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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Day 7: Muncaster Castle

Muncaster Castle featured a big collection of Owls and other birds of prey. We tried to attend a show but had to go mid way because Boen started making a fuss. The castle also had a playground, a maze (which Bowen loved so much that we had to go through it three times), and of course, the castle itself, which had an infamous court jester named Tom Skelton.
After that, we had a long drive to the Castle Inn in Keswick, where we arrived too late to do much but settle in and go out to dinner, just as rain started coming down.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Day 6: St Bees Head and Ennerdale Bridge

The day was forecasted to have the best weather of the rest of our visit to the Lakes, so I was determined to make the most of it. After breakfast, we headed out to St. Bee's Head, the starting point of the coast to coast walk.
The weather was gorgeous, and the scenery great: we got to see the Isle of Man far off. It was also the rest of the family's introduction to the peculiarly English construction known as the kissing gate.
After the hike, the kids got to play at the St. Bees Head playground, which featured ziplines and obstacle courses. In fact, the zipline was particularly kid friendly, as Bowen didn't need me to help him jump on it!
We had lunch at a local place, and then headed over to Ennerdale Bridge. I remembered it as being my entry into the Lakes District and being stunned by how pretty Ennerdale Water was. The entry had been redone and now had some ugly equipment near it, but once you got past it, it was just as pretty as before.
After that, we drove back and tried to buy dinner food on the way home but all the supermarkets were closed early on Sundays, so we ended up eating at the hotel restaurant. On the way to the restuarant, we noticed that the peacocks we had seen yesterday had spread their tails!
From the road, I'd seen signs for the footpath into Irton Hall, and I had to explore it. I tried a few times to find the path from near the hotel, but couldn't so in a fit of frustration, hiked out via the road and followed the footpath back, which included encounters with cows, goats, and an alpaca.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Day 5: Conister Water and Eskdale Railway

It was a cloudy day when we left Ambleside, and we debated possible destinations before heading straight over to Conister water to see the lake and see if there was any good hiking. When we got there, we found a dock with a steam ferry, but the weather wasn't great so we opted to move on.
One of the reasons we'd booked Irton Hall for two nights was that it was close to the Eskdale Railway. What I didn't realize was that we were arriving on a very special day: the opening of the (free) railway museum!
We bought train tickets for Bowen, Boen and I (Boen was free, actually), and hopped onto the train, leaving mommy to sleep off her harrowing night before in the car. The ride itself wasn't that interesting but the trains were all polished and looked brand new and in excellent shape, probably on account of the museum opening.

After the train ride was over, the two kids visited the museum. We then tried to visit Muncaster Castle, but discovered that it was closed on Saturdays  because weddings take place then. We then went and checked into our hotel, Irton Hall.
It turned out that I'd booked a place not in the main hotel itself, but in a block of self-catering cottages next to it. It was great: it had a kitchen, and a washer+dryer in one unit, the first I'd seen outside Japan. We went out to buy food from a supermarket, but ended up eating dinner in the restaurant for one of the two days we ate there. Nevertheless, we took full advantage of the washer and dryer and that made me wished we'd booked more self-catering cottages during our trip.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Day 4: The World of Beatrix Potter

Xiaoqin was still jet-lagged, not to mentioned exhausted by Boen's inability to sleep before midnight, so when the kids woke up, I took them to breakfast and brought them to Bowness-on-Windermere to visit The World of Beatrix Potter.
This was a museum where scenes from the books have been reproduced in great detail. For a rainy day, this was a great place to take them. We easily spent 3 hours here, as there was an outdoors garden as well.
After that, I brought them back to Ambleside, and we had lunch at the bakery. I never got tired of savory pies in England. I wish American bakeries did more savory pies. And this time, since the Bridge House was open, we got a chance to go in! (It's part of the National Trust, so admission was free)
Across the road was the Armitt Museum/Gallery/Library. We paid a visit since it had a good exhibit on Beatrix Potter herself, not just the books. It also had a surprising number of toys for children.

Then we went to Grasmere, where Xiaoqin and I took turns visiting the Dove cottage while Boen slept and Bowen drew.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Index Page: Lakes District and the Yorkshire Moors 2017

In June, we spent 15 days doing a combination car/hiking tour of the Northern England from the Lakes District to Robin Hood's Bay. We revisited some of my favorite spots from my 2006 Coast to Coast trip, and added Leeds to the itinerary as an impromptu destination.

This is my day to day trip report from the trip.

