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Aspen’s Unicycle Mike and the volcano

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Aspen's Mike Tierney celebrates at the summit — another volcano conquered in Hawaii.
Courtesy photo |

What goes up, must come back down.

Thus, Aspen’s Mike Tierney headed back to Hawaii to finish his up-and-down unicycling odyssey.

“I’ve done all of them (volcanoes),” Tierney said of the trio of famed volcanoes that feature roads to the top. “What I haven’t done is ridden down any of them.”

Tierney, a well-traveled trend-setting unicyclist who has ridden every Continental Divide crossing in Colorado (dirt and paved), also has climbed the volcanoes in Hawaii, along with the historically iconic ascents of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.

He climbed Haleakala Volcano in 2008 on his unicycle.

This summer, Tierney journeyed back to Hawaii and the Haleakala Volcano and rode to the top — the only unicyclist since 2008 to pedal to the summit.

And he tacked on the added test of pedaling down — remember, on a unicycle there is no coasting; pedal strokes are required for every revolution.

“No one had done it, so I challenged myself,” said Tierney, a longtime Aspen Highlands ski patroller who spends extended time in Highland Bowl. “I was going to see if I could ride down after I ride up.”

The veteran unicyclist was off to his customary 4:30 a.m. start, expecting a full day in the saddle.

At Baldwin Beach State Park, Tierney dipped his feet into the ocean for the official start of his ride — only to be hammered by a rogue wave that soaked him before he could get on his unicycle.

And there was wind.

Viscious, flag-straightening wind.

“For the first few miles out in the sugar cane fields, the wind howls,” Tierney said, adding that the spectacular beauty of the morning offset the pesky winds.

“It was just a beautiful morning. Full moon. I’m riding in a full moon,” Tierney said. “I was so grateful. There was plenty of light.”

He also could see the buildings at the top of Mount Haleakala — 10,000 vertical feet away.

Tierney said he rode up into the green up country, enjoying the spectacular purple blooms from the trees.

At 3,000 feet, the crater road begins a dizzying array of some 33 switchbacks as the road climbs.

Refreshed with a fresh cup of hot coffee from a friend, Tierney pedaled onward and upward.

“You’re now up and out in the open where you can see,” Tierney said of snaky climb. “And there are some really tough switchbacks.”

Onward and upward.

At the entrance station to Haleakala National Park, Tierney still faces a daunting climb.

“From there, it’s only one more Independence Pass to the top,” Tierney said of the remaining 4,000 vertical feet ahead.

With the company of a cycling friend from Hawaii, Tierney pedaled on past the elevation markers painted on the road at 500-foot intervals.

On up into the clouds, Tierney pedaled, all the while fascinating the other folks on the road.

“It’s always a rewarding day when I’m out doing a big ride … most people dig it,” Tierney said. “People know the effort. They know how insane it really is.”

After all, Mike Tierney is the only unicyclist to ride to the top of Haleakala.

And this year, he did it for the second time on his 36-inch unicycle.

“To be able to do it again eight years later is really gratifying,” said Tierney, who was greeted at the summit by a welcoming party of park rangers, interested spectators and assorted cyclists.

A cycling friend from Aspen joined him for the final 2,000 feet of the climb.

“It was an absolute stellar morning,” Tierney said.

Then, he started back down.

He worked his way down to his friend’s car at 8,000 feet.

Sore and tired, Tierney continued to descend with no brakes and no gears.

Still, he continued to pedal downhill.

“Now I’m literally in the mist,” he said as he rode into the building marine layer. “It was magical to ride back into the mist from up above. It was a perfect temperature.”

The singularity of the moment struck, he said.

“I was alone. It was solitary … you couldn’t see more than 20 meters in front of you,” Tierney said. “And then I fell off.”

On the slickened road surface, Tierney slipped, falling forward.

“I just had a brain fart. My only real UPD … that’s an unplanned dismount,” Tierney said. “It’s the UPDs that always get us. But I was able to fall forward … I can usually run it off.”

He did, scrambling to stay on his feet after riding for more than 10 hours.

“That sort of changed the whole rest of the day,” Tierney said of the adrenalin-spiking crash. “Usually that happens if I start to get fatigued.”

Still, he was just halfway down.

He pedaled on.

He worked his way down, down, down to a lodge at 3,000 feet.

He had pedaled 10,000 feet up and 7,000 feet back down.

“I took a break. At that point I was 60 miles into a 76-mile ride,” Tierney said, with 3,000 vertical and 16 miles to go. “After I sat down for 20 minutes, I realized how sore I was. At that point, I did the responsible, adult thing, and I called it a day. It was 11 hours at that point.”

He summoned a ride on down.

“I didn’t make it all the way down. But I still made it a long way down without a brake, without gears. I was really satisfied,” Tierney said. “I left everything out there.”

Still, he wasn’t done.

Two days later, Tierney returned to Haleakala, returned to the point where he had stopped his descent.

“And I rode the rest of the way down. I ended up back in the ocean,” Tierney said. “So I did ride all the way down … two days later.”

The experience, he said, was enhanced by the reactions of those he encountered along the way.

“It ended up being really special,” said Tierney, who also does custom solar installations.

Just a year earlier, Tierney had made fans and friends as he rode his unicycle to the summit of Mauna Loa (13,678) in Hawaii.

That came after he had unicycled to the top of Moana Kea (13,796) in 2011.

Oh yes, Tierney also this summer completed again the arduous 50-mile Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Road Race from Durango to Silverton over Coal Bank and Molas passes.

dstrode@aspentimes.com


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