Reporting from Haleakala, Hawaii — At Haleakala, it's all downhill
Every day, about an hour after first light hits the green hillsides of upcountry Maui, the spokes begin to sing.
If you stand along the road by Sunrise Market in the hamlet of Kula, you'll first hear the buzz, then with a whoosh the bicycles come around the bend: tourists by the dozen, their heads encased in heavy-duty helmets, their bodies wrapped in rain suits, their speed about 20 mph. They're going 27 miles, following about two dozen switchbacks, rolling past hardened lava and cane fields, fruit stands, lazy livestock and three small towns. And 99% of it is downhill.
"It's a little surreal," says M. Sarah Creachbaum, who passes the riders every morning on her way to work as superintendent of Haleakala National Park. "They're like space people, with the helmets and the colored outfits."
On a busy day, 300 of these riders come around the bend, tempted by a simple, powerful, double-barreled idea: to see sunrise from the lip of Haleakala, a 10,000- foot Hawaiian volcano, then glide down the slope to the sea.
Planning your trip
Seven companies on Maui hold permits to offer bike tours that begin with van or bus trips to sunrise viewings atop Haleakala. The guided rides go from the edge of the park to sea level, a 6,500-foot descent over about 27 miles of two-lane public roads.
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Yet this ride can hurt you or even kill you.
In February, a 64-year-old rider from Mankato, Minn., died of head injuries after she crashed (she was wearing a helmet) into an embankment near the town of Makawao. She wasn't the first. Since it first popped up in the 1980s, the volcano-ride trade has grown into a full-fledged industry, fallen into crisis amid a spate of injuries and deaths, then righted itself again. As many as 90,000 customers a year ride down Haleakala, typically paying $115 to $150 each for a sunrise tour and guided ride.
So how does it work, this balancing of risk and thrill on two wheels? One morning in late October, I signed on to find out.
At 2:45 a.m. — yes, you read that right — a bike-tour van picked me up at my hotel along the island's western shore. After a stop to collect equipment and sign release forms with about a dozen fellow riders, we made the two-hour drive through the darkness to the top of Haleakala, passing the eerie glow of cane fires as we went. (Workers burn dried cane leaves in the fields as part of the harvest.)
At 5:15 a.m., we stepped out near the top, 9,740 feet above sea level, and into a parking lot crowded with hundreds of bundled-up tourists, a dawn of 40-degree gusts, numb digits, swirling clouds and volcanic moonscape, all of which erupted in golden light when the sun hurled its first beams at us from the horizon. Locals note that many winter sunrises are rain-soaked and cloud-bound, but this one was well worth the early wake.
For the seven bike-tour companies with permits to offer sunrise viewing and downhill rides, the day's adventure was just getting started.
At 7:30 a.m., after transport to our starting point just outside the national park (about 6,500 feet above sea level), we saddled up and got a stern safety briefing from guides Everett Bennett (driving) and Joshua Sisson (riding). I chose Cruiser Phil's, a small 12-year-old outfit, because it had done well in a 2008 National Park Service safety study (www.nps.gov/hale/parkmgmt/bikesafety.htm).
"I need you to ride defensively," Sisson said. "I don't mind if you take a quick glance at the view, but not on the hairpin turns. We've got a problem with guys getting halfway around these bends, whipping around and chatting with the dude behind them, and then missing the second half of the turn and going off the side of the road. I've seen it happen."
Then, bundled up in jackets, gloves, rain suits and motocross helmets with chin-protectors, we rolled. Our one-speed Worksman bikes were heavy (why worry about weight when you're going downhill?) and featured heavy-duty brakes.
One turn, two turns, three turns. Green valley, blue sea and, because the high ground is cattle country, the occasional cow pie. I expected to be intimidated, but I wasn't — just invigorated.
"You're looking out at the valley of Maui," Bennett said when we paused to take pictures. "The north shore is over here." To the west, he continued, "snorkel boats going out to Molokini. Lanai in the background. Windmills up on the ridge."
What many cyclists don't realize is that three years ago, this was a different ride.
In the old days — that is, from the 1980s until late 2007 — the classic Haleakala downhill route was 38 miles, not 27, and it began where those sunbeams struck us at the volcano's lip. The first 11 miles were inside park boundaries, and they were fairly nasty, descending about 3,500 feet through a series of tight turns, with jagged rocks at the edge of the blacktop.