Later in the week, Michele, my niece from Pittsburgh who is a novice cyclist, was in Honolulu for business and was able to join me on Maui for a one day bike ride. While at the Island Biker picking up her rental bike, I talked with her while she was waiting for her flight from Honolulu to go over three choices of route for our Saturday ride:
1) Some part of the West Maui Mountains loop that I did for my second ride on Thursday
2) The Upcountry ride in the Haleakala wind shadow
3) The monster climb of 10,023’ Haleakala itself—I knew I wanted to do this climb a second time, but surely it was ridiculous to think that Michele would want to attempt it, much less complete it
Michele didn’t even hesitate, telling me, “I’m usually up for a challenge.” A challenge it was to be, and Andrew at Island Biker was nice enough to dig up a size 52 rental with a triple chainring/27 cog combo.
Since the best part of the route starts at around 3000’ of elevation, that is where I thought Michele and I should start; therefore Michele would attempt to climb 7000’ in 22.6 miles (5.9% average grade) to the top, and she would have to make this attempt in extremely tough conditions.
There are many blog posts featuring descriptions of the ride up (and down) Haleakala:
Watch 2010 Tour de France 7th place finisher Ryder Hesjedal set the world record:
See the route on the Maui Cycling Map:
When Michele and I started the ride on Saturday, we agreed we would ride at our own pace, and I would check on her at various intervals. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how far we would be going, so I made my first stop after about 15 minutes.
On Wednesday when I did this climb solo, conditions were pretty benign with summit winds of 10-15mph. On Saturday, starting at about the 6500’ level, there were steady winds of 30-40mph, and gusts of over 50mph. At times it was almost impossible to move forward, and several times I felt like I was blown five feet laterally. It appeared that the drivers in the few cars that were on the road were aware of my situation, and no one seemed to object that I was riding in the center of the lane. Being flung onto the jagged volcanic rock off the side of the road would not have been pleasant. On the summit I laid my bike down on its side, fearful that the violent wind would hurl my rental bike over the rail and into the crater.
After my initial stop, I didn’t stop again until the Lower Visitor Center at 7000’. I watched Michele roll in, and she looked confident.
Every time that I saw her along the way, Michele had a big smile on her face. Michele started road cycling after realizing that she loves spin classes. She does not know how to fix a flat tire, rides a “hybrid” bike, and lives in Pittsburgh where cycling conditions are terrible. Michele had never even ridden up a climb longer than a half a mile. So much for the “specificity of training” principal!
As I waited at the Upper Visitor Center, people were approaching me to ask about the ride. In return, I started asking them if they had seen a female cyclist in a pink jersey. Everybody told me that she was doing great. Nevertheless, I decided to ride down to see if the wind was too much for her.
I almost rode right by her as I barely noticed a rider who appeared to be somewhat of a full orange sail, so billowing was the wind. It was Michele, in my too large windbreaker that she had donned to ward off the cold. Still smiling, she made no effort to slow down as I did a U-turn and joined her. We rode together (as much as the wind would allow) to the top of the mountain.
What Michele accomplished is one of most incredible achievements in cycling that I have ever witnessed. As a newbie cyclist, Michele managed to complete the final 7000’ of what is widely acknowledged as one of the longest and hardest climbs in the world.
Michele is (obviously) fit, and is a highly motivated individual who likes a serious challenge. Michele must have what I call “One Hour Fitness,” the kind of fitness that spin classes or criterium racing builds and demands. Quite possibly this is why she expressed feeling a little anxiety in the beginning of the climb, but once she settled in, she found a rhythm and just kept turning the pedals over. I didn’t ask, but I imagine Michele “segmented” the climb, and once she mentally completed a segment, she moved on to the next one.
For a quick interview with Michele:
Michele ranks the climb of Haleakala as the most physically demanding thing that she has ever done, and ranks the achievement as one of the top three things that she has ever done. This is no small statement, coming as it does from the mother of two great boys, and a person who runs a very successful consulting business.
In my opinion, I would include Haleaka amonst the best climbs in the world. In the mix would be the Galibier, Bonnet, Col de la Madeleine, the Croix de Fer, the Mt. Lemmon climb in Arizona, the Tourmalet, Hautacam, and Aubisque, Alp d’Huez, several of the fantastic 2000 meter Passos in the Dolomites, and the Stelvio in the Italian Alps, which is likely the single best climb I have ever done.
Do I think Michele could have ridden up the 7.2% average grade Stelvio for 16 miles and 6000’ of climbing? No I don’t, at least not with the 30-27 triple chainring gearing she used on Haleakala. Does that make the Stelvio a harder climb than Haleakala? Not in my opinion; I just think that the two climbs are a different kind of hard.
Given a bike with an even lower gear, I’m sure that Michele could knock off the Stelvio. With the fortitude that Michele demonstrated on Haleakala, maybe she could do the Stelvio with 30/27, but she would probably require immediate knee surgery afterwards!
From Michele after the fact, “I finally have a window to catch up and really reflect on my amazing ride on Saturday.
“First of all, believe it or not, I took two Advil before my red eye flight Saturday night (after our ride) and woke up upon landing in Denver with absolutely no pain in my legs or arms...of course I kept waiting for the pain to set in and it has not...almost a week out I think I am free and clear of post climb pain.
“I cannot begin to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to challenge myself with the Haleakala climb. I am both stunned and proud of my accomplishment and thankful for your great coaching to succeed. With that said I will also challenge myself to start at sea level and train appropriately prior to the next ride.
“In addition to wanting to make the complete Haleakala climb I am now also thinking about the next challenge for myself on a bike...any ideas? How about the Tour de France:)
“Again, thank you for the amazing adventure and the opportunity to learn a lot from your experience. You are a great coach.”
Coaching? What coaching? I just pointed her up the hill, and she did the rest.