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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

June 18th: Reschen Am See to Merano

The morning started with a lovely breakfast, after which while packing up in the hotel room, we saw a lovely rainbow which made me glad that I had a real camera and not have to rely on the crappy camera on my LG V20. After we were packed, we immediately made a stop at the zipline that so captivated Bowen the afternoon before. He made 10 runs before we decided that we didn't have infinite time that day.
The lake itself is famous for a town that was famously submerged when the hydroelectric dam was built, flooding the town so that only the top of a church tower can now be seen. This was my first time in this part of Italy, and the views were outstanding. Unlike the lower part of the Alto Aldige valley, it had a lonely isolated feel to it. The bike path runs on the opposite side of the main road, ensuring that you were isolated from it for even more solitude, especially in the morning.
After the dam, we saw the Monte Maria Abbey. We stopped for a picture, but it didn't seem particularly remarkable, and almost immediately after that, the bike path took a series of descents that quickly dumped us out into the Glorenza snack stand that I was so familiar with from previous years.
From Glorenza, it's a short ride down to Prato Allo Stelvio, where I told Bowen that the only way we'd climb the Stelvio was if we found someone to carry our bags up the hill. My memories of Nobert's pass was still fresh, and I felt as though I need a few rest days before signing up for more intense riding. At the visitor's center, the information center person gave us a list of numbers, but I called all of them, burning about $3 in Skype fees and nobody was willing to even quote me a price for carrying 2 panniers up the mountain. Bowen was surprisingly emotional and disappointed about not getting to do the Stelvio. "You've seen the mountain, so why don't I get to see what you've seen?" I assuaged his disappointment by spotting the zipline playground right outside the visitor center, and then as we rode down towards Merano, found an ice cream place and fed him a banana split for lunch.
From Prato Allo Stelvio, the descent down to Merano along the bike path is pretty easy. We found a self-service honor system fruit stand with some of the best tasting fruit we'd had (Bowen remained a huge fan of apricots for the rest of the trip), and also another zipline playground.
I'd booked a hotel near the center of town while Bowen was on the zipline, but as we approached Merano, my phone rang and it turned out to be the hotel, which was calling to cancel our reservation as they were full! This led us to a mad scramble: we checked out one of the hotels near the center of town, but it wasn't acceptable and the man running it tried to take advantage of my desperation. I ended up booking (via Hotel Verdorfer, which had excellent reviews. Of course, Komoot would route us but my Wahoo Bolt stubbornly refused to download the route, so I ended up giving Bowen the phone and having him use Google Maps to navigate us while we were riding. By the time we arrived at the hotel, my Vivoactive HR (which wasn't fully charged in the morning) was dead, and Bowen's Garmin Edge 25 was also in low power mode. I learned to be more careful about charging those devices and we never had a ride as long for the rest of the tour. I would get more and more frustrated with the Wahoo Bolt for the rest of the tour.
In the future, I'll know that when in this situation, I could have hired a limousine to take us to the hotel and then charged it to for reimbursement, but the bicycle ride up to the hotel, painful as it was, was under the rules of the web-site not considered worthy of compensation. 
Nevertheless, when we were greeted by a very friendly young man who looked fresh out of college, I was inclined to let bygones be bygones. The hotel's not great for cycle tourists, as the walk to the nearest restaurant was substantial, but the pool was crystal clear and the facilities very nice.
At dinner, the world cup was playing but the food was just not that good, though portion sizes were generous enough to feed two very hungry cyclists. The wind was high so I was certain that our clothing would dry by the next day.


Monday, July 30, 2018

June 17th: Landeck to Reschen am see

The morning had us riding up along the Inn river bike path. Having ridden this 4 years ago, it was interesting to see it going the other way: the climbing was pleasant and not at all overwhelming, and in Pratz, we found a zipline playground right next to the campground that the other bicycle tourists we met yesterday was heading for.

Paset Pratz, the road opened up and we started seeing signs for Switzerland! "Hey, we can have breakfast in Austria, lunch in Switzerland, and dinner in Italy today!" I said to Bowen. That sounded so good to him that he would repeat it over and over again like a mantra throughout the day.

Just before Martina, the road suddenly took a huge dip, and we sped rapidly down towards the Swiss border. I realized once we got to Martina that Arturo and I had passed this very same spot 4 years ago, but there wasn't a lunch place in sight except for a little kiosk with bicycles parked outside. Going in, we bought what looked like the last packet of meat, some chocolate, and half a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. Bowen was fascinated by the Swiss army knife display and asked to see my Gerber Dime, which was smaller than any of the knives on display.
After lunch, we crossed back over to the Austrian side of the border and immediately started up Norbert's pass. At this point, the afternoon heat combined with cumulative nights of jet-lag and the prior days' climbing finally caught up to me and I struggled up the hill at a dog-slow pace. While I was never distressed enough to stop, the pass felt like a much tougher pass than it should have, a memory which would color the next few days of the tour.
At the top, we ate the partially melted chocolate, and I found myself dreading the climb over Reschen pass, which I thought was around 1800m, while Norberts pass was at 1405. Another cyclist said, "It's not a hard pass, compared to Noberts pass", and I'd already promised Bowen dinner in Italy, so no matter how exhausted I felt, I was committed to making it over the pass. My initial plan of riding all the way to Schluderns was gone.

