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Whee! Biking Haleakala on Maui

It’s odd to think about wearing winter gloves in Hawaii. But at five in the morning at the top of Haleakala volcano on Maui, my friend Lindsay and I were grateful not only for the gloves but for the fleece and leggings and windbreaker tops and bottoms. It’s mighty dark and chilly in the morning at 9,740 feet, even in July, even in a tropical paradise.


Soon we’d be biking down 38 miles, from the summit to the sea, stripping off layers as we passed through seven microclimates. Picture going from winter to spring to summer in a few hours.  Going through the many ecological zones on the 900,000-year-old volcano, “is like traveling from Alaska to Tijuana, Mexico,” our guide, Gary Chadwick, told us.

Pre-dawn, about 200 people stand at the top of the volcano. Most are there to do the winding bike ride, or more accurately, the bike coast. There’s very little pedaling when you’re driven to the top of a peak and “ride” back down. Our tour company isn’t called “Maui Downhill” for nothing. 

It is an eerie scene, under a full moon. People stand on volcanic rocks or lean against metal rail, huddling for warmth as they wait for the sunrise. I can’t see faces until the sky starts to lighten a bit. Many of the people wrapped in blankets have pulled them over their heads. “It feels a bit druid-like with all these people in blankets and wind cheaters,” said Lindsay.

People around us talk good-naturedly about the briskness of the air. “It nice and fresh up here,” said John Slattery, from Galway, Ireland, euphemistically. “I should have been wearing shorts and a t-shirt and holding an ice cream.”

Someone impatient for the sun to rise says, “I hear it’s running a little late.” Then a band of gold starts to appear on the horizon. The murmer level increases. “There it comes,” someone says. And suddenly, the stark light of the early sun erases the mysteriousness of the morning. We can take in a view all around us.

We are above the clouds, and they look like smoke blown in by stagehands to create a floor of gray mist. It looks like the clouds are pouring over a ridge and into the crater like a waterfall. But there is no motion, just shape. The volcanic boulders all around us are full of holes, looking like lumps of black Swiss cheese.

Over our shoulders, the full moon is surrounded by a pinkish light. In front of us the sun brightens to gold. I turn back and forth to watch the golden light and then the moon in its pink glow. “It’s a different perspective of the beauty of life, looking at a sunrise at the top of the world,” Daniel Estrada, assistant supervisor of the company, tells people who call to book trips.

Bikers start to regroup with their tour company leaders. There are 30 groups who follow their guides either to their bikes or to their vans to wait a little longer. Groups leave in five-minute intervals and we are group number 18 in the queue. At first, I found that annoying. I woke up at 2 a.m.—eyes a fine shade of cabernet and joy level at zero—to end up 18th in line?

But our place in line turned out to be perfect. The first bikers took off right away. We had some time to go to the visitors center and the summit, at 10,000 feet. “Now you can say you went to the tip top of Maui,” Chadwick said.

From up there we could see cinder cones that look like burst bubbles in melted, reddish, chocolate. They result from volcanic eruptions of cinder and ash. We got up close and personal with the Ahinahina, the silversword plant endemic to Maui and found only above 7,000 feet there. Silverswords look like the silver version of that bloomin’ onion made popular by an Australian-themed steakhouse, only with a stalk stretching several feet up from the middle. When they were denser, decades ago, Mark Twain said they made Haleakala look like a snow-capped mountain.

When it is close to our launching time, Chadwick takes us back down to the starting point and fits us all on silver “cruiser” bicycles. They are low to the ground, with one gear that he calls the “get-go” gear. The $1,400 bikes are built to be “gravitationally gifted,” Chadwick says. “We don’t want you to be a big wind sail.”

I take a little test ride around the parking lot with the others and then he herds us toward the road from the staging area. And then, off we go in a single-file line. After about 30 seconds of pedaling, I am riding the brakes for miles, through the shrub land of silverswords and other plants dotting the landscape.

Very quickly we are down one rider. She stopped clumsily and fell over while practically standing still. It spooked her. We lose her to the van. The rest of us are fine, from the 11-year-old boy assigned the front position near the guide, to his parents, to a couple of athletic young college women. It is not a particularly hard or scary ride.

What it is, is glorious. Are there big smiles on everyone else’s faces? I don’t turn around to see. The industrial-strength helmets make it difficult to see faces anyway.

When we are down a few thousand feet, there is a huge rainbow arching over us. It seems like we are riding in and out of it as we zip back and forth over the switchbacks. We also ride in and out of rain coming from clouds that sit over the mountain in one spot. When we come out from under the clouds we are warmed by the sun. Then we pass back through them and get rained on again.

Ten miles down it is 10 degrees warmer. At 7,000 feet we pass through a conifer pine forest.  After 14 miles we have dropped 6,700 feet. And there are so many changes of scene left.

“The rollercoaster ride of the day is coming up,” Chadwick tells us. We are going to traverse the “fabulous 29,” that is, 29 consecutive 180 degree turns. Whee! He tells people not to gain too much speed if they plan to make the hairpin turns without incident. It is not quite like a rollercoaster. More like a very wide slalom on wheels.

Next up is, “Liar’s Hill.” We actually have to pedal some. But “Maui Downhill With Some Pedaling” is just not a catchy phrase for a bike company. 

At about 4,000 feet the ride takes us through lavender farms. Then it’s on to the the “Beverly Hills of Maui,” the neighborhood where several celebrities have homes. We are told that Tom Selleck, Randy Travis and George Harrison have all lived there at some point.

Lower down, Chadwick points back up at “Haleakala’s Halo,” the ring of clouds that always surround the volcano. And then it is time to stop for brunch at the Pukalani Country Club, our scheduled stop at mile 28. Long tables of bikers load up on a buffet of eggs, bacon, French toast, fruit and because this is Hawaii, white rice, which is a typical option.

After breakfast, the scenery changes to sugar cane and pineapple fields. Finally we hit Paia, the town where the adventure comes to an end. But not before we walk down to the sea. We take off our biking shoes and socks and wiggle our toes in the Hawaiian Pacific. “You’re always going to remember this ride,” Estrada had said. “There’s nowhere else you’re going to go 10,000 feet to sea level in one ride.”

The wake-up call seems a small price to pay.

First published in the St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.