Cycling up a Volcano

“Look at that view!” I thought to myself, “I better stop and take a picture.” So, I got off my bike, and slowly took a picture. And then another. I had also stopped to drink water, to check on my saddle, to fix the straps on my helmet, to have a snack, to check on my socks, to scratch my nose, to pick my nose, to spit, to stretch and to check on my brakes and shifters. I wasn’t really stopping to take a picture, much like I hadn’t really stopped to do any of the other things. I was lying to myself, and I had to come to terms with the deeply troubling reason why I was stopping. Namely this: my passport has Colombia’s coat of arms on the front, but after 30 years of living in the United States, my lungs and my body’s ability to process oxygen at altitude is now as Midwestern and sea-level American as a Thanksgiving casserole dish of sweet potatoes covered with marshmallows (which my American wife tells me, is simply called “sweet potato casserole”, a misleading name that manages to ignore a really key portion of the dish).

Ritchey Cycling PassportRitchey Cycling Passport

Thought by many to be the longest continuous paved climb in the world, the Big Island of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is 42 miles long and has over 14,000 feet in elevation. Colombia’s Alto De Letras climb is actually longer, at 52 miles long, and some others may top Mauna Kea in terms of statistics. But I’ll stop myself from telling you about those, because it will only make my tale of defeat that much sadder.

My wife and I had found affordable tickets to Hawaii one rainy winter afternoon, which left me daydreaming about doing the only ride I knew of in that area. The one up to the big dormant volcano, an ascent once considered so sacred by locals, that only high-ranking noblemen were allowed make it. I jokingly told myself that as a Colombian, I’m pretty much a high-ranking nobleman, at least within the limited confines of road cycling. And recent blood test (due to very stubborn and ongoing bloody noses) had revealed that I did in fact still have an unusually high hematocrit level, along the lines of that achieved by some through the powers of EPO.

Ritchey HawaiiRitchey Hawaii

So, it was with the confidence afforded by that bit of knowledge that I set off to ride on the second day of our trip to Hawaii. I started early, knowing that the ride would be long, and that the altitude gain would no doubt make things difficult. And by doing this ride early in the trip, I thought I could minimize the effects that altitude would have on my body.

Of course, you already know how this story ends. Not with a celebratory bang, but a sad whimper. I had planned to meet my wife at the visitor center, about 30 miles into the 40-something mile ride, in order to get a light jacket, a hat and gloves that I figured would be necessary to make it to the top. The last portion being partially unpaved and hardly maintained.

The Ritchey Break-Away Road bike, similar to the one Klaus rides up this volcano, will ensure you don't feel punched in the mouth by airline baggage fees.

But my problems started about ten miles earlier. At first, I thought my brakes were rubbing, or perhaps I had a flat. The logical excuses we’ve all made for ourselves before. Soon, I simply found myself stopping for quick breaks, unsure of what was happening. Then the other stops began, to check on this or that, all a ruse to tell myself I wasn’t just calmly and lightly gasping for air. But I was, a matter not aided by my lack of fitness, something I now confess to before so many of you tell me that you’ve always lived at sea level, and you made it all the way to the top of Mauna Kea without much issue.

Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Bicycle RitcheyHawaii’s Mauna Kea Bicycle Ritchey

When I saw my wife and our non-descript white rental car at the visitor center, I shook my head as I approached her. She had the jacket, gloves and hat in her hand. I grabbed them, quickly put them on, and said, “nope.” I put my bike in the back seat, and sat in the passenger side, like a dejected pro having to abandon the spring classic he’d trained so hard for. Except I wasn’t a pro, this wasn’t a race, and… well... I clearly hadn’t trained. My imaginary Colombian climber credentials had been revoked, and the mountain had won.

Mike Tyson once wisely said that, “everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” He was right. I had a plan, and Mauna Kea punched me in the mouth. Hard. But I assure you, I’ll be back, and I’m going punch that big volcano back in the mouth.

At least that’s my plan.