There was a fast and furious descent into Nauders, and then a bike path pointing us to Reschen pass. Despite the relatively high elevation of 1300m, it was warm, but the bike path led us away from the highway despite giving us occasional views of it. The climb was gentle and I didn't feel like I was climbing a pass at all. When we finally crossed over to the Italian border it was a surprise! Indeed, I had misread the altitude of the pass: it was 1504m, not 1800m. I was pretty happy to be wrong.
I was warned that the bike path kept climbing despite having crossed over the pass, which made this the most anti-climatic path I'd ever seen. But at least the weather had cooled off a bit and we were now riding through greenery and flowers that were missing on the Austrian side. We finally got a view of the lake and what did we find but a playground with a zipline!
While Bowen played on the zipline, I searched on my phone for lodging. Not surprisingly, most of the good deals on lodging were on the Austrian side, where I'd spotted large numbers of hotels, mostly to cater to the ski resort. The Italian side didn't have any ski lifts, so there was no summer competition to keep prices down. I eventually found a guest house (which looked much more like an apartment building) nearby, and booked it. On the way to the hotel, Bowen complained that he couldn't clip in any more! Upon later examination, we found a piece of stone (from the playground) embedded in just the wrong place that was blocking engagement. I got out the Gerber Dime multitool flipped open the knife and pry'd it off. This would happen a couple more times during the trip. This never happens to my adult shoes no matter how much I abuse them on dirt and gravel hikes, but the Giro Manta that Pardo had bought for Bowen (from a thrift shop) seemed to be much more susceptible.
When we arrived, we discovered that nobody was there to greet us, but a phone call led to the owners/managers having a mad scramble to come and meet us, and all was well. It turned out that the place was quite far away from the main "town", but we were walking distance from a restaurant and so after our afternoon routine we could walk there. It was quite clear that e-bikes had taken over Europe as there was a free charging station right next to the restaurant.
I was quite tired, and hoped for an easier day the next day.


Friday, July 27, 2018

June 16th: Bschlabs to Landeck

The guest house at Bschlabs offers a generous breakfast, including eggs that you can make yourself. Bowen discovered that he really liked soft-boiled eggs, and would eat them whenever he got a chance. We packed up and left by 8:40am, and immediately started up the mountain.
I'd forgotten how tough climbing on a fully loaded tandem was. Add to that my lingering jet-lag (which my melatonin pills were absolutely not helping with), and problems getting used to my HDM Z1, it took no fewer than 4 stops to get to the top of Hahntennejoch. I was grateful that I did not try to do the entire ride from Elmen all in one day!
At the top of the pass, there was an ice cream vendor, so Bowen got a popsicle, while I relaxed and recovered from the ride. Other cyclists and motorcyclists would make it up the hill and stare at the tandem, and we were the only obvious cycle tourists on the mountain that day.
The Hahntennejoch descent was my first descent in the alps, and it made a deep impression on me back in 2003. 15 years later, doing the descent on the tandem, I'm a much better bike handler and the scary parts no longer seem scary. Even the steep 20% grade in the town of Imst posed no problems, and I wasn't even concerned about overheating the brakes because I wasn't using them very much. In town, we stopped at a supermarket to buy lunch, and then proceeded down into the valley where I found the bike path as described to me by the late Jobst Brandt way back in 2003: follow the signs to the Bahnof, look for the river rafting put-in, ride past the put in and look for the bridge across the river with the bike path marked for Landeck.

Now that we were in the valley, the afternoon heated up rapidly. We were getting hungry, but kept not finding picnic spots, and eventually just gave up and parked the bike on a bench outside somebody's house where it was shaded and ate bread and meat. A woman bicycle tourist rode by and gave Bowen some cherries! It would turn out that they were part of a group going over the Reschen pass (which we planned to do) over to Lake Garda and Verona (which was also potentially part of our plan). We'd see them on and off that day, but not see them again after that day.

In Landeck, we saw a swimming pool, which looked really good given the hot weather. We found a hotel nearby on, and rode over to pick up guest passes and drop off some of our panniers and rode back to it. The swimming pool had very cold water, and neither of us lasted 15 minutes in the pool, but it was still a refreshing swim. On the way back to the hotel after the swim we got hot again and bought some ice cream before checking into our hotel for our regular routine of shower and laundry.
For dinner we walked over to the best reviewed pizza place in town, which turned out to be right next to the Sport Camp Tirol. We really should have stayed there instead, since it appeared to be quite nice though not quite on our way up to the Reschen pass. I went to bed hoping that after all that sun exposure my jet-lag would get better.


