Friday, October 7, 2016

Lessons Learned

Every bicycle tour adds to my knowledge. Here are a few lessons learned observations from this tour:
  • Web access: While the bandwidth varied, every place we stayed offered free WIFI (pronounced wee-fee in Spain).
  • Bringing an unlocked phone and purchasing a local sim card can be a major money saver, but I had a few issues. I purchased a Vodafone plan, 15 euros, 60 minutes talk to most countries, and 1.5 GB of data. I inserted the sim card in a retired, unlocked iPhone 4s. With the updated OS, it took nearly a minute to become operational. Also, the battery life was poor. In hindsight, I should either wipe the phone and reload or at least delete all apps that will not be used. For example, who need Gas Buddy on a bicycle in Spain? 
  • Buying and activating the sim card can be a hassle. You must bring your passport and go through a set-up process. Hopefully, someone at the purchase point can speak a language you understand and set up the phone. I also discovered that in addition to the phone being password protected, the sim card is also password protected. I did not understand this when purchasing. so upon restart, I inserted my phone password, but then was asked for the sim card password. I could not use the phone for 4 days until we entered a larger town that had an open Vodafone store. Getting help took another hour.
  • Using your existing phone: I also carried my company iPhone 6s. AT&T charged $60 to get 300MB of data. I used it sparingly and got a notice with 5 days to go that I had used 80% of my data. So obviously, if you want to repeatedly use your phone for navigation and finding lodging, buy the local sim card or rent a local phone unless your cell provider offers a better international roaming plan.
  •  Paper maps: Always carry a paper map within the group, but not everyone needs a paper map. While it's nice to buy them in advance, you can usually buy maps locally for less than at home and will not have to carry excess maps in the event your routing changes. 
  • When to book lodging: Reinforcing an earlier note, booking all lodging in advance eliminates flexing according to weather,  locals' recommendations, and your energy level. Booking one day in advance still requires you to find the address. For this, a good GPS device is a big help, providing you have an accurate address and it's in the GPS map database. Riding into a town, spotting a place and asking eliminates the search, but that town might not offer lodging. Lodging (especially casa rurals) might not be on main routes, and inquiring at the open tavern requires some ability to communicate.
  • Casa rurals are usually a good option. You stay in a small place and get to know a local family. However, some rent only by the week or month and this might not be apparent on line.
  • Communicating when you do not know the language: Stuart demonstrated a good practice. Write what you are seeking on paper, highlight it, and show it to a local. He did this when seeking assistance with train directions, writing the departure and destination cities with a direction arrow. You could do this with lodging as well, perhaps preparing a limited set of cue cards.
  • Google Translate worked well to read menus, eliminating pointing and guessing, but it requires web access. I need to learn the speech translation portion.
  • Off-line maps, loaded on cell phones, are getting better but are not yet sufficiently reliable to trust without a map.
  • If you have a number of electronic devices, bring something that allows recharging multiple devices simultaneously from a single outlet.Pack the proper converter. Also, carrying an auxiliary batter/recharging unit is helpful. 
  • GPS Devices: John wisely advised to learn to use your GPS devices. I have a Garmin Edge Touring, selected because it was marketed as cycle-touring specific and less complex. However, the underlying routing assumptions are unknown, so it repeatedly redirects to obscure routes when the main road offers a better surface and is more direct. In hindsight, I suggest buying a more flexible unit that offers more routing criteria options. For example, selecting a "car" route will keep you off dirt footpaths with poor surfaces. Regarding rechargeable units or battery powered, both have obvious pros and cons. Rechargeable units are generally lighter and smaller, but you must have access to recharge each day, and if you  carry an auxiliary charging unit, there is no net weight saving. Narrow, stone-walled streets can block satellite reception, and you often have to ride in circles until the unit can more precisely identify your location and offer accurate directions.
