ALOHA: Cycling Maui
By: Lori Nedescu, MS RD CSSD @CadenceKitchen
For a cyclist, getting ride in new locations is the best way to see the world. Exploring by bike forces you to pay more attention to your surroundings and allows you to take in the smallest details of new terrain, weather conditions, culture, and food.
Recently, I was able to take my bike along to Maui Hawaii for a week of riding. Here is my recap of how it was to ride an island.
West Loop –
First ride in Maui and I quickly learned that riding in Maui is not easy. If you want an enjoyable coastal ride with coconuts and palm trees, go to Florida. The West Loop is a popular ~70 mile route around the coast of Western Maui. We heard that the locals prefer riding it clockwise, so that’s what we did. On this day, the winds were gusting hard. So hard that I had to be completely focused on holding my bike steady and navigating the fallen debris covering the shoulder of a busy highway road. The start to the ride wasn’t very fun. Then, a few miles after passing through the older resort town of Lahaina, the ride became completely different. The elevation profile pitched up and down, rounding bends that mostly kept us sheltered from the gusting winds. The ocean was just to the left, bright blue, vast and breathtaking. From mile ~35-60 this route was so much fun. One minute you’re swooping down a coastal cliff side and the next popping out of the saddle to get through the 16% grades to the top where you’d be rewarded with a spectacular view. Somewhere in those snaking, up and down miles is a little house called Lorraine’s, right around the corner from Julia’s famous banana bread stand. I was told that all the cyclists stop at Lorraine’s and only Lorraine’s for ride fuel & refreshments. We rolled up to a friendly greeting, cooler of cold drinks on the ground and a counter of freshly baked banana bread loaves. There is even a Strava segment called ‘Julia’s Banana Bread climb’ starting from Julia’s and climbing for nearly 2 miles that over 3500 cyclists have ridden (I came in third female). The last ten miles were spent pushing straight into a headwind until we reached Paia, with a brief stop at the kiteboarding beach to see the kiteboarders kiting around in the surf. My legs ached but all I could think about was the stunning views, return of my cyclist tan lines, and ponder about how the next ride could possibly top that.
East Loop –
Of all the rides I’ve done, in all the places I’ve ridden… THIS was the ride that deserves title of ‘Most Epic’. I’m afraid of what it would take to top the epicness of this ride. The East Loop is a 105 mile route that travels the Road to Hana and takes you around the East side of Maui. 105 miles is a good enough feat for most but add on the almost 11,000 ft of climbing and you’ve got a daunting challenge on your hands. I started off with pockets loaded with food and was super excited for a full day of bike riding ahead. That all changed 5 miles in. Yes, 5 miles into a 105 mile ride and already I was miserable. It was pouring. POURING. We were riding along a highway with plenty of traffic and dirt, mud, and grit covered my soaked body. At 10 miles in I thought about turning back. Pride wouldn’t let me. I would not sit at home while the other 2 guys completed 105 miles. If they were doing this, I was doing this. By mile 20 I had come to terms with being soaked. At this point we were in the jungle, away from the heavier traffic, and the views were really fun. Unfortunately, it was difficult to look around too much due to the pouring rain making the up and down winding road very slick and difficult to manage without full attention. We were basically riding through a twisting, debris-covered waterfall. This part of the route is filled with bridges across waterfalls, alternating deep jungle sections and ocean views, and a bamboo forest. At one particularly beautiful corner we paused to take photos and have a snack before continuing on. If the road were dry, this would have been such a fun and fast section! Tourists traveling through the jungle were very respectful and patient in passing us. Several cars cheered us on in our journey. Out of the jungle 45 miles later and into Hana, the rain had stopped so we paused to wipe our faces of grit and sip spinach & spirulina smoothies. At this point I thought the hardest part was behind us; only 60 rain free miles left, Woo! I was wrong. After Hana the road got significantly steeper. Up, down, wind around on repeat for miles. Hard, but fun. Until the road pretty much disintegrated to patches of pavement so potholed there were several times water bottles were ejected from cages due to the turbulence. These parts were