Showing posts with label Adventure Sports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adventure Sports. Show all posts

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mae Hong Son Circuit

I love January in Northern Thailand.  The weather is just about perfect, and feels a bit like Southern California - dry, cool in the shade and warm in the sun.  The holiday crowds have mostly gone, and there is a nice, laid-back atmosphere. 



My wife Laura, and I set off to ride our road bikes on the Mae Hong Son Circuit, which starts out of Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, and loops to the north.  It can be done clockwise or anticlockwise, but if you are going by bicycle, I would suggest doing it anticlockwise.  That saves the option of going over Doi Inthanon, Thailand's biggest peak, for last.

Getting a flight into Chiang Mai is easy, but getting the bike boxes to the hotel may be a bit of a challenge if you are new to Thailand.  The easiest way is to arrange transport with your hotel and let them know you have bike boxes.  We just flagged down a 'Song Thiew' at the airport.  Technically, they are not supposed to pick up passengers, but security guards can be understanding when they see you've got oversized bags that won't fit in the standard transport options from the airport.
Baan Rai Laana Resort, Mae Taeng, at the end of Day1. Image taken wtih iPhone 4s

We like to stay in 'Old Chiang Mai', within the moat of the old city.  There are numerous hotels there.  We like using the 'Old Canal Road' as an option to stay off the highway getting out and coming back into Chiang Mai.  We try to stay off the main roads, using backroads as much as possible.  I planned the route on 'RidewithGPS' and transfered the route onto my iPhone, using Gaia GPS to navigate enroute.
Breakfast in Pai. Image taken wtih iPhone 4s

Our anticlockwise route took us from Chiang Mai to Mae Taeng, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam, and Mae Sariang.  From Mae Sariang, we wanted to proceed to Mae Chaem, and over Doi Inthanon to get back to Chiang Mai, but we took an easier option to ride via Hot back to Chiang Mai.  You can find the planning for this trip on RidewithGPS.
Morning mist over Chong Kham Lake, Mae Hong Son. Image taken wtih iPhone 4s

It's good to do a little research before the ride so you can plan out where to take your rest days and what you might like to do.  I like Pai and Mae Sariang as good places to break the journey.

We used regular road bikes with Revelate Designs bags.  I find this setup ideal for light and fast tours.  Now that Laura and I no longer have plans to do long distance touring, we have sold our Surly LHTs and panniers setup.  The only change we would advise is to use a cassette with larger cogs.  We used a compact crankset (50-34) with an 11-28 cassette and had to push up a few steep bits.  The next time we take our road bikes out on tour, we'll fit them out with 11-32 cassettes.

You'll be stopping in places where they don't see many foreign tourists, so its good to learn a few words and numbers in Thai:
Hello - Sawadee Krup (Ka, feminine)
Room - Hong
Water - Nam
Toilet - Hong Nam
Not spicy - My Pet
Ice Coffee - Cafe Yen
One - Neng
Two - Song
Three - Sam
The Old City Gates of Chiang Mai. Image taken wtih iPhone 4s

The Mae Hong Son Circuit is a good one for more experienced and fit riders.  We suffered our fair share of mechanicals, food poisoning, lack of fitness. We'll probably go back and do it again;)  Distances are about 100km with about 2000m of climbing each day.  The roads get busy near Chiang Mai and Pai, and there isn't much of a shoulder to ride on.   For an easier road tour ride in Thailand, check out my blog post on riding bike touring Phuket.



Monday, January 13, 2014

The North Face Singapore Speaker Series 22 Jan 2014

If you're in Singapore next Wednesday night, 22nd January 2014 at 7:30pm with an hour or so to spare, and want to hear my wife, Laura and I, talk for a bit, please sign up at tnfmarketing@outdoor-venture.com and get a free gift from The North Face as well!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rock-Climbing Northern Thailand

Entrance to Windy Cave
Crazy Horse Buttress is the 'other' Sport Climbing area in Thailand.  It's near Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, located about 700km north of Bangkok.  It's less well known than Krabi to the South, but no less in quality.  In fact, if you are a moderate or beginner climber, this may be the better destination.  There are about 90 routes from grade 5 to 6c (the French system of grading is used here), and only one at 8a.  The remaining 25 or so routes are in the 7s.

Making our way in to the crag.  Groomed trails, nice huts to rest. leveled and clean belay areas.... All thanks to the CMRCA and it's volunteers!
The main driving force behind climbing at Crazy Horse is the Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures on Ratpakinai Rd in Old Chiang Mai.  The climbing guide book, transport to and from the crag, bolting, climbing club and other services are set up by them.  It's your first stop if you are new to climbing here.
A class doing a Tyrolean Traverse across Windy Cave.  Brave kids.  It's a long way down!
The best time to go is during the cool and dry season from October til February.  It starts to warm up in March, but remains dry til about May, and is still ok for climbing.  A 60m rope will get you up and down most of the climbs, but a 70m rope is best and you will be able to link up one or two climbs with a short second pitch.   All routes are sport, and a rack of about 14 - 16 medium to long quickdraws should suffice.  Bring mosquito repellant.
68-year-old 'Doc' Kung making his way up the 6a Chimney at Tamarind Village
Best climbs to start off with?  I recommend making your way up to 'The Rooftop'.  There are three climbs there: a 5b, 5c and a 6a.  It's a great introduction to the area and the view from up there is great!
Kai Li starting up a 6b on Buddha Buttress
If you are staying in Chiang Mai and you don't have your own transport to the crag, you'll need to book a seat on the CMRCA shuttles.  CMRCA uses three songthaews, which are pick-ups with a cab for passengers.  A songthaew can take up to 10 passengers, so if you are concerned about getting a seat, book a place the evening before.  It costs 250 Bhat and comes with lunch.  Pick up is in front of the CMRCA at 0830 and leaves the crag at 1630 in the afternoon.  Transport takes about 45 minutes each way.
The strange and the wonderful... I have no idea what this is, but there are a lot of mosquitoes and bees in the area
 Where to stay?  There are a couple of guesthouses close to the crag, but options are somewhat limited.  Most people stay in Chiang Mai and shuttle up to the crag.  There are lots of places to stay in old Chiang Mai, depending on your budget.  Most will be walking distance to the CMRCA and lots of places to eat.
Kai and Doc having dinner at the night market in Old Chiang Mai

