FROM THE HONOLULU ADVERTISER | BY DAYTON MORINAGA
By riding downhill, MAUI MOUNTAIN CRUISERS has climbed to the top of a business hill.
The Wailuku-based company has found success by offering bike tours down Haleakala Highway.
The tour consists of a van ride up to the summit of Haleakala, then an almost-effortless bike ride down.
“Basically, anybody from (age) 12 to 80 can do this,” said Cheryl Fernandez-Thuro, who founded the company with her husband, Jon Thuro, in 1983. “And we average about 100 customers a day, so obviously, people want to do it.”
Indeed, the relative ease of the adventure combined with breathtaking sights has provided a successful lure. In January, for example, dozens of customers braved bone-chilling temperature and constant rain to take the tour.
“We heard some good things about it and saw the pictures of it, so we decided to give it a try,” said Bonnie Tolentino of Santa Clarita, Calif. “It was freezing at the top, and all the rains and clouds made it hard to enjoy the view, but it was still an incredible experience.”
Customers can choose between a morning and afternoon tour, with each lasting about seven hours. However, the most popular choice is the morning “sunrise tour,” which takes customers to the top of Haleakala in the wee hours of the morning so that the crater’s famous view of the rising sun can be appreciated before the bike ride back down.
From the top, the bike ride travels down a paved road, descending 10,000 feet and 38 miles in a span of less than three hours.
“It’s all downhill at a 5 percent grade,” said Fernandez-Thuro. “There’s really no pedaling involved. The only thing is the road can be curvy at times, but it’s not difficult to maneuver.”
As Thuro put it: “As long as you’re relatively agile on a bike, you’re qualified.”
As an indication of the tour’s popularity, several other companies offer similar—if not identical—opportunities. Currently, five companies offer downhill tours of Haleakala, though as many as 10 were in business about a decade ago.
MAUI MOUNTAIN CRUISERS is the oldest and largest among the existing companies. The Thuros started the business by themselves with the help of just one other worker (and that was Cheryl’s brother). Today, the company has 40 employees.
“I have a good intuition that this would grow,” said Thuro. “But never in my wildest dreams did I think this big. We started out with one van back then and I hoped that someday we would have enough customers to fill three vans. Now, we have 15. It’s unreal.”
According to Thuro, MAUI MOUNTAIN CRUISERS has earned a positive reputation around the world because of its safe and educational tours.
To avoid injuries, each rider is equipped with padded jacket and a helmet. What’s more, the company uses one-speed “cruiser” bikes that barely go over 30 mph on the steepest grades of the tour (the average speed is about 25 mph).
“And then, they have to follow road rules, like riding in single file, allowing proper distance between riders, things like that,” said Fernandez-Thuro.
Each tour is limited to a minimum of six and maximum of 13 riders. One tour guide leads that pack (no passing allowed), and makes frequent stops along the way to point out historical sights around the island as they become visible on the descent.
Behind the last rider of each group, one employee follows in the van, which is equipped with a fist aid kit and refreshments. Any customer who falters on the way down can ditch the bike and hitch a ride on the van.
In one of the January tours, for example, Pam Olsby got so cold (temperatures dipped into the 20s that day near the top of Haleakala) that she needed to ride in the heated van for the last half of the tour.
“The van drivers are tour guides, also,” said Fernandez-Thuro. “So even if you end up in the van, they’ll tell you about all the interesting sights.”
During the company’s peak season—in the summer months when temperatures are warmer and the downhill ride is described as “exhilarating to the senses” by Fernandez-Thuro—very few customers choose the van.
“Some people are nervous at first because they’re not used to the bike and the altitude,” said tour guide Kaleo Naauao. “But by the time they get to the bottom, they want to do it again.”
Dennis Olsby, who completed the downhill ride in January, added:
“It was really exciting. At some stops, you could see the entire island. And it was sort of like exercising, because you were technically riding the bike. But at the same time, it wasn’t’ because it was all downhill.”
Copyright © 2000 The Honolulu Advertiser