Bike down a volcano

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(Host) When someone says “Hawaii,” mountain biking probably isn’t the first thing you think of. But as commentator John Morton and his wife Kay discovered, it’s a great way to see the sights.

(Morton) As we waited for our baggage in the Kahului airport, jet lagged but happy, Kay gathered a fistful of colorful tourist brochures. There were sunset dinner cruises, snorkeling on nearby reefs, traditional Hawaiian luaus, even sightseeing trips by helicopter and submarine. But the brochure that caught our attention proclaimed, “Maui’s Most Thrilling Experience, Bike Down a Volcano.”

There were photos of happy families in motorcycle helmets and matching wind suits, blissfully coasting down the access road of Haleakala volcano. Rival companies boasted about their dedication to safety, and bragged about celebrities who had descended the mountain with them. Let’s be honest here, would you pick the outfit favored by Tom Hanks and Gene Hackman, or the rival company that guided Dan Quayle?

Rising majestically out of the ocean to just over 10,000 feet, (more than twice the elevation of Mt. Mansfield), Haleakala makes its own weather. The summit is often clear in the morning, but as the trade winds cross the sun-drenched foothills, clouds form, and by afternoon the mountain is shrouded in a dense blanket of moisture. The best opportunity for breathtaking vistas is on the sunrise tour. What the brochure fails to mention is that departure for the sunrise tour is at 2:15 a.m.

What follows is a two-hour traffic jam of vans pulling trailers of bicycles up 38 miles of endless switchbacks and hairpin turns. It was still pitch dark when we piled out of the van, just below the summit, into a steady wind that made the predawn air feel well below freezing. Around 5:00 a.m., the eastern sky brightened, and several hundred shivering tourists elbowed each other for a place at the railing to photograph the sunrise over Haleakala’s eroded crater. Moments later tour guides lined up one group after another and headed down the access road.

We were given explicit instructions on the space to maintain between cyclists, arm signals for slowing down, and warnings about the fresh cow flaps we would encounter in ranch land far below.

Was it worth it? You bet. For the experienced cyclist, it’s a little discouraging to be paced by the slowest member of the group. We were saddled with a cautious mom from California who must have worn out a set of brakes. But the modest pace permitted a full appreciation of the fantastic scenery as we descended from the barren alpine zone, through shrubland, down into magnificent stands of aromatic eucalyptus trees, then the broad pastures of cattle ranches, and finally the pineapple plantations and sugar cane fields along the coast.

If you plan to visit our fiftieth state, don’t miss the bike ride down Haleakala. Just remember to bring your parka and ski hat if you choose the sunrise tour.

This is John Morton in Thetford, Vermont.

John Morton designs trails and writes about sports.

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