Day by day trip report:

Friday, August 25, 2017

Day 3: Patterdale

It was nice and sunny, but was forecast to be the last sunny day for a while. Due to a snafu on my part, I'd failed to book 4 days at hour hotel, and so had to switch hotels within the same town that day. Since we had to pack everything into the car anyway, we might as well drive somewhere far. Patterdale wasn't on our itinerary otherwise, but I had good memories of sailing on Ullswater from my coast to coast walk.
I'd never driven to Patterdale before, and to my surprise, it was a substantial pass. In fact, there's an even steeper approach than the main road called "The Struggle", which features more than 20% grades in spots. If I ever come back with a single bike this would be a worthy challenge, though of course, with a tandem and a touring load I wouldn't even consider it.
Once at Ullswater, the weather got clouded over, but I found the boat rental place and asked for a sailboat. We got everybody dressed up, and watched the manager rig up an old-style sloop.  The sloop looked great but sailed horribly, never being able to tack to within 60 degrees of the wind. Downwind, it was fine, but never really fast either. No wonder they were so relaxed about sailing certifications!
When we were done, we ate at the local coffee shop and then did a short hike up and around the area. That soft light with beams of sunshine coming through the clouds was classic English landscape scenery and gorgeous. I wish we'd had more time to hike on this trip, which would be a continuing theme the whole time.

That evening, we checked into the Lancet House and spent more time at the playground before ordering take out Indian food. The next day was forecasted for rain, so I thought it'd be a good time to take the kids to the World of Beatrix Potter.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Day 2: An Ambleside Walk

I looked through the pamphlets and picked something easy for the day, since Xiaqin was still jet-lagged. To my surprise, the walk started off by visiting the Ambleside adventure playground. Well, there was no way we could walk past the playground and not let Bowen and Boen play in it, so play in it they did!
The playground featured swinging roundabouts, ziplines, trampolines, slides, and swinging seesaws, stuff you'd never see in an American playground. Bowen and Boen never got bored with the playground, and we visited it every day when it was dry. So we ended up buying pastries and then having a picnic lunch at the playground while the two played before starting on our walk.
When we finally got going, it was a nice walk, alongside a river, and then twisting and turning through some bridges and a forest before ending up at Rydal Hall, where a docent stopped us from rushing through the place and visiting the Grotto.

We explored the gardens and stopped for tea at the tea house before walking through Rydal Park back to Ambleside, where we were once more too late to see the Bridge House while it opened.
After dinner, the kids spent more time at the playground, where they were joined by Daniel, a local school kid.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Day 1: Cathedral Cave

The drive out to the Cathedral cave was scary. After the freeway and normal highway of the previous day, we entered the realm of the single track road once we were past Amberside. I kept wondering if I would end up being in one of the stories about the guy who followed Google directions until he drove off a cliff. When the road devolved from pavement into gravel, I found the next spot in the road wide enough for another car to pass by and parked.

Once we parked and got the kids out and started walking, we saw another parking lot, but since where I was was good enough and it was no more than 200 meters, I just left my car alone. The thing about English National Parks is that they're short on signs. Fortunately, there were enough hikers coming from where we were going that we knew we'd find it, and indeed some of them were so enthusiastic about the quarry that they stopped to tell us about it in case we were going to pass it up!
The cave was indeed big, with several openings into it, and an exit that led to a cliff-side rappel, where some climbers were working out a path. There was an old ruin that Bowen and Boen enjoyed playing in, and several paths down as well, including hidden bridges and vistas and old farm houses. Across the river, we could see buildings, and someone told us there was a pub there where we could get food.

Once on the footpath to the Three Shires Inn, it was the Lakes District as I remembered it: gorgeous and stunning.
Unfortunately, the food was as I remembered it as well: not really very good, but expensive. On the way back from the Cavern, we visited Grasmere, and there I bought a pamphlet for walking in Ambleside, since we were going to be there 4 nights.
Once in Ambleside, we checked into our hotel (which was too warm to stay in), and went for a walk down to the bridge house. Then after that it was dinner time and then time to wind the kids down and bed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Prolog: San Francisco to Manchester

On June 18th, Phil Sung gave us a ride to the airport in his minivan, which with some seats removed, could take the tandem without disassembly. At the airport, we tried to check-in the tandem, but the airline staff required that the bike be in the box. My original plan for the tandem was to land at the airport, assemble the bike (which would take all of 20 minutes), and ride it to the Etrop Grange Hotel. Having it in a box would require much more disassembly, and worse, I'd have to save the box for the return trip, so that scratched the plan. If I'd known that they airline would give me such a hard time, I would have prepacked the bike in multiple boxes by taking it apart with the couplers, but as it was, I had to find the guys at the airport who would supply me with boxes and pack the bike.

This was done in fairly short order, and after the rigamarole, we still had time to visit the Virgin Atlantic lounge before getting onto the plane. Once on the plane, Boen had a tough time: the plan was for him to be in first class with mommy and Bowen and I be in the economy seats (we had separate return dates, so had to book separately anyway), but Boen didn't want first class, so Bowen went to first class instead. Once he was settled Boen actually slept for much of the trip.

