Haleakala

There are those words that are their own definition, that beg understanding as they roll off the tongue. Haleakala is a word of binary importance. Either it means nothing to you because you’ve never heard the word, or it conjures that great volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It is either gibberish or a sacred place, nothing or a home to a particular quest.

I first visited Haleakala in 1993. Almost exactly 19 years ago. The meeting occurred during a week of blissed-out love, the rising soufflé that arrives immediately following a wedding. My first wife and I signed up for a tour with Chris’ Bike Adventures, an outfit I’d sourced through our hotel because they allowed clients to descend at their own pace on mountain bikes, rather than while wearing hideous yellow jumpsuits and ridiculous motorcycle helmets and riding one-speed cruisers equipped with drum brakes. Our guides were more priests of empowerment than traffic cops to liability. Chris’ operation was different in another important regard: To allow his clients the freedom I found so attractive, we had start further down the volcano, outside the national park.

Today, following a succession of crashes, all tour companies begin their rides outside the national park. But solo riders, well, solo riders still have unrestricted access to the park’s complement of roads. If you want to descend those whole enchilada, by yourself is the way to do it.

Haleakala is a climb like no other. It is a whopping 36 miles, almost perfect in its unremitting elevation gain, perfect and pure in the way that Great White Sharks are perfect and pure: They eat, swim and make baby sharks. Nothing else. Haleakala goes up and up and up. Nothing else. If you climb Haleakala from Paia (pah-ee-uh), you will ascend some 10,200 feet, starting at sea level. The 8,300-foot Col du Galibier is an also-ran by comparison. Suck it, bitches.

I’ve wanted this day for a very, very long time. And I can say it has satisfied me in a way that very few things have the power to do. It was a kiss to the most existential of joys.

This day is destined to become a feature for peloton magazine. We’re not sure when it will run, but it will run, absolutely. To get a look at just how hard the day is, or if you’d like to judge just how slow I climb (about 40 minutes for every 1000 feet), you can check out my Strava file here. I’ll admit, while I’m almost never in need of a gear bigger than a 50×12, this was a day where I could easily have put a 50×11 to use … maybe even a 53×11, especially if I’d ridden it with a set of Zipp 404s or Enve 67s. And yes, that means I want to come back and do it yet again.

For many things in this world, there’s a bottom line: This one is simple. If ever you have enjoyed riding a bicycle either up or down a hill, Haleakala is an altar to altitude. It is, in my estimation, as imperative on a cyclist’s bucket list as l’Alpe d’Huez or RAGBRAI.

Put another way: GO.

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25 comments

  1. thrash

    You have to talk to Tomas about his battle with Bob Cook and Dale Stetina up the climb. Sounded great and historic with Bob’s untimely death.

  2. Chris

    I’ve driven up Haleakala twice to catch the sunrise and cycled around its lower slopes. The complete ascent is definitely on my bucket list. It would be right around triple the longest continuous ascent I have done to date!

  3. Steve

    Can’t wait to see your Peloton article. I was fortunate enough to ride Haleakala from Paia two weeks ago and had a similarly profound experience.

  4. John

    I was there, but didn’t ride it and deeply regret it. The volcano just taunted me the entire trip. Love the notion of descending for an hour at 30+ mph…well earned after that ascent!

  5. refthimos

    My assault (OK, gentle prodding) of Haleakala is scheduled to go down in just 17 days. Which means 2-3 Latigo repeats tomorrow in preparation. But I have the feeling you can’t fully prepare for this ride.

  6. Andrew

    Slight change of subject – any suggestions for good big island rides? There for 5 days in October teaching. Renting a cervelo. Staying at that hotel area on the towards waimea. Forget name.

  7. Matthew Zullo

    Was there in April but drove up. Saw 3-4 women cycling up through the fog. Seems like a good steady climb w/o too many really steep parts. Would love to ride this some day and also the road to Hana. What gearing did you have for the ride up?

  8. Kirk

    Climbed it last year while visting family on the island. It’s a great climb, and will most likely become a yearly (or as frequently as I make it out to Maui) climb. Highly recommended!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Matthew: I was amazed by just how many really long sections of 9 to 10 percent there were. Then at the very end, we’re talking within the last 500 meters, it hits 12 percent briefly. I was running a 34×27 and most other years of my life that would have been plenty low, but I wouldn’t have minded a 34×29 for at least a few sections yesterday.

      It’s worth mentioning in general that just how long a ride this would be for most riders. I was expecting a five hour-ish ride and ended up with six. The lack of opportunities for recovery—other than just pulling over and stopping—really cause your legs to load up with lactic acid. I had to work pretty hard to ease my HR off of threshold. I’ll also mention that hypoxia has a way of really curtailing one’s math skills. Srsly.

  9. MattZ

    Thanks for the response. Also, was wondering what you did for food and water? Hard to carry food and water to last 6 hours plus the down hill. There are no 7-11s on that climb. Did you have a follow car or support vehicle. Also, it is quite a bit cooler at the top than the bottom so extra clothes is a need also. Thanks.

