Every day, about an hour after first light hits the green hillsides of upcountry Maui, the spokes begin to sing.
If you stand along the road by Sunrise Market in the hamlet of Kula, you'll first hear the buzz, then with a whoosh the bicycles come around the bend: tourists by the dozen, their heads encased in heavy-duty helmets, their bodies wrapped in rain suits, their speed about 20 mph. They're riding 27 miles, following about two dozen hairpin turns, rolling past hardened lava and cane fields, fruit stands, lazy livestock and three small towns. And 99 percent of it is downhill.
"It's a little surreal," says M. Sarah Creachbaum, who passes the riders every morning on her way to work as superintendent of Haleakala National Park. "They're like space people with the helmets and the colored outfits."
On a busy day, 300 of these riders come around the bend, tempted by a simple, powerful, double-barreled idea: to see sunrise from the lip of Haleakala, a 10,000-foot Hawaiian volcano, then glide down the slope to the sea.
Yet this ride can hurt you or even kill you.
In February, a 64-year-old rider from Mankato, Minn., died of head injuries after she crashed (she was wearing a helmet) into an embankment near the town of Makawao. She wasn't the first. Since it first popped up in the 1980s, the volcano-ride trade has grown into a full-fledged industry, fallen into crisis amid a spate of injuries and deaths, then righted itself again. As many as 90,000 customers a year ride down Haleakala, typically paying $115 to $150 each for a sunrise tour and guided ride.
In the old days - that is, until late 2007 - the classic Haleakala downhill route was 38 miles, not 27, and it began where those sunbeams struck us at the volcano's lip. The first 11 miles were inside park boundaries, and they were fairly nasty, descending about 3,500 feet through a series of tight turns, with jagged rocks at the edge of the blacktop.
But tourists wanted to ride it anyway, including many who were overmatched. By 2007, rangers were handling an average of five injury accidents every month. Later that year, a 65-year-old woman on a bike tour lost control on a curve near the summit, crossed the center line, collided with another company's tour van, and died. By the park service's tally, her death was the second within a year involving guided commercial downhill bicycle tours. Soon after, the park temporarily banned commercial bike tours within its boundaries.
In the months that followed, a compromise emerged: The volcano-bike tour buses would be allowed to carry their customers to the top of Haleakala for sunrise, but they would ferry their customers back down to 6,500 feet - just outside the park entrance - to begin their rides. Below the park, the road isn't as steep, the turns aren't as sharp and the roadside isn't as rocky.
Three years later, while park officials continue to work on a long-term commercial-services plan, those rules still hold for all bike-tour companies. (Individuals can still ride from the top, but few do.) The result, locals say, is less bike-tour traffic and fewer accidents.
Schedule for adventure
So how does it work, this balancing of risk and thrill on two wheels? One morning in late October, I signed on to find out.
2:45 a.m.: A bike-tour van picked me up at my hotel. I chose Cruiser Phil's, a small outfit, because it did well in a 2008 National Park Service safety study. After a stop to collect equipment and sign release forms with about a dozen fellow riders, we made the two-hour drive through the darkness to the top of Haleakala.
5:15 a.m.: We stepped out near the top, 9,740 feet above sea level, and into a parking lot crowded with hundreds of bundled-up tourists, a dawn of 40-degree gusts, numb digits, swirling clouds and volcanic moonscape, all of which erupted in golden light when the sun hurled its first beams at us from the horizon.
National Park Service safety study.
"I need you to ride defensively," Sisson said. "I don't mind if you take a quick glance at the view, but not on the hairpin turns." Then, bundled up in jackets, gloves, rain suits and motocross helmets, we rolled in a single-file line.
One turn, two turns, three turns. Green valley, blue sea and, because the high ground is cattle country, the occasional cow pie. I expected to be intimidated, but I wasn't - just invigorated. By the time we reached Kula, 3,200 feet above sea level, I was running low on things to worry about. The grade was about 5 percent, and it felt gentle, perhaps because of the good visibility and the surrounding beauty, perhaps because the road was so smooth.
Traffic was thin. Though the route was on public roads, I saw mostly open road and probably more bikes than automobiles. When cars turned up behind us, we pulled over and let them pass.
Many companies stop for breakfast in Kula - we blew right past. The Cruiser Phil philosophy is to get down the hill before eating a full breakfast.
9 a.m.: We'd dropped down to about 1,600 feet above sea level and the artsy outskirts of Makawao, where our guides waved us over and loaded our bikes into the trailer. This wasn't the end. To avoid further clogging the main drag, Cruiser Phil buses his customers through the town, whose commercial strip of several blocks is full of boutiques, restaurants and cars pulling in and out. As we saddled up again for the last seven miles or so, Sisson told us to keep our mouths shut - it's not fun to swallow bugs at 20 mph.
9:45 a.m.: We pulled into the parking lot of the Holy Rosary Church in Paia, about a mile from the beach. We were done. Subtracting standing-around time, we had averaged 24 mph.
Seven companies hold permits to offer bike tours that begin with van or bus trips to sunrise viewings atop Haleakala.
Rides typically run $115-$150 for sunrise tours, but discounts are common.
If you go
Maui Mountain Cruisers
Cruiser Phil's Volcano Riders
Bike It Maui
SUNRISE TOURS/UNGUIDED RIDES
Haleakala Bike Co.