Compared with Maui, the Big Island is a super-sized velodrome. Nearly everything on the youngest Hawaiian Island is superlative, starting with its newly forged mountains—the largest on earth when measured from the sea floor. The roads are longer and sometimes steeper than they are on Maui, and the distances between each town far more vast. On the Belt Road that encircles the Big Island, a cyclist can shoot like an arrow, flying a hundred-plus miles without stopping. For riders who crave the roller-coaster thrills of Maui’s Pi‘ilani Highway, this might be monotonous. But for endurance athletes it’s pure heaven.
Triathletes began flooding into West Hawai‘i in 1981, when Kailua-Kona became home to the Ironman—a swimming, running and cycling event that ranks among the planet’s most grueling sport competitions. Not quite content with the physical demands of the Ironman contest, Hawai‘i residents created a double Ironman, dubbed the Ultraman. The joke around town is that locals don’t ask how you’re doing, they ask how your training is going. Everyone here seems to be involved in endurance sports. The Kona coast offers ideal conditions for triathletes: crystal-clear ocean water and a smooth paved highway that seems to roll on forever. These long expanses of open road attract a different sort of cycling animal.
Fifty-seven-year old Gary Shields is a three-time Ultraman winner. The Chicago native first came to Hawai‘i to compete in the Ironman in 1982 and moved to Kona shortly after. Intense and determined, he became known for circumnavigating the island solo on two wheels. The 270-mile ride takes him sixteen hours. He leaves at midnight on a full moon. “It’s so bright you hardly need a light,” says Shields. “I like going the south way, because I can get up to Volcano by dawn.” Traveling in the dark, he can tell his location by the scent: perfumed white ginger along the Honaunau roadside or sulfur leaking out of fissures in the lava near Kilauea.
Shields is currently in China, where he’s conducting quality assurance checks on nuclear power plant equipment. Naturally, he took his bike. He recently competed in a 150-mile race across the countryside outside of Shanghai. Bolting ahead of the peloton straight away, he cruised solo for 125 miles before being caught in the last uphill stretch. The experience was reminiscent of one of his very first road races in Hawai‘i, sixteen years ago: the Dick Evans Memorial on O‘ahu.
“I rode the whole way by myself,” Shields remembers. He won by a seven-and-a-half-minute margin. “The O‘ahu guys never thought that a triathlete from the Big Island could come over and spank them,” he laughs. “After that I went back to Kona and decided to start a bike club.”
Shields designed a website for the nascent Hawai‘i Cycling Club and began collecting sponsorships and hosting races. Eight years ago he launched Sea to Stars, a race even more extreme than Maui’s Cycle to the Sun. Starting at the oceanfront Mauna Lani Bay resort, it proceeds through the blistering hot Kona lava plains, across the barren expanse of Saddle Road and up an unforgiving incline to the airy reaches of the Mauna Kea observatories, stopping only when the road turns to icy gravel. The course climbs 9,200 feet over fifty miles. But veterans say it’s not the first forty-four miles that hurt, it’s the last six. The final reach up to the Halepohaku visitor center is so savagely steep that riders pack special gears onto their bikes to make pedaling a tiny bit easier. Even still they weave all over the road from exhaustion, lack of oxygen and altitude sickness.
“The last bit is a dagger,” says Penn Henderson, a local triathlete who clawed his way to second place in last year’s Sea to Stars. “You could probably get off your bike and push it up faster. People don’t realize that there are major mountains here.”
Henderson grew up in Colorado, where he competed on the national level as a downhill skier. After several knee surgeries and too many brutal winters, he decided to throw caution to the wind and move to Hawai‘i. He brought a mountain bike with him to Kona but was disappointed to find that there were few public trails for riding. When he finally got on a road bike, his disappointment turned to wonder. “The vastness of all these open roads we have, with wide shoulders and other cyclists out there training, it’s impressive,” he says. “Plus, we can ride all year round.”
Now the marketing director for Fair Wind sailing charters, Henderson rides the Hawai‘i mountains during his free time. His favorite route leads up through the Kohala range. “It feels like riding through Switzerland, past green cow pastures—only with the blue ocean in the distance,” he says. “After a six-hour ride, I feel like I’ve been on a week-long adventure.”
During the winter months, Henderson says, the highways fill up with international pros looking to log miles in the saddle. “And as small as Kona is,” he says, “you run into them, which keeps things interesting.” One of the more interesting run-ins happened between two famous local residents: Lance Armstrong and pro triathlete Chris Lieto, who both have homes on the Big Island. In February 2010, Armstrong passed Lieto going the other way on the Queen Ka‘ahumanu highway on his bike. Impressed by the triathlete’s speed, the retired cyclist challenged him to a friendly duel the next day.
After a few exchanges via Twitter, the two men agreed to meet at Waikaloa at 9:30 a.m.—late enough for Lieto to get his three-mile morning swim in first. A few other riders showed up, eager for a chance to race head-to-head with these sporting giants. For the first ever “Twitter Time Trial,” they designated a fourteen-mile course, started a minute apart and raced against the clock. Boosted by strong tail winds, the two leaders averaged thirty-five miles per hour. Armstrong crossed the finish line first at 18:35, beating Lieto by seconds.
“It created a bit of a buzz,” says Lieto. “But really it was just two friends going out for a ride. It’s more fun to train with other people than by yourself.” Mike Wolf, the new president of the Hawai‘i Cycling Club, wasn’t there, but—like everybody on the Big Island—he heard about the spontaneous time trial. When top-level athletes interact with the community, he says, it’s all for the good and raises the bar for local cyclists.
At the moment 23-year-old Eric Lau is probably Hawai‘i’s fastest home-grown cyclist. He’s the speedster who beat Penn Henderson to the top of Mauna Kea during Sea to Stars. The lanky Hawaiian rides on O‘ahu with Tradewind, the state’s oldest, most venerable cycling club. While O‘ahu has a larger community of cyclists, it doesn’t have the mountainous landscape that attracts the pro riders. Lau caught cyclophilia at Stanford University, where he raced with the collegiate team. Back home in Honolulu, he bikes to work at the Queen’s Medical Center, where he conducts HIV research. He’s a cycling omnivore: In his studio apartment, he’s crammed a cross-country mountain bike, a downhill bike, a road racer and a kid-sized pixie—besides his commuter. The apartment “is mostly a bike garage,” he admits.
Lau’s bubbly humor belies his brute strength. Last year he made it his mission to enter every bike race held in the Islands. And he didn’t just compete, he won. He set a record in the Kaua‘i hill-climb, Pedal to the Meadow; won Sea to Stars; and missed first place in the Cycle to the Sun by a heartbeat. “I love pushing myself to the limit,” he says. His next goal is a tossup: apply to medical school or turn pro.
A year ago, Lau got a taste of professional cycling during a week-long stage race in New Zealand. “I suffered so much!” he says gleefully. “The first day of the race, I was in the lead. I had to shield the others from the wind. Gale-force winds came roaring across the road. Our whole group was blown into a ditch! I couldn’t comprehend that kind of wind until I experienced it. It was a hard man’s race. That’s what they said: We had to swallow our concrete pills to make us hard men.”
Back on Maui, the riders at Hesjedal’s cycling camp caught a lucky break the day they attempted the summit of Haleakala: The notoriously fickle mountain was warm and sunny. Rob Meeder didn’t need his gloves or tights. And everybody made it to the top.