Upon landing, my wife dealt with the kids while I went to get the rental car. It turned out that our vendor, Europcar was over-booked that day, and there was a 2 hour wait for cars. I demonstrated my distress and they finally relented and sent a driver with me in a van to pick everyone up from Terminal 2. Along the way, they helped me drop off the bike box at Etrop Grange Hotel. The hotel manager didn't want to take the bike at first, but I told them I had 2 reservations at the hotel, and he finally relented and let me put my bike box in a container outside in the parking lot that was locked.

I upgraded to a station wagon since we actually had enough luggage to justify it. It was diesel, so the additional $10/day in rental fee would be partially offset by the fuel efficiency. After installing the car seats and everything in the car, we then faced a 2 and a half hour drive to the hotel.

When I was planning the trip, I used Google maps to determine the acceptable driving distance from the airport. Unfortunately, I had made a fatal mistake: during the planning process, it was usually  evening in California, which would have been 2:00am GMT, so all the driving time estimates were completely wrong, since there were no traffic jams at 2:00am. So while I'd planned for a 1.5 hour drive to our first hotel in the Lakes district, it ended up being 2.5 and I was exhausted when I got there, compounding jet-lag with the stress and fatigue of dealing with the car company and arguing with the hotel about bike storage.
Fortunately, the hotel we'd booked was gorgeous, and had a wide open area outside for Bowen and Boen to chase the baby ducks and play. We had a non-descript dinner, and when it was late enough, turned in and slept, but not before I'd run into a local who told us that Cathedral Cave  was a good place to take the family tomorrow.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bowen's Tour: Notes on Equipment

Here's commentary on various bike equipment we brought and used or didn't use, that didn't otherwise get a separate review:
  • Cheap bicycle lights. Turned out we didn't ride through any tunnels, and were always done before it got dark. Good thing, since we lost our lights on the 2nd day of the tour. (Probably left in hotel room)
  • Waterproof Kindle. Very useful for playground stops and for bed time reading. I read several books during the tour.
  • Portable charger. Used this during the rest day. Otherwise, not necessary.
  • Arm warmers/leg warmers: didn't need. Weather too warm.
  • Rain gear: used during the rest day when it rained. Occasionally if Bowen got cold, he'd put on rain pants or rain jacket for additional warmth, so this was a good addition.
  • Cheap Multi-tool.  Worked well enough, but lost the chain tool because it's not properly captured. Will probably upgrade to a better designed tool for another tour, or bring a separate chain tool.
  • S&S coupler wrench. Includes pedal wrench, which was very useful when Bowen's pedal fell off.
  • Playstation Vita. Crucial for keeping Bowen quiet while driving the car, or on the train ride back. Since the trip was driven by a location in a video game, it seemed appropriate to have the Vita with us.
  • Bluetooth Headset. This was surprisingly useful, both as a navigation aid (pair with phone and use Google's voice directions), and for calling AirBnB owners when directions were ambiguous.
  • Oakley M Frames. At home I tend to use transition glasses, and they work well. But transition lenses turn dark even when it's cloudy out, and I expected that in England things would be very cloudy out often. Having both clear and dark lenses to switch between was very helpful. Absolutely required equipment for English touring.
  • Shimano T400 Click'r Pedal. On a single kid's bike, clipping in is optional. On a tandem, however, it's essential. These survived the trip. If they hadn't, I'd have had to pay for Same-Day Shipping to replace them. That's how important they are. Enough said.
  • Answer Speeder Cycling Shoes. These are discontinued, but I was lucky enough to buy them used for the trip. They come with laces and velcro, which is insane. The laces are almost understandable, as you need to lace up the shoes so his feet don't fall out since parents tend to buy shoes for children's feet to grow into. But the velcro on top of that was just over-the top. Sure, you need a shield for the laces so they don't get eaten by the chain, but why not just have the velcro, then? In any case, nobody makes shoes small enough for kids when it comes to cycling.
  • Ordnance Survey Maps. Surprisingly, I had these maps in the panniers the whole time and only used them once: to show the receptionist at the hotel at the start of the trip! The rest of the time, I depended on the smartphone and GPS. This was a mistake. Or you might say that I've gone digital native and should stop carrying paper maps.
One of the biggest issues with bringing a kid on tour is that you have to convince him that reducing weight and bulk is important. To do this, I packed the panniers with all our necessary gear, and showed Bowen that there was no room to bring his security blanket, though there was room for his bunny. Thankfully once he saw the panniers and lifted them to see how heavy they were, he was OK with leaving his security blankets behind. Yes, I'm aware that I have an exceptional kid --- you might not be so lucky with yours!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower is Octavia Butler's novel of post apocalyptic America. This particular novel is of special interest because not only Butler died before completing her trilogy, but because the novel covers a future eerily like the one we're living through now, only worse. We've got climate change, a cultural "screw you, I've got mine" general attitude, and a breakdown in society. The major freeways have become roads for refugees to flee a no-longer-suitable-for-human-habitation Los Angeles.

