Issue 16.2: April/May 2013

Higher, Faster, Harder

Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Sue Hudelson
 

Beyond the tiny outpost of Keokea on Maui, the Kula Highway turns feral. Undulating up and down hills and curving to dodge cacti and jacaranda trees, it’s more of a funhouse ride than a road. As it passes through cowboy country and descends seaward, it turns into Pi‘ilani Highway, a route unpaved in parts and emphatically marked “Do Not Go” on most rental car maps. To obey these instructions is to miss some of the island’s most starkly beautiful scenery. The southeastern flank of Haleakala, the island’s massive dormant volcano, rises in an unbroken line from the wind-nicked Pacific Ocean. Between mountain and sea the lonely highway unfurls, frequented by few cars and plenty of cattle. This raw wilderness is where cycling’s elite come to train.

 

At Rice Park in Keokea, two dozen riders pour out of Maui Cycling Camp support vehicles. Among them: Ryder Hesjedal, one of the top cyclists in the world. For the past three years, Hesjedal has teamed up with Maui Cyclery owner Donnie Arnoult to host week-long fantasy training camps. Arnoult provides the top-tier support, Hesjedal the star power. Participants in the 2012 camp are riding alongside not only Hesjedal but also a few of his friends: Svein Tuft, Seamus McGrath and Andreas Hestler. All four are past Olympians and professional racers.

 

While Arnoult’s mechanics unload feather-light carbon fiber bike frames and tighten on their front wheels, the cyclists ready themselves for six hours in the saddle. By their own power, they’ll travel one hundred miles around Haleakala today—along the Pi‘ilani Highway, through the lush rainforests of Hana and all the way around the mountain to Pa‘ia, the surf town on Maui’s North Shore. The hills they’ll encounter add up to a total elevation gain of seven thousand feet—double the height of the West Maui Mountains.

 

“This ride has epic written all over it,” says one of the camp attendees. Giddy but undaunted, the amateur riders zip up fluorescent jerseys and stuff their back pockets with sugary waffle treats called Honey Stingers. The two women in the group take off first: Penny Irving, a triathlete from Alberta, and Diana Almeida, a petite 50-year-old who races mountain bikes back home in Chihuahua, Mexico. Snapping cleats into pedals, they become extensions of their bicycles. The rest of the group follows, zipping out of Keokea like a swarm of bees.

 

The support vans have to hustle to keep up with the tight pack of riders surging forward as one body. The peloton, as this formation is called, is unique to cycling. It’s the closest humans get to the majesty of migrating birds or schools of fast-moving fish. Cyclists riding in each other’s wake, or slipstream, expend 30 percent less energy to travel the same distance—but doing so requires keeping within a wheel’s length of the rider ahead of you.

 


 

Sandy-haired Hesjedal doesn’t look like a cutthroat competitor, but his recent victories prove appearances can be deceiving. He’s one of fewer than two hundred riders invited to compete in the fabled Tour de France, a heroic three-week stage race that includes staggering climbs through the French Alps. Simply finishing the Tour is comparable to running twenty-one back-to-back marathons. In this ultracompetitive realm, individual stages are won by seconds, even fractions of seconds. Hesjedal, who is lithe as a greyhound, placed sixth in the 2010 Tour. Last year he won the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s version of the Tour. This year? He’s gearing up for both races.

 

Cycling fans disenchanted by the recent doping scandals that toppled Lance Armstrong from his throne might shrug and say the results aren’t real. But Hesjedal races for Garmin, one of the most progressive anti-doping teams in the history of the sport. No one claims that Hesjedal’s wins are dirty. So what’s his secret? A little island in the center of the Pacific.

 

“I finish my season pretty exhausted,” says Hesjedal. “But on Maui, when the sun’s blasting and the roads are swelling with steam next to the ocean, I find myself wanting to get on the bike.” And that, the champion says, has given him the edge necessary to win.

 

Hawai‘i isn’t an obvious stop for pro cyclists. Most racers stay in close orbit around France, Italy and Spain, where they get regular practice on the roads they will be assaulting during the Grand Tours: the Giro, the Tour de France and Spain’s stage race, the Vuelta a España. But when the competition pedals south for the winter to Majorca or Girona, Hesjedal heads in the opposite direction to his second home on Maui.

