It’s the end of the road for Maui Downhill
Pioneer of mountain downhill bike tours calls it quits
KAHULUI — Rich Goodenough likes to play poker, and as friends will say, he knows when it’s time to fold.
The 76-year-old owner of bike tour company Maui Downhill closed his business’s doors on Monday, three months after Haleakala National Park trimmed the number of tour companies allowed to operate in the park starting this year.
For Goodenough, it’s a combination of declining business since the start of the year — and the feeling that he’s ready to retire after three decades of running one of the island’s largest and oldest tour bike companies.
“I love the thing, but at some time, you have to give it to somebody else, because I’m getting older,” Goodenough said Tuesday in the partially cleaned out offices of Maui Downhill on Dairy Road.
He and wife Vickie said that when Haleakala National Park began allowing just four select tour companies to enter the park, Maui Downhill immediately felt the impacts. General Manager Robynn Hussey said business in the first quarter dropped 60 percent. The company went from filling 48 seats a day to less than a dozen. The income stream slowed.
Maui Downhill tried to adjust, chartering buses with Polynesian Adventure and continuing to take people on bike tours outside of the park. But chartering was costly, and Goodenough couldn’t see his company attracting business if it couldn’t bring people into the park.
“This company could hardly stay alive because most of the people want to go to the park,” he said. “If we were just going up there with bicycles, there wouldn’t be enough (interest).”
Goodenough moved to Maui in 1982 after working as a helicopter pilot with the Los Angeles Police Department for 16 years. He took a bike ride down Haleakala one day and was sold on the beautiful views and cool Upcountry air. After Goodenough found fellow bicycling entrepreneur Bob Kiger through a newspaper ad, the two men went into business doing bicycle tours down the mountain. They ran Cruiser Bob’s for three years before parting ways; Kiger stayed with Cruiser Bob’s while Goodenough went on to purchase a bike company that became Maui Downhill.
Goodenough and Kiger were at the forefront of an industry that would grow immensely popular over the next few decades. At the beginning, there were fewer regulations, and tour companies could start bike tours at the summit. Goodenough used to take his riders on guided tours 37 miles down the mountain to the Paia shoreline.
However, after a series of deaths on commercial bike tours, the National Park Service curbed tours within the park in 2007. Companies took to bringing people into the park for sunrise viewings followed by bike tours at lower elevations outside of park boundaries.
Last year, nearly 20 businesses had permits for vehicle-based tours in the park. But with growing concerns with overcrowding and impacts on the environment, park officials decided to cut the number of permitted tours to four. Last April, Haleakala EcoTours, Polynesian Adventure Tours, Skyline Eco Adventures and Valley Isle Excursions received 10-year concession contracts to operate within the park.
Goodenough said he thinks it’s “a good thing” to try to ease the impacts of tour companies. However, he said the park could’ve allowed more companies, possibly eight. Hussey agreed there were pros and cons but didn’t think it was necessary to cut so many businesses.
“We were already limited on the amount of guests,” she said. “So most of the companies that were allowed to go in there before the concession happened had a really good handle on the people that they brought up to Haleakala National Park. On top of that, we were also almost, if you want to say, policing . . . the regular tourists that were driving themselves up.”
Like Maui Downhill, other companies are learning to adjust, and some have partnered with the permitted companies to stay in business. Cruiser Phil’s, for example, has merged with Haleakala Bike Co. — which is doing business as Haleakala EcoTours — to offer guided bike tours down the mountain, EcoTours Vice President Lewis Upfold said Wednesday.
Since receiving one of the contracts, Haleakala EcoTours also has seen an immediate impact on its business. The number of guests jumped 37 percent in January, 90 percent in February and 100 percent in March. The company takes about 100 guests up a day, and Upfold expects the numbers to go even higher in the summer.
“A lot of it had to do actually with us being more available,” he said. “Under the previous contract, we were only allowed two minibuses for sunrise. Under the new contract, we’re allowed to have four. . . . Whether that contributed to us being busier . . . or other businesses not being able to offer the same product, it’s probably a combination of both.”
Because of the increased business and the requirements that each bus must have both a driver and a tour guide, the company also has grown from 15 to 40 employees.
Upfold said that having fewer tour companies has changed the park experience for the better. Combined with the required reservations for sunrise, “it’s a totally different world up there than it was before,” he said.
“It’s very quiet, calm, and we experience it how we’re supposed to experience it,” Upfold said. “Way less people, way less congestion. It’s a whole lot safer up there.”
Haleakala National Park spokeswoman Polly Angelakis said that having fewer contracts and awarding them for 10 years instead of annually “makes things much easier to manage and gives us a chance to grow our relationships with the four companies.”
She added that “visitation is still robust.” The park recorded 91,923 visits in February and 99,522 visits in January, as compared to 88,891 visits in February 2017 and 108,375 in January 2017.
Upfold said his company has been in business for 25 years and has known Goodenough a long time.
“It’s always a shame when a company of that stature, that long standing, finally decides to call it quits,” he said. “Maui Downhill had a good, long run. They can be considered pioneers in the industry. . . . A lot of companies have modeled after them.”
One of Goodenough’s best memories after 35 years in business is the time he took then-Vice President Dan Quayle on a bike ride down the mountain in the early 1990s. Goodenough was mowing his lawn when he got a call from the Secret Service asking to set up a bike tour.
On the day of the tour, the park was cleared after sunrise, and a helicopter flew Quayle and his family into the park. Goodenough and one of his guides escorted Quayle and six Secret Service members on bikes down the mountain.
“He himself didn’t do a lot of talking to me,” Goodenough said. “But he was a smiler. Really nice man. . . . He had a wonderful time coming down. . . . I was hoping I might be able to go back in the helicopter with him. I took you (down), now you take me.”
Goodenough said he’s made some adjustments over the years in response to safety and community concerns. For example, the tours no longer extend along Baldwin Avenue. And, he makes it a point to offer only guided tours, which he believes are safer. Goodenough said he has never had any fatalities on his tours.
In retirement, he’s looking forward to traveling and golfing more, spending time with his wife and visiting his sister, son and 11-year-old granddaughter on the Mainland. Goodenough also said he hopes someone might be willing to purchase Maui Downhill, which has a fleet of 10 vans, three minibuses and more than 200 bikes. The company also employed about 20 people.
“Rich and Maui Downhill and Vickie have made a legacy for themselves, and I think it’s time for them to enjoy retirement,” Hussey said.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.