The last time I was on a bike was probably 2007. But whatever, it’s a bike, I thought. I think I can handle 28 miles downhill.

These were my thoughts as I awoke at 1:45 AM, not even 24 hours into my vacation in Maui, preparing to see an unforgettable sunrise at Haleakala Crater and ride the scenic and winding path down to the beach. I wasn’t scared—at all. Tired, to be sure, but what was there to be afraid of? We had a bike guide, a truck was following us for medical and insurance reasons, and surely they wouldn’t let anyone get hurt. No one needs that kind of press.

Plus, they were making us wear giant bike helmets with chin plates, obscuring our faces so much that it was nearly impossible to wipe our running noses after the blizzard conditions we experienced at the top of the crater—and its no-show sunrise.

I was so pumped about the bike ride, in fact, that I volunteered to be first in our pack, riding directly behind our guide. It was up to me to lead by example—follow Kim’s hand signals to brake, move to the right or left, slow down or coast.

Our group of ten was given bikes and allowed to ride them about 20 feet in a test run before our first downhill curve—then we were off! Watching as cars came up the mountain mere feet from my unprotected shins gave me the shivers, but I locked my concentration on Kim and followed the leader. The safety video we’d watched back at the base stated that the safest speed to travel at is 18-25 mph. However, as I picked up speed around a curve and tried to pump the brakes on my bike, I couldn’t help but think I was accelerating far beyond that—and way beyond my control.

Around the next curve I went, closing in on the distance between me and Kim. I squeezed down on the brakes. HARD. But the road kept going downhill and though I hoped I could slow my bike down further with my mind, it didn’t work. I was eating wind; I was jumping off road reflectors; I was spinning around hairpin turns as my heart pumped with similar increasing speed.

Kim motioned for us to brake, and I tried again with no success. One of the most important rules of safety we’d learned back on the bus was not to pass anyone, but in the absence of working brakes, I shouted out to Kim from her left with a wavering voice, “I’m passing you! I don’t think my brakes work!”

Soon I was five feet in front of her. Then ten, winding around a curve. “Brake!” Kim shouted. “Brake hard!”

“I am!” I screamed back. “My hands hurt I’m braking so hard!”

My life didn’t flash before my eyes—instead, I saw a vision of my body splayed out in the middle of the road. I thrust my energy and all of my muscles into the brakes. Slowly but surely, as the road leveled off, I was able to stop my bike.

Kim signaled to the rest of our group to follow suit and she ran up to me. I hopped off the bike, pulled off my gloves and wiped my sweaty palms on my windbreaker pants. “Yeah, these brakes are pretty shot,” Kim said while inspecting my bike.

Um, what? Is there a reason you didn’t check that before I took off on the most perilous bike ride of my life?

As Greg and I mingled with the other riders while Kim and our driver Shannon swapped out my bike, they too shared concerns about our speed and whether or not their brakes would work. Thankfully, my new bike’s brakes squeaked in tune with the rest of them and we were off again, zooming past lush scenery, mountains fading in the background, beautiful horses behind wooden fences, lavender groves…and I was eating air and loving every minute of it.

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