Sandy-haired Hesjedal doesn’t look like a cutthroat competitor, but his recent victories prove appearances can be deceiving. He’s one of fewer than two hundred riders invited to compete in the fabled Tour de France, a heroic three-week stage race that includes staggering climbs through the French Alps. Simply finishing the Tour is comparable to running twenty-one back-to-back marathons. In this ultracompetitive realm, individual stages are won by seconds, even fractions of seconds. Hesjedal, who is lithe as a greyhound, placed sixth in the 2010 Tour. Last year he won the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s version of the Tour. This year? He’s gearing up for both races.
Cycling fans disenchanted by the recent doping scandals that toppled Lance Armstrong from his throne might shrug and say the results aren’t real. But Hesjedal races for Garmin, one of the most progressive anti-doping teams in the history of the sport. No one claims that Hesjedal’s wins are dirty. So what’s his secret? A little island in the center of the Pacific.
“I finish my season pretty exhausted,” says Hesjedal. “But on Maui, when the sun’s blasting and the roads are swelling with steam next to the ocean, I find myself wanting to get on the bike.” And that, the champion says, has given him the edge necessary to win.
Hawai‘i isn’t an obvious stop for pro cyclists. Most racers stay in close orbit around France, Italy and Spain, where they get regular practice on the roads they will be assaulting during the Grand Tours: the Giro, the Tour de France and Spain’s stage race, the Vuelta a España. But when the competition pedals south for the winter to Majorca or Girona, Hesjedal heads in the opposite direction to his second home on Maui.
Unbeknownst to many local residents, Hawai‘i is emerging as a world-class cycling destination. While its urban commuter roads still leave everything to be desired, its rural highways are a pro rider’s paradise: perfect weather, sparse traffic and diverse scenery. But it’s the insanely steep mountains that really whet a masochistic cyclist’s appetite. As the word spreads, more athletes are migrating to Hawai‘i not for its big surf, but for its big roads.
Back on Pi‘ilani Highway, the peloton has broken into small clusters of riders. As they approach Kaupo—a ghost town comprised of a single general store and a few weathered churches—the road’s pavement deteriorates into a patchwork of filled-in potholes. Mountain bike champs Seamus McGrath and Andreas Hestler have no trouble navigating this stretch, nicknamed the “Maui cobbles” after Europe’s bike-devouring cobblestone streets. The others bump bravely along. Their state-of-the- art equipment is designed for speed, not shock absorption. Every inch rattles the bones. And then the rain starts.
About now the fantasy campers might be asking what they’d gotten themselves into. But half are repeat clients who know what to expect. Stan Prutz, an amateur racer from Baton Rouge, is celebrating his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary by attending his second Maui Cycling Camp. While his wife lounges by the pool at the camp’s posh headquarters, the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, he chases his heroes across the island. Campers ante up $15,000 for eight nights at the resort, seven days of riding with the pros, daily sport massages, group breakfasts and a swag bag that will make their cycling friends back home flush with envy. “The first time I came I thought it was going to be fluff,” says Prutz. “I thought it would just be people who could buy a chance to see professional athletes. It isn’t like that. It’s a serious training camp.”
Tyler Farrar, the fastest sprinter in the United States, claims it’s the best week of training he can get on a bike. He has joined his Garmin teammate on Maui each year since 2010. That’s one of the things that makes this camp special: It’s filled with Hesjedal’s personal cycling family—men he races with and those he grew up with in Victoria, British Columbia. Embedded within this elite crew, the campers become a family of their own. “It’s the best investment I’ve ever made for myself,” says Charles McCabe from Marin. Rob Meeder, a pediatrician from Ontario, agrees. “So our once-in-a-lifetime trip became our annual trip,” he laughs.
As the rain shower subsides, the cyclists click into their lowest gear to power up a near-vertical hill past ‘Alelele Falls. The stronger riders push those struggling along from behind. At the top, the gravel-spattered group stops for a break. Everyone is sweating profusely except Hesjedal, who looks as fresh as if he just started. One fellow took a spill, and he peels his spandex up to show off an angry red road rash. Arnoult fetches the first-aid kit and then retrieves a bolt he found on the road back at Kaupo. He suspects it came from someone’s cleat. Sure enough, a rider has a loose shoe, and Arnoult tightens the missing bolt back on.