Cycling the Big Island of Hawaii

Have you ever tried living your deja vu moment?

If X-Men ever did an origin story on CiclaValley, it would have started on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Years ago when I had free time and roaming television was considered a rewarding diversion, little did I know my limited selection of channels would be life changing.

Turning on the Ironman Triathlon World Championship was foreign to me at the time.



Really, why would people put themselves through an immense amount of torture over three grueling disciplines?

Instead of turning stations, I sat there and really watched to find out why.

Okay, the swimming doesn’t translate well to TV, but I focused on the athletes committing themselves for hours to one thing: moving themselves down a road.

Maybe if it was anywhere else, I would have turned the channel, but I was drawn to the imagery of a smooth straight line cutting through the closest thing to a moonscape I’ll ever see.

It was beauty seeing this juxtaposition and the prolonged isolation from most human elements added to the abstractness.



Tons of cyclists out on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway


Sure, the competitors may not cherish the scenery at the time, but I felt like completing this race with the prestige and the environment would be an amazing life accomplishment.

I started watching more events even from previous years.

This clip of two women completely out of energy still trying to finish as their bodies failed them has always been one of most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.


The Crawl: Sian Welch / Wendy Ingraham – 1997 Ironman World Championship


Pushing the limits of what your body offers is something most people avoid, others would call it the essence of life.

I knew this was something you just sign up for, but would take years of training and qualifying to have a chance of making it to Kona.

So that week, I started out on my first discipline: running.

I started out with marathons and was content in my direction with trail running letting me explore California’s wilderness.

My new goal of reaching the Western States 100 never materialized after two permanent injuries shut the door, but I never lost that innate urge for adventure that would be powered by the limits of my body.

Even though I have little to do with triathlons, I still have a kindred connection to the Big Island.


*****   *****  *****  *****  *****  *****  *****

I love my wife a lot, but I love her a little more when she has conferences in places I must bike.

When I learned three years ago she was coming to Hawaii, I immediately knew I had to make it happen.

She flew in a few days earlier while CV Jr. and I came in on a Tuesday flying into Kailua-Kona airport.

The westside of the island is drier than it’s counterpart, even more so heading north.

Right out of the airport, we turned left on to Hwy 19 or the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway which is right onto the Ironman course.



Another Traveler out on the Highway


Of course, there were cyclists all around, but it didn’t hold the same intrigue as I thought.

There is plenty of shoulder space of the side for cyclists, but having cars whiz by at 55 mph+ took a little out of the ambiance for me.

While I’m putting on my assumption hat, a lot of people were riding with jerseys representing cycling from the other 49 states.



I believe they were visiting from the state of Canada.


This being midday, I noticed it was about 50/50 between road and tri bikes, but the earlier in the morning you’d head out, you’d see a lot more TT bars.

Our hotel was about 20 minutes north in a newish, resorty area called Waikoloa.

This is my third island I’ve been to with Kauai being my favorite because it’s easy to pick up an island vibe with the locals.

The place we were staying had a bit of a Disneyland element to it with a number of amenities including a dolphin pool, it’s own lagoon and a tram taking you around the property.



It’s okay to think I’m a horrible person for being associated with these…


Excuse me for using fowl language, but let me call it a fucking tram because there were actually two of them running at the same time.

If that wasn’t enough, there was also a boat ferry on tracks taking you around along with the fucking trams while walking was probably still the overall timesaver.


The surrounding hotels / facilities felt just as plastic and most of the workers took buses in meaning I was missing a lot of local flavor.

Luckily, there was a bike rental place nearby so maybe there was some balance in the universe.



Sunsets like these helped


Since I arrived into town totally sick, I had some time to plan a ride out.

Strava heat maps is a great place to start and while Hwy 19 was lightning hot, I wanted to ride not just mountains, but volcanoes.

Many of my friends suggested Mount Kumoniwannalaya, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t find it on maps.

A good comprise was plotting a 50 mile loop up the highway to Hawi, then taking a big climb up Kohala Mountain Road before coming down through Waimea.

It took me until Thursday to feel up to the task, so I headed over to the shop to check out some bikes.



Strava Heat Map of the Big Island


I had an choice on a 24 hour rental between a Specialized Aluminium Allez or a slightly more costly carbon Roubaix.

Playing into the “why not, I’m on vacation” vibe I chose the Roubaix which is the most expensive bike I’ve ridden if not the best.

It had both front and rear suspension that didn’t hinder performance and electronic shifting that felt simple after five minutes of bumbling.

After some fitting, a sales person recommended another loop past Waikoloa Village up to Waimea completing a counterclockwise loop ending on Hwy 19 that takes about three hours.



I only drink Hawaiian Beers in cans. Only.


Since he’s a local and this ride started closer to my hotel, I thought this would provide less resistance to my plans with the family.

His tips were to not ride late in the day due to heavy winds that pick up and to avoid the second leg of the ride Highway 190 at 8am because or a small shoulder and commuter traffic.