Thursday, July 26, 2018

June 15th: Fussen to Bschlabs

If you wondered why I opted to head straight for Fussen instead of leaving it until later in the trip, it's because of the on-line ticketing system for the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. During the summer, all on-line reservations are prebooked months in advance by tour operators and scalpers. Knowing this, the ticket center deliberately holds back some tickets for same-day visitors which cannot be reserved any other way. Technically, the ticket office opens at 8:00am, but it's an open secret that the ticket office actually opens at 7:30am. As a result, the best time to attempt to visit the castles are when you're jet-lagged and getting up early in the morning anyway!
I woke up at 2:00am, managed to sleep again until 4:00am, and then Bowen woke up at 6:30am. We packed, and were on our way by 7:00am, after a quick stop at the bakery to pick up breakfast. Crossing the Lech river, we followed the signs to Hohenschwangau until we got to the ticket office, where we parked our bike and stood in line, eating breakfast while waiting. Sure enough, the ticket office opened at 7:30, and we weren't too far from the front when it opened. To my surprise, Bowen asked to see both castles and the museum, so we bought the ticket for all 3, since entry for him was free. As expected, the earliest opening for all 3 was easily available. We parked our bike and proceeded to hike up to Hohenschwangau.
The castle grounds were pretty, but we were not allowed to take pictures once inside the castles. The tour was very well done, and Hohenschwangau is much less crowded than Neuschwanstein would be. Most people would choose to visit only Neuschwanstein, but Hohenschwangau was actually the better tour and had better stories. Bowen loved the secret passages that were used by servants to maintain heat: they looked like they would only be usable by 6-year olds. Once the tour was over, in the past I'd just ridden the bike up the 13% grade to the castle, but I was informed that this time it wasn't allowed, so we took the bus.
The bus drops you off at the famous Marienbrucke, which was a zoo. You could barely get your picture taken. Past Marienbrucke, however, there's a hiking trail that can take you to higher spots. We didn't hike the whole thing, but there were places where it was obvious that platforms were being built. From Marienbrucke, it's downhill to the castle, which explains why the bus charged only 50 cents more for a round-trip ticket: once you walked down to the castle, you realize that there's no reason to walk back up to the bus and wait when you could walk straight down. It's faster. We also saw cyclists on the pedestrian path, giving lie to what the ticket office told us was a prohibited route for bikes.
When the castle tour was over, we ate lunch at the expensive castle cafetaria, and then walked back down to the museum, which was where we parked the bike. The museum isn't worth the money: it merely repeats what you've already been told during the castle tour, while providing a little bit more color to some lesser known members of the family. But as part of the package it isn't expensive, so you might as well do it.
The reason for bringing our panniers with us to Hohenschwangau is that there's a direct bike path from Schwangau into Austria that doesn't require going back to Fussen. It's a very pleasant route right next to the lake, and having missed it the first time I visited, I wanted to try the route. As expected, it was a very pleasant route, shaded and car-free, though it turned into gravel once we were in Austria. Fortunately, the gravel portion was actually mostly downhill into Pflach, and from there we rode a small pass into Reutte where we had cake.
The Lech river valley is very pretty, and made a huge impression when I first toured in Europe many years ago. The bike path runs right alongside the river, but Komoot routed us back onto the main road across the river right after Weissenbach, while it would have been smarter to stay on the bike path all the way to Voderhornbach. This was because Komoot thinks there's an alternative bike path on that side of the river, but as far as I could tell, it's a hiking path and not easily navigable by tandem, even if one were interested in doing the extra climbing prior to starting the Hahntennejoch.
In Elmen, we took a water break at the water fountain and ate our Clif bars, then proceeded (after a false start provided courtesy of Komoot's navigation) up the Hahntennejoch. This was a stiff climb, not helped by the two tunnels prior to the last long one which fortunately does have a tunnel bypass.  After that last tunnel the grade evened out and the weather cooled, so we arrived at the Bschlabs guest house at 5:15 with plenty of time to do laundry before dinner. There's not much to do at Bschlabs in the evening, but we took a picture at the same church where Arturo took one 2 years ago.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

June 14th: Tutzing to Fussen

When I first thought about doing this trip, my thinking was that we'd spend the first few days in the Salzburg Lakes, getting acclimated to jet-lag, and then maybe make our way over to Landeck and the Alto Aldige area. Bowen completely upended this by telling me that he wanted to visit Neuschwanstein, despite showing absolutely no interests in castles the year before. The Neuschwanstein area is completely impacted by tourism, so I scrambled and booked a hotel in Fussen. The nice property about Fussen was that if the weather had turned horrid, it would have been a fairly cheap and easy train ride to Fussen.

Unfortunately, I was suffering from severe jet-lag, waking up at 2:00am and then tossing and turning. I'd might have slept for another hour or two, but finally gave up and started packing panniers and otherwise getting ready for the morning. Bowen, on the other hand, did not have any jet-lag at all, waking up only at 7:00am.