taken very cautiously. There’s nothing on this side of the island, not a water stop, not a house, not a gas station…. Nothing (be sure to fill up in Hana). Not a place to be stranded with a crash or mechanical. Then the road became dirt and mud. Would we see real pavement again? Who made this route?! Thank goodness for the views. I can’t even put into words how stunning the views were. Being able to see what we were seeing made the non-existent road worth while. Along this section of dirt and potholes we were stopped at a one lane pass as a truck traveled towards us carrying a wild boar strapped to its bed, tusks and all. Pretty sure my jaw dropped as I’d never seen such a beastly creature and definitely never in such shocking display. I was able to snap a photo once my shock subsided. Eventually we hit pavement again; a beautifully paved road just starts up again out of nowhere. Very odd, but I was thrilled! The views changed to rolling grasslands and lava beaches to the left, and a clear view of mount Haleakala to the right. At mile 70 I was getting tired and started to count down the miles. My feet hurt from being so soggy and my legs ached from all the climbing. Of course (check the profile image posted) this was a bad time to be sick of climbing; there was nothing but climbing for the next 20 miles. The only thought that saved me was knowing the ride was more like 90 miles than 105 because the last 15 was all downhill! Would I recommend this ride? A million times YES. Go prepared. Try to go when it isn’t raining, but don’t even let the rain stop you because it’s worth it. This route is a true accomplishment. Highway, jungle, lava fields, rolling green hills, ridgeline, helicopters above, ocean below, waterfalls, off road sections, etc… this route had EVERYTHING.
This was really the only ride I had in mind when going to Maui. I had been to the island twice before, but pre-cycling days and had only ever driven the 10,000ft to the volcano’s crater. It was too epic not to ride, I mean who doesn’t want to ride up a volcano!? Ideally, I would have hit this very hard. I wanted a strong Strava showing on the segment. There are only a handful of segments that I stalk and really would be proud to be on the leader board of and this is one of them. However, due to our very stormy forecast, it was difficult to plan a day to do this ride and it ended up happening by chance. We happened to be casually riding up towards the base of the volcano with an easy ride in mind for the day, when the sky began to turn blue and the clouds began to fade away. Every day had a high chance of rain so we took this as a sign and made the left turn for another 20 miles (&7,000 ft) of climbing. I wasn’t prepared for this new route change. 35 miles straight of climbing, quickly going through the food I had packed, air thinning, road winding endlessly up and up. Cars passed by, many giving up a friendly honk or ‘hang loose’ hand signal. It was fun and encouraging to keep riding. The grade never gets too steep on this climb, it is extremely consistent, even monotonous. After hitting 7,000ft I could feel my lungs working harder and watched my heart rate climb a little higher for the same effort. By 9,000ft I was feeling a headache come on and just wanted to reach the top and get off the bike for a brief minute even. Finally, really 2.5 hours later, we made it to the observatory, even riding up the sidewalk to get to the highest possible point. Grueling yes, but worth every second! The clouds had settled back in by the time we got to the top and so the views were a bit hidden, but we still stopped to take some photos, eat a snack and put on the arm warmers. A note on that, again, I wasn’t planning to do this ride on this day, luckily, I had brought along arm warmers. If you do this ride, make sure to pack warm layers and full finger gloves because it gets chilly and there’s a 35 mile descent ahead of you. It isnt’ a technical descent but speeds have to be controlled due to potential cattle and NēNē (Hawaiian state bird) in the road as well as cars traveling slower than you can on a bike. By the time we hit the park ranger station, not even halfway, it was crucial to stop and shake out the body as my neck and shoulders were aching from shivering and holding the same position for so long. The last 15 miles of the swooping descent back to Paia was pouring with rain. I was glad to have missed being soaked until this point in the ride, but deep puddles and slick roads made the trip back slower than planned. While I was grumpy about not getting to attack the volcano like I had hoped to, I was thrilled that we at least got the ride in because it was definitely not to be missed!