I thought I outsmarted it all by getting a 545am start which wasn’t tough to wake up for if you’re still on West Coast time.

Planning ahead, I brought a set of lights and off I went.



I passed a cyclist right outside the hotel, but it would be the only one I saw for a couple of hours.

Crossing Hwy 19, I started my first segment: an 11.5 mile climb up Waikoloa Rd. averaging roughly 4%.

Even with a few rollers, the profile didn’t look that intimidating.

It was pitch black for a good half hour, but the lack of visibility wasn’t my biggest problem.

The winds that were supposed to be an afternoon feature were already at full bore and not a welcome addition to my trip in paradise.

Because it was dark, it was hard to tell what grade I was climbing, but needless to say I didn’t have too many gears remaining.




As the rising ambient light started to assist, the surroundings turned into endless grassy undulations carrying a dry starkness.

Over time, these lava fields have softened enough to allow growth, even a tree here or there, making the landscape unique.

At about the halfway point of this climb, the cyclist friendly 10 foot shoulder disappeared as an extra lane got added entering Waikaloa Village.

This was another sprawling development with few discernible features other than being placed in the middle of a lava field.

It also featured the steepest pitch of the climb but like my memory of the area, it was short lived.

The road returned to its earlier configuration and the previous landscape resumed being slightly greener with a few more trees.

One unusual spot I couldn’t take my eyes off was a nearby mound that looked out of place.



This better be a cinder cone.


How did this form? Was this another volcano of a mini variety?

I guess we’ll never know.

Sadly, on the side of the road there was a ghost bike placed on a tree.


BigIsland50GhostBikeNo words needed.


I’d say I felt relatively buffered from drivers on this climb with rumble strips warning them from veering, but all it takes is one inattentive driver.

The wind continued to pound on me, but there were points where the road would turn away then cruel curve directly back into them.

Mileage markers on the road made it pretty obvious that I was making it close and a distinctive sail structure correctly warned that the end was near.



Love me some random architecture.


Turning onto Highway 190 I immediately took note of the sign that Waimea was 11 miles away.

The salesman was right as the shoulder was only about 3 – 4 feet wide, but even though it was closer to 7am, there was plenty of traffic on the road.

Most of it was cool, but I did have a couple of close encounters with a bus and a big rig.



While the rollers here were welcome, this portion still gave a few gusts of unwelcoming winds.

Off to the right, I had one of my rare sightings of Mauna Kea, the tallest point on the Hawaiian Islands (13,769 feet).

Normally cloud cover would obscure my view of the peak, but from this angle I could even see the observatory on top.



Mauna Kea looming off to the right


Yes, you can bike all the way up, but the final stretch is dirt and super steep which don’t partner well with the thin air at this altitude.

Straight ahead the rolling hills looked similar to rides near California’s Central Coast with little indication what I was nearing.

If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time riding with your head down meaning I should have recognized earlier that the road was getting wetter.

I barreled on even though there were heavy clouds ahead, but when I noticed all the cars coming towards me had their windshield wipers going at full bore, I knew it was time to turn tail.

Biking in the rain in Hawaii is something I really wanted to do, but took no precautions to keep my electronics dry.



Headlights and windshield wipers. Oh my!


The ride back on Hwy 190 was similar to the ride up, but the turn down onto Waikoloa Road wasn’t as welcome as I thought.

Getting a downhill reward after climbing the 11.5 miles seemed warranted, but the heavy winds made descending a beast.

The closer I got to hitting 40 mph, the more I could feel the winds shifting me around.



At least the rental came with awesome brakes, but I didn’t want the ride to come to this.

Near the bottom, it was a gorgeous cutting through the lava fields, but experientially I was ready to call it a day.


*****   *****  *****  *****  *****  *****  *****

So far, the Big Island wasn’t leaving a big impression on me.

I felt separated from island culture and seeing how Hawai’i is the least dense island out of the four with a major airport, I didn’t know how much more there was.

Luckily, my family was getting cabin fever and had the itching for some exploring.

We headed out that afternoon covering the original route I planned to ride up to Hawi.



Our journey started northward as we headed up Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.

The cycling portion of the Ironman heads up this direction turning around right before Hawi and I took the scenery as if I was in competition.

From watching on TV, the hills were a bit more pronounced than imagined, but what you’d still classify as rollers.

There weren’t many other cars and I could feel the balance of beauty and isolation moving along at a slow, hypnotic pace.



Hawi. Population: 1,081


Hawi was the first real piece of Hawaii I faced on this trip as this remaining town from the sugar production days kept its local flavor while getting a few tourists heading to the end of the road.

Among all the small businesses, we stopped off at an ice cream shop where we took a comforting pause.

We continued on to the road’s terminus which is the western entry way into gorgeous Polulu Valley.



Polulu Valley


Immediately, it drew comparisons to the Napali Coast and while we were tempted to take the 20 minute hike down to the beach, the approaching storms gave us proper second thoughts at attempting this slippery, steep trail.

From what would have been the halfway point of my proposed ride, we back tracked taking Kohala Mountain Rd. to give us a different look.