  • How much clothing to take: Much depends upon anticipated weather and whether you have time to wash clothes. If your bag can hold it, we often pack it. The only rain we encountered fell at night, just one night. Also, temperatures were moderate—typically 50F at night and 75-80 for the daily high. But we were going into mountainous areas, where temperatures could drop. Here were my excess items: stuffed, 15-oz. down vest; 2nd pair of travel slacks; wind jacket, stored under the saddle for instant access; rain jacket, never used; and warmer jacket with hood, never used; beanie or stocking cap; belt; short and long-sleeve business casual shirt (Needed only one.) 
  • Most used items that all others did not carry: Corkscrew, pocket knife, clothes line and pins.
  • Unused but essential: Night riding light/flash light, just-in-case wet and cold weather clothing.
  • Flexible attitude: The larger the group, the more this matters. Psychologists tell us that change after 30 is rare, usually prompted only by a life crisis. We all have our quirks that others find mildly to significantly irritating. Our interests vary, perhaps baffling to others. Since we seldom repeat tour routes, if you want to explore the local sights and no one else is interested, go on your own, after telling others where you are going. Do not insist that someone or all the others want to accompany you or resent it when they do not.
Minor thoughts on bike etiquette:
  • Touring bikes are unwieldy. Learn to park your bike in a stable position or lay the bike on the ground. Panniers protect your bike. Minimize leaning your bike against other bikes unless it's to lock bikes together or parking space is limited. No one likes to see their bike scratched and dented when someone's bike topples over onto them or their bike.
  • Do not expect others to hold your bike while you pause for photos, etc. They might have other or similar priorities. 
  • If leading, stop to regroup before a route splits or stop in plain sight on the preferred route. 
  • If following, especially as the last rider in the group, do your best to keep the prior rider in sight. That might require a bit less coasting on flat or downhill sections. If the pace is too much, say so and others will slow down or stop more. Bike touring is not a race, but each person's optimal riding pace and style varies. Some climb faster, some limit braking on downhills, and some are uncomfortable with fast downhills.
  • If leading, try to keep following riders in sight. If in the middle, try to keep both the preceding and following rider in sight. Generally, following riders will arrive within minutes unless someone has stopped for a flat or similar issue. If so, stay put, call them on your cell phone, or backtrack safely.
  • If riding escalators in transit stations and airports, put the load-bearing wheel on a flat surface, lock the brake, and lean forward on the up, or backward on the down. If this is weird, go practice. Elevators are not always available or large enough to fit a loaded touring bike. (Load-bearing wheel: When using two panniers, it is the front or back wheel adjacent to where they are attached. Also, trunk and handle-bar packs place weight higher and reduce stability.)
  • Do not expect others to lift your gear. They have their own gear.
  • Train stops are brief. Have a plan, either rapidly loading your bike and luggage as one, in two "dashes", or as a team with one person on the train and another handing up gear from the platform.
  • Consider boarding at different doors to minimize the congestion and have more space to park your bike and gear.
  • If using panniers, practice rapidly hooking and unhooking your bags. If possible, try to grip the panniers in one hand and the bike in the other. If using four panniers (front and back bags), figure out how to carry pairs in each hand. Some panniers clip together. Consider devising a shoulder strap to hook panniers together, put the weight on your shoulders, and free your hands to grip railings or other support.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Day 17: Madrid, Spain, 10; 422 miles total

