I have done my share of difficult bike rides. I rode from coast to coast on a tandem bike. I pioneered a route all the way around the Great Salt Lake [Go to page 12 here to read about it] I endured a sixty mile race on my mountain bike through the wilds of Alaska. Twice I jiggled over one hundred miles of the rocky White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, once in one day. I lugged 60 lbs of camping gear over three mountain passes in three different states in one 120 mile day. One day I suffered through 211 miles from Seattle to Portland. I hauled camping gear through a late spring blizzard over Utah’s Boulder Mountain and suffered a mild case of hypothermia as a reward. I have battled stiff headwinds all the way across South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. I was at the 2006 24-hours of Moab.
That’s not even a complete list, but as I look back on it, none of those rides really seem that difficult anymore. None of them made me cry for mercy. None of them made me want to get off, quit, or turn around. None of them had sections too steep, too rocky, or too exhausting to ride.
But there is one ride that did all of those things. At only 44 miles, it is the shortest on my list of difficult rides, but it did take me through ten of earth’s climate zones. It started as a beautiful ride through a tropical rain forest and ended in a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation. I started at a quarter to seven on a spring morning in Hilo, Hawaii, elevation: zero. At about five o’clock that evening I was at the top of the volcano Mauna Kea, elevation: 13,796 feet. I was cold, tired, and hungry. But mostly I was out of breath.
Why would anyone do this to themselves while vacationing in Hawaii?
I asked myself that as the rain forest gave way to lava fields at 6,000 feet. I asked my self that again at 7,000 feet when the average grade increased to over ten percent. And again as I stopped to catch my breath at the visitors center at 9,200 feet. Incidentally, that is also where I stopped questioning my decision to bring my mountain bike with slick tires instead of my road bike. I was happy to have a granny gear. I would question the slick tires decision again later.
I refueled with some hot soup and a Snickers bar at the visitors center and thought the last eight miles would go by quickly. The altitude must have already started to affect my reasoning because I still had almost 5,000 feet to climb, and five miles of that would be unpaved.
Actually, to merely call the road unpaved is a tragic understatement. The road surface is covered with two to three inches of loose volcanic cinders. My tires were only 38 millimeters wide, which till then had always seemed extra wide on my touring bike. Now they seemed like pizza slicers on my 29-inch wheel mountain bike. They cut through the cinders like gooey mozzarella. I tried to steer for the patches of washboard where I got a bit more traction, but usually steering meant losing any momentum I had. I started choosing rocks at the side of the road as waypoints and promising myself that I would stop to catch my breath when I made it there. At first I was picking rocks that were a quarter mile away, or around the next switchback. Then my waypoints started getting closer together; 300 yards, 200 yards, then 50 feet apart. Soon I was just happy to have my wheels rolling and didn’t care how far I could make it. There was one stretch, probably about 400 yards long, that was too steep and too loose to ride. I got off and walked.
I wanted to quit.
This must have been the sustained section of 17 percent grade I had read about. It felt more like 25 percent to me, but my perception of road gradient was already skewed; slopes of only 3 percent that I had climbed earlier in the day had felt like descents compared to what I was climbing now.
During one of my catch-my-breath breaks a woman from Dallas named Debbie (honest!) drove by. She had passed me on the way up at about 7,000 feet and was on her way back down to Hilo. She saw me doubled over, my chest heaving, and my face likely a shade of blue.
First she made sure I wasn’t dying. Then she started slathering on the praise. “You’re incredible!” “All the way from Hilo?!?” “You must be a professional” and so on. She took pictures of me catching my breath, taking a drink, riding around a switchback and one of her and me together. I felt like a superstar, and that was before she got out her video camera. She wrote down my email address and promised to send me the photos.
I never heard from her again.
Mercifully, the final three miles to the summit are paved. I stopped to stash my hydration pack behind a rock and continued upward with newfound energy. I was so happy to have traction again that I almost forgot I was out of breath. A couple of descending cars tooted their horns and cheered me on as I climbed the last three switchbacks. But their enthusiasm couldn't sustain me and I again succumbed to the elevation. By this time I was above 12,000 feet and my lungs wouldn’t let me forget it.
The final rise to the summit was underwhelming. The road makes a little loop around the summit servicing the telescopes and observatories up there. A few tourists were parked at one end of the loop so I coasted—literally the first coasting I’d done all day—to the other end and took seat on the ground. I looked down on a patch of snow with ski tracks through it. A hiking trail led off toward the real summit, 300 yards away but only a couple feet higher than where I sat. I didn’t have the energy or the desire to climb it. I was getting cold and knew Mags had been waiting for me down at the visitors center for a long time. The temperature felt somewhere in the forties so I put on my arm warmers before starting down. I was on the summit for less than fifteen minutes, and I didn’t even get a photograph of myself there because I had chosen not to carry the extra weight of a camera.
The paved section of the descent reminded me of some of my winter rides near my home in Utah. I shivered all the way down to my stashed pack where I stopped to put on every piece of clothing I had.
The unpaved section of the descent was miserable. The washboard surface made my shoulders and neck ache, while the steep sections burned up my brake pads. At times I couldn’t control my speed because of my skidding tires.
Mags took a photo of me when I arrived at the visitors center. You can see the exhaustion my posture. It begs the question again: Why would anyone do this to themselves while vacationing in Hawaii? There is no single answer. Part of it is the satisfaction I get from accomplishing something most people would never conceive of. But there is more. I feel the most free when I am on my bicycle. I love how bicycles can take me to new places and new frames of mind. I love how all it costs me to get there is a sweaty brow, two achy legs and sometimes a quart of Gatorade. I love how the pain reminds me that I am alive.
That’s all I have to show for my effort that day.