Amidst all this, a young girl tries to survive, and even better, consciously tries to start a new religion and community out of the rag-tag group of survivors she encounters after her community burns down and she starts walking North.

It's fun to read about all the parts of California that she references and discusses. I've cycled many of the places myself. The religion she creates is also interesting. Far better than the usual recycled-Judea-Christian garbage you find in typical fiction.

How, you may ask, was Butler so far ahead of her time? Well, for one thing, she (and her characters) was Black. The things she take for granted (ineffective police who're more likely to threaten you as to help you, and are strangely only interested in rich people's problems) were probably reality for her in ways that it might not have been for her white colleagues in science fiction.

A prophetic novel, and a dire warning of what is to come if we don't heed its warnings and pull ourselves together. Recommended.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Long Term Review: Moto G Plus (Amazon Edition)

I bought the Moto G5 Plus for several reasons:

  1. The ability to use RidewithGPS on Firefox for route planning. 
  2. Long battery life: in order to do LiveTracking, navigation, and potential Google Maps voice directions while cycling in a foreign country. 
  3. A replacement camera, since I didn’t expect to have the time to frame and properly compose photos while cycling on a tandem, so didn’t feel like spending the $600 a large sensor travel camera would cost. Needless to say, under the constraints of the above, bringing the M3 wasn’t in consideration either. 
To my surprise, #1 was a bust. Despite my extensive testing on the phone before leaving the USA, once on the ground I discovered that Firefox running RidewithGPS was balky and slow. The one time I needed to use it, it was easier to ask my AirBnB host to borrow her large screen computer instead. I resorted to either manual routing (i.e., just ignoring the GPS and reading road signs instead), or using short term Google Maps routing instead.

#2 was a complete success. The Moto G5+ doesn’t have the insane battery life my wife’s Moto Z Play has, but it cost quite a bit less, and as long as I started the day with a full charge, I never ended the cycling day with less than 50% battery life, despite using LiveTrack. My worst days of battery life were the zero day when we rented a car and I was using Google Maps full time for driving navigation, and the day in London, when we would spend lots of time underground in subways or indoors without cell coverage, and the strain on the battery of the phone trying to find a signal would quickly drain the battery. The driving day was surprisingly bad, because without a QC charger in the car, the USB port in the Fiesta 500’s driver compartment simply couldn’t keep up with the battery drain. Nevertheless, on both days I ended with about 10% battery life, and not stranded. This is a phone that will last your typical day and then some.

#3 was a surprise for me. When I first tested the phone on the first few days of the trip, I was shocked and surprised by how badly the phone’s camera app behaved. I would “twist to start the camera” and then be disappointed by the message “your camera app has crashed. Please restart it.” Fortunately, a reboot midway through the trip fixed the crashing problem and it was solid for the entirety of the cycling trip, which was when I was using the phone as my only camera.

The photos aren’t great, but I’d argue they’re no worse than a typical phone’s pictures --- all phones have tiny camera sensors, and you just can’t overcome the physics involved. What is great is that the Moto G5+ has support for a micro-SD card. I actually filled the card with photos during the trip, but the software automatically switched to the on-board storage. Since I was carrying around a 64GB SD card, there’s no doubt in my mind that just the 64GB of onboard storage on the phone would have been insufficient for my use case. I have no idea how people who have 32GB Pixel or iPhones survive, though my guess is those people don’t do multi-day bicycle tours.

All through the trip, the phone’s been fast enough, and good enough that I never wanted another phone. I still dislike that the phone’s not waterproof, but it did survive that one rainy evening at Stonehenge, so even that’s less of a concern than it was. And you can’t beat the Amazon subsidized price.

Highly recommended. Yes, there are better phones, but they cost way more. This is the one to get in the mean time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Wizo Ultra-Thin Folding Keyboard

After my surface pro died, I contemplated buying a replacement laptop like the Dell XPS 13. But rumors keep popping up that a large device travel ban was imminent any day soon, and if that were to happen I’d lose 90% of the use case for a laptop, which was to process photos and write while traveling.  (In any case, the laptop ban has now been lifted, so you're now free to buy a laptop if you need one)

A much cheaper subsitute is a Wizo Ultra-Thin Folding Keyboard. The idea is that the keyboard would connect wirelessly to your phone, and then you could run say, the Microsoft Word mobile app (or Google Docs) for writing, and use whatever crappy smartphone app you liked for photo processing. (They all suck, except for Photo Mate R3, which sucks slightly less) I simply gave up on photo processing during the trip (except for the times when I shot pictures on the phone and processed them there).

