Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala 2011

Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala 2011

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Flying into Maui, the first thing you see are the tops of the volcanoes on each of the Hawaiian islands. An awesome sight, they appear as massive domes that stretch high above the clouds. Descending, as the plane passes through the cloud layer, one is struck by how far below the ocean and island still are. These are big hills, and as a cyclist psychologically preparing for a ride to the top of Haleakala, it is an acute signal of what kind of ride it is going to be.

The road to the top of Haleakala rises from sea level to the summit at 10,000 feet*, which is more than 1/3 the prominence of Mount Everest and equates roughly to the altitude gained by mountaineers ascending from Camp I (the fist camp above the Ice Fall and Base Camp) to the summit of the world’s highest peak.

The day of the climb dawned with near-ideal conditions on Saturday. Bike Number 1 spent the night in our apartment on the lovely Rose Compound (where we were guests of unbelievably gracious hosts) and as I ate breakfast, Gianni set about preparing the bike and rider for what lay before us: air in the tires for the bike, estate-grown and roasted espresso for the rider. (Gianni, his VMH, and the Roses have life figured out, by the way.) Final preparations were made, and we headed to the coast where I was to start my warmup by riding into Paia, where the climb officially starts.

I was blissfully unaware of the difficulty that lay before me, and more than a little too optimistic. Altitude has never bothered me and, having done big, long climbs all over Europe and the United States, I understand my limitations well enough to know that gradient is a more serious obstacle for my large frame than is length. When it came to gauging my effort, I figured that since I can comfortably sustain 20 or more kilometers per hour up a 6% grade, I figured that, based on Haleakala’s reported 5.5% average, I could easily do the whole climb at 15kmph, meaning I should have a sub-4 hour ride in my legs. The only unknown, in my naive mind, was what effects a 60 km climb to 10,000 feet would have as the air thinned on my way up. That particular unknown has been answered beyond a shadow of a doubt.

My strategy for the climb was to set at a solid pace at the bottom, fast enough to give myself a cushion for my inevitable slowdown near the top, but not so fast I would fire of the Guns of Navarrone too soon. I set off like a puppy being taken to The Farm, full of confidence and optimism, and with absolutely no idea of how hard Pele was about to bitchslap me. The first quarter of the climb is steady and did nothing but bolster my confidence, with a pace higher than I expected. Things were off to a good start.

In retrospect, I have established the theory that after Hansel and Gretel escaped the Gingerbread House, they made a trip up the volcano, but rather than leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, here they left a trail of wasps along the route, left there to be inhaled by the poor sods who attempt to ride up. The wasps are few and far between at the base, and steadily increase in density as one nears the top. The last 200m of the ride is almost entirely made of Yellow Jackets.

With the completion of the first quarter of the climb comes the turn onto Crater Road, the switchback-laden road that rises all the way to the summit. Most climbs are passes – meaning they approach a saddle or low-point on a ridge in order to cross into an adjacent valley. Crater Road is a sinister beast that goes right for the jugular, leading to the very summit of the mountain. Not terribly steep but very exposed, the wind whips around the side of the mountain from all sides, giving the rider a headwind in almost every direction and steadily sapping any strength from the legs.

By 5,000 feet, after 30 km of climbing and with the ride almost half over, I was completely wasted and the climb became a death march with me staring mostly at my rear axle and being saved only by The Rules emblazoned upon my right thigh. I lost count of my elevation somewhere after 6,000 feet and I retreated into a dark, dark place where unholy thoughts of hatred frolicked, pain tasted bitter on my tongue, and time moved inperceptably. I bargained with Merckx. I bargained with myself. I vowed never to ever do this climb again, if only I could reach the top.