My plan was to take the S-Bahn down to Tutzing and then ride directly to Fussen. The S-Bahn did not allow bikes before 9:00am, but by the time we were done with breakfast and gotten the bike ready it was already past 9:00. Getting the bike onto the train was actually a challenge: the tandem was just a bit too long to fit in the elevator, so I had to unload the panniers, bring them down to the subway, and then fetch the bike separately. Fortunately, I knew I only had to do that once, as the scheduling algorithm for the S-Bahn allowed me to change trains by getting off at a platform and then waiting for the next one to arrive at the same platform, and once at Tutzing I had all the time in the world to get the bike out to downtown and start riding.
The initial ride from Tutzing was pleasant, but we soon found ourselves routed down B-2 in Weiheim. I looked and saw what looked like a perfectly decent bike path, and then realized that I had set my Komoot routing for "road cycling", which apparently means to use the same roads a car would. We immediately stopped at a nearby supermarket for lunch, and proceeded to reroute to Fussen using "touring bike" settings instead, which resulted in a much more satisfactory route.
The route took us along an  old bridle path and some farm roads, and while there was occasional dirt, there wasn't anything that would require us to get off and walk. I remember being concerned that the touring path was a good 5 miles longer, which would eventually make this a much longer day than I'd wanted, but Bowen was a lot stronger that last year, and didn't complain about the riding.
We stopped at a fruit stand for raspberries, and then started a series of climbs as we approached the foothills of the alps. Around 4:00pm, the bike path suddenly dumped us onto a major road, though one with a bike path on the side so we weren't riding in traffic. The road also started descending. While in town, I spotted a bakery that was open so we stopped for a snack before riding on.
Now, the scenery started opening up and we got glimpses of the hills near the Austrian border with Bavaria. The scenery got better and better, while the path remained straight through the plains with a lovely tailwind behind us.
Near Bannwaldsee, I finally spotted a playground with a zipline and of course we had to stop and let Bowen make several runs at it. By the time Bowen was satisfied that he'd done enough zip-lining for the day it was 5:00pm, and we made the mostly flat run to the hotel, passing through Schwangau along the way, granting us far-away views of the Neuschwanstein castle. Hordes of mountain bikers (most of the on electric assisted bikes) were finishing up their ride as we finally crossed the Lech river into town and found the hotel.
The hotel gave me 2 options for bike parking: either park outside with a lock, or bring it downstairs into the basement. It was awkward, but I opted for the basement. Whenever I've toured with adults in the past, I've often contended with "The Curse of Piaw", where I was always given the room on the top floor in any hotel, no matter how far I'd ridden that day. Riding with Bowen seems to have eliminated that curse, as we were given a ground floor room.

At this point, we settled into our regular riding routine: take off all our clothes for soaking, take a shower, and then dry off. Then use the towels to wring our clothing dry so that that's a chance they'll be dry the next day. Then we wandered off to dinner downtown, taking note of the bakery's hours the next day since we were planning to eschew the hotel's breakfast and beeline it for the ticket office at Schwangau first thing in the morning.

We went to bed early, knowing that an early start was our only hope of getting the tickets for both castles the next day. The forecast looked good, and I figured we'd have a good day of riding even after spending all morning at the castles.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

June 13th: Prologue

We took a Supershuttle to the airport, which fortunately wasn't doing too many pickups as we pretty much used up all their cargo space for the tandem, which was split up into a Trico Ironcase and a Co-Motion Co-Pilot case. One of the panniers was emptied and stuffed into the Co-Pilot case, which contained the wheels, rack, and stoker handlebar parts, as well as Bowen's shoes and a bunch of gel packs as well as the tools required to put the bike back together. The Trico Ironcase contained nothing but the frame. When packing, I had carefully weighed the cases so they fit under the airline mandated 50 pound limit. To supplement all this, the second pannier was packed with our clothing, and then packed into a rolling carry-on suitcase. The carry-on was wheeled so that Bowen could push it along while I wrestled the Ironcase as well as the Co-pilot wheel case. On top of that I had a backpack which contained mostly the airplane necessities: a tablet for Bowen, noise canceling headset, charging equipment, camera, bike computers, toiletries and the like. Bowen carried his Camelbak (emptied of water), and inside the Camelbak, as a last minute decision, he had decided to bring his stuffed bunny, even though he knew the bunny couldn't possibly fit in the pannier.

All that weighing and careful compliance with airline regulations came to naught, however, as at the United counter, the airline employee looked at the case and immediately charged me $150 for the bike! I was quite miffed but paid it anyway, as experience had taught me that arguing with the employee on such matters was futile.

Once everything was checked in, we ate lunch after clearing the security check point, and then boarded what would turn out to be a fairly uneventful flight. One hack which you may or may not consider is that I'd pre-ordered special meals for both of us: a Hindu meal for me, and a Kids meal for Bowen. This does two things: first, I've noticed in the past that the Hindu meal was usually more tasty than the bland default meals. Secondly, because it's a special order, the meals usually arrive ahead of everybody else's. This might not be a big deal for most adults, but giving Bowen extra time to eat was always a good idea as he's not a fast eater at the best of time, and tends to be even more finicky when stuck in an airline seat.

Once in Munich, we cleared the passport control in typical highly efficient German fashion, and picked up our bikes with no problems. The main reason for booking direct flights when on a bike tour is that every flight change was a chance for your bikes to get lost, and so making the effort and paying extra for a direct flight was well worth the cost. The Munich airport hotel is the Hilton, and I had pre-arranged with the hotel to store our bike cases while we traveled. What I didn't realize, having never visited the airport hotel before, was that the hotel lobby was a great place to assemble the bike, and that hotel management didn't mind me doing so there. The entire process took a good 90 minutes, but after I took it for a short test ride I deemed the bike good to go, and checked it into left luggage with the hotel, got the keys to the room, and then moved in to wash up. It wasn't even 2:00pm, so I asked Bowen if he would like to visit a castle in Munich, since he wanted to see Neuschwanstein badly enough that I'd rearranged the entire tour schedule at the last minute and booked a place in Fussen the next day.