The keyboard is surprisingly pleasant to use. While not nearly as nice as a full size keyboard, I found that in certain cases, I could out-type the phone’s ability to keep up with my input! The big compromises are the lack of number keys, which means you have to hold down the “fn” button when entering numbers, and the fact that  if you forget to turn off the keyboard after the job is done, your phone would stay paired and you might find yourself unable to type using an on-screen keyboard!
The keyboard’s extremely aggressive about re-pairing over bluetooth, even if you disconnected temporarily, your phone would repair the next second, so your only recourse is to turn off the keyboard physically via the power switch.

It’s small enough that the tiny tray in economy seats is roomy enough to stand the phone (using a phone stand) and still have plenty of room to type. I wrote several book reviews, and a travel entry, and of course this review of the keyboard itself on the keypad.

The keyboard does have an internal battery that requires charging, but one charge seems to last forever, so I have no complaints about the battery life so far.

All in all, this solves 50% of my travel use case that a laptop is for, so for the time being I’ve decided not to buy a laptop. Consider me a very satisfied customer, and I’d highly recommend this travel keyboard for your phone. Even after the trip, I would carry the keyboard with me whenever there’s a chance I might have time to write, so I don’t lose writing opportunities. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Long Term Review: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

On the cycling trip I used the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt exclusively for navigation. For Live Tracks (which was actually useful for AirBnB hosts who wanted to know how long it would take us to cycle to their place), I would continue to use the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

I used the Wahoo with RidewithGPS, Komoot, and the built-in Google navigation. None were perfect, and none would substitute for using your brain and ignoring the navigation cues on the display in front of you when appropriate. Unfortunately, it took me a few days to figure it out.

Ride with GPS was surprisingly good --- on a big screen. By default, it uses Google's bike route data's layer to help “snap” to a bike route while you're plotting the route. The problem is that the information is not sufficiently detailed: for instance, you can't tell whether the bike route you're on is a legitimate paved bike path, or whether it's a singletrack mountain bike trail requiring dismounts if you have panniers. The bigger issue is that the Android RideWithGPS app doesn't work at all for plotting routes, and if you plan to use it on a regular basis you need a bigger tablet in addition to just your phone.

Nevertheless, when plotting a route from Hindhead to Staines-Upon-Thames, it found the Basingstoke Canal trail, which none of the other options discovered. So the extra weight and charging hassle of a larger tablet might be worth it.

Komoots was what I used much of the time to do trip planning. The problem is that like Google Maps, it lacks common sense. A day after a rain, it routed us through muddy singletrack, including a flooded tunnel, and then later on in the day a sandy hiking trail through an area marked with “possible unexploded live ordnance, do not touch anything you see on the ground!” signs. We had to ask an equestrian how to extract ourselves from that nasty situation. Despite my being able to download all of the UK onto my phone, the app still refused to navigate or plot new routes without an internet connection.

The ELEMNT's app integration with Google Maps is suitable for short, city routing. It’s convenient and relatively good for within-city routing because of Google's somewhat comprehensive knowledge of local bike routes. But when given long distances, Google Maps would give you multiple routing options while the ELEMNT app's Google integration would only give you one option. Usually, Google's multiple-options usually mean that the slower choice is more scenic, less direct, and less traffic’d, so by not providing the multiple options the ELEMNT really limits the usefulness.

Once a route's on the Bolt, it's somewhat reasonable. In fact, it even displays the impending elevation change on the climbing screen, which is awesome for anticipating how long you have to pace yourself for on the next segment. The navigation is kinda crazy: sometimes it'll tell you to turn only after you've made the turn, so I kept it on the map screen whenever I needed the navigation.

The biggest issue with the ELEMNT Bolt is that it won't reroute if you go off course. When I first got the unit, I thought it was no big deal, but having lived with it, I think it's a major missing feature. There are many circumstances in which it'll be dangerous or difficult to stop and do a reroute, and of course, if your network connection is spotty, you're pretty much screwed. I think I'd be hard-pressed to recommend the ELEMNT for anyone who has to be off-network during part of the tour. I'd rather put up with a little worse navigation on the Garmin Edge type units.

It also has a weird bug in that when you fly between time zones, it doesn't auto-correct the time, unlike the Garmin units. You're forced to repair the device with the phone to fix the time. I didn't notice this when I flew to England, because the unit somehow failed to pair with my phone and I was forced to re-pair, but when I came back that didn't happen, and I lived with incorrect time on my Bolt until I sent a support e-mail and got back the answer. The reason this is bat-shit insane is that the GPS knows the correct time zone: it has to, since it knows where you are. That's why Garmin never needs you to set the time on your Edge units!

By the way, the Bolt randomly pairs or doesn't pair with your phone depending on the phase of the moon. There's no rhyme or reason to it. This would have been OK if like the Garmin it was capable of routing independent of the phone, but since it isn't, it causes an unacceptable startup time issue whenever we were raring to go on tour and I had to "oops, let me re pair the phone to the GPS unit." Again, no big deal for people who're just doing day-rides with bike clubs or century rides with well-marked roads, but a major pain for those of us who tour, and have impatient 5-year-olds in the back seat.

