Summit plummet: a bicycle trip for you

Look, Ma – no peddling!

Mount Haleakala, on the island of Maui, offers the ultimate noncyclist's bike trip: 38.2 miles downhill. It's billed as the best gravity-enhanced ride you can take outside bungee jumping – the heavier you are, the faster you roll.

That's the good news.

The bad news is imparted to us by our wise-cracking cycle guide Darin Gault, as we prepare to depart.

"Y'all listen up: Volcanologists say Haleakala (hally-awk-ala) has erupted every 200 years. The last eruption was in 1790, so she's about 10 years overdue." Our transplanted Texan leader pauses dramatically.

"If she blows, there will be two clear warning signals. First, you'll see a puff of smoke off my back tire as I accelerate the chase van. The second will be a red-and-white blur. That will be your guide, Steve, racing past you.

"At that point, this will no longer be a guided tour. And you can keep the bike, courtesy of Mountain Riders."

With those last words of tongue-in-cheek advice, we pull on our motorcycle helmets and gloves, zip up our school-bus-yellow rain slickers, and take one wobbly test-loop around the parking lot atop Maui's tallest peak.

The view from this 10,000-foot high Pacific knob is impressive. You can look across the crimson-and-black moonscape of Haleakala Valley, a 7.5-mile long and 2.5-mile wide basin that's often compared to the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

Off to the right, on one of the ridges, are several white domes of the Haleakala Observatories, including a complex that tracks missiles as part of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"). In fact, the smooth ride down the mountain is courtesy of "Ronnie's ray-gun project," says Darin. Prior to 1991, the road wasn't paved.

While the view is impressive, it's chilly up here – even in summer – and we're anxious to start our run. Single file, 13 of us push off on our specially designed bicycles (with extra-wide seats and motorcycle brakes), following the red van driven by Darin. The pace seems a bit fast – and exhilarating.

In our ears echo Darin's warnings from the drive up the mountain: "Guys, this is not a white-knuckle race to the bottom," he said. "Ladies, this is not a stop-and-pick-the-daisies run. It's somewhere in between. If you drop below 18 miles per hour, we can get ticketed for holding up traffic. If you cross the double yellow line. I have to put you in the van, and you become a van spud."

A van spud? Could there be anything worse on this trip?

For the first couple of miles, we're above the clouds in the cold, crisp air, whizzing along the switchbacks past the barren, lava-rock landscape, dotted by the occasional silversword plant – a native species that grows only on the highest Hawaiian slopes.

It's peaceful. Quiet. We glide through a fragrant pine forest, past lush emerald pastures occupied by cows and cactus. The rider ahead of me disappears into a cloud bank, and a second later we burst out the other side.

"Maui is home to the third-largest private cattle ranch in the US," I recall Steve, our other guide, saying as we passed a bunch of black and white cows.

"The cows have parties in the road in the middle of the night. They leave behind 'party favors,' " adds Darin, pausing to let the meaning sink in. "Try to steer clear."

It's getting warmer as we race through a grove of blue gum eucalyptus, and the pungent scent fills the air. Stretching out below us is all of Maui, an expansive quilt of brown and green patches rimmed by white surf. "The browns are pineapple fields; the greens are sugar cane," says Steve.

Lunch is at the 21-mile mark, and the steepest inclines are behind us. We strip and toss our rain gear and sweaters into the van. On the two-hour drive up the mountain, our guides had phoned in our sandwich choices, so they were ready when we pulled off the road at the Sunrise Market and Protea Farm, a spot that caters to hungry cyclists.

Haleakala means House of the Sun. Many visitors and cyclists get up early to watch the sunrise from the summit. Over lunch, Bob, a fellow cyclist from California, says he did the sunrise run about four or five years ago. "It was uncivilized," he says, grimacing. "You have to get up about 2 a.m., and you get up there, and it's freezing on the summit. I didn't enjoy it."

Darin, overhearing our conversation, agrees. "If you take our midmorning trip, you get five hours more sleep and you arrive back at your hotel about an hour after the sunrise crew."

The last part of the trip takes us through more cow pastures and horse farms and under violet-blossomed jacaranda trees. We race past the pineapple plantations. ("It's a no-smile zone," says Steve, with a grin. "So you don't swallow any pineapple bugs.")

We stop for traffic in Makawao and Paia, a couple of little towns full of surf shops, art galleries, and tin-roof buildings with Old West facades.

We smell the Pacific before we see it. The van is parked ahead at a beachside park. "Be sure to tell all your friends on the mainland about us," says Darin. "Steve and I have talked about it. We had real jobs once. But we'd like to keep doing this."

Find a bike tour

At last count, there were nine different companies offering bike tours down Mount Haleakala. But there are basically two types of tours: budget and luxury.

The budget tours, offered by companies such as Haleakala Bike Co. (www.bikemaui.com, 1-888-922-2453), start at $55 and go to $75 per person. They are unguided and offer value and freedom. You are dropped off with bike, helmet, and some orientation, and ride down yourself.

On the luxury side are outfits such as Mountain Riders (www.mountainriders.com; 1-800-706-7700), Maui Downhill (www.mauidownhill.com; 1-800-535-BIKE), and Maui Mountain Cruisers (www.mauicruisers.com; 1-800-232-6284). Prices range from $90 to $125 per person. The difference between luxury and budget tours is that on the luxury tours, you start riding at the summit: These companies are licensed and insured to bring riders into the national park at the top of Haleakala. The cost also includes continental breakfast, lunch, and a chase van and bike-riding guide in radio contact with the van, if you run into any problems. But you must stay with the group, and you can't stop and smell the eucalyptus.

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