by Tyler Smith,
Director of Sales - Sports Specialty and resident bike fanatic
During the last week of March, I had the privilege of joining my family and a number of my teammates from Ride Sasquatch on a trip to the big island of Hawaii for a team training camp. The goal was to combine some great riding with lots of good local eating, time in the ocean, and some R&R in between it all. There were a number of cycling routes on the island that we enjoyed exploring, but we really had 2 big goals to cross off our checklist of must-do rides - Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the two prominent volcano climbs on the island.
We knew both climbs would be challenging, but Mauna Kea was going to be the big test of early season fitness and cycling at altitude. Towering over the island at just shy of 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is home to some of the world’s top star-gazing observatories, a 360 degree view above the Pacific Ocean, and one of the world’s hardest climbs from sea level. Combining an unrelenting 45 mile trek upward from Hilo Bay, 5 miles of sandy volcanic gravel road, and pitches exceeding 19%, Mauna Kea stacks up against the Alpe d'Huez, and even Monte Zoncolan.
With some average fitness, decent planning, phenomenal support, and sheer luck, I made it to the top of Mauna Kea on March 26th and even had enough oxygen left for a couple selfies and a safe descent off the top. If you have ever thought about tackling Mauna Kea, or another large climb like it, here are a few suggestions to help make the experience as fun as possible.
Tips for Mauna Kea
3 days before: Plan on getting plenty of rest and not spending too much time on the saddle. A couple shake-out rides are fine, but don’t engage in too long of a ride, or too intense of efforts to ensure your legs are ready for the big day. Make an effort to hydrate throughout the day with something like Nuun ALL DAY or even Nuun Active tablets, especially in more humid/hot climates like Hawaii. Eat plenty of nutrient-rich meals in the final days leading up to the ride.
The morning of the climb:
1. Eat a big and balanced breakfast. You will be burning plenty of calories and will need all of the energy you can get your hands on to ensure you make it to the top. If you’re starting in Hilo, I would recommend Ken’s for breakfast - get the lilikoi waffles.
2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I tried to consume at least 3-4 bottles worth of Nuun Active before we even started the ride. Stopping to pee is always better than stopping because of headaches or cramps.
Support strategy: A ride like Mauna Kea is so dynamic that it requires some additional support, usually beyond what you can or want to carry on your bike. We had the luxury of a support truck that met us several times during the ascent, allowing us to refill our bottles, re-apply sunscreen, consume more food, and obtain jackets, gloves, and arm/leg warmers for the freezing summit and descent. It’s also nice to see a friendly face and get some much-needed encouragement.
Bike recommendations: Mauna Kea throws several different types of riding at you, including long sections of freeway shoulder, sharp and punchy climbs, loose sand and gravel, and an exposed descent without many guardrails or safety features. The best bike for the job would be either a cyclocross or gravel road bike, with a big gear range (ideally a compact up front, and an 11-30 cassette or larger in the back) and ideally, disc brakes. Clearance for 28-32c tires is a must-have, as traction is paramount in the loose sand/gravel sections, and MTB pedals and shoes are a good idea as you may be forced to walk your bike for some of those segments. Ensuring that you can carry 2 or more bottles on your frame at all times is crucial.
Hydration and Nutrition:
1. Hydration - Knowing that I had support available up the road, and a chance to refill my bottles, I drank as often as possible, trying to drain at least 1-21oz bottle an hour. I started the day with Nuun Energy (electrolytes with green tea extract caffeine and B vitamins for a little boost) combined with 2-3 Plus for Nuun tablets (our carbohydrate-enhanced tablets). Later in the ride, I switched to Nuun Active tablets and obtained calories from food sources. All in all, I finished 8 bottles worth of Nuun by the top of the mountain, in roughly 7 hours of moving time.
2. Nutrition - after my big breakfast, I tried to consume between 100-200 calories an hour, via bars, gels, and also savory options like beef jerky and potato chips. At 6,000 feet, I ate a bagel with cream cheese, a Snickers bar, and drank some Coke. Basically, I loaded up on as many calories as I thought I could stand, and then stuffed my jersey pockets with more bars and snacks for the ascent to the top. I have been stuck on a ride without food before, and that’s the last place you want to be.
Alternative Plans: Because of the immense size of Mauna Kea and unique climate of the island, weather on the mountain can be very volatile. Freezing temperatures, high winds, and thunderstorms are all a possibility, making it unsafe to travel beyond the visitors center at 9,000 feet. If the conditions are too perilous, the road to the summit will be closed. On the day of our ride, the road had only reopened as we climbed the last few miles to the visitors center. Right after summiting the volcano, the road was closed again due to severe high winds. If on the day of your summit attempt, the road is closed, try the other volcano across the street, Mauna Loa. It’s a little smaller, and the road is more predictable. Weather can still be a factor though, so plan accordingly. And if that route doesn’t seem like a safe bet, there are plenty of other routes on the island to enjoy. After all, you’re still in Hawaii!
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