One thing that I found unacceptable was that the Wahoo Element Bolt  would occasionally refuse to upload to Strava or any of the other connected services. You can still upload manually by copying the files from the unit to Strava on the PC, but by Vivoactive HR has never refused to sync correctly. This appears to happen randomly as a result of say, not being pair'd with the phone whenever the device is turned off, but in reality even when I make a point of pairing the phone correctly each time, it will still occasionally happen. As a backup device for the Garmin Vivoactive HR this is somewhat acceptable (I usually turn off sync'ing to Strava anyway). As a primary device, I'd probably be selling it on eBay the first time it happened!

All in all, I'm somewhat satisfied with the ELEMNT Bolt. My biggest complaint is that the map screen is devoid of road names, which would be very useful when I'm actively ignoring the GPS directions. There's also no way to pan the map while riding. If Garmin does better integration with RidewithGPS or Komoots I'd give up the ELEMNT in a heartbeat, but until Garmin does that I think Wahoo has the edge for cycle touring in countries with dense road networks.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tips for touring in England

Much like the Alps, England is a country of unpredictable weather. The weather forecasts were remarkably unreliable, with constant predictions of rain that never panned out, and on "dry forecast" days, you could still get occasional sprinkles. This makes England ideal for my "no-reservations" style of cycle touring, where each day's routes and roads are planned on a moment-to-moment's notice as weather dictates.

What makes England different from the Alps is that it's much more populated, with very many enthusiastic AirBnB hosts. I've learned that AirBnB is usually a much better situation than most hotels:

  • Laundry machines are usually available. Each commercial laundry load in England runs from 6 to 10 pounds, so AirBnB hosts that provide laundry access is worth that much more than an equivalent hotel, but the AirBnB is usually much cheaper.
  • Hosts usually have local knowledge that can be very valuable. While Hotel staff might also be reasonably knowledgeable, nothing beats someone who knows the neighborhood.
  • In many areas, the hotels may not show up on, but AirBnB does.
  • Finally, if you're traveling with a young child, you might welcome the opportunity to talk to other adults after interacting with a 5 year old all day and answering questions like: "What's 11 divided by 2?"
When using AirBnB, last minute requests are problematic. I've been turned down a few times for being too "last minute", but here's what you can do:
  • The night before, issue 2-3 queries to varying locations, depending on where you intend to go the next day. The likely prospects will "preapprove" you for a listing.
  • The morning of the trip, let the prospective hosts know your intention. If you need to, provide a tracking link from your GPS.
  • Also look for hotels on in case the hotels are cheaper or in a better location.
  • On Friday and Saturday nights, you must book the night before. There's no alternative. Weekends suck when you're cycle touring, and that's that.
For routing, I've discovered that the National Bike Routes provided by Sustrans are of questionable value. While many of them do provide quiet alternatives on paved roads, it's unpredictable which ones suddenly devolve into dirt roads which may be muddy or not navigable in the rain! What's worse, you can't find Sustrans maps or books in book stores, or cycle shops, so there's no way to evaluate those books/maps to see if they're worth your money. In practice, the books or maps that only cover one particular route are almost useless, as any kind of touring requires that you deviate from the path at some point. The shire-level maps are more interesting, but since I haven't been able to see the maps in person I can't tell whether or not they carefully mark the sections where you have to walk or hoist your bike. In any case, hand-routing is the best for avoiding unpleasant surprised.

Compared with cycling in the USA, most cycle routes in England are great: there are small villages separated by 5-7 miles, and many small roads that don't see very much traffic. Nearly every small town has a bakery with great pastries for lunch, and a picnic area that's gorgeous. However, the roads approaching big towns or cities are horrendous, and even those with a cycle path on the side are unpleasant. I'm not sure I'd return to England for cycling with a tandem. With a single, you can hop on the train to skip the horrible approaches to most big cities. With a tandem, that's simply not an option most of the time.

Traveling with Bowen's a delight. I don't know how much of it is that he's had more adventures so far in his life than most adults had in a decade, and how much of it is that he's just got a great personality. If you've read this trip report, you'll notice that many times he's been the one driving decisions, such as taking a zero day, or going to Oxford to have duck. The same went for lunch and dinner. Whenever possible, I let him pick what he wanted to eat. At every point, he's usually been good about making decisions and sticking to them once he understands the consequences. He also never complained when things got hard or challenging, which is more than I can say of many adults. I think I can recommend that every father do at least one adventure trip with his 5-year old son at least once. It's definitely a bonding experience you'll remember for the rest of your life.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bowen's First Tour: Epilogue - Cycling is the Easy Part

After checking into the hotel, I got out my tools and the hotel staff helped me get out the cardboard box. Packing the bike into the box took about a half hour or so, using up all the duct tape I had brought with me from San Francisco Airport. Then Bowen and I walked back to the civic center just a bit too late to get our last savoury pies from the bakery, but managed a good dinner at the Mr Baker's Fish and Chips place for a surprisingly good price.

