Haleakala, Maui. One of the longest paved climbs in the world. From sea level to the 10,000 ft volcano summit is just over 55 km with a five percent average grade. The road winds through sugar cane plantations and eucalyptus forests then zig zags skyward with twenty switchbacks linking it to barren volcanic rock 3000 metres below the summit. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Before arriving in Maui, I had researched the climb with the intention of attempting it during my vacation. My main concern was that the chronic hamstring injury that has kept me off the bike for the past six months would prevent me from completing. I was sick of waiting for it to heal, and frankly I really needed a goal, so as a F-you to my hamstring, decided to just go for it and hope for the best.
The “official” start of the ride, according to Strava, is at sea level in the colourful town of Paia. My family decided to forgo a day at the beach and follow along in a support vehicle fully loaded with snacks and encouragement. At 7 am I unloaded my rented Cannondale Supersix in the beach parking lot and posed for the obligatory bike-on-the-beach photos before taking off. It didn’t take long to figure out what was in store for me. Climbing. Right from the start, the road heads uphill with no warm up or easing into it. My legs felt fresh for all of about 5 km before things started to hurt. I pushed through the initial pain and settled into a groove where I could just keep spinning and ignore it.
I mentally broke the distance down into smaller chunks to make it seem more manageable. The first 20 km passed by relatively quickly ( 1 hr 40 mins) and it took me up to the Kula Market at 3,200 ft, my first rest stop. After refilling my water and using the bathroom at least five times, I trudged on. Soon, the 27 km mark had passed. Halfway. No problem. Then things started to get very tough and I could feel every meter of the next 10 km. My legs were heavy and I tried to focus on the road ahead instead of on the tiny cars I could barely make out from above. It reminded me of just how much further I had to go. Periodically, I would pass stencilled words of encouragement on the pavement such as “Breathe” or “Feed” that snapped me out of my pain haze and gave me a laugh. Now and again chants of “go daddy go!” would come from the backseat of our passing rental car which made me smile and helped me to stay focused.
After I passed through the park headquarters at 7,000 ft, the vegetation started to disappear and give way to jagged volcanic rock. The air was getting thinner and my breathing became more laboured. My legs were burning and I would alternate pushing down on each leg with my hands – foolishly thinking that it would help. I also frequently tried to shift into an easier gear, convinced that I must have shifted out at some point, only to be sorely disappointed. By this point the wide shoulder that I had enjoyed was gone, but passing motorists gave me ample space and the occasional thumbs up in encouragement.
I pulled into the visitors centre at 9,740 ft with legs on fire and gasping for air. One last break until the final push for the summit. Congratulations from motorists that passed me on the way up gave me a sudden surge of energy and I hammered up towards the final climb feeling like I could sprint the entire way. I felt great. That lasted for around 50 m and then I hit the wall. Hard. My pedal strokes became so slow that I felt as if I was moving backwards. I slowly rolled past the 10,000 ft elevation sign and in to the welcoming arms of my family.
My total time was 6:14 including rest stops – 5:05 moving time. The record for the climb is 2:32 so there is lots of room for improvement, but I still felt happy. I made it to the top and my hamstring didn’t explode. It gave me hope that my leg would be ok for the upcoming cyclocross season. If I can survive five hours of relentless climbing, surely I can withstand one hour of pure red line adrenaline, right?
There are plenty of good resources on the web for anyone wanting to take on Haleakala: