The Golden Wrench

A blog about bicycle repair and maintenance by the mechanics at Freewheel Bike.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paradiso or Purgatorio?

Recently my wife and I took a long-planned trip to Kauai, the northernmost and least-inhabited among the Hawaiian islands. Feel free to resent me, but if you are the resentful type, be comforted that they experienced some rather low temperatures and it rained over half the days we were there. This made the forty plus miles of hiking we did a muddy ordeal, but we left with nearly every box checked in our to-do list. I was surprised how nice it was to hike in the rain when it’s nearly 80 degrees: hiking to a waterfall in the rain in January in Hawaii is tough on socks but easy on the eyes.

One of the items on my to-do list was to rent a mountain bike and ride some trails. Most of Kauai is uninhabitable, but between the locals and the State of Hawaii, a substantial network of trails and dirt roads weaves through the hostile terrain. Why hostile? First, it’s a volcanic island, so it’s composed of basalt and pumice with a layer of dense, brick-red clay on top of it. Second, Mt. Waialeale resides in the center of the island, and the warm trade winds sweep up and drop 400-600 inches of rain per year up there.

Mt. Waialeale, from the trail

The water runs off the basalt, saturates the goopy clay, and supports an Edenic garden in shades of green that rival the stars for number. The hills and valleys are impossibly steep, choked with impenetrable walls of ferns, shrubs, fallen trees, and mud pits, and there are streams everywhere that swell to torrential floods with very little warning.

This was the EASY way on a hike we did earlier in the week

Sounds like a great place to ride a bike, right, especially when it has been raining for two days straight? That’s what I thought. So I toodled over to Kauai Cycle in Kapa’a and rented a bike. I walked in the door and somebody said "Howzit," a pidgin term similar to "Bonjour" but with less snooty-tooty. I nearly replied "Howz what?" and gave away that I'm culturally insensitive because I didn't get to the part of the guidebook where they tell you how to respond to "Howzit" politely. I think there's some sort of gesture and a specific grunt. Instead, I got right down to business.

In their flyer they advertise a hardtail for $30 a day, a road bike for $30 a day, or a full-suspension bike for $45 a day. When I arrived, the hardtails were Specialized Hard Rocks, the FS bike (they only had one) was a Specialized Rockhopper FSR (or something like that), size small. Then they had some halfways decent bikes in a separate rack, but those ones were $60 to rent because they were demos. Hmm… no mention of that in the flyer, but oh well.

I took the bait and switch and rented a Stumpjumper Comp 29er. My other options were an Enduro and some freakish DH looking thing that looked like it had blood on it, so I went with what I figured is at least reputed to be the latest greatest thing. I hadn’t ridden a 29er with full suspension before, so it was kind of like product testing, at least that’s how I justified it. The handlebars were about 2" too high, 1" too close, and about 8 degrees too straight; the geometry was aggressive like a Schwinn Stingray; and the saddle felt like it could have doubled as a hatchet if I needed to clear some brush. But it was a 29er with 4" of suspension front and rear, so it would essentially ride itself, at least that's what the message boards say. After some setup fiddling, and some stashing of water bottles on my person, I was ready to rumble.

The trailhead was only about 8 miles from the shop so I just rode there, dodging tourists and feral chickens. The road was flat along the ocean for a while, but then it went up, up, up the mountain, past more chickens, through some third-worldish neighborhoods, and finally up to the trailhead. Factoring in my wrong turn, I had already climbed some 800 feet to get there on a 29er FS bike that was decidedly more dromedary than thoroughbred (it earned the nickname "Dromedarius" on a stretch of pavement that pitched up to 15%). Oh, and it’s 80 degrees with 90% humidity in mid-January, and I’ve been sitting around like a bump on a pickle since cyclocross season! Ahh... mortality, meet humiliation.

A memorable stretch

Dromedarius at the top

From the Kuilau trailhead, it was another 500 feet of climbing to the top of the ridge. It was easy to be distracted with postcard-gorgeous views of Mt. Waialeale mixed with occasional views of the coast below. The trail surface varied between thin, soupy mud; thick, sludgy mud; hardpack coated with “Hawaiian Brown Ice,” and sections of crushed pumice that were as good as riding on the road. Mix in some sinister-looking roots and blowdowns, season with some winter out-of-shapeness, boil at 80 degrees for a long time, and voila!


The descent was down the Moalepe trail, a rutted horse trail that was very similar in composition to the ascent. A few more punchy climbs occurred at manageable intervals, although one of them was close to 200 feet tall—I don’t know, can you call a 200 foot slog “punchy,” or is that doing a disservice to the English language? I did some backtracking and exploring when I saw what looked like some trails that snaked off into the wilderness. They did just that, either fizzling out completely or leading up to the edge of a precipitous drop. Eight miles in the woods was just about right, given the conditions. I ended up with 26 miles and 1700 feet of ascending on the day.

Dromedarius and Mister Man, still beswarthed with mud after ten miles of road

I stepped into the shop briefly to let them know I survived, and they were pleased. I had the bike for another two days (during which it mostly just rained, so I didn’t get to use it), so I asked one of the mechanics about some chain lube. The mechanic handed me a bottle of Tri-Flow, and sensing my hesitation, asked if I would rather use something a little bit heavier. He held up a bottle of Phil Wood Tenacious Oil and I about passed out. GOOD HEAVENS, MAN, LOOK AT THIS BICYCLE! DO YOU THINK I NEED STICKY CHAIN LUBE??? IF I LUBED THE CHAIN WITH THAT THERE STUFF, EVERYTHING IN THE FOREST WOULD COME BACK TO MY HOUSE IN MINNESOTA!

The bike (not to mention its rider) was already completely plastered over with red clay, festooned here and there with shreds of palm leaves that blow down in heavy rains, and I think there was a feral goat caught in the cassette. I didn’t need to bring anything else out of the woods!

I took the Tri-Flow. When in paradise, do as the locals do.