in maple syrup. So I will not try to defend my diet that day. I will simply thank God I survived.

My tale begins and ends on Maui, that lush and laid-back Hawaiian isle featuring acres of beautiful beach, and endless opportunities to do nothing except bask in the sun and play in the surf. But since road cycling is a favourite diversion of mine, I was also intrigued by the idea of pedalling one of the sport’s most feared and revered climbs: the winding road up Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano. Haleakala is a hulking beast that forms roughly three-quarters of the island’s landmass on the east side. There is a paved road to the summit, built for car-driving tourists and astronomers. Cycling your way up is another matter.

It’s not that the climb is incredibly steep. In terms of the average grade, it’s only about 5% — that is, about five metres of elevation gain for every 100 metres of riding. There are some brutally tough sections where the pitch is around 10%, and at the very end it kicks up to a quad-burning 15%. But what makes the ride so intimidating is the sheer distance covered: more than 60 km, with just one section of maybe 200 metres that is slightly downhill. Undaunted, I hooked up with Go Cycling Maui, a tour company run by Donnie Arnoult, a former pro cyclist from the U.S. mainland, that offers supported rides around the island. For US$180 you get a well-tuned titanium Litespeed road bike (cheaper and less aggravating than schlepping my own bike back and forth from Calgary) and, more importantly, company on the ride, including a van carrying equipment and food — not to mention me, if I cracked before reaching the summit.

Once in Maui, the idea of riding up the volcano started to hold less appeal. I found myself gazing warily up Haleakala’s green slopes as we drove around the island over the first few days of our vacation. It looked mysterious and menacing. In mid-afternoon, a thick band of cloud often forms midway up, so you can’t see the summit. By ride day, I was having serious misgivings. I decided to drive over to Arnoult’s shop in Haiku, on the island’s north side, to scope things out. If the other riders were built like Lance Armstrong, the gear was shoddy, the weather was shitty, or I just wasn’t feeling up to it, I would bail and head to the beach. I had so many excuses, my wife figured I’d be back in time to help load up the boogie boards. With the ride looking doubtful, what was the point of carb loading? Four waffles would easily tide me over for the short drive to Haiku.

But when I got there, the weather was pleasantly warm and slightly overcast; I was a bit congested from a cold, but could ride well enough; the Litespeed looked great; and the other eight riders appeared fit, but most of them didn’t look like crushers. Hell, one guy even had a potbelly. The next thing I knew, I was committed. The support crew plied me with water bottles and energy bars, and Arnoult came over and offered some electrolytes (salt pills, essentially) to help prevent my muscles from seizing up. He recommended I take at least six.

We rolled out of the parking lot, and started climbing. Just like that. The road wound through sugar cane fields, orchards and quiet, leafy residential areas. The energy kick from waffles wears off surprisingly quickly and at 760 metres, just a quarter of the way up, I was already losing steam. But I soldiered on, inspired by Arnoult’s comment that we were close to the first refueling station. We passed through a grove of eucalyptus trees and pulled off the road at around 900 metres, just before the Crater Road junction. The van was waiting for us, with more electrolytes and little bananas grown in Arnoult’s backyard.

The next 900 metres of climbing were brutal, with the grade kicking up to 10% for a 3 km stretch of switchbacks. Midway through, my quads and calves started to rebel. They weren’t used to this kind of workload and decided to let me know. It started with the occasional whimper — a tiny jolt of pain in the back of my leg — but entire muscle groups were soon screaming out. A couple of times, my legs actually locked up mid-pedal stroke.

Thankfully, there were distractions. A nice blond gal from Nevada chatted away with me. And the scenery was incredible. The switchbacks provided dramatic views of the valley below and the neighbouring islands of Lanai and Molokai. Somewhere around 1,500 metres we entered the clouds and rode through a dense mist for a few kilometres, before entering a pine forest.

By the second refueling stop at 2,000 metres, we were above the clouds for good. I consumed more electrolytes and food, lathered on sunscreen and prepared mentally for the final push to the summit. Soon, we would emerge from the pine trees and enter Haleakala National Park — all low bushes and exposed volcanic rock. After that, it was simply a long, tough slog to the summit. The incline was a little gentler, but once I got past 2,100 metres the air became noticeably thinner. At 2,440 metres I had to stop and stretch, because my quads were once again starting to lock up.

By the next elevation marker, at 2,743 metres, we were riding through a moonscape of black volcanic rock, and I was looking wistfully at the shining dome of the observatory at the summit. Thankfully, the wind was light and it was warm. There are often powerful gales and cold temperatures at the summit, which would have made the last stretch truly miserable.

The final kick in the gut came about a kilometre from the summit. I got out of the saddle and struggled up a 15% incline. After reaching the parking lot at the top, I followed a narrow wheelchair ramp to a small shelter, where you can go no further. A sign noted the elevation was 10,023 feet (about 3,055 metres). The total ride time was about four-and-a-half hours — quite a bit longer than the record of two hours and 38 minutes held by pro cyclist Jonathan Vaughters.

We took in spectacular views of the massive and barren crater, which is about 11 km across and 792 metres deep. To the south, we could see the island of Hawaii, with its own massive volcano. But the sightseeing was brief, and we soon mounted our bikes for a speedy descent. It took another hour or so to get down the volcano. I hit speeds of close to 80 km/h, but had to slow often to navigate the switchbacks. We stopped twice: once to fix a flat, and once toeat tangerines and guava from a roadside fruit stand.

The great thing about completing a ride like this midway through a vacation on Maui is the recovery time. A therapeutic massage at my hotel, the exquisite Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, was essential in helping my muscles recover. And, of course, there’s nothing quite like laying on a sunny beach and nursing a locally brewed pale ale. Those kinds of carbs beat waffles any day.