 

Unbeknownst to many local residents, Hawai‘i is emerging as a world-class cycling destination. While its urban commuter roads still leave everything to be desired, its rural highways are a pro rider’s paradise: perfect weather, sparse traffic and diverse scenery. But it’s the insanely steep mountains that really whet a masochistic cyclist’s appetite. As the word spreads, more athletes are migrating to Hawai‘i not for its big surf, but for its big roads.

 

Back on Pi‘ilani Highway, the peloton has broken into small clusters of riders. As they approach Kaupo—a ghost town comprised of a single general store and a few weathered churches—the road’s pavement deteriorates into a patchwork of filled-in potholes. Mountain bike champs Seamus McGrath and Andreas Hestler have no trouble navigating this stretch, nicknamed the “Maui cobbles” after Europe’s bike-devouring cobblestone streets. The others bump bravely along. Their state-of-the- art equipment is designed for speed, not shock absorption. Every inch rattles the bones. And then the rain starts.

 

About now the fantasy campers might be asking what they’d gotten themselves into. But half are repeat clients who know what to expect. Stan Prutz, an amateur racer from Baton Rouge, is celebrating his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary by attending his second Maui Cycling Camp. While his wife lounges by the pool at the camp’s posh headquarters, the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, he chases his heroes across the island. Campers ante up $15,000 for eight nights at the resort, seven days of riding with the pros, daily sport massages, group breakfasts and a swag bag that will make their cycling friends back home flush with envy. “The first time I came I thought it was going to be fluff,” says Prutz. “I thought it would just be people who could buy a chance to see professional athletes. It isn’t like that. It’s a serious training camp.”

 

Tyler Farrar, the fastest sprinter in the United States, claims it’s the best week of training he can get on a bike. He has joined his Garmin teammate on Maui each year since 2010. That’s one of the things that makes this camp special: It’s filled with Hesjedal’s personal cycling family—men he races with and those he grew up with in Victoria, British Columbia. Embedded within this elite crew, the campers become a family of their own. “It’s the best investment I’ve ever made for myself,” says Charles McCabe from Marin. Rob Meeder, a pediatrician from Ontario, agrees. “So our once-in-a-lifetime trip became our annual trip,” he laughs.

 

As the rain shower subsides, the cyclists click into their lowest gear to power up a near-vertical hill past ‘Alelele Falls. The stronger riders push those struggling along from behind. At the top, the gravel-spattered group stops for a break. Everyone is sweating profusely except Hesjedal, who looks as fresh as if he just started. One fellow took a spill, and he peels his spandex up to show off an angry red road rash. Arnoult fetches the first-aid kit and then retrieves a bolt he found on the road back at Kaupo. He suspects it came from someone’s cleat. Sure enough, a rider has a loose shoe, and Arnoult tightens the missing bolt back on.

 


 

Arnoult can offer that kind of five-star support because he knows these roads as well as his own bike shop. No slouch in the saddle himself, he’s a former pro rider and director sportif (cycling coach). When he moved to Maui in 1999, he thought he’d retired from racing. “I wasn’t going to do anything with the bike,” he says. “I just kept one for fitness.” But then he discovered the roads—this gritty, scenic loop around East Maui, an equally impressive route around West Maui and the island’s pinnacle ride: Haleakala. “I’d go on all these great rides and see nobody,” he says.

 

That didn’t last. Cyclists here on vacation would spot Arnoult’s shaved legs and bike tan at the beach. Recognizing one of their own, they’d pester him for suggestions on where to rent decent equipment and ride. Finally he took the universe’s nudge and launched a cycling tour business in 2002, followed by a bike shop. Maui Cyclery in Pa‘ia has become a de facto headquarters for the island’s biking community, and every Sunday the gear-head staff at the shop leads well-attended community rides out to Hana.

 

When biking’s big names come to Maui, they contact Arnoult for the lay of the land. Their signed jerseys decorate Maui Cyclery’s walls. There’s even a maillot jaune, the sport’s most coveted souvenir: the yellow jersey worn by the stage winner in the Tour de France. Next to it hangs a poster of Andy Hampsten pedal-deep in snow. The US cyclist famously rode through a blizzard to win the Giro in 1988. Still a fierce competitor, Hampsten regularly comes to Maui to train. Last year he joined the Maui Cycling Camp crew. Scribbled across his poster are the words: “Mahalo and thanks a million for my best cycling vacation ever!”