The Munich's public transit system is complex, mostly because of the interaction between zones and rings. But when traveling with a child, it's even more complicated, because rather than a group ticket, the cheapest way to get a day pass is to buy a separate day pass for an adult, and a day pass for the child, because child tickets are much cheaper than group tickets. On the way downtown, we visited the Shuster in downtown so we could buy an extra pair of smartwool socks. For whatever reason, I thought Bowen had 2 pairs be he only had one at home and it was too late to make an REI run by the time I found out, so paying European prices was the only alternative.

A quick stop to the Euraide counter at the Munich main train station on our way to Schloss Nymphenburg revealed Alan Wissenberg working at the counter. He didn't have time to talk, and we were leaving tomorrow, but indicated that we should arrange to meet for dinner when we got back to Munich, with arrangements being made over e-mail.
We took the tram to Schloss Nymphenberg, and paid my entry fee to enter the castle to look around. Bowen was free, of course. It was drizzling and we actually ended up putting on our rain jackets. The weather was cold, but Bowen gamely walked around until he got hungry and then we went back out to first get ice cream, then bought a to-go dinner to take back with us to the airport. At our hotel room, we ate our dinner, and then went back out to the airport supermarket to buy breakfast the next day so we would have something to eat and not have to pay for the hotel's buffet breakfast.

I took a melatonin pill and went to bed at 8:30pm, hoping that I wouldn't wake up at 2:00am. But all things considered I felt pretty good about how the trip was going so far, as the weather was scheduled to turn fair mid day the next day.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Long Term Review: Sidi Men's SD15 MTB shoes

When I first reviewed the Sidi SD15 MTB shoes, I'd only had 200 miles on them. They hadn't seen any touring, but I put them through the trial by fire on a 20 day tour, where these were the only shoes I wore throughout the entire trip.

As mentioned in the prior review, these are strictly compromise shoes. If I'm at home doing day rides without significant walking involved, I'll use my old Pearl Izumis or vintage SIDI shoes with Velcro on them. If I'm going to go hiking with my kids, I'm going to wear some form of hiking shoes or running shoes instead. The SD15 will not outperform any dedicated cycling shoe or hiking shoe for the specific purpose.

What are the limitations? I've discovered that over multiple hard days, such as the hard ride up the Stelvio, followed by a hard day over 4 passes into Livigno and then Switzerland, followed by Albula pass and then a long 70 mile run into Austria and Germany, the thin laces that don't bother me on any single day ride dig into the uppers and then into my feet, which cause significant pain. I wouldn't feel it on the first 10 miles of the day, but after about 20 miles of hard climbing or 50 miles of flat riding the digging will bother me and then I won't be happy until I have an hour or so of bare foot time.

For hiking, the limitation isn't the discomfort, but the traction. These shoes are way better than my previous SIDIs or any "competition" focused shoe, but in the end, every time you step on a rock, you're going to have to be a little bit more careful than with an uncleated shoe.

All in all, I'm happy with the compromise these shoes represent. Would I wear them on an adult tour of the Alps? No way. For those tours, I know I'm not going to do a 12 mile hike with 1 of those miles through a water-drenched gorge (or if I do, I'll spend $20 on hiking sticks to provide additional traction, or just buy some new shoes just for the hike). Would I wear them at home? No, at home I don't switch modes often. But for a tour where you can only bring one pair of shoes, I'll still bring them. Maybe if SIDI made a pair of these with a velcro closure mechanism instead of the fancy "clicking" string, that'll be the ideal compromise.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Index Page: Bowen's Tour of the Alps 2018

From June 14th to July 3rd, Bowen, who at the time was 6 years old, and I traveled in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Liechtenstein on a tandem bicycle. We cycled 639 miles (1028km) and made 39,402 feet (12010m) of elevation gain. We had 5 train transfers, 1 taxi transfer, and 2 flat tires, with no days of riding in the rain. This is the index page for day-by-day trip reports, equipment reviews (most of which are already posted)

Piaw & Bowen climbing the Stelvio (photo credit: FotoStelvio)
Photo Album: Google Photos

Day By Day Trip Report
Tour Equipment Reviews

Friday, July 20, 2018

Long Term Review: Canon G7X Mark II

I bought the G7X Mk II as a replacement for the Sony RX100. It was cheaper (a refurbished one with a full warranty cost $450), came with a swivel screen that made selfies easier, and after using high resolution 4K monitors, I discovered that pictures taken with smartphone cameras just aren’t good enough!

One of the problems when touring on a tandem with your young children is major fatigue. I’m not talking about being tired at the end of a long day. That goes without saying. When touring, I like taking pictures while riding. While the absolute quality isn’t the best, I find that there’s a quality you get from cycling photos while riding that you just can’t get when you’re stopped. Plus, when you don’t have to stop, you can more strictly adhere to the adage: “If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better, shoot it again!” But when you’re working at maximum capacity all the time, your cognitive IQ loses its first digit and your ability to pull out the camera, take a picture, shoot, and put it all in your jersey pocket goes to zero. On a climb, which was previously my favorite time to shoot pictures, I frequently found that it was impossible to shoot at all!