Solo Tour Day in Madrid

My tour mates left early this morning for the airport, Stuart and Stephen by train and John by cab. With my appointment cancelled, I had a free day. I googled Best things to do in Madrid, looked at several sights, and decided to check them out by bike. 

Madrid has an extensive loaner-bike program, many people cycle, and all the major streets have shadow bike lanes (bikes share with vehicles). Plus, cyclists are permitted to ride in pedestrian zones and on sidewalks. After touring the sights shown in my photos, breakfast, and lunch, I spent several hours at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, packed the bike, went to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina SofĂ­a, then tapas for dinner. Looking forward to returning home.

Every time I pack my pike, it seems to pack differently, especially when the trailer is included. I put the trailer undercarriage in my checkable back pack, same as when I left. While I did get my bike shoes in the case, I have one, leftover trailer tire wrapped in a t-shirt in the back pack. 

—Dog of the Day #1. Many more to come.

—Plaza Mayor. Once the site of executions, these buildings house very expensive apartments. When in Madrid 2 years ago, a major section on the south side was being renovated.

—Groups with Guides. While probably less crowded than in summer, Madrid was still packed with tourists. I encountered the same guide-actor leading the group on the right three times. He said the motto on the building had significant meaning in Spain, but he could not tell them until later in the tour. Quite an act.

—The Mercado—2nd Stop. Site for many upscale produce, seafood, and meat vendors, all beautifully presented.

—Artfully Presented Fish

—15 Euro Entree. Not sure if it was cooked yet.

—Olive Vendor

—Traditional Madrid Breakfast. In the Mercado/Plaza de San Miguel area, I finally had the traditional hot chocolate and churros. Dip the churro in the thick, syrupy chocolate . . . yum.

—Royal Palace

—Madrid Cathedral, backing the Royal Palace.

—Madrid Cathedral Apse. The two tour groups were viewing remains of a Moslem mosque.
—Old Prison Site. Near the Royal Palace, clearly the inspiration for AF's San Quentin.

—Don Quixote and Sancho Pancha. Still searching.

—Templo de Debod: Egypt with a view

A gift to Spain in 1968, this 2200-year-old Egyptian temple dedicated to Amon and Isis is located on a hill over Casa de Campo. By day the views to the Royal Palace and cathedral on one side and Casa de Campo and the mountains on the other side and a park surrounding the temple.

—Photo Shoot #1. 

—Photo Shoot #2.

Templo de Debod 

—Opera House

—Interesting Building. Did not match nearby buildings.

—Congress. Well guarded.

And from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which welcomed photos:

—Card Game

—Dogs 2-5 of the Day. They appeared to have a pack leader and a minimally interested owner who was more focused on his phone than the dogs, who pretty much walked themselves.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Day 16: Madrid, Spain, 18; 412 miles total

Today was pack-up, verify bicycle acceptance with the airlines, and some tourist activity for my fellow riders. For me, bike ride and Prada Museum.

My plan was an early bike ride around Madrid—Sunday morning should have minimal early morning traffic. I rolled out of the Mora Hotel to confront a car-free street, barricades, extensive police presence, and no sense of danger. A 5 mile portion of the street was blocked-off for a cyclist event  La Fiesta de la Bici, from 9 am to 2 pm. The web site refers to the first 10,000 to register. No racing, all ages encouraged to join the fun. 18 miles, 2 laps, lists of fun. Then back to the hotel, shower, and more than 3 hours at the Prada Museum.

I extended my trip one day to meet with Mariano Parades, president of Shipley Spain. Unfortunately, Mariano e-mailed this morning to say that he was called away on family business, would not return until October 8, so I'll have an extra day in Madrid. Changing a flight at this late stage is expensive and not worth the trouble.

Seems that this event is conducted in most major cities in Spain.

This year's Festival Movistar Bike new format. Within the Madrid City Council plan to incorporate and standardize the use of bicycles in the city, this year the event presents many interesting news. The thousands of participants each year who take part in the race this year will enjoy a main course that occupy the axis wider Madrid (Castellana-Recoletos-Prado) and will be open for longer hours and several points "meeting" in different neighborhoods of the city so that participants can attend the respective meeting point and from there move to open traffic to the central route.
The circuit will be open from 9 in the morning. There will be two exit points located in Cuzco and Colon where you can begin the march accompanied more cyclists. The route will remain closed to traffic between now and 14 hours, turning the main artery of Madrid on a track bike up and down with an aid station in the Plaza de Neptuno.

If you want to access the bike circuit, there will be seven different outputs, at 9.30 am, from different points of the city (The Trough, Moncloa, Pyramids, Legazpi, Puente de Vallecas, Sales and Park Rodriguez de la Fuente). In these tours it is necessary to respect the rules of the road, as the traffic is open to cars.

—The Start. While it looks like a big time race, the mood was carefree with lots of families, riders of all ages, and all types of bikes. While this looks like and organized start, riders could and di join the route any time, from 8:30am until afternoon.

—From my crowd position, looking forward.

—From my crowd position, looking backward
—Performers Along Route #1

—Performers Along Route #2
—Event Banner with the familiar warning sign for drivers.

—Excellent Drum Group

—Traditional Spanish Band. A band member stepped away to dance with a cyclist.

