Something changes the moment you decide to ride up a volcano. Fears and doubts start to emerge. The set date looms large as each week of questionable preparation passes. Motives are questioned. You are, after all, going to Hawaii for a wedding and a holiday. And yet, you can’t help but brag to friends and family about what you have decided to do in between a luau, relaxing on the beach and ordering cocktails from a bar that you hope is inconveniently situated in the middle of a pool.
When most Australians hear the words ‘riding’ and ‘Hawaii’ in the same sentence, they tend to think of brash young men in long swimmers with even longer surfboards flying down the face of colossal waves on Oahu’s north shore. Only those with a passion for ultra-endurance sports know that a different kind of ride awaits anyone willing to get on a bicycle and take on the Big Island, Hawai’i.
In recent decades, the lava fields of this otherwise island paradise have become one of the world’s premier destinations for endurance athletes on personal pilgrimages of pain and suffering. The flagship event is the Hawaiian Ironman, triathlons’ world championship race that is held in October each year, but you can also compete in the Pedal to You Puke, Run to You Ralph biathlon, the increasingly popular Lava Man Olympic-distance triathlon, and the 515km Ultraman triathlon which is held over three days and finishes with a double marathon down the west coast.
“It’s about the mana, the magic, the powerful feeling in the land,” says Janet Miller, a Big Island local who has completed the Ironman three times and who owns Kona Bike Works with her husband Grant. “It has legend, history and tradition. For people who can key into that, it can be life changing.”
By Janet’s account, the Big Island’s obsession with modern endurance events may well be an extension of ancient Hawaiian rituals practised over hundreds of years to acquire mana – the spiritual force or energy believed to exist in all things. If surfing the big waves of the Hawaiian Islands was one means of acquiring mana and demonstrating your strength and courage as a warrior, why not running and cycling outrageous distances across the lava fields? Janet knows how deep you must dig on a personal level to get through such an event.
“You come to a point where you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It tests your focus, your athletic ability and your mind,” Janet says.
Janet and Grant have been in the bicycle business for over 24 years and Bike Works provides the official bike tech support for the Hawaiian Ironman, the June qualifier and the Lava Man. On a normal day, their mechanic Rich Bell might do three or four repair jobs, but in the weeks surrounding the big races of the endurance season they will have up to 15 bikes to work on per day. The shop brings in additional mechanics from mainland USA to help out with the increased workload.
“When the pros come to town, the pressure is on because their bikes are tools, not toys,” Rich says. “But the athletes are almost always very grateful and you get a real sense of pride and accomplishment when they have a great race after you have worked hard on their bike.”
Professional athletes also bring the latest gear with new problems to solve, but the majority of work involves all of the regular wear and tear an amateur or recreational cyclist might experience. The pros just cram it all into a single season.
“The Ironman World Championships comes late in the season and for many, it is their last race of the year. That means drivechains, cassettes, cables, bearings and tyres have been used and abused all season and need to be replaced so the athlete will have a successful bike ride,” Rich says.
The Hawaiian Ironman first came to the attention of Australians through the feats of Greg Welch, the Australian champion triathlete who became the first non-American to win the event in 1994.
In 1981 the ironman race moved from the hustle and bustle of Oahu to the more expansive, volcanic landscape of the Big Island. The combination of coastal conditions and lava fields can create a cauldron with temperatures often pushing 40 degrees Celsius and crosswinds capable of exceeding 90kph. In this brutal environment, elite athletes can turn the cranks with an average power output approaching 300 watts and achieve speeds of around 40kph for the four to five hours they spend in the saddle. These statistics are all the more impressive given the 180km ride is wedged between a 3.9km swim and 42.2km run.
Janet says tourists often come into the shop wanting to hire a bike just so they can ride the Ironman course. As a cyclist who is philosophically opposed to running and swimming for any purpose other than self-preservation, I can recommend the bike leg as a means of experiencing part of this iconic event.
The Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway will not be counted amongst the most exciting rides you will ever do, but it is a stretch of road you are unlikely to ever forget. Visually, the ride through the lava fields is what you might imagine cycling on mars to be like, an illusion only broken by oasis-like patches of palms scattered along a sweeping ocean vista and the constant presence of traffic.
Heat will also shape your memory of the ride and recreational cyclists are advised to follow the example of the local bird life. Wherever you stay, birds engage in frantic activity for an hour or so from about 5.00am – a natural alarm clock – and then proceed to disappear from the skies for much of the day. You should do the same. Start early. The sun will bite hard on days when the skies are clear and the volcanic fog has lifted. When you add to this the lava rock which seems to store up the heat and then radiate it back at you from all directions, you will feel like you are riding through a sauna.