Nevertheless, any doubt that I had that the G7X2 was worth its weight disappeared when we stayed on the Stelvio. The photos produced were superlative, even with the minimal processing I was able to do on the smartphone, and the quality outshines what any smartphone camera I’ve seen do. We even use the selfie flip-screen a lot more often than I would have expected, though frequently the shot would be out of focused, so it's a lot less useful than you might think.

Several weaknesses came to light when using the camera on a bicycle tour. First of all, the mode and exposure compensation dials weren’t stiff enough, and were often tweaked sometimes subtly sometimes not while pulling the camera out of the jersey pocket (most of the time, Lightroom or Photo Mate R3 would make the corrections automatically). Secondly, I’m not at all a fan of using the phone as GPS locator. It would have been one thing if the app was robust enough for a “set it and forget it” setting: I could have simply turned on GPS logging the entire trip and then sync’d the location over the phone every so often. But the app would stop logging every time you sync’d locations, it would stop logging every time you reboot the phone. It’s a real shame that both Sony and Canon opted not to have this feature built directly into their cameras.

Sync’ing the camera wirelessly to the phone enabled downloads of photos directly from the camera into the phone for processing, which saved the weight of carrying dongles for reading the SD card. At random, the photos appeared to be converted from RAW to JPG during the transfer, limiting what processing I could do on the phone, which was already very limited in the first place. I ended up having to do a ton of repeated work at home when in front of the big screen.

I think if I were to design the ideal touring camera, I would basically go for just a fixed 24mm lens, just P,A,T, and M modes with dials that have high stiffness. I would also go for built-in GPS, wireless downloading, and the articulated screen which is great for close/far landscapes and selfies. With that, the camera would be significantly lighter while providing more functionality. But maybe that’s not ambitious enough. My guess is that what I really want is a smart phone with a 1" sensor that shoots RAW and allows for manual control of images rather than the crappy tiny sensors that currently fit in smartphones. Unfortunately, I’m probably the only person in the world who would buy such a device, so I’m not going to hold my breath for such an implementation. Fuji has just announced the XF10, which describes everything I wanted (including an even bigger APS-C sensor) above except for GPS, 24mm lens, GPS, and articulated screen. So close!

Despite the flaws, the Canon G7X MK II is a great camera and worth the weight and price to carry along on a bike tour. Stop shooting with your cell phone camera if you're going to use a 4K monitor. Recommended.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Sundowns Naturals Melatonin 300mcg

One of my weapons in combating jet-lag is to take Melatonin. I usually use the trader joes chewable pills and cut them in half (300mcg --- that's micrograms, not milligrams is the correct dosage), but this time had run out and so found the Sundowns pills on Amazon.

OK. These didn't work. Despite taking them, my jet-lag was much worse than usual. They're not chewable, so no good for kids. (Fortunately, Bowen didn't need help with jet-lag going to Europe this time)

OK. I should learn my lesson. Don't mess with what works. Next time, get the Trader Joes chewables.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Review: Bcozzy Chin Supporting Pillow

I have a tough time sleeping on airplanes. This time, I went on Wirecutter and researched good travel pillows to see if they would help. Their lead pick, the Travelrest Ultimate Memory Foam pillow was so popular that you couldn't buy it for love or money, though it's now available for those who want to try it.

The Bcozzy, however, had good reviews and comes in both adult and kid size, so I  bought one for myself and one for Bowen. I did sleep with the BCozzy: it comfortably support your neck so that even when you nod off your neck doesn't bend forward and then wake you up. It was also very useful for Bowen: while he could sleep anywhere, it's useful to have the pillow supporting him so that his head wasn't directly on a hot spot on my legs, but rather, the pillow would spread his weight out so that his sleeping didn't bother me.

It doesn't look like any other travel pillow, and doesn't compress well. It does come with a clip so you can clip it to the outside of the backpack, so that part is well designed.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review: Legends of the Fall

I'd never seen the movie, Legends of the Fall, and I thought the book might be more palatable.

It's a collection of 3 stories, only one of which got made into a movie.  The first one is a revenge story with a twist. The second one is a strange story about a man who became very successful but then gives up all his money after he realizes that his success didn't actually make him happy or solve his problems. The last is a bizarre story that couldn't hold my interest.

The protagonists of the stories aren't likeable, and the plots while potentially interesting, don't move me.  The writer's voice is detached, and not lyrical, poetic, or anything that would cause me to seek out more of his work.

Not recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: Bad Blood - Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

I will confess that I never did follow the Theranos story very carefully. Unlike many others, I've never had a fear of blood tests, nor am I by nature an early adopter, so the prospect of only getting a "finger prick" rather than a venous blood draw never got me very excited.

Bad Blood covers the story, and in great detail. It reveals the tricks and techniques that Elizabeth Holmes and her executives used to brow-beat, intimidate, and trick employees, investors, and famous people into investing in the company, aiding it in its lies, and then intimidate those who would expose its illegal acts to the public.

There are many moments in the narrative where I think to myself, "My goodness, how did this story ever get made? The bad actors in the story are so powerful!" Then I realized that of course, the "technology" they were selling never worked, and they would have eventually been caught, though perhaps not before they hurt a ton of people with inaccurate or misleading blood tests.

The story is exciting, interesting, and of course, impeccably researched. It's interesting to me how easily most of the media was taken by personality, while nobody actually followed up and looked at the product by doing the kind of comparison study that John Carreyrou did (get an assay done by the Theranos product, and get one done by Labcorp).