To Kehei & Beyond –
To get out of the down pour one afternoon, we jumped into a local juice & coffee shop where the barista told us that Kehei was on the sunny side of the island and we should go there. I was thoroughly sick of being soaked day after day so to Kehei we ventured. While flat and (mostly dry) this ride provided the least protection from the 20+mph winds. Cruising along at 30 mph was a fun way to kick off a ride. It also lets you know how hard the return miles would be. Still, once we got off the highway and onto the beachside roads, it was everything I expected Hawaii riding to be. Beaches filled with snorklers and paddle boarders on the right and fish taco joints lining the streets on the left. The sun was shining and all worries (even about the return headwind) seemed to dissipate. On the first trip we cut things short, just going to the end of Kehei and back to Paia. The second time we kept going until the road ends which I suggest everyone experiences. This is where you pass Makena Beach, then coves of lava and pure blue ocean until the road turns to a potholed mess and eventually comes to an abrupt stop. That’s it. You can literally ride the island until you just run out of road, which is a fun feeling. Turn around and head back. Make sure to really enjoy the next few miles of beachy island views because once the highway inland begins, you’re in for 15 miles of effort into a complete headwind.
7 days of riding out of Paia Maui earned me a total of 443 miles & 39,342 ft of elevation gain. Again, cycling in Maui isn’t a vacation for your legs!!
** While over 4200 cyclists have ridden Maui segments such as Haleakala, don't expect to join any group rides. Traveling cyclists manly trickle in here and there. The island itself doesn't have a huge riding scene. You're likely to see a handful of riders out, but be prepared and motivated to go at it alone.
Honorable Mentions –
+ The 18.4 mile segment ‘Paia to Grandmas’ is worthy of a mention. It’s an easy way to get a quality ride in even if you hit Grandmas (a little café) and turn around as the 18.4 miles is a full on uphill battle. The segment is 3% average and KOM is 14.1mph average. To get this you really have to WORK IT. And we did. Even with rain and headwinds, we were on a mission to crush this climb. Go ahead, try to take my QOM, I dare ya! ;) As a bonus, when you reach Grandma's you can hang your bike under a banana tree while you grab some local banana bread, fresh guava juice, or a coffee.
+ Waipoli road – Maui Cyclery warned us against this road. So obviously, we had to do it. They said it was steep and the descent so dangerous that most people ruin their rims from over breaking. It was steep, VERY steep. So steep that my back was aching. But this is only the beginning, as soon as you ride past a field of lavender, the grade is gentler. More, but not completely as you have another ~3 miles of constant switchbacks to cover. The entire segment is 5.9 miles with an average grade of 11%. We saw hikers driving up to their campsite at waiakoa campgrounds, got a lot more hang loose signs, and saw wild boar hunters with their radio-collared dog head past the end of the paved road onto the “4x4 vehicles only” dirt section. We stopped briefly at the top, briefly because I was worried wild boars would attack us, also because it started raining. On the way down, I had to stop several times to let my rims cool from the excessive braking. It’s likely the tightest, most technical descent Maui has. While not the scariest I’ve encountered, the fact that the road was soaking wet made me uber careful and likely the slowest to ever reach the bottom. Better safe than sorry!!
+ Not exactly a segment, but stopping for spam sushi should be part of your Maui cycling trip. The grocery stores carry it, or make your own! Sushi rice, seared & seasoned slice of spam, and a little seaweed. It’s actually quite tasty and the saltiness is great on a long, sweaty island ride. Of course, if you just can't do the spam, there are other great fueling options: fresh coconut water, smoothies with spirulina, fresh caught fish taco trucks, and smoothie bowls topped with loads of local fruit will keep your energy levels high!