Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Tad Craig
Cyclists buzz the parking lot of Maui Cyclery, tweaking seats and pedals for optimal performance. Around thirty of us have shown up for today’s eighty-nine-mile group ride, sponsored by the Pa‘ia shop. At the stroke of seven a.m., we’re off, spilling out onto the famed road to Hana. Rather than survey East Maui’s sea cliffs and waterfalls from the comfort of a car, we’ll power through the rain forest on two wheels. After lunch and a swim at exquisite Hamoa Beach, the hard-core riders will race home. I will gratefully hitch a ride back in the support van.
Balanced atop a tricked-out borrowed bicycle, I’m fulfilling a long-held fantasy. I’m no athlete, but I grew up watching the Tour de France with my dad, an amateur racer. Today, instead of watching the race on TV, I’m part of the peloton—the fluid pack of cyclists devouring the road as a single body.
It takes a special kind of crazy to attempt biking a road that’s spawned “I survived the Road to Hana” bumper stickers and T-shirts. But this crew, guided by Maui Cyclery staff, is well up for it.
Maui Cyclery owner Donnie Arnoult is the powerhouse at the front of the peloton. The former pro rider has the elfin quality of most serious bikers: slim, nearly underweight, with giant calf muscles and evidence of a clavicle fracture—the sport’s signature injury. Before moving to Maui, the New Orleans native competed as a road, track, and mountain bike racer. He organized cycling events and acted as director sportif—cycling’s elite equivalent to a boxing coach.
Donnie gave up racing to live in paradise, he says. “When I moved to Maui I wasn’t going to do anything with the bike. I just kept one for fitness.” Maui doesn’t have professional-caliber races, but many pros come here to train on Haleakala’s steep incline. Donnie would run into them at the beach. “I had shaved legs and bike tan and people kept asking me where to ride,” he says. He responded by starting a cycling tour business in 2002 and, in 2005, opening his shop—a gearhead hangout that offers top-of-the-line cycling equipment, repairs, and rentals.
In addition to sponsoring group rides, Donnie leads custom tours, often catering to celebrities. He recently took Woody Harrelson and Owen and Luke Wilson for a spin out to Ke‘anae—half the distance we’ll be traveling today. The legendary Lance Armstrong and other cycling greats train with Donnie when on Maui.
Pro cyclist Ryder Hesjedal is on today’s ride; he’ll race in this July’s Tour de France. (Hear that, Dad? I’m biking with a Tour contender!) Last year, Ryder broke the record for cycling to the summit of Haleakala. While most bikers cruise down the 10,023-foot mountain, he rides up. His record time: 2:32:51. Uh . . . that’s almost as long as it takes me to drive to the summit.
What am I doing amidst these road warriors? Tad Craig invited me along. An old friend, sports enthusiast and professional photographer, he’s always looking to stretch his abilities. He volunteered to shoot today’s ride—from his bike. His camera equipment adds an extra thirty pounds. I couldn’t pass up the chance to help him document one of the world’s most scenic drives without the interference of a windshield.
Before leaving the shop this morning, Maui Cyclery staffer Aaron Lisco outfitted me with the requisite gear: spandex shorts with butt padding, fingerless gloves, alien-shaped helmet, and electrolyte goo stuffed in the back pocket of my jersey. The aluminum Scott Speedster I’m riding has carbon forks and thirty gears—more than I know what to do with. Look out, Lance!
Taking on Hana Highway this way feels great—exhilarating and agonizing at once. Coasting into a steep gulch, I enjoy the exultant serenity of the empty road. The few cars we encounter this Sunday morning pass slowly. It’s much safer than I imagined.
As our group starts uphill, Carole Garabedian appears alongside to chat. She and biking partner Patrick McEvoy flew in from the Bay Area for a weekend in the saddle. Today they’re tackling Hana, tomorrow, Haleakala.
“It’s great to see ladies on the road,” she says. Before I can gasp out a reply, I’m left behind. Pedaling hard, I’m only inching up the hill. With three downward pushes of the pedal, the peloton pulls away from me. I want to chase, but I’m stuck huffing and puffing nearly in place. I watch the mass of riders disappear eastward.
Dropped already? Damn. This was earlier than I expected, but not surprising. I may be slow, but I’m no quitter. I continue on at my best pace. Transparent African tulip seeds flutter down through the sunlit canopy. Mynah birds hop out of my path at the last moment. The quiet morning is punctuated by the sound of my tires grabbing the pavement, the gears shifting in little clicks, and my rhythmic breaths that change to gulps as I crest another hill.
I catch sight of the support van at Twin Falls—a mere nine miles from our starting point. Aaron waves me on. “Keep going,” he says. “You haven’t reached the pretty stuff yet.” He’s talking about the forested switchbacks and cliffs the Hana Highway is famous for. I doubt my stamina, but continue on.
Feral roosters crow hello, foraging amidst fallen coconuts. A brown rottweiler nurses pups in somebody’s yard. Would I have seen these rural snapshots from a car? I certainly wouldn’t have smelled the papaya ripening on a roadside tree, or felt the sun warming my back. Miles slip beneath my tires. Coming around the turn that overlooks Honoman¯u Bay is breathtaking by car; but on a bike it’s pure magic. The shadowed cloak of rain forest opens up suddenly to the vast, beckoning ocean, hemmed by black cliffs and white sea spray.
The long climb approaching Ke‘anae—the halfway point—is beyond my ability, so Aaron gives me a lift. He drops me off thirty minutes down the road, ahead of the other riders, so I can ride the remaining twelve miles into town. First Ryder whizzes by, then others. The peloton has dissolved; single riders cruise through Hana trying to beat their own best time. Just being out here makes this my best time.
Heading up one last hill on the way to Hamoa Beach, I “bonk.” Bonk is, of course, a technical term; it means to hit a physical wall. The hill is barely a bump, but my legs have turned to cement. I dismount, taking the opportunity to watch a squadron of frigate birds soaring above Hana Ranch. I recall sportscasters describing the Tour de France’s mountain climbs as “punishing” and “a world of hurt.” I gather my strength, climb back on, and power out the last mile to the beach.
Despite my handicaps, I feel like a champion upon reaching Hamoa. Aaron watches the bikes as wobbly cyclists unbuckle helmets and shoes for a quick dip in the surf. The cool water melts the heat from my legs. Refreshed, the group shares tales from the road over soggy sandwiches and snacks from Hana’s grocery. “Riding into Hana, I was just, ‘chili and rice, chili and rice,’” says Matt Watson. “I was focused on Hasegawa Store.”
Laura Dunn pulls a red licorice whip from her back pocket. “The peloton is like life,” she philosophizes. “When people work together, it’s easier.” It’s true; cyclists gain advantage when riding in the wind vacuum behind other riders. “People take turns leading,” pipes in Terri Kolder. “But some lazy people never take the lead!” Everybody laughs. Even amidst this speedy group, the competition is friendly.
Before long, it’s time to head home. “What a great way to spend a Sunday,” says Tad, snapping a few last shots of Hamoa before getting back onto his bike. I have to agree.
“Wow, just like riding first class,” says Patrick as he, Carole and I climb into the van. The leather bucket seats recline. Soon we’re off to dreamland, the backs of our eyelids replaying the best scenes of the road.
99 Hana Hwy., Pa‘ia, HI