Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holy Haleakala: All-roading in Maui




I've been holding this post in the que since writing it in April, seeing as trips to Maui don't seem so relevant when spring classics are kicking off. Today a fellow rider asked about Haleakala via Strava, so I figured the time was right to unleash this. I hope you all find it interesting, and perhaps even helpful if you are planning a trip to this incredible little island.

A nifty heat map of all the rides I did in Maui, via Strava.

When choosing our family's March Break vacation destination, tropical was at the top of my daughter's list of criteria, my wife...same, and both adults were keen on keeping the total time in the air to a maximum of 12 hours, and no vaccinations required for our 11 month-old son either. Being able to drink tap water would be good, and we were hoping to steer clear of getting robbed. Having clearance to bring a bike, I wanted to land somewhere with lots of climbing close to where we'd stay. In the spring, I find climbing time is what I need most to form my foundation for hard efforts come April's Spring Classics. Iain and I got our gruel-fest ride out of the way the day before we left home for our destination, Maui.

Maui has it all. Family criteria; check. Climbing; check. The weather is about 24 Celsius each day, maybe up to 26. The air is relatively dry, the sun shines most of the time, and the people are friendly. Sea turtles, colorful fish, black sand beaches, lava rock, luaus...and Haleakala.

I learned of Haleakala a little over a year before planning this trip. Its a dormant volcano, and it constitutes most of Eastern Maui. One paved road forges a path all the way to the top, summiting at 10,023 feet above sea level. One can begin at the ocean in Paia, and ride the 60km to the top in one go. This thing is a beast. Turns out our very own Ryder Hjesdal bested Jonathan Vaughters' record up to the top a couple years ago, in under 3 hours. Yikes.

I knew I'd ride Haleakala, maybe twice. So I packed a pair of tubeless Hutchinson Atom tires in 23c (gasp!) to run on my Stan's Alpha rims, holding up my Steelwool all-road bike, the Secteur 18. A 34x28 low gear would have to do, generally it's fine. I kept my shaved down Stan's Raven 35c tires on my wheels, expecting to ride a mix of surfaces before hitting, or being hit by, Haleakala.

After day one, mostly spent shopping for groceries (at Costco!) and getting oriented, I headed out of North Kehei around 5:30 pm to check out a dirt road running up the West Maui volcano I'd seen from the shuttle we'd taken from the airport. No go, private property. Heading west, I encountered a dirt road running to a trail head, so I have it a shot. After about 500m, the trail became full on Mtb gnarly, so I turned back and followed the red dirt road West until getting dumped back onto the highway, from which point I looped home. Without daylight savings, it was getting dark before 7, and I mean dark.


Ride #1. Whoa, volcanic rock.
Before long I found that the dirt roads I'd seen on google earth are virtually all private. Like most American states, Maui is dominated by fences and 'No Trespassing' signs. From North Kehei, one might think it would be easy enough to connect to the Southern end of the Road to Hana, which features thousands of turns and beautiful dirt sections. Over an open wifi network, I downloaded the google map for the island onto Galileo, a free app that lets you cache maps and navigate via gps. According to the map, I had a few options for connecting to the RtH. In reality, none of these were practicable. One was a gnarly trail along the coast (I mean GNARLY, as in lava boulders), the others old dirt roads thought private properties. One such property Is home to a US military laboratory, so I learned from a security guard I prodded nearby. If I wanted a confrontation with an armed soldier. I could hop the fence. Uh, no thanks.

Bottom line is that one can either ride paved roads or full on MTb trails in Maui; there isn't much middle ground. One exception, which I wasn't able to explore, is the dirt road extending the road up to the Polipoli Forest on Haleakala. I read in our guidebook about a redwood forest up on mountain, and a paved road switchbacked up. Fat tires mounted, I checked it out.
One evening, for my second crack, I parked at the base of the climb.