 

Since 2008, Arnoult has sponsored Cycle to the Sun, a race to the top of Haleakala. Bicycling up a 10,023-foot-tall volcano sounds hard enough, but racing? It’s an irresistible challenge to a cadre of hard-core cyclists. Each summer, two hundred competitors travel from all points of the globe to tackle the mythic mountain in the already legendary race. The steep highway zigzagging up Haleakala is the third-toughest hill climb in the country, according to The Complete Guide to Cycling. Riders start at sea level at Pa‘ia bay and pedal thirty-six miles relentlessly uphill. They pass through several climate zones to finish in the otherworldly atmosphere of the summit, where the scorching sun is tempered by frigid winds. From this chilly apex, the euphoric, oxygen-deprived racers can stare down at planes circling to land at Kahului Airport.

 

The Haleakala ride is what the campers have to look forward to; it’s the finale of their week on Maui. “I have some unfinished business with that volcano,” says Meeder. Last year he bailed out just five miles shy of the summit, when the temperature suddenly plummeted and he worried about hypothermia. “I ride in snow at home,” says the Canadian, “but I wasn’t expecting to do that here.” This year he’s prepared: He brought long-fingered gloves, tights and booties. There’s no time pressure because the campers won’t be racing. But they will be riding with the record holder for the fastest two-wheeled ascent of Haleakala. In 2009, Hesjedal bee-lined to the summit in a mere two hours and thirty-two minutes—not much longer than it takes to drive.

 


 

Compared with Maui, the Big Island is a super-sized velodrome. Nearly everything on the youngest Hawaiian Island is superlative, starting with its newly forged mountains—the largest on earth when measured from the sea floor. The roads are longer and sometimes steeper than they are on Maui, and the distances between each town far more vast. On the Belt Road that encircles the Big Island, a cyclist can shoot like an arrow, flying a hundred-plus miles without stopping. For riders who crave the roller-coaster thrills of Maui’s Pi‘ilani Highway, this might be monotonous. But for endurance athletes it’s pure heaven.

 

Triathletes began flooding into West Hawai‘i in 1981, when Kailua-Kona became home to the Ironman—a swimming, running and cycling event that ranks among the planet’s most grueling sport competitions. Not quite content with the physical demands of the Ironman contest, Hawai‘i residents created a double Ironman, dubbed the Ultraman. The joke around town is that locals don’t ask how you’re doing, they ask how your training is going. Everyone here seems to be involved in endurance sports. The Kona coast offers ideal conditions for triathletes: crystal-clear ocean water and a smooth paved highway that seems to roll on forever. These long expanses of open road attract a different sort of cycling animal.

 

Fifty-seven-year old Gary Shields is a three-time Ultraman winner. The Chicago native first came to Hawai‘i to compete in the Ironman in 1982 and moved to Kona shortly after. Intense and determined, he became known for circumnavigating the island solo on two wheels. The 270-mile ride takes him sixteen hours. He leaves at midnight on a full moon. “It’s so bright you hardly need a light,” says Shields. “I like going the south way, because I can get up to Volcano by dawn.” Traveling in the dark, he can tell his location by the scent: perfumed white ginger along the Honaunau roadside or sulfur leaking out of fissures in the lava near Kilauea.

 

Shields is currently in China, where he’s conducting quality assurance checks on nuclear power plant equipment. Naturally, he took his bike. He recently competed in a 150-mile race across the countryside outside of Shanghai. Bolting ahead of the peloton straight away, he cruised solo for 125 miles before being caught in the last uphill stretch. The experience was reminiscent of one of his very first road races in Hawai‘i, sixteen years ago: the Dick Evans Memorial on O‘ahu.

 

“I rode the whole way by myself,” Shields remembers. He won by a seven-and-a-half-minute margin. “The O‘ahu guys never thought that a triathlete from the Big Island could come over and spank them,” he laughs. “After that I went back to Kona and decided to start a bike club.”

 

Shields designed a website for the nascent Hawai‘i Cycling Club and began collecting sponsorships and hosting races. Eight years ago he launched Sea to Stars, a race even more extreme than Maui’s Cycle to the Sun. Starting at the oceanfront Mauna Lani Bay resort, it proceeds through the blistering hot Kona lava plains, across the barren expanse of Saddle Road and up an unforgiving incline to the airy reaches of the Mauna Kea observatories, stopping only when the road turns to icy gravel. The course climbs 9,200 feet over fifty miles. But veterans say it’s not the first forty-four miles that hurt, it’s the last six. The final reach up to the Halepohaku visitor center is so savagely steep that riders pack special gears onto their bikes to make pedaling a tiny bit easier. Even still they weave all over the road from exhaustion, lack of oxygen and altitude sickness.