I was rocked back to reality at 8,000 feet when the guns cramped so badly I had to lay on the side of the road for a few minutes to massage some life back into them. The ride from 8,000 to 9,000 feet took a year off my life. At a certain point, I noticed I was making all manner of strange noises that I would prefer I never make again. The last 1,000 feet to the summit, though mentally the easiest, was spent communing with butterflies and cursing everyone’s name I could think of. Cruelly, the last stretch to the very tippy-top is viciously steep and most unwelcome. I came terrifyingly close to falling off for a lack of speed and strength.

Can’t wait to do it again. I’ll go sub-4 hours for sure. Enjoy the film and photos of the ride.

Video: Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala

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Photos: Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala

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*The elevations in this article will generally be referred to in feet as this is how the roadsigns along the road are measured and, while it breaks with the convention set forth in Rule #24, these measurements have been forever burned into my brain. 10,000 feet is 3048 meters.

// Cyclotourism // Routes // The Rides

  1. @Flahute
    Those are decals, not stickers. Obviously. Nice work, though, and excellent avatar.

  2. No need to keep looking – I found the charity…
    These guys build bikes tough for developing countries and then give them away. They have given away over 50,000 bikes in the last few years and they make a difference by helping keep kids in school, helping microfinance businesses, and generally improving the lives of thousands of the world’s poorest people.
    You might remember their bikes were reviewed on VeloNews a while back ( and for $134 a bike, they’re doing pretty well.
    Surely if we can get together twenty or thirty people, and raise $50,000-$60,000, it’s worthwhile?
    I don’t mind if it’s Haleakawa or le Tour (I’d prefer Haleakawa) but let’s do this.

  3. @Frank

    I’m very happy to have not seen this article a month ago when I arrived here on Maui. I would have been tempted to match your impressive display of The V and document my efforts accordingly. Wonderful job and a great video. I applaud your excellent work. No Haleakala for me, though. I enjoyed many other great rides through Haiku, the Upcountry, and even the ever popular Kihei/Wailea/Makena to Kahului bike path. It’s a beautiful place to ride, yes? If not the climbs, the wind will surely bring out the Man with the Hammer. Alas, I leave tomorrow and my bike is already disassembled. Oh well, next time. You do it again, as you state you will, I’ll meet you here and we’ll tackle it together. Anyone else game?

    I’m headed to Oahu later this month. Anyone know of any good routes there?

  4. This video brings the pain. Bravo. Inspiring. My posse hits Mt. Mitchell and other heights in western NC in June. Wish my bride (or someone else’s) would pilot a chase car.

  5. @Frank

    Just wondering if those were Zipp 404’s or 303 clinchers you were running on on your ride up Haleakala and how they held up? And very inspirational by the way. If I would’ve saw this post/video a few weeks ago while I was in Maui I would’ve definitely had to give it a shot.

  6. @mrwiggs
    They are 404’s; these are bombproof wheels – I ride them all over, anytime, anyplace. As you can tell I’m a big guy, so I don’t give them an easy ride. One of the things I really like about the wheels is the spokes are easy to come by and all you need to true/maintain them is a truing stand a standard spoke wrench.

    Lastly, it’s embarrassing how light they roll; give ‘em a spin, go out, have a bite, come back and it’s still spinning.


  7. @frank
    Good to hear. I’ve had my eye on some Zipps for sometime now. Just not sure whether a 303 or 404 would be better. I suppose the 303 would be a little more of an all around wheel? Also, do you use those 404 clinchers to race? Or do you use a set of tubulars?

  8. @mrwiggs
    I’m not sure the 303’s are more of an all-round wheel or not. My VMH rides a set in cross winds et all and she’s on a 53cm, 14 pound bike with about 110 pounds of rider on a wet day. No issues in cross winds – in fact, my flat-spoked Ksyriums give me much more trouble in winds than do the Zipps.

    My understanding of the wheels is that they really have a sweet spot for efficiency based on speeds. The 404’s, you can feel them start to fall into their zone in the mid to upper 30’s (km/h) up to the mid 40’s. If you ride in that range a lot, the 404’s are for you. The 303’s range is a bit lower, and the 202’s lower still (which is why, aside from their weight, they’re a good climbing wheel). The 808’s are for 45+ and really sing at 50+.

