The Impossible Route

The Impossible Route is the latest Tyler Pearce exploit. “This was objectively the hardest thing I have ever done,” he told me and I’d be shocked if it weren’t. Better known as The Vegan Cyclist, Tyler’s YouTube documentaries of Very Hard Things have gained a large following.

Kona habitués, which most of us are, can resonate with this particular exploit because it’s Kona. More so for those who’ve discovered this part of the Island.

The Impossible Route is an epic throwdown, completed just before the global event that’s sidelined most sportsmen. Tyler and pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop tackled sea-to-summit the hard way, and a lot of Slowtwitchers (me included) found his Youtube documentary eminently, cringingly, watchable. Tyler melted down onscreen.

I believe it was Alex Candelario who suggested this route to Tyler. Alex owns Big Island Bike Tours in Waimea, settling in here after a 14-year career as a professional cyclist. Have you ever wondered what is the hardest bicycle ascent in the world? Cando’s idea: A gravel route from Waipio Valley to the top of Mauna Kea. It's The Impossible Route because it can’t be done.

Everesting is all well and good, and Tyler’s ascent “only” took him up 13,800 net vertical feet (nearly 17,600 total vertical gain). But it isn’t just the feet gained in a day; it’s the price of the feet you gain. Tyler’s first thousand vertical feet were gained was up an almost unrideable pitch.

In fact, I’ll just shut up. Here’s the damned movie.

As many of you know the upcoming Hawaiian IRONMAN World Championship race has been rescheduled for February 6, 2021, and if this date sticks it will be the 40th anniversary to the day of my own race, the first year it was held in Kona.

For the first 35 of those years I’d been ashamed of myself, because the plane hits the tarmac, I do the Ironthing, and then I leave and I know zero more about the Island than when I arrived. A few years ago I decided to remedy that. Year before last I and some of the Slowtwitch crew discovered Mana Road (below).

Last year Slowtwitch’s Lars Finanger completed the ridiculously hard run Strava segment, which included a full “appreciation” of the Waipio Valley (photo’d by Aaron Palaian).

The year prior to that, Lars completed his own solo 3-sport sea-to-summit ascent-and-return of Mauna Kea, beginning in Waikoloa. Point being, as grand as the Kailua-Kona part of the Island is, it’s not the fascinating part.

What Tyler did was string together into one mighty effort a lot of these efforts Lars and I and the ENVE gang have been doing. When I ran Waipio Valley I speculated to myself whether anyone had ever, could ever, ride a bike up that road from the ocean. This is how Tyler started his day.

Here’s a pic above of Lars as he crossed Waipio Valley’s river on his STRAVA run mission, and if you forward to the 23-minute mark of Tyler's movie you'll see this exact place as the point where he and Jeremiah first hiked their legs over their top tubes.

You just have to watch the first few minutes of Tyler’s movie to understand that the first mile of this ascent – if you can make it, and very few can – is a muscle-ripping exercise in total leg failure. If you get to mile-1 of the ride, that’s it. You’re dead. No más. Day over. Below is Lars running up that beast. When I ran it, I had to do the paperboy. While running. I have never had to paperboy my way up a hill on foot. You couldn’t paperboy this on a bike. You’d tip over.

So then, after this thing, Tyler and Jeremian made their way via a barely recognizable segment through switchgrass or sugar cane or some such vegetation to reach pavement, on the outskirts of the town of Waimea. After a short paved section it’s onto the dirt, at the start of Mana Road.

By now you’ve gotten yourself to about 3,000’ above the sea. The rest of Tyler’s climb was pretty straightforward, as in, at least it’s unlikely he’d get lost. But there’s still 11,000 vertical feet to go.

Were it me, knowing me, by the time I commenced Chapter 2 of this climb – from the beginning of Mana Road to the Mauna Kea Access Road – I would have been deep into the “what did I get myself into” and “why did I bring a cameraman” inner dialogue. Mana Road is not gradual. It’s flat (as in the pic above, where I snapped Ian Murray and Matt Hill riding along a couple of years ago, when the three of us rode it), and then you pitch up something steep enough to cause you to wonder if your wheel will hold the dirt. Over and over, for miles. This section of Tyler’s ride took him up from an elevation of 2,950 feet to about 7,300 feet.

Finally Mana Road, and its saturation of colors and grand vistas, ends. You’re now on the paved pitch to the volcano’s summit. Until you reach the end of the pavement. Then you’re back on volcanic sand gravel. “The gravel was so tough that you burned matches just to clear sections and that took its toll,” was how Tyler explained it to me. “The elevation peak was so high and the air so thin, that just existing was tough.”

I asked Tyler what he rode, because if there was just a single bike used (there was) this ride presents a gearing and tire conundrum. The first mile of Tyler’s day is a steady pitch of between 25 and 35 percent. That road is only rideable because it’s paved. Barely. So, what gears?

It was a Canyon Grail, a “stock SLX with the double bar, 2x with 34/34 but we put on a 40 in the rear. I really wish I had gone with a SRAM 1x with the eagle 10-50, but we had issues getting stuff to the island.“

The groupset was Shimano GRX. I don't think Tyler could've made it to mile-1 with the stock 1-to-1 gear (34x34). The 34x40 he rode at least gave him a fighting chance. Jeremiah clearly did not have the right gear (watch the movie), and I don't know how he made it up.

“Tire-wise, they were 40s. I think you could go bigger but not smaller. We had no mechanical problems the whole day, which was a miracle really.”

A 40mm wide tire is a good, middlin’, all-round choice.

“The double bar looks goofy, but I actually fell in love with it during this ride. I find myself in the top bar 90 percent of the ride and the extra flex it provides was great.

Above is a shot Tyler gave me. I don't know what it is, but I choose to think it’s sunset from the top of the Mauna Kea, after finishing his ride.

“The impossible route, especially at the end, you had to be going hard just to stay upright,” he said. “The elevation peak was so high and the air so thin, that just existing was tough. I don’t think I will find myself in a ride that is overall as tough as this was.”