Off the bat, it was a steep climb on a narrow two lane road with no shoulder.

Many trees had been planted to obscure your view which began to thin the higher you went.

This exposed the layers of grasslands uninterrupted by any foliage making the landscape seem like felt.

There was one spot where we found another traveler taking a picture having the same curiosity of another misplaced mound.



Grassland off of Kohola Mountain


We slowly rounded the hillside which was formed by another volcano topping out at 5,000 feet that is now dormant.

This gave us a rolling perspective contrasting the variety and length of beauty of the westside of the island.



Roads like these…


As we approached Waimea, the rain that shuttered my ride earlier was still lingering and CV Jr. fell asleep in the car triggering our return to the hotel.

Fortunately on this short-lived trip, we had one last day to explore.


*****   *****  *****  *****  *****  *****  *****


Friday gave us an improved view of the island, but we had one more day to explore and find out what the Big Island was all about.

Our goal was to hit Volcano National Park, so we left in the morning for the two hour drive.

The quickest way from our place was to take Saddle Road through the middle of the island which splits the behemoths of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Yes, you can bike to the top of Mauna Kea, but you’re more than welcome to ask Phil how miserable it is.



The mist lingering over Saddle Road.

Its as fast as a road as you can drive here, but the biggest problem is hitting the peak at 6,700 feet and descending towards Hilo.

The quick change in altitude made my ears pop so badly that I knew we had to take another direction back.

This side of the island was far more green and humble as even as we passed the most “urbanized” areas, you would still classify them as low key.

We entered Volcanoes National Park as did a slew of tourists and while having a car to get around was great, so would have a bike.





The steam tunnels was a short three minute stop before we got as close to the main crater as we were allowed.

We learned that the end of the day was the best time to view it as the sun goes down the steam has a red fiery hue.

Backtracking, we walked through the mysterious lava tube and took in a few more craters and lava fields before heading out.

Hiking would have been great, but I didn’t want to strand CV Jr. out there and the live lava fields was a five hour round trip experience.

Under the Hidden Gem designation in our guide book, we found a spring next to the ocean that was heated (not the original intent) from the volcanoes.



Pohoiki Bay and Hot Spring

You know a place is a local favorite when you don’t really see the four types of cars people rent while on the island.

About fifty people were relaxing in the pool as the shallow, rocky bottom limited frolickers to a calm pace.

If you didn’t feel like you were experiencing a little piece of paradise, then you aren’t of this planet.

We changed on the parking lot and decided to take the northern way through Waimea back even though it was an hour longer.



Kilauea Lava Field


Once again, we passed through Hilo, but this time near the coastal downtown area.

In one sense, it reminded me of the French Quarter with a number of two story buildings forming narrow passages, but on a much smaller scale.

It was a place you would want to walk around for a couple hours at your own leisure, but as the sun was going down we wanted to experience as much coastline as possible.

As we drove out of town, I began finding what I was looking for in quiet, secluded living and where colors were only different shades of green.



While the visuals from Mamalahoa Highway looked like a place I wanted to bike, but small to non-existent shoulders paired next to high speed traffic makes that practice questionable.

Fortunately, if you know Hawaii, whenever you see older towns, odds are there are older, windier roads that originally served the area.

Sure enough we soon saw a sign arrowing off for a scenic route which I had no second thoughts about taking.

I didn’t have to look on the map to know we were on the old highway with one lane bridges being the easiest clue.



Onomea Bay


Greenery controlled the vertical as there was little to see other than an occasional structure already surrounded by plant life.

Off the to side, we had a precious view of Onomea Bay which we normally would have dipped in if the sun wasn’t about to set.

Every stream crossing also warranted a photo providing an overindulgence of opportunity.



One of the many picturesque views off of Old Mamalahoa Highway


We made it back onto the main highway just as lighting was of minimal help.

The road was straight and fast except for a few curves that negotiated larger streams and revealed lush canyons that appeared out of scale.

Before our last leg to Waimea, we made a short diversion to the small town of Honokaa.

Our timing passing through was just right seeing everyone coming out of dinner or the small movie theater all exchanging hellos and goodbyes.

We made it to dinner at Red Water Cafe just as CV Jr. was waking up.



Good local fare at the Red Water Cafe


While we were technically outsiders, everyone there made us feel like locals with their generous hospitality.

This last few hours were the Hawaii I was looking for.

*****   *****  *****  *****  *****  *****  *****

This trip did not meet expectations, but I soon came to terms with that.

Part of it was the limitations from my sickness, but not doing enough R & D before our vacation didn’t help.

Many times, Hawaii has fallen into me, not me trying to make it happen.

Having a few more days would have definitely help remedy that.




Immediately when I got home, I started looking at maps and plotted out where I would visit and ride my bike should I ever return.

Maybe I didn’t connect with the island or find some relatable purpose becoming an endurance athlete.

More importantly than finding answers, I left with more questions of the good kind.

While our time for discovery may be limited, fueling it makes life more fulfilling.