Beyond the tiny outpost of Keokea on Maui, the Kula Highway turns feral. Undulating up and down hills and curving to dodge cacti and jacaranda trees, it’s more of a funhouse ride than a road. As it passes through cowboy country and descends seaward, it turns into Pi‘ilani Highway, a route unpaved in parts and emphatically marked “Do Not Go” on most rental car maps. To obey these instructions is to miss some of the island’s most starkly beautiful scenery. The southeastern flank of Haleakala, the island’s massive dormant volcano, rises in an unbroken line from the wind-nicked Pacific Ocean. Between mountain and sea the lonely highway unfurls, frequented by few cars and plenty of cattle. This raw wilderness is where cycling’s elite come to train.
At Rice Park in Keokea, two dozen riders pour out of Maui Cycling Camp support vehicles. Among them: Ryder Hesjedal, one of the top cyclists in the world. For the past three years, Hesjedal has teamed up with Maui Cyclery owner Donnie Arnoult to host week-long fantasy training camps. Arnoult provides the top-tier support, Hesjedal the star power. Participants in the 2012 camp are riding alongside not only Hesjedal but also a few of his friends: Svein Tuft, Seamus McGrath and Andreas Hestler. All four are past Olympians and professional racers.
While Arnoult’s mechanics unload feather-light carbon fiber bike frames and tighten on their front wheels, the cyclists ready themselves for six hours in the saddle. By their own power, they’ll travel one hundred miles around Haleakala today—along the Pi‘ilani Highway, through the lush rainforests of Hana and all the way around the mountain to Pa‘ia, the surf town on Maui’s North Shore. The hills they’ll encounter add up to a total elevation gain of seven thousand feet—double the height of the West Maui Mountains.
“This ride has epic written all over it,” says one of the camp attendees. Giddy but undaunted, the amateur riders zip up fluorescent jerseys and stuff their back pockets with sugary waffle treats called Honey Stingers. The two women in the group take off first: Penny Irving, a triathlete from Alberta, and Diana Almeida, a petite 50-year-old who races mountain bikes back home in Chihuahua, Mexico. Snapping cleats into pedals, they become extensions of their bicycles. The rest of the group follows, zipping out of Keokea like a swarm of bees.
The support vans have to hustle to keep up with the tight pack of riders surging forward as one body. The peloton, as this formation is called, is unique to cycling. It’s the closest humans get to the majesty of migrating birds or schools of fast-moving fish. Cyclists riding in each other’s wake, or slipstream, expend 30 percent less energy to travel the same distance—but doing so requires keeping within a wheel’s length of the rider ahead of you.