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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
  • June 13th: Prologue
  • June 14th: Tutzing to Fuessen
  • June 15th: Fuessen to Bschlabs
  • June 16th: Bschlabs to Landeck
  • June 17th: Landeck to Reschensee
  • June 18th: Reschensee to Merano
  • June 19th: Merano to Trentino
  • June 20th: Trentino to Bardolino
  • June 21st: Bardolino to Bolzano
  • June 22nd: Selva di Gardena
  • June 23rd: Sella Rondo Bike Day
  • June 24th: Selva di Gardena to Prato allo Stelvio
  • June 25th: Prato allo Stelvio to Breghotel Franzenshohe
  • June 26th: Berghotel Franzenshohe to Arnoga
  • June 27th: Arnoga to Pontresina
  • June 28th: Pontresina to Chur
  • June 29th: Chur to Lindau
  • June 30th: Lindau to Garmisch-Partenkirchen
  • July 1st: Hollentalklamm Hike
  • July 2nd: Zugsptize
  • July 3rd: Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Tutzing
  • July 4th: Epilogue
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.

Recommended.

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.