On the way back, we stopped by once again at Painswick Park for Bowen to play, and he found a friend there happy to play with him for his last English playground experience. In the evening, I discovered that I'd left the USB charger that Jaine had given me behind in London. This was the last thing that we would leave behind on tour, but it definitely put an exclamation mark on my forgetfulness on this trip, which may or may not be because the additional load of parenting a 5-year old just made me more forgetful than usual.
Booking a mini bus to bring the tandem back to the airport was an ordeal. It was no problem booking the bus, and the hotel helped me specify one big enough to take the tandem. But the driver showed up with a van you couldn't remove the seats from, which made it very painful to load the tandem --- we had to lift it up over the rear seat and leave it cantilevered there, a poor situation. Once at the airport, the driver refused to help me unload the tandem and bring it to the ticket counter, demanding to be paid cash so he could leave to take the next job. I eventually collar'd an airport security guy and he helped me, and gave me a big trolley.

Once in line at the Virgin Airline counter, I experienced the longest checkin time in the world. Then after that, I had to bring the bike and bags to oversized baggage and waited in line once more. We had about 2.5 hours but the entire process burned up an hour and a half. Then we were told to rush through the security line only to arrive at the gate 20 minutes too early to board.

The flight back was easy (thanks to the PS Vita). On the other side, there was a long immigration line and by the time we got through it our luggage was already out, which is the fastest luggage delivery I'd ever seen. Driving the tandem in its box through the customs area was a pain, and there was one fearful point where we had to unload the tandem and bring it through the doors manually and the doors closed behind us cutting us off from the rest of the luggage. But we resolved that and were soon outside in the waiting area.

By the time Xiaoqin arrived with the car, I'd gotten the tandem out of its box, and uncoupled it, so when she arrived with the Honda Fit it was a trivial matter of laying down the plastic bag, dropping a rear seat down, and putting the big bike into the car, installing Bowen's car seat, and putting the rest of the baggage into the aptly named Honda Fit, whose rear hatchback and fold down seats handled everything with grace. Our trip was over.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

July 15th: London to Manchester Airport (with Train Transfer)

When I first bought my train tickets back to Manchester, I picked the 12:00pm departure for 2 reasons: first, I thought we could spend a little bit more time exploring London, and secondly, the checkin time for the hotel wasn't until after 3:00pm anyway. It couldn't be much later, since I still had to pack the bike into the box at the hotel after arrival. What I hadn't reckoned on was that London, like most tourist cities, starts quite late: nothing opens till 10:00am, and with a checkout at 11:00am, that didn't leave very much time for anything at all.
Bowen woke up quite early, so we had an early breakfast and I proposed we walk through Hyde Park and then visit the British Library when it opened at 9:30am. "Can we take the subway there?" Bowen had developed an obsession with subways, and would have spent all day riding the subways if he could have. Well, I wasn't going to spend all morning underground, so we took the subway to Hyde Park, walked across it, and then rode 2 subway lines back to the British Library, which was near where our hotel was.
The museum's worth a visit, though I paid the entry fee thinking it was for the library but was actually for the exhibit. The star of the library, which is the display of their notable collection is free! Nevertheless, we spent a good hour at the museum admiring artifacts like the Magna Carta, some of Da Vinci's original drawings, and original sheet music from famous composers. The old maps were also well worth the time.

Then it was time to check out and pack for the train. Our checkout was no hassle, and neither was the short half mile ride to the train station. Once there, I had enough time to get a refund for my Oyster card, and buy some snacks for the train. While waiting for the displays to update and tell us which platform to go to, a Virgin Trains representative found us and asked us which train we were waiting for. When we told them it was the 12:00pm to Manchester, they immediately told us the right platform so we could go to the platform and load our bike in advance of every one else! The entire experience was magical: we simply walked through the gates while the staff was cleaning the train. No tickets were checked, we found the bike car, unloaded the panniers, put the bike in, and then found our reserved seats. For 33 pounds, it was faster than a car would have been, cheaper, and more comfortable. It felt kind of funny doing in 2 hours by train what had taken us 9 days of cycling to do.
Once out of the train station on the other end, we turned on the navigation system and got a surprisingly pretty ride back to the Etrop Grange Hotel. Once there, we got our picture taken by a Hotel staff member. Bowen's first bike tour was completed!

