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Maui Madness: My Haleakala Downhill Ride

By, Scott Wilke

June 20, 2011

 

I hate roller coasters.

In fact, with the exception of the Mad Tea Cup ride at Disneyland, you will rarely catch me on any sort of amusement ride.  I’m not much for heights or air travel either.

So why I decided to do the down-hill bicycle ride at the Haleakala volcano located on the island of Maui is beyond me. This ride is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

As our tour guide Cory said, “If you hit a guard rail your ride still continues………….only without the bike.”

 Sure, I like riding bicycles and I’ve been riding them for over 20-some years now but this tour is more akin to the Rock-&-Roll Roller Coaster than any bike tour I’ve been on.

And it’s not like I hadn’t been warned.  The web site for of the Haleakala Bicycle Company actually answers the question:

“Is it dangerous?
A: It doesn't have to be. Yes there are risks involved, as there is with any activity you may be doing on your visit to Maui. However the bike ride is very manageable. If you follow the guidelines we provide to you and just be smart about the ride then it isn't any more dangerous that riding down your own neighborhood street. “

Right. 

So I’m thinking that if the tour company has to answer the question “Is it dangerous?” do you really have to think any further?

This ride starts off early in the morning at the HQ of the Haleakala Bicycle Company (http://www.bikemaui.com) located in Haiku, HI.  The goal is to get you outfitted with rain/wind gear, helmet, backpack, gloves, and bus you up to the summit of Haleakala National Park ( http://www.nps.gov/hale/index.htm ) to see the sunrise at around 5:30 AM.  Doing the math backwards you have to get to their shop two hours before sunrise or around 3:30 AM so including travel etc you will need to get up anywhere from between 1:30 AM and 2:00 AM.

And you thought the downhill part was going to be scary!

 

“Happy Campers” at 3:30 AM

These guys are quite proficient at what they do and within short order they had about 50 of us outfitted and on our way in a nice touring bus up to the summit.

The ride itself takes about 45 minutes to an hour.  Sometimes it is foggy outside. Sometimes it’s raining.  Sometimes it clear and you can see the night lights of the cities below outlining the coast of Maui……….it’s simply an awesome view.  The trip is made more enjoyable by our guide/driver who tells a little about the geology and history of the area as well as telling bad jokes.  It is tempting to sleep on the way up but it’s a good idea to stay awake and pay attention as your guide points out various landmarks that may be important to you on finding your way back down the volcano. After all, this is a self-paced tour.

We arrive at the summit at around 5:00 AM de-bus, and go on to the look-out area.  There you will find yourself among many other tourists who have ascended the peak to get a glimpse of the morning sunrise at a little over 10,000 feet.  You discover very quickly why you were outfitted with Columbia wind/rain jackets and pants.  It is very close to freezing at that hour and those who came unprepared have wrapped themselves in beach towels and are jumping in place attempting to keep warm.  In all fairness, there are reasonably nice accommodations.  There are bathrooms and a very small visitor center which is nearly warm but obviously packed with tourists.

The volcano crater is surrounded by clouds and mists which are highlighted by the pre-dawn light.  The sunrise is truly breathtaking and at the exact moment of daybreak a visitor begins to sing what must be an ancient Hawaiian or Indian song or prayer.  I cannot say which, but it amplified the emotionality and spirituality of the moment.  A moment that is hard to capture with just a photo.

Sunrise at Haleakala Volcano

Shortly after sunrise, at around 6:00 AM we boarded our tour bus and descended about 3,000 feet to a staging point outside the park where we met up with a different crew from the bicycle company.  They had hauled our bicycles up the volcano from the shop in Haiku and had them set-up and ready to roll.  The temperature was now much warmer but still very cool.

Almost all the bicycles were Gary Fisher Mullets.  These mountain-style bikes were obviously used many times over and were equipped with only a single speed cassette. (Originally offered stock with 8 speed cassette and 3 speed chain rings). SRAM Avid disc brakes were provisioned on both the front and rear wheels.

My Downhill Companion: Gary Fisher Mullet.  No extra charge for brake squeal.

In all fairness the single speed is really all you need because this ride is not so much about pedaling or finding the “right” gear but more about controlling your downhill speed so you don’t go off the road, hit a car, careen into the side of the volcano, or hit a guardrail.  There are only two or three short uphill stretches and you can walk the bike if necessary.  Brakes are critical.  And the advice of our tour guide Cory was, “If the brakes fail don’t forget to stop.” Funny.

Also, it’s important to note that this is NOT a group ride.  Some shops do offer downhill group rides but this is not one of them.  Their web site describes the tour accordingly:

Home of the original Freestyle Haleakala downhill. Enjoy the freedom and independence of mountain biking at your own pace. No lines to follow, no timetable
to keep, it’s your day on the mountain. Remember, just have fun!”

Finally it was time.  One last photo of me taken by Cory (for loved ones to remember me by), a nice tip for same, and I’m on my way.

Potentially last live photo of author/bike rider

And this is where it gets interesting.

Folks this is all about bicycling when things could get out of control, and quickly too. Everything your guide tells you is true and their tips are helpful but there is nothing to prepare you for fully comprehending the skills and attention you need in these conditions.  I was never into mountain bicycling so perhaps this is a little new to me, and maybe I’m whining a bit, but seriously you need to be awake, alert, “on the stick”, and “bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed”, every moment.  In your spare time enjoy the view.

You can achieve speeds, so we are told, of up to 35 to 40 MPH.  Alone that might be okay but when you’re trying to maneuver switch-backs, avoid various road hazards (including cow pies), deal with passing automobiles, moving quickly out of so-called “bike lanes” that just vanish ……….well folks you have your hands full.

See how the bike lane disappears into guard rail?  Sweet!

To thoroughly enjoy the many views, as our guide recommended, I stopped and pulled off the road.  The first 8 miles or so are the most challenging with steeper descends and many switch-backs with the accompanying blind areas to oncoming traffic. Having maneuvered that territory we passed through the boundary of the National Park and descended into more pastoral areas with homes and lodges punctuating along the way.

There are a handful of places along the rest of the route where you can stop and enjoy food, local bakery, snacks, fruits, and coffee.  I stopped at the Kula Lodge (http://www.kulalodge.com/restaurant_lodge.htm ) for breakfast and had the Sunrise Special with their Maui Blend coffee.  They must use the Kona bean coffee as it was just wonderful.

You finish this ride, provided you followed the correct route, where you began your venture at the bicycle shop.  It took me about 3-1/2 hours to complete the route which included stops for breakfast, coffee, and photos.

The crew at Haleakala Bicycle Company truly knows what they are doing.  It’s obvious that they have been doing this for many years now.  Only one complaint is that my rear disc brake squealed loudly whenever I applied the brake…………which was like all the time.

This was a thrill ride I will not soon forget and if I ever get back to Maui I will definitely do it again.

Hey, who knows, after this venture you just might see me on Space Mountain!

 

See all my Maui Madness photos at Google Picasa Web Albums