  10. Conrad

    One of my all time favorite rides too! I was vacationing on Maui with the family and decided more or less on a whim to ride it. I rented a road bike and bought a couple water bottles from South Maui Bicycles, wore my street clothes, and rode from our hotel on the beach. You can fill up your water bottles at the visitor center on the way up. I didn’t have a support car- the family was at the beach!
    It wound up being one of the most scenic and fun rides I have ever done. A funny thing happened on the way down. A young guy on a long skateboard started down just before me. I figured I would catch and pass him quickly. I consider myself a fast descender. This kid crouched down low and shot ahead of me on the straights, then stood up and stuck his arms out to slow himself down by aerodynamic resistance alone at the last second just before those banked hairpin turns, laying himself out just about parallel to the pavement through the turn. It was one of the sickest things I have ever seen and fun to watch. I don’t think I could have passed him even if I would have wanted to.
    If you like going up and down hills- Mount Lemmon/Catalina highway in Tucson AZ, Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier, and the RAMROD route on Mount Rainier are my other favorites.

  11. jon

    I had the happy opportunity to ride Haleakala as well 1.5 weeks ago. Took it slow and steady, and enjoyed every last bit of it. Except for coming down in the thick fog that afforded about 5 ft of visibility. Still, one of, if not the best ride I’ve ever ridden.

    One other thing to note is, if you, like me, like to climb seated and in primarily one position. . .it’s going to get quite uncomfortable several hours in. I’ve never had a problem with saddle discomfort, but 5+ hours in essentially the same position does a person in. . .

  12. Jeff D

    Andrew – On the big island definitely ride Kohala Mountain Road. The south end of the road starts right near Waimea and goes up like an elevator. Ride the ridge NW to Hawi and on a clear day you will see Haleakala across the water.

  13. Corey

    Wow, we did that climb on the same day, Sept 6! My wife and I were in Maui for the week, and decided we’d have a go at it. We rented bikes from Donnie at Maui Cyclery, located in Paia, right near the start of this climb. We also opted for the tour, which included two other guys that were renting, and two shop guys as guides. Additionally, someone drove the shop truck along with us as SAG support up to the park entrance.

    It was a long and relentless climb, but absolutely worth it. The scenery went from lush tropical landscape, to high elevation ranch land, and at the top it looked like you were on the moon. For me, it was definitely easier than the Death Ride (completed that this year, 1st attempt), but quite a bit harder than doing triple repeats of Mt. Diablo (which totals 10,000ft of climbing). I’ve told all my local group ride buddies about it, and they are now all itches to get the Maui and give it a shot! :-)

    Cheers!

  14. George

    “wearing hideous yellow jumpsuits and ridiculous motorcycle helmets and riding one-speed cruisers equipped with drum brakes”

    Haha! I actually took one of these rides. It does seem pretty corny, but the particular company we used (the name escapes me now) was actually very professional and did a great job. At the very least, the ride was so much fun that it rekindled my love for bicycling (my BMX days from 15 years prior waned soon after I got my driver license, unfortunately). After returning from Maui, I bought a mountain bike, and, several years later, my road bike. So I guess I owe my current love for cycling to that beautiful day descending down Haleakala in my yellow jumpsuit.

  15. BigWheel

    OK I pressed the wrong button. I plan to ride up and down on Oct 7, just before the start of the ECS conference in Honolulu. Are there any other conference attendees reading this blog who would like to ride it as well?

  16. MattS

    I rode the Volcano in March. I was on the island for two weeks with my wife and kids, and thought I’d do it once or twice. This was my spring kickoff. I hit it on my 5th day on the island, a Saturday. Wow, did it ever get windy! I’d ridden from our place, about 40k, and would have to make the 40k back, and I didn’t know how I’d feel at altitude, since I never ride that high. Ouch. Pretty much crawled up, averaging about 12kph…wow. The descent was inhibited by the wind, and the vibrations from the road were brutal, and this was on a steel bike with tubeless 23s! 185k, a hard day’s work. If I were to do it again I’d want company, its a moonscape up there. Padraig, I hope you got over to the north side of the West Island, the road there is insane: http://app.strava.com/rides/5820279

  17. refthimos

    Here in Maui for 8 days. Did Haleakala Monday 9/24 but Garmin crashed and lost my ride! Which raises the question – if you don’t have a GPS/power file for a ride, did it really happen? So of course I had to do it again 36 hours later – today, Thursday 9/27. I didn’t exactly set any records on the way up, but I did manage to KOM the descent!

    http://app.strava.com/segments/661686

    Definitely one to cross off the bucket list – bummer the Big Island is not part of this trip
    because Mauna Loa is next!

    PB, I’ll have to look for you before NPR one of these days and we can swap Haleakala stories on the roll-out.

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