    They have this amazing sensation when the wind is right where you feel the bike accelerate a bit when you hit the speed zone and you almost don’t feel like you need to pedal. Amazing.

  9. I was just informed by my VMH’s parents that we will probably be going to Maui in 2013 for their 40th wedding anniversary. So it looks like I have a date with the mountain in my future.

  10. I do see only thumbnail-size pictures. Full-screen mode doesn’t work either. What’s wrong here?

    Well done, frank!

  11. Rode up to 7000 feet today to warm up. Payed my respects at the ranger station and headed back down. Man, the descent from 7000′ is just a fucking riot.

  12. You’re a beast! How much do you plan on beating your old time by?

    I’ll go ahead and say you’ll beat your old time by 15 minutes.

  13. @frank

    you make it sound like you didn’t experience the same pain as you did getting to that height as you did last time. good luck!

  14. @frank

    How could you return when you already reached 7000 ft? I would have rather made it to the top at a lower gear to warm up properly (if I was U). See Rule #5.

    It’s just that I am totally jealous because I will probably never even come close to the volcano ;(

    (the other) Frank

  15. @grumbledook

    Ha, I almost gave Frank crap about that too, after all you’ve already done 7,000 ft, may as well do another 3,000 and reach the summit.

    Then I remembered that my entire 47 mile ride on Saturday consisted of 3,500 ft, and my starter pistols were about to fall off, so I decided instead to not bring that up.

  16. @frank

    Rode up to 7000 feet today to warm up. Payed my respects at the ranger station and headed back down. Man, the descent from 7000″² is just a fucking riot.

    Rule #24 violation from the founder?! Best you do a couple of quick reps here on your way home!

  17. @Chris


    Rode up to 7000 feet today to warm up. Payed my respects at the ranger station and headed back down. Man, the descent from 7000″² is just a fucking riot.

    Rule #24 violation from the founder?! Best you do a couple of quick reps here on your way home!

    I agree 100% especially afterthe whole temperature thing.

  18. @Chris

    Not to defend fr0nk just for brownie points, but I believe in the originally article he mentioned using feet because that’s what the elevation markers are every 1,000 as you climb the volcano.


    *The elevations in this article will generally be referred to in feet as this is how the roadsigns along the road are measured and, while it breaks with the convention set forth in Rule #24, these measurements have been forever burned into my brain. 10,000 feet is 3048 meters.

    My use of them is just laziness.

  19. The originally article? Jesus. I promise someday I’ll learn to proofread. I swear.

  20. @mcbrownnose

    don’tcha just love it when teachers pet says “actually, I think you’ll find that the footnote says…”

    They’re Fränk’s rules and Rule #24 is very specific “…as such the English system is forbidden.”

    (as an Englishman, I simply cannot follow this rule though, I’d come over all European)

  21. @Chris
    Your link is in imperial. More hill repeats for you, too.

  22. @Chris

    I’m hoping to score some easy VSP points on the side.

  23. @grumbledook, @mcsqueak
    I know how to train properly.

    Actually, I was just gonna go to the Crater Road, then to the midway point, then to the ranger station. I could also cite the fact that they turned me around because I didn’t have a fiver with me (toll booth) but I had already decided to call it good for my “leg stretching” ride first day on the island.

    *footnote: No Rule #24 violation as pointed out by @mcsqueak.

  24. So when is the next installment of Fränk vs the Volcano taking place?

    Am quite intrigued to see the effect of experience & training on the time…

  25. Very inspirational read.  I was there a couple of year ago on a windsurfing trip, before the V came to town.  I did the tourist MTB bus trip/descent thing, which was great, and have the ascent on my list of Things To Do.  I wonder how I’d go.  THe butterflies are certainly safe with me.

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