—Basque/Celtic Style Band
—Tunnel. Just like the last stage of the Tour in Paris!

—A Hand for All the Riders.
—Dog of the Day #1

—Dog of the Day #2
—Living Wall is Still Alive
—Three Hams
—Don Quixote Looks On
—John Goes Shopping. Go figure!

The Art of Tapas Dining: Eavesdropping on a guided tour.

About 6:30 pm Sunday afternoon, I popped into a tapas bar and encountered a group of tourists explaining how to eat tapas in English with a clear, American accent. The guide lived in Madrid and here business seemed to be guiding. As a preamble to her rules on eating tapas, she noted that this tapas bar was so crowded the prior week that she and her partner could not get in. Here were her rules:
  • Select the places that are crowded. They offer the best tapas.
  • Look for a flat space where you can sit tapas plates down, the bar or any flat surface.
  • Look for any opening to get to the bar. Ideally, identify someone who is paying and about to leave, Aggressively step in their vacated place. Bad form to physically shove people aside. (Who knew?)
She then identified every tapas on the plate. The brunet with the straight hair on the right foreground of the photo glanced approvingly at her partner on the left every time she identified vegetarian or seafood items. Now I'm wondering how we survived without a guide.

—Tapas Guide/Coach in Madrid. Gotta make a living.

—Ta[as Selection. No, not gonna tell you what's what, but no beef or pork items on this plate.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Day 15: Avila to Madrid, Spain, by train; 394 miles total

After breakfast at our hotel, we rode and walked the bikes about a mile to the train station. The only hazard were the wet streets. Seems that regional cities schedule street cleaning daily, shortly before the early shops open. 

We targeted the 9:55 train; the 8:40 was about to leave as we arrived. We were advised that they only allowed 3 bikes per train, but no one bothered about bikes at all. Lesson: The ticket office people never know what the individual train conductor might do.

—Last Look at the Integrated Avila Cathedral Apse and Town Wall

—John Exiting Avila

—Stuart and Stephen Exit

Stuart reserved our Madrid hotel months ago. It was ideally located, about an 8 minute walk from the station. We stashed our gear and the others took the train to the airport to confirm bike shipping arrangements. I will not elaborate, but safe to say: Get a Bike Friday and avoid the hassle and airline $150-$200 fee each way. 

While they argued with airline agents, I explored our neighborhood and found lunch. Out of principle, I refuse to stop at McD's while in Madrid. We have an abundance of great looking tapas spots to peruse tonight.

While I had not planned on cycling in Madrid, they have an active loaner-bike program and many people are riding. Many streets seem to limit auto travel as well—pedestrian and bike only. Given Sunday am traffic should be light, I plan to explore Madrid by bike tomorrow morning. Much more efficient than by foot, and my Garmin and phone should get me back. The Prada opens at 10 am, so that will be the next scheduled item.

—Same the World Over

–Dog of the Day #1

Dog of the Day #2 was lounging in a shop window and earned several photos.
—Dog of the Day #2. Watching the World Go By

—Dog of the Day #2. Guess I'll get up.
—Dog of the Day #2. Getting ready for Pure Barre.

—Bustling Lunch Spot

— My Lunch. 
—Film Festival In Progress. Barrio de Las Tetras (No idea what it's about.

—Waiting for John to Show Up

So, to conclude our first day in Madrid, I caught up on my blog, showered, and we met in our room for the vino tinto that I procured on my earlier walk-about. Then off for tapas. The tendency with this group is to enter the first establishment encountered. Mine is to expend a bit more effort to identify more interesting establishments, often not the one with the most prominent street exposure or where patrons hope to be seen. The other aspect of may establishments is that to stand at the bar, order a drink, and select a few tapas is inexpensive; to insist on sitting can be costly, especially if you have a poor understanding of the language, menu, and customs. 

We sampled one tapas bar, then ate at an excellent but slow Asian place, and the other were eager to return to the hotel. I wandered about and found a small bar that served a Madrid-brewed craft IPA. The Spanish lagers are all quite drinkable, but this was the first beer to savor found in Spain.

—Excellent Madrid Made IPA. As Arnold said, I'll be back.