In any case, the book comes highly recommended, and it's a good reminder that staying away from sociopaths is a good idea. Even if the good guys eventually win, the bad guys can still make your life very painful in the mean time. Buy or borrow your copy and read it!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Long Term Review: Brush On Sunblock

Since my review of the Brush On Sublock last year, Costco has stopped carrying it. Amazon still carries it, however. Since then, I've also tried the Goddess Garden Organics sunscreen, and it's no contest, the Brush On stuff is way superior.

Here's why the Brush On stuff is better: it's not greasy. If all you're doing is hiking or walking around, this may not matter. But for a cycling trip, grease basically picks up any dirt that's around, whether thrown up by your wheels, blown at you by passing cars, or even just rattling around on an off-pavement bike trail. The brush on stuff NEVER attracts dirt. At the end of the day, when doing laundry we'll find our clothes dirty enough that the sink has dirt stains, but I no longer have days when during the shower we see a continuous stream of dirt coming down into the drain.

Even more importantly for a bike tour, the Brush On sunscreen is very economical: I carried 1 semi-used brush, and 1 spare refill. At the end of 2 weeks, I switched to the refill, and that's during a trip where there was not a single day when I didn't put on sunscreen.

None of the above matters if the sunscreen didn't work. But it works awesome. I'm a dark skinned person, and I have a hard time telling whether I've put it on (yes, it's invisible on my skin). So I stand in front of the mirror and make sure I've covered every spot systematically. Even with multiple hot days with lots of sun exposure (Italian bike paths never have shade), and plenty of sweating, we never got sunburned. And that includes taking off and putting on arm warmers on certain days (which happens because of elevation changes, not because of sun exposure).

I can't recommend this sunscreen enough. If you're bike touring, this is superior to anything I've ever used, and I can't imagine ever switching to a different brand.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review: Eucalan Delicate Wash

When Bicycle Touring, daily laundry is just something you have to do. Some people get around this by buying and using Wool Jerseys, which can be worn multiple days without stinking up, but that only makes the problem worse: wool dries slowly so when you do have to wash, your drying time is much increased. My preference has long been synthetics, which dry quickly if you wring them using a towel.

When traveling with a 6 year old who can’t be expected to do his own laundry, your laundry load doubles. This time, I decided to experiment with Eucalan, a “no-rinse” detergent originally designed for delicate stuff that has to be hand washed. The cost is considerably higher than say, carrying a bottle of Tide from home, but at $5 per bottle (or $6.70 from Amazon) from the local dye shop, the cost is negligible compared to the cost of plane tickets to Munich (The most direct competitor, Soak, costs a lot more)

I have to say that Eucalan works. Any parent of a 6 year old can tell you that the kid gets way dirtier faster than you can imagine. At the end of the day, whenever I washed, I’d notice that the drained water had so much dirt in it that it would stain the wash basin. I was skeptical that the detergent was working, and one of the problems is that you can’t easily calibrate how much you’re using, but the bottle survived the entire trip with just a tiny bit left at the end. The wash process is much simplified by not having to rinse, and the scent isn’t noticeable, at least, not in the amounts I used.

Needless to say, my next tour will include a bottle of Eucalan. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Dr Kao Travel Charger for Oral B Toothbrush

If you look at the bottom of your Braun electric toothbrush induction charger, you’ll see that it’s only set up for 110V only, rather than the 110/220v setup most other devices get. This is annoying. The current required by these toothbrushes for charging is so low and slow that there’s no reason why the charger couldn’t be driven by a USB power source.

Well, it turns out that a third party manufacturer has made precisely this charger. It takes a microusb input, and the other side is a standard USB A interface, which means you can carry a standard charger on a bike tour or sailing trip and charge it either from mains or from a power bank.

Having tried this on our tour, I have to say that it’s more than satisfactory. It doesn’t charge very quickly. For instance, if you used the toothbrush six times and then charged it overnight using the charger, it wouldn’t charge fully overnight, but close enough that the motor doesn’t slow down. Over a long trip, what you’ll discover is that you reach an equilibrium: the more drained the battery is, the faster it charges, but it’ll never reach a state of a full charge.

If you like using electric toothbrushes, this is a great travel accessory, and you should probably never carry the charger that comes in the box for the toothbrush when traveling. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review: Gerber Dime Mult iTools

I thought I’d lost my Leatherman Wave, and went looking for a lighter weight multitool that would do the same job.  Basically, I wanted wire-cutters and pliers in the same tool, while also incorporating a knife. The Gerber Dime costs about 12 dollars shipped from Amazon, and was light weight, which made it very appealing.

When it arrived, I immediately tried to cut a deraileur cable for it, which is the prime motivator for a pair of wire cutters on the tool. To my disappointment, it just wouldn’t cut the cable. Then I found and tried my older leatherman, and discovered that it couldn’t cut the cable either. This led to me abandoning the thought of bringing spare derailleur and brake cables, which I have done in the past, on reasoning that if I’m stuck going to a bike shop to borrow a pair of wire cutters, I might as well buy the cables then, rather than schlepping it around all over Europe.