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tour de Timor 2013: The Magic is Still There!

Team Air Timor (Myself, Laura Liong, Anche Cabral, and Alvin Lim) celebrating our 1st Place Mixed Team victory after the 2013 Tour de Timor

The 2013 Tour de Timor is over!  How did it go?  Well, the 2013 Tour de Timor was marred by controversy even before the race started, as the original organizers were effectively kicked out and shut out of the event by the new race organizers, the Tourism Office of Timor Leste.  Given the uncertainty of the quality that the new organizers could bring to the event, many international racers did not come this year.  To top that off, local racers who had signed up for the race staged a protest at the start line, and refused to start.  That left only a small field of about 60 competitors in total who started the race.

Well, the fledgling organizers got a lot of things right, like the logistics.  The food was plentiful, toilets and showers were adequate, and our luggage was moved efficiently.  The organizers also engaged Russ Baker to do the timing.  Russ has been doing the timing for the Tour de Timor since it's inception, and the accuracy of his timing maintained the integrity of race standards.

There were a number of things that could be improved.  Communication is a big one.  Race safety is another.  In previous Tour de Timors, roads were closed.  In this year's event, some roads were closed, and some were open, only this wasn't communicated to us.  This was probably my most dangerous race by far, and I had a couple of really close calls, one of which was while squeezing pass a truck at high speed on a bend, and being surprised by a motorcycle, and then a donkey behind that! 

While water was plentiful during the ride, it was somewhat random, sometimes just handed to us from a moving SUV.  Position of Aid Stations could not be relied upon, and were often not marked. 

I get the feeling the organizers learn fast, as mistakes made during the first couple of days were quickly corrected, and improvements made in the following days.

Sure, we were lucky to get a good result this year, but what really makes the Tour de Timor special is the landscape and the people.  For me, that's what makes the Tour de Timor such a magical experience!


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bali Rides

I've been around a bit for various types of 'adventure' trips, sometimes guided, sometimes not.  Every once in a long while, I'm lucky enough to find a top-class guide.  Ramang Kristian from Bali Rides is one of those guides.  Needless to say, we had a great trip.  The rides were great, transport and accommodation more than comfortable, and we were well taken care of with plenty of snacks and drinks.  Ramang showed us the riding around Bali the way only a local can, with hidden singletrack and bits of local culture and sights thrown in.


Our seven day trip had about 42km of riding, with about 600m of climbing each day.  Every trip is customized to the riders skills and fitness, so if you want to ride more or less, technical or easy, it's up to you. The video above should give you a good idea of the type of riding there.
Riding in rice fields with Mt. Agung
Bali is an island just east of Java, Indonesia, with a few active volcanoes.  The soil is rich, and the landscape is lush.  On Day 1, we started up on the crater rim of active volcano, riding the slopes before dropping down into the lava fields, finishing on the shore of Batur Lake, where we took a dip in a local hot springs.  Sadly, my footage of the lava fields and hot springs were lost.  I can only say that they were both very special and spectacular.
Fishing boat returning to shore after a night out at Amed, Bali.
Each riding day offered something different.  On Day 2, we finished our ride on the white sands of... White Sands Beach, where we took the opportunity to wash off the grime of the day with a quick swim.  Day 3 ended with a nice massage, courtesy of Bali Rides.  We had one rest day on Day 4, which we spent in Amed and took the opportunity to dive the famous Liberty Wreck.  We spent each night in a new location, and got to experience the uniqueness of a new place each night. 
Leaving the hotel in Sanur for the day's ride...
The last day was very special.  Although it was supposed to be dry season, we had quite a bit of rain during the trip, but the last day was super sunny, and the ride ended with a delicious BBQ at Ramang's beautiful Balinese house, cooked by Ramang's mum and sister, who were visiting at the time!
Google map of our first day's ride
The best time to ride Bali is during the dry season from June through September.  Contact Ramang at bali-rides.com for more information.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bicycle Tourist Gangraped in India

I am shocked and horrified by this incident.  The couple, a 39-year-old Swiss woman and her 29-year-old male companion (or husband), who were bicycle touring through central India, were apparently hunted down by 8 men to their campsite in the woods, beaten, the man tied up and the woman raped and finally robbed.  Full story here.

My wife and I bike tour by ourselves in Asia, so this raises fresh questions about safety and security with cycle touring.  We've been rather relaxed about personal safety.  In the past, our concerns have been limited to keeping our bikes, money and belongings safe; but