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

July 14th: Staines Upon Thames to London

The day before after I arrived, I'd asked our AirBnB host, who was a cyclist as well, what the best route into London was. He didn't actually know, so I showed him the two alternatives Google offered me. The northern route was shorter, and the southern route was longer, adding 22 minutes. He took one glance and said, "Oh, go through Richmond Park. That's got acres of real estate and will get rid of most of your annoying traffic." Of course, the next morning, those options had disappeared because Google thinks that under light traffic, an A road was preferable to a park!
Bowen had gotten up at 5am. I took the laundry and stuck it into the dryer but the dryer wasn't very effective. There was no chance I'd let the morning go to waste, and the Thames ride was going to be pretty anyway, so we backtracked through some of yesterday's ride and proceeded along the B roads towards London. While there was traffic, much of it was going the opposite way, so we were unstressed. At Bushy Park, we made the turn off and negotiated a gate into the park.
Once in the park it was a relief: no traffic whatsoever. At the fountain, however, Google wanted me to join the main road, when it was obvious that riding through the park was the right thing to do. Well, that caused me to turn off Google navigation and just follow my brain instead.
At the far end of the park, I asked other cyclists what the best way to London was. To my surprise, everyone said, "Oh, that's a long way." It was hard for me to keep from saying: "Look, we came all the way from Manchester. Even the street signs say 14 miles. That's no big deal at all!" After two or three useless replies, I was given directions by a teenager who said, "Follow this path, at the end of it there's a bridge, cross the bridge and turn right." This wasn't hard to follow, and when we got to the bridge the National Bike Route signs once again appeared, along with the incredibly tandem unfriendly bike infrastructure.
Once on the other side of the bridge, we followed the National Bike Route signs towards London, and were rewarded with a well marked path all the way to Richmond Park, whereupon we started to feel sprinkling of water on our faces. It never got much worse than that, though --- it wasn't even worth putting on rain jackets for that!
On the other side of Richmond Park, things got a little bit more suburban, and I turned Google navigation back on. Google navigation (via the Wahoo Elemnt app/head unit) actually does a decent job in cities and other populated areas. In any case, I could still follow the National Bike Route signs. I was expecting things to get more unpleasant and suburban, but they were mostly quite nice until we crossed the Hammersmith bridge with 4 miles to go until our hotel.
Once across the bridge, we were in London proper, and Google routed us into a series of busier and busier streets until we were mixing it up on Euston Road with double-decker buses and myriad car traffic. There were markings indicating that we were allowed to use the bus lane, so that's what we did. It was still stressful after all the country riding we did, but we eventually made it to Cartwright Gardens and checked into Studios2Let.

Well, we were actually too early to check-in, but they were happy to let us leave our bags and bike at the hotel while we went to explore the town. The first order of business was to walk to the London Euston train station where we had a snack and then picked up our train tickets for the next day. We found a Virgin Trains representative who explained how we were to find the correct platform and to board the train. Then we went to the visitor center for an Oyster card, and while we were at it, bought tickets for the London Eye. We got instructions to take the bus to 221B Baker street and then the subway to the London Eye. We opted out of Madame Tussauds and other experiences that felt more like theme park attractions than a true London experience.

The 221B Baker Street Sherlock Holmes museum. I was unprepared for how long the line was, but having been to the one in Meiringen, I had to complete the set. Once inside, it was very well done, with replicas of Holmes and Watson's study, and even wax figures of some of the events and people in the stories. Bowen was quite bored, but I promised that we'd visit the London Eye and then London Bridge after that.
At the London Eye, I was dismayed that we had to go to the ticket counter to exchange our vouchers for tickets. Once there, I discovered that you could pay  $10/person for "fast track" access, and also add a river cruise for $6.50. Since we were going to be in London for just one day, we opted for Fast Track and also picked the river cruise. The Eye came with a 4D experience that was short but worth the time.
The view from the London Eye was spectacular. The ferris wheel moved very slowly, so we had a hard time even being able to tell that we were moving. Getting on and off was quite a scramble, but once off we could move straight on to the river cruise.
From the river cruise boat, we got a nice tour of the buildings along the Thames, and when we saw Tower Bridge, I asked Bowen if he'd like to see it, and the answer was "Yes!" So once we disembarked, we headed straight for it.
One of the coolest thing about the Tower Bridge was that we got there just as the bridge was being raised to allow a ship through. Then there were the glass walkways, the animated film of the bridge being built, and the engine room exhibits. Best of all: no lines! Bowen enjoyed the engine room quite a bit, but by the time we were done with the tour he was too tired to walk, so I had to carry him back to the subway station. Since he was up at 5:00am, the best thing was to buy supermarket stuff to make dinner back at the studio, and then have an early night. So we bought Spaghetti, Lagsane, Eggs, and Salad and headed back.

Once at the studio, we were given the keys, and to our surprise were shown to an apartment right next to Mabel's Tavern! One snafu we encountered was that my handlebar bag had been place elsewhere than the usual place for bags, and the staff could not find it. I remembered the closet the staff had shoved it into, and dug through it and found it! Fortunately, the tavern turned out not to be too noisy. We had our dinner and bath and went to bed happy not to have to do laundry.