OMG, I need a 32t cog.
I parked here while I tried to recover from the ass-kicking I was taking up this brute.
Holy crap. After climbing for a while, having ridden from Kehei, I hit the Waipoli road and was slapped in the face by a 20% grade. My heart rate spiked and I literally had to do the postman as I struggled in my 34x28. At the top I slumped against the shady bank, collected myself, and prepared to continue. 




The grade mellowed to the teens from there, ascending through woods and open alpine-like pastures steep enough for paragliding. Running low on time, I turned back before reaching the summit. 

A week later, I returned and reached the end if the paved road. From there there seems to be a couple more kilometers (on top of the 10k of Waipoli Rd.) to go, traversing into the redwoods. From there, one can ride trails through the forest, and even connect to the summit of Crater Rd, which summits Haleakala. So the Polipoli forest might be the best place to do some monster crossing on the island. A couple things are certain: it's a brute of a climb, and the descent is MENTAL. The upper section rides like a roller coaster, and the lower section is rough and steep. Lots of braking is required for blind turns, enough that my brakes actually squealed as the rims heated up considerably, something I've never had happen on a road bike before. Pretty phenomenal.
The view from the top. If I return, my priority will be to continue from here to the redwood forest. 30mm or larger tires would be the ticket, it gets rougher from here. This photo was taken looking back in the direction I came from.
Another approach up Haleakala can be taken from the northern stretch of the Road to Hana. Starting in Paia, probably the most down to earth town on Maui, I battled strong winds along the coast until reaching the 16 mile marker, where I headed inland. Redwoods loomed overhead as a steadily ascended Haleakala, stopping for lemonade after an hour and a half or so, chatting with a local about my route, and striking back out. 


The store, really friendly people here.

The climb up Makawao Ave. was steady and calm. Piiholo Rd. attacked Haleakala directly, heading straight up in steady switchbacks. Steady as she goes, the road was in great shape most of the way, the air fragrant with the scent of a multitude of flowers and the redwood's oils. Cresting at the junction with Olinda Rd, I transitioned to the descent back to town. Many a blind turn, peppered with heaves in the road from massive tree roots proved exciting. Airing off one massive heave, I found myself running out of road to turn, a little hairier than planned. All ended well though, and I logged the ride as one to recommend for certain. Just stay on your side of the road.


Single-lane gnarliness on the North-West road.
On the west aspect of Maui, there is a road that circumnavigates the mountain that dominates the landscape. I rode almost all of this loop over three rides. The whole loop is said to be 100k. 

I can attest that the northern stretch, from Kapalua to the 5-mile marker on the 340 (the Kahekili ) is incredible. Fat tires come in pretty handy for the single-lane sections one will find north of the 5-mile marker end. 



I think it's fair to say this is the gnarliest road I've ever been on. Heading in the counter-clockwise direction, you transition from State Highway to rural road, complete with one car-width sections, blind turns, sheer drops, and few barriers. Despite the life or death quality of the road, or perhaps because of it, the route will make quite an impression. Once it returns to State Highway, safety goes up, and so does one's speed. Quite a ride, one not to miss if you visit the island (unless you are timid).


Official start of the climb in Paia.
Finally, returning to Haleakala, I'll convey my experience of THE climb. I rolled from Kehei at dawn, 6:30 local time. 20k to Paia, I dipped my feet in the ocean to properly begin the climb from sea level, despite what my Garmin read. 


The beach at Paia, home of the BIG waves. 
Up Baldwin road, steady grade, no issues. I likely made a navigational error and added a few kilometers, but wound up on the Haleakala Highway, then Crater Road before too long. 


The store on the way up. Not the friendliest staff, but they sell water.




