“Please let there be a flat bit around the corner!” I found myself saying this on numerous occasions, futily hoping for just a small section where I could stop pedaling and coast for a brief few seconds. My wish never came true, as once you leave the beach in Paia, you are climbing continually for 36.6 miles and 10,023 feet straight to the summit of Haleakala.
Cycling up Haleakala was my chosen birthday challenge for the year. An item on my adventure bucket list for quite some time, it seemed like a great excuse to schedule a fun vacation to Hawaii and get it done. Dropping in on West Maui Cycles for our rental bikes, I found out my bike was named “Lance Armstrong”, wondering if that was to be a good or a bad omen for the upcoming climb.
The ride starts from the small town of Paia on the Northeast side of the island. Every true sea to summit climb begins with a tire dip in the ocean. As we didn’t really want to risk getting sand in our drivetrain, we did a quick toe dip instead.
On our bikes before 6:00 am, riding up Baldwin Ave was pleasant enough, albeit with a ton of traffic. You climb past churches and cow filled fields, spinning in a low gear to get warmed up, amazed at the amount of humidity laden sweat you can produce that early in the morning. We were careful not to ride out hard, which is easy to do when your legs are fresh on this lower angle section of the climb. Remind yourself you still have a long way to go.
Around mile 7, you reach Makawao, a small town that offers plenty of places to stop for a coffee or a bathroom break, even though you are less than an hour into your ride at this point. Be sure to go straight at the stop sign sitting at the top of town, tackling your first steep section now on Olinda Road.
At just over mile 8, be sure not to miss your right turn onto Hanamu Road. Keep an eye out for the Maui Roping Club sign as this will indicate your turn. At the end of the rolling Hanamu Road, you will take a left onto 377 or the Haleakala Hwy. At around mile 13, sits the Kula Lodge and Marketplace on your right. This is your last chance to stop for water and supplies before the 7,000ft Visitor’s Center, as the Sunrise Market just a bit further up the road is now permanently closed.
After Kula, you have one last left turn, where the Haleakala Hwy becomes 378 or Crater Road, the road that will take you the rest of the way to the summit. Crater Road is beautifully paved with a nice wide shoulder for cyclists. Up until the entrance to Haleakala National Park, every 500 feet is marked, ticking off your slow but continual progress upwards. You will also come across the occasional motivational shout out spray painted on the side of the road, reminding you to “breathe” and “feed”.
Don’t be fooled by the 5.5% average grade of this climb, as there are big sections of this ride that are steeper and will test your mental strength, the infamous switchbacks from around 4,000ft to 6,000ft being one of them. You ride out of the trees into the blistering hot sun, with buses full of tourists passing by, some even jumping out to take photos and videos of your suffering.
At this point, we started to see all of the Bike Tour tourists bombing down the mountain after watching the sunrise at the summit, wearing huge downhill mountain bike helmets and riding the brakes on tiny mountain bikes with support cars trailing behind. At one point I longed to trade places, but quickly snapped out of it and was very glad to be earning my descent (and believe me it is a fun one!).
The climb between 5,000ft and 6,000ft was mentally tough for me, as the road steepens and after the initial excitement of being halfway wore off, I quickly realized I was still going to be in the saddle, continuously pedaling, for a long time. Then at around 6,000ft, I heard a loud “ping” and my back wheel locked up. I had broken a spoke. As the wheel was so out of true that it wouldn’t cleanly pass the brake even with the adjustment lever fully open, I figured my ride was pretty much over. But Terry, being the true gentleman that he is, offered up his back wheel so I could complete my birthday challenge, resulting in his own hours long mini epic of hitch hiking and multiple bus rides just to get back to the car.
Just before 7,000ft, you get a big mental boost when you see the Haleakala National Park sign and hit the ranger station to pay your $5 bike fee to enter the park (don’t forget to bring money or your ride could end here!). I was excited to have made it this far but at the same time a little depressed to see I still had 11 miles and over 3,000ft to the summit. All I could think of was that I had a full Mt. Tam ascent still before me, having already climbed for 25 miles and 7,000ft. I quickly pushed that out of my mind and rolled on a mile up to the Park Headquarters Visitor Center, a great place for a rest and to refill your now empty water bottles.
The climb between 7,000ft-8,000ft flew by for me, as the grade eased a bit and I felt good after my rest and snack at the Visitor’s Center. Another mini-mental breakdown hit at 8,000ft when I rode out above the clouds and into the searing sun, with the grade picking up again. I just wanted to be at 9,000ft, where I knew no matter what, I would make the top. I tricked my mind out of the pain cave by using Melissa Arnot’s climbing technique- counting to 100 over and over again, trying to remember how many times you have counted to 100.
Not long after the 9,000ft sign, you will ride past a sign that indicates 2 miles to the summit. The best feeling was rounding the corner to see the big white bubbles of the Observatory ahead in the distance. Once near the summit, you will first arrive at the Haleakala Visitor’s Center, quickly noticing the summit hut further up to the right, at the top of a very steep road- the last cruel 18% grade, 300 vertical feet, out of the saddle, heart pounding, challenge to the top.
I soon forgot how tired I was, as the views from the summit are amazing. Across the moonscape terrain, you can see the Big Island in the distance, poking above the clouds, and peer down into the multi-colored crater that hopefully remains dormant for some time to come. After taking numerous summit photos, I grabbed some food, threw on my vest and arm warmers, then pointed Lance downhill. Be careful of hitting those cattle grates at high speed while you are screaming “weeeeeeee” all the way down, with incredible views of Upcountry Maui and the ocean unfolding before you.
All in all, It took me about 5 hours to ride to the top. A pretty darn slow pace, especially when compared to the last year’s fastest women’s time of 3:26 in the annual Cycle To The Sun race and Ryder Hesjedal’s unofficial 2:32 record (Jonathan Vaughters holds the official race record at 2:38). I didn’t care though, as I was just looking to make the summit, enjoying the ride in the process, at least in a Type 2 fun sort of way. Either I did indeed have fun or just a glutton for punishment, as I am already contemplating entering next summer’s race. Who is with me?
Parking: There is a Paia city parking lot on the right just before you reach Baldwin Ave on the Hana Hwy. We parked just a bit earlier at the beach parking on the left in order to do the mandatory toe dip in the ocean before we set off on our ride.
Water: You have two chances to refill your water bottles- the Kula Marketplace around mile 13-14 where you can get water and snacks, then again at the Headquarters Visitor Center at mile 26 and 7,000ft.
Bikes: I would personally recommend paying the money to bring your own bike with you. After “spokegate” and the general poor fit of my rental bike that left me with horrible knee pain at the end of the ride, I really wish I could have ridden my own bike. If you want to rent, check out West Maui Cycles, Maui Cyclery, or South Maui Bikes, depending on where you are staying on the island.
What To Wear: We watched the weather pretty closely and picked a day that was supposed to be mostly sunny. You will likely still run into some cloud cover at the higher elevations (for me a huge welcome relief). I rode up the entire route wearing just my jersey and bike shorts. I brought a vest and arm warmers for the ride back down and was never cold. This will all depend, of course, on what time of year your ride. Keep in mind that the summit can sometimes see snow in winter!