The knife is surprisingly sharp and very useful for cutting bread and cheese and surprisingly enough fairly large fruits and coring apples, which sometimes Bowen would request I do for supermarket lunches. I used the pliers once to pull what might have been a thorn in a tire, and it does the job.

For the price and weight, the Dime fulfilled my expectations. What it doesn’t do,  my Leatherman Wave can’t do either, so I will switch to this for future tours. Recommended.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Review: The Fellowship of the Ring Unabridged Audio Book

After The Hobbit, the next step was to have Bowen listen to the Fellowship of the Ring. If The Hobbit was too intimidating to read, the Fellowship is even more so, with poems, song, and multiple characters. But Rob Inglis’s narration is awesome, his song performance more than passable, and his ability to capture Bowen’s attention proven,. I really enjoyed listening to the poems especailly, which were clearly  meant to be read aloud, not read silently, and too often skipped over by readers who are impatient to get on with the story, which I’m afraid is a category I fall into, so this is the first time I’ve actually gotten around to reading them.

By the end of the book, Bowen demanded the next book in the series, and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what it is.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Review: Mugen Extend Battery for LG V20

The LG V20 has a user replaceable battery, which is great. But on tour, I wasn’t willing to carry a dedicated battery charger, nor was I willing to get up at midnight to swap the batteries over during charging. The solution was to get an extended battery, and after a while, I settled on the Mugen 9300 mAH battery, which has three times the capacity of the standard battery, and comes with a replacement backcover that’s NFC enabled.

The obvious penalty of the extended battery is that It adds significant bulk and weight to the phone. The not so obvious problem is that the phone, being heavier, will not be as robust against drops, and I cracked the screen a couple of times while experimenting with the storing the phone in the handlebar bag, which turned out not to be a good idea: your body provides required cushioning for the phone against road shock.

Nevertheless, with the extended battery, I never dropped the phone below about 15 percent during daily use, and that’s with the phone serving as a GPS logger for the camera, driving navigation for the Wahoo unit, and the occasional photo of a receipt where I didn’t care about photo quality, and Bowen using the device as an entertainment unit during dinner. Most of the days, I had more than half battery left.

Would I use the phone with the extended battery at home when not touring? No. But I can see this battery being very useful for sailing boat trips with limited charging, and the fact that I can replace the battery makes the phone lasts longer, though judging by the buase I’ve done to the phone, I’m pretty sure the phone won’t out last this battery.

Recommended. It’s a pity the rest of the world doesn’t consider user replaceable batteries a feature. The LG V20 reminds me that it’s neither a useless feature nor too expensive to do.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Longer Term Review: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

Last year’s experience with the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt convinced me that Icould tour with just the Wahoo Bolt as a navigation unit. This was a mistake. The Wahoo Element Bolt does not itself handle navigation duties. You have to create a route before hand, either by using RideWithGPS on a phone, which is a horrible experience and prone to error, or using an app like Komoot, or depending on Google Maps bicycle routing, which may or may not work in certain countries like Italy.

This is not a problem 80 percent of the time, but the rest of the time it causes major grief. For instance, on our first day I made a route selection error by using Komoot’s “Road Bike” setting instead of “Touring Setting”, which put us on some very busy roads. Well, changing that required stopping, and rerunning Komoot, and then waiing ten minutes while the Elemnt App sync’d to the cloud to acquire the new route. This is unacceptable much of the time.

In Trentino, Komoot screwed up and directed us to the wrong place. It was hot and we were both in distress, so rather than wait for the stupid machine to sync, I resorted to giving Bowen my smart phone and having him navigate us to the hotel. In the mountains, I know the roads well enough that I would basically never get lost, but in big cities with dense road networks, it just doesn’t work. Komoot most of the time is pretty good at finding bike paths that I myself might not have found on a map, but its address accuracy is in question. Google has the opposite problem: it would find an address just fine, but it has a tendency to find “bike paths” where none exist, or where the connection is obviously a walking trail.

Now, the problem with using Google as the navigation device for the Wahoo is that Wahoo will not allow you to preload a route from Google! That means if the night before you found an ideal route, you can’t sync it to your Wahoo. You have to wait until the morning when you can leave the device on after designating the route in the app. Not only can Google’s routing change dramatically  between times of day, even worse, what you see in Google Maps is rarely what you see in the Wahoo Elemnt App, even though it’s “powered by Google.” This sort of inconsistency will drive you nuts, and I see no reason to put up with it when my Garmin units in the past have always been rock solid reliable and work even without an internet connection.

There are other functionality issues with the Bolt as well. For instance, unless you have the Elemnt app on your smartphone in the foreground when you power up the Wahoo, the device will not pair with your phone. All through the tour, not once did my Wahoo ever sync the ride with any of the services I’d designated the sync. Fortunately, the one service I care about, which is Strava, syncs only through my Garmin Vivoactive HR, which has stayed reliable over the entire trip.

Between the routing and navigation problems, and the lack of support for major safety acccessories such as the Varia Bike Radar, the next time I tour I will buy a Garmin bike navigation unit that’s smart enough to route without the internet being an issue. The Wahoo unit just doesn’t cut it for anyone exploring new territory. Not only is offline navigation a serious necessity when touring, the price you pay for peace of mind in case your phone breaks in the middle of nowhere is well worth the Garmin premium.