My impression of the route was then, and remained consistent: bleak. Essentially, you ride up a road through a desert. I tend to be energized by forests, no open spaces, so I found the climb boring. On top of that, it became petty painful around the 5500ft mark. Legs? Nope. Lungs? Nah. Neck, shoulders, and chest. I can't say whether it was the altitude or the days of
long descents in the drops prior, but my upper body was in agony. To add insult was some of the most intense wind I've encountered on the bike, enough to blow me into the gravel at one point around 8000ft up! Ok, so a 60k climb, plus brutal wind. Sweet. All there was to do was pump LCD Soundsystem out my iPhone in my pocket, and climb the final 1000ft to the summit. 



Wanna talk about wind? Holy Haleakala, it had to be near 80kph at the top! 







See the jacket on the lady? Insanely windy up here.


The view from the top.

Time to don arm warmers and vest, down a bar and some liquid from the shelter of the building up top, and hit the longest descent ever.

80k into the ride, time to drop for 60. Numb hands, sore neck, whatever, this is epic Rapha merino wool stuff. Yet the wind I battled on the way up was still swirling, perhaps more now, slowing my progress while providing the illusion of excessive speed in my ears. 60kph sounded like 100! A tourist in a rented Mustang let me pass, freeing me up to ride my own pace. Well above the treeline, I could see traffic coming from aways, and used all the road I needed. On twisty descents, I found I was always faster than the cars; most let me pass, but I was going slower than I wanted to. Damn wind. The klicks flew by, and back in Paia I made a b-line to a burrito joint before riding the final 20k home. Gawd yes. 

A little under 4 hrs for the ascent, I didn't post a fast time at all, but I did what I wanted to: stay aerobic and ride the whole route well. So early in the season, going hard was not on the menu, just getting up that beast was enough. 8hrs all in, it was. Big 160k day (in my mind, it was more like 180!). While I'd thought I might want to do the route more than once this trip, I  found it too desolate and uninspiring to tempt me. This is a once-a-visit ride for me. Maybe the same now for Steve, a Vancouverite I rode with for a while who was taking in the climb for the first time in his 35 years visiting Maui! He rode up on a 39x26, what an animal! Well done Steve!
Ahhhhhhhhhhh.......
Riding the South-West side of the West Island.
Driving the Road to Hana.
Near Paia. My wife snapped this out the car window on my phone!
Riding West through the lava fields on the South side of Maui. I spotted a family of matching brown goats in here one day, completely camouflaged. Incredible adaptation.
Heading up to the Iao Needle, a historic site. Quite a story of carnage here.
The Road to Hana, North side.

As the photos show, the scenery in Maui is spectacular. Haleakala is a bucket list ride many will want to check off. With friends, it could be fun. Solo, it was a grind. But a satisfying one, at that. I don't by any means regret doing the ride, it was a special experience. However, the most inspiring rides were those on the West island, and the Waipoli ascent up Haleakala. These are the rides I would most like to share with friends. The climbing is beautiful, and the descents are beyond exciting. Those who can't understand why mountain bikers like me bother with road riding might get it if they rode roads like these once in a while.

During our stay there was little rain, and average temps were about 25 degrees celcius, very nice. The wind was indeed strong. I would not bring an aero frame or deep wheels to the island. Ditto carbon rims. My bike was near-ideal, offering me almost low enough gearing, and good tire options. Grand Bois in 30mm (actually 32mm) could be the perfect tire for all the riding I did, since they roll fast and provide excellent security and comfort. For bikes with less clearance, perhaps Schwalbe Ultremos in 28mm, or Challenge's Parigi Roubaix (labeled 28, actually 29mm). One has to vie toward descending safety on the island, ATMO. The roads are certainly rough enough to warrant voluminous tires. If you can, equip your bike with a 34x32 climbing gear and enjoy yourself.

Here are the greatest hits from the trip. Please feel free to comment on Strava or here if you have questions or anything else to share. If you are looking to rent a bike, or guided on a great ride, visit Maui Cyclery. I stopped in one day and chatted with the owner, Donny Arnoult as he was about to take a client out for tour. Great rentals, and a great guy, this is the place to go for road stuff. South Maui Bicycles is the mountain bike shop, friendly guys.







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