Rising 10,023 feet above sea level stands Maui’s most forbidding and compelling natural attraction, Haleakala. As one of the world’s largest dormant volcanoes, Haleakala boasts awe-inspiring views of grandeur for thousands who visit the summit each year. It is also known as one of the most challenging hill climbs in the world for those ambitious enough to make the attempt on two wheels.
What separates this bike race from all other hill climb events is the drastic change in elevation over a short stretch of road. Riders encounter a grueling and punishing 36-mile climb from the quaint town of Paia with steep gradients upward of 18 percent. A select few accomplish this trek to the summit in less than three hours.
Dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, severe headaches and dehydration are a few health warnings posted as possible effects of altitude sickness as one ascends to the top. If that’s what happens when driving a motor vehicle, one can only imagine what may happen while ascending on a bicycle.
Yet, the incredible panoramic view from atop makes it all worthwhile, especially if you arrive early enough to catch Haleakala’s unbelievable sunrise. Mark Twain called it “the sublimest spectacle I’ve ever witnessed.” But more than words can express, it’s a feeling one must experience to truly appreciate.
Sunday’s Cycle to the Sun bike race attracted 200 cyclists from around the globe ready to test their fitness on the most talked-about hill climb event in the state. A trio of Big Island athletes made their way over to the Valley Isle — a land of white sandy beaches, the charming Hana coastline, and yes, Krispy Kreme donuts.
Keauhou’s Penn Henderson, Waikoloa’s Maxfield LaFortune and Hilo’s Robert Patey readied themselves alongside the masses for the 6:30 a.m. start time, eyeing Haleakala’s distant summit of what would later become the finale to an exciting battle to the finish.
Within the first few miles, an elite group of 30 riders formed a pack and stayed together until Henderson decided to pick up the pace at mile 8. With Henderson in the lead, LaFortune found himself in a chase pack with Oahu’s Rick Beach and Maui’s David Arteaga.
As the switchback roads leading up to the summit became more taxing, Henderson’s lead slowly diminished as he began to struggle with a different kind of battle: leg cramps.
LaFortune, looking strong and smooth in his first attempt at this race, finally pulled into the lead at mile 30 and continued his strong efforts to the top. With a triumphed raised fist in the air, LaFortune became the first Big Islander in the race’s long history to claim victory in an outstanding time of 2 hours, 47 minutes and 43 seconds.
“I feel blessed and honored to win,” LaFortune said moments after he crossed the finish line. “I feel humbled by this mountain. It’s really the icing on the cake, I’m really happy with my finish. Totally unexpected.”
LaFortune said he tried to pace himself from the beginning, as he knew it was going to be a hard race.
“I was trying to keep it steady, a high cadence,” LaFortune said. “The beautiful view was inspiring and helped to calm me down as it was the hardest ride I’ve done in a long time.”
The 26-year-old added that doing a lot of climbing in his training leading up to the race helped and said it was a privilege to ride with so many talented athletes in the field.
Beach, who placed third last year, was the next rider to reach the finish in 2:48:39. Henderson rounded out the men’s elite top three with his time of 2:51:13.
“Max has been riding strong all year,” Henderson said. “I knew he would be there at the end duking it out for first. I was hoping to be there with him but it just wasn’t my day, and that’s how racing sometimes goes.”
Hilo’s Patey finished the climb in 16th place with a time of 3:17:22.
On the women’s side, Sheila Croft of Washington had the quickest pedal stroke winning in a great time of 3:22:18. Croft, who is an accomplished triathlete, placed an impressive second overall in the women’s competition in the 2011 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii triathlon.
Utah’s Heidi Nielson was next in 3:35:31, with Sue Strokes of Colorado right behind in third at 3:36:09.
A cloudless sky made it a beautiful morning for all who made their way to the top of Haleakala. Whether one was a sightseeing tourist or a hardcore cyclist, either way, Haleakala certainly inspired an unforgettable goose bump experience.