If you are in Hawaii at the time of the Ironman, Janet recommends that you be at the finish line to see the race leaders arrive and then return for the final hour as the last of the athletes race against the midnight deadline.
“At 3.00pm you are seeing people at their athletic peak, but between eleven and twelve the competitors are only doing it on spirit. It’s their heart and soul that’s getting them there. It’s truly amazing to witness,” she says. “It’s so inspirational and emotional. We call goose bumps ‘chicken skin’. There are a lot of chicken skin moments in the last hour.”
I’m feeling more emotional than inspired as the day approaches for my son-in-law Sam and I to have our own ‘chicken skin’ encounter with a volcano. Riding up the side of the dormant Mauna Kea is the most recent addition to the Big Island’s endurance events, a challenge which organisers claim is the “hardest cycling hill climb race in the world”.
The Mauna Kea is a bit like the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t matter where you’re standing in the north of the Big Island, she always seems to be staring at you. It is the largest mountain in the world if you ignore sea level as an arbitrary benchmark. And even if you stick with convention, the climb from the villages on the west coast to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station covers 78km and finishes at 2800m above sea level. For the die-hard adventurer you can push on to 4200m if you can negotiate several kilometres of gravel road and the thinning air.
To put things into perspective, the race known as the Sea to Stars covers more vertical metres than any single climb of the Tour de France. The tallest climb of the Tour is the Col de la Bonette-Restefond at 2,802m. Considered one of the toughest mountain passes in Europe, la Bonette was last used in 2008 and the peloton was never lower than 520 metres above sea level for the entire stage. On the flight from Kona International Airport, you can still catch glimpses of Mauna rising above the clouds after travelling nearly 300km en route to Honolulu.
The prospect of taking on a climb of such proportions raises the same question that Janet says inevitably confronts every athlete during the Ironman event: “Why am I doing this?” I ask Rich, who has completed the race twice.
“I just want to support the organisers and get the T-shirt,” he says.
In his most recent Sea to Stars, Rich improved his position by three places finishing eleventh overall, but added half an hour to his time. The conditions were difficult.
“I wasn’t really in the race,” Rich says. “I was cramping bad and for whatever reason had no one to ride with. Riding solo in the wind for that long is pretty excruciating.”
Saddle Road crosses the island from east to west and straddles the rising expanse of land between the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanos. While the temperature cools as you ascend, the winds increase and can knock you off your line. At one point, you rapidly descend a stretch of tar that resembles the slippery dip at a travelling carnival and give about 150 vertical metres back to the volcano. By the time you get to the Mauna Kea Access Road, you have ridden about 68km and climbed over 2000m.
The good news is that there is less than 10km to go to the finish line. The bad news is that you will climb another 800m and be confronted by gradients nearing 18 per cent.
Rich says the ride becomes a battle with yourself from the moment you turn onto the access road. All sorts of thoughts race through your mind, “and then I cry a little bit,” he jokes. Rich doesn’t appear to take himself or the ride too seriously and his no-fuss approach should give confidence to both the amateur racer preparing to have a crack at the Sea to Stars and to cycling tourists who just want to add a spectacular volcano to their list of conquered mountain climbs.
“I try to increase volume and focus on climbing. It’s hard to train at a race pace, especially because I personally prefer to simply ride. I like long, all-day solo rides exploring the island,” he says. “The scenery is staggering and sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to train. I just want to throw my bike over a fence and ride-up a barely paved cane haul road or stop to sample fresh Kona coffee down in Holualoa.”
For the cycling tourist in need of a more detailed and methodical approach, I recommend you consider the advice of blogger Erik Nilsson (http://www.eriknilsson.com/Mauna_Kea.html). Nilsson’s ride starts in Hilo on the east coast, but his list of precautions provide valuable insights regardless of where you intend to begin the ride.
“There are five major areas of challenge in this ride: climbing, altitude, temperature, traffic, and isolation,” Nilsson writes. If a friend asked me if they should do this ride, I would not recommend it unless their current skill and fitness level made them well-equipped to handle at least four of these five challenges.”
The extent of the climbing involved is obvious, but the other four elements identified by Nilsson also demand serious consideration. If you have never been exposed to altitude, you may be surprised by the shortness of breath you experience even if you travel to the Visitor Information Station by car. Our reconnaissance party only made it another 300m or so above the Station and experienced laboured breathing. If you arrive at the Station by bicycle, the headaches, wheezing, coughing and disorientation might have as much to do with the thin air as the effort you expend traversing those final 10km.
Of course, with such altitudes come cooler temperatures and potentially dramatic changes in weather. Amongst the many hazards of the Mauna Kea, tourists are warned that severe weather conditions can close in without warning, including winds over 161kph, temperatures approaching zero, and even snow storms and ‘white outs’. At the very least, you should carry additional clothing so that you are prepared for temperatures much cooler than the 30ºC plus experienced at the seaside resorts.
Nilsson also warns that some sections of the ride from Hilo have minimal or no shoulder and that the occasional truck and light traffic can make the trip unpleasant for anyone not confident in such conditions. The same can be said of the roads to the west of the volcano if you are approaching from Waikoloa, and the traffic tends to be quite heavy the closer you are to the coast.
On the issue of isolation, Nilsson says that it is “both part of the attraction and part of the challenge”. He recommends that you carry at least four litres of water in summer and plenty of food, as there is none available until you reach the Information Station.
“Getting stuck up on this mountain would make for a long, long day. The good news is, at any point on the ride, you can bail and have almost continuous downhill to Hilo [or Waikoloa], as long as you don’t freeze and are in good enough shape to control your bike.”
His final advice? For the trip up: “This will be more fun with a triple ring up front.” For the trip down: “Make sure your brakes are in good shape.”
It is all sound advice, but if I am to be honest, I have failed Nilsson’s first test: it has been a long and lazy Australian winter and my current fitness is not up to the task. I also have Sam to consider. He is a younger, much lighter and significantly more fit cyclist who is looking at a very long day in the saddle if he does what a good son-in-law should do and wait for his new bride’s stepfather.
A decision has to be made. There has to be another way of acquiring mana.
Along with surfing enormous waves, the ancient Hawaiian culture provided warriors with the opportunity to demonstrate their strength and skill through the 2,000-year-old tradition of he’eholua – also known as ‘rock sliding’ or ‘mountain surfing’. Their hand-made sleds consisted of whittled lengths of native wood bound together by coconut fibres. At over 3.5m long but only about 15cm wide and 10cm deep, there was not a whole lot of timber to hold onto while plummeting down a 200m slope of jagged, volcanic rock. Pele, the volcano goddess believed to live in the still active crater of Kilauea, was a keen mountain surfer who didn’t like losing and would often attempt to destroy her opponents with lava.
So the matter is settled. There is as much honour to be found coming down a volcano as there is in going up. I can still ride the rock, maybe find a little mana and maintain some bragging rights when I get back home.
Having surveyed the first 10km of relentless and technical descent from the Visitor Information Station, Sam and I decide to sacrifice a little more mana in favour of safety and we begin the ride at a rest stop in the Mauna Kea State Park on Saddle Road.
There are few natural wonders more suited to creating a great descent for cyclists than a shield volcano. A geological infant at barely a million years old, the Big Island’s shield volcanos have been adding layer upon layer of lava – with some flows less than 200 years old – literally laying the groundwork for an awesome ride. As we descend the Mauna Kea, I have a heightened sense of connection to the land underneath my wheels as it propels us towards the sea at an average speed of over 30kph.
Twenty kilometres further down Saddle Road, the descent steepens and our speed exceeds 50kph with little physical effort. Occasional buffeting winds, narrow, gently winding roads and an inconsistent surface make this section of the ride a little bit more exciting than some recreational cyclists would like, particularly when cars suddenly appear behind you. And it is somewhere along this stretch of tar that we seem to plummet back into the atmosphere of the tropics as we descend 900m in just 15km and the crisp, alpine-like climate suddenly gives way to the more familiar Hawaiian heat and humidity.
We also appear to be breaking through the volcanic haze. For the remainder of the ride we can clearly see the coast nearly 1000 vertical metres below us as we begin to wind our way through some of the more ancient of the Big Island’s lava fields and pass through Waikoloa Village on the way to the coast. It takes Sam and I just two hours of relatively easy riding to return to the seaside resort and join our family in the pool for cocktails.
If you want to end this extraordinary experience with a postcard moment, head over to the Lava Lava Beach Club for a coffee or Longboard Lager. You will finish the day sitting on a deck just metres from the Pacific Ocean and looking out through palm trees across the idyllic, tropical scenery of Anaehoomalu Bay. And on a clear day, you’ll be able to look back over your shoulder from the sea, look up at the Observatories amongst the stars, and raise your glass to the Mauna Kea. I can guarantee she’ll be watching over you.