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Battling The Elements On The World’s Hardest (Bike) Climb

Battling The Elements On The World’s Hardest (Bike) Climb
As mountain and endurance enthusiasts, the aim is always to go higher, further and longer, in a quest to find or prove yourself, or to make your Strava profile look more impressive. When it comes to bike climbing, the higher and more prestigious the climb, the better. While names such as Alpe d’Huez, Ventoux and Tourmalet dominate the bucket lists of cyclists and play host to famous racing battles, they all top out well below 2000m of elevation gain. In search of a real challenge, you must cast your net wider, eventually landing on the volcanic shores of the Big Island of Hawaii. Starting at sea level, it is possible to ride a continuous gradient all the way to 4200m, atop the dormant dome of Mauna Kea, in the island’s interior.

The climb is 66km in length and contains sustained double digit gradients above 2000m elevation, including an all-gravel crux averaging over 14% just below the summit.

 There are a number of options for tackling this, with approaches from both the east (Hilo) and west (Kona) possible, as well as the aptly titled ‘Impossible Route’ which links gravel roads from Waipio Valley. Due to the ease of navigation, and the current closure of Waipio, I followed the road from Hilo.


Adding to the beautiful simplicity of starting at the ocean’s edge and just riding up, the Big Island has developed a reputation as an endurance Mecca over the last few decades. It is home to the world championships of Ironman and Ultraman, so is consequently idolized in triathlon, a sport in which I occasionally dabble. Lacking the ability to qualify for either of these events,

my hope was that setting a different endurance challenge in the same environment would enable me to feel the power of the island.


As with any similar endeavour, preparation is key. Given the eye-watering grades, loose gravel surface and prolonged output at elevations above the peaks of the Coast Mountains, bike adaptations were required. I packed up my trusty gravel bike with 40mm coarse tread tires and the biggest bailout cassette gear I could find (if you’re really interested, a 40t-50t or 21.9 gear inches was achieved). With the ride being self-supported, and a dearth of any amenities on the Saddle or Summit Access roads, I also added some storage bags to my frame to contain gels, chews, waffles, electrolytes and a few treats from the excellent Hilo Farmer’s Market. 3 bottles of water would have to do until the Info Centre at the start of the gravel climb.



The pre-dawn of climb day arrived with light clouds and gentle wind, as I set off for America’s rainiest town, Hilo, on the east coast of the island. After performing the mandatory tire dip in the sea, we set off through the sleepy suburbs upwards to lush greenery of the tropical forest. I encountered my first, and only, fellow biker at this point, however he was restricting his ride to the city limits - the first sign that my reading of the forecast might not have been completely accurate. Leaving Hilo behind, a light but persistent rain began to fall, although I was still afforded glimpses of the snow capped summit well in the background, as rainbows materialized in the middle distance.




At this point, the threatening clouds overhead closed in and the precipitation intensified. Together with the increasing elevation, and bed-bound Covid preparation, the creeping cold penetrated my legs and made the mild gradients feel significantly stouter. A stop to change into long pants was gratefully taken. The terrain at this point became more open, enabling the brutal swirling wind to come into effect.

Whenever you’re feeling sorry for yourself, the wind always seems to be coming straight at you.

Although I did experience a miraculous half kilometre when it was actually at my back and powered me to the Summit Road turnoff. I was now thoroughly soaked and chilled through, 4 hours in and only 2000m up. This is where the real work actually starts. Almost immediately after the turn, the gradient kicked up a few percent and that final tailwind turned into a cross/headwind. The effects of exertion at elevation were now much more at the forefront of my mind as I struggled on. The forested slopes provided some respite from the wind as yet another ecological and climatic zone passed by. 



Finally, I hit the meat of the route, as the average gradient kicked above 13% and weaving across the road became much more desirable, even necessary. It was a balancing act of not pushing too hard in the thinning air and making good progress, although I was certainly feeling the altitude at over 2500m. The only real waypoint on the route is the Visitor Centre, at 2800m, and as it came into view, I could see that my fears were confirmed. Access to the summit was closed, as the rain I was now well acquainted with was falling as snow just a couple of hundred meters above me. Once the clouds had finally parted, there would be over 20cms of fresh snow on the summit.

Having lacked the foresight to bring my ski touring gear with me, this is where my attempt would end, turned around as the pavement ended.

 On reflection, this trip was no less epic for the failure to reach the summit. We always operate with permission from the conditions around us and remain at their mercy. The memory of slogging through a downpour for 5 hours to end up at a locked gate will, with time, mellow from type 3 fun, to type 2, to valuable motivation in similar future situations. Until then, it’s time to plan the next one.

- Chris Bowen 


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