 

“The last bit is a dagger,” says Penn Henderson, a local triathlete who clawed his way to second place in last year’s Sea to Stars. “You could probably get off your bike and push it up faster. People don’t realize that there are major mountains here.”

 

Henderson grew up in Colorado, where he competed on the national level as a downhill skier. After several knee surgeries and too many brutal winters, he decided to throw caution to the wind and move to Hawai‘i. He brought a mountain bike with him to Kona but was disappointed to find that there were few public trails for riding. When he finally got on a road bike, his disappointment turned to wonder. “The vastness of all these open roads we have, with wide shoulders and other cyclists out there training, it’s impressive,” he says. “Plus, we can ride all year round.”

 

Now the marketing director for Fair Wind sailing charters, Henderson rides the Hawai‘i mountains during his free time. His favorite route leads up through the Kohala range. “It feels like riding through Switzerland, past green cow pastures—only with the blue ocean in the distance,” he says. “After a six-hour ride, I feel like I’ve been on a week-long adventure.”

 

During the winter months, Henderson says, the highways fill up with international pros looking to log miles in the saddle. “And as small as Kona is,” he says, “you run into them, which keeps things interesting.” One of the more interesting run-ins happened between two famous local residents: Lance Armstrong and pro triathlete Chris Lieto, who both have homes on the Big Island. In February 2010, Armstrong passed Lieto going the other way on the Queen Ka‘ahumanu highway on his bike. Impressed by the triathlete’s speed, the retired cyclist challenged him to a friendly duel the next day.

 

After a few exchanges via Twitter, the two men agreed to meet at Waikaloa at 9:30 a.m.—late enough for Lieto to get his three-mile morning swim in first. A few other riders showed up, eager for a chance to race head-to-head with these sporting giants. For the first ever “Twitter Time Trial,” they designated a fourteen-mile course, started a minute apart and raced against the clock. Boosted by strong tail winds, the two leaders averaged thirty-five miles per hour. Armstrong crossed the finish line first at 18:35, beating Lieto by seconds.

 

“It created a bit of a buzz,” says Lieto. “But really it was just two friends going out for a ride. It’s more fun to train with other people than by yourself.” Mike Wolf, the new president of the Hawai‘i Cycling Club, wasn’t there, but—like everybody on the Big Island—he heard about the spontaneous time trial. When top-level athletes interact with the community, he says, it’s all for the good and raises the bar for local cyclists.

 

At the moment 23-year-old Eric Lau is probably Hawai‘i’s fastest home-grown cyclist. He’s the speedster who beat Penn Henderson to the top of Mauna Kea during Sea to Stars. The lanky Hawaiian rides on O‘ahu with Tradewind, the state’s oldest, most venerable cycling club. While O‘ahu has a larger community of cyclists, it doesn’t have the mountainous landscape that attracts the pro riders. Lau caught cyclophilia at Stanford University, where he raced with the collegiate team. Back home in Honolulu, he bikes to work at the Queen’s Medical Center, where he conducts HIV research. He’s a cycling omnivore: In his studio apartment, he’s crammed a cross-country mountain bike, a downhill bike, a road racer and a kid-sized pixie—besides his commuter. The apartment “is mostly a bike garage,” he admits.

 

Lau’s bubbly humor belies his brute strength. Last year he made it his mission to enter every bike race held in the Islands. And he didn’t just compete, he won. He set a record in the Kaua‘i hill-climb, Pedal to the Meadow; won Sea to Stars; and missed first place in the Cycle to the Sun by a heartbeat. “I love pushing myself to the limit,” he says. His next goal is a tossup: apply to medical school or turn pro.

 

A year ago, Lau got a taste of professional cycling during a week-long stage race in New Zealand. “I suffered so much!” he says gleefully. “The first day of the race, I was in the lead. I had to shield the others from the wind. Gale-force winds came roaring across the road. Our whole group was blown into a ditch! I couldn’t comprehend that kind of wind until I experienced it. It was a hard man’s race. That’s what they said: We had to swallow our concrete pills to make us hard men.”

 

Back on Maui, the riders at Hesjedal’s cycling camp caught a lucky break the day they attempted the summit of Haleakala: The notoriously fickle mountain was warm and sunny. Rob Meeder didn’t need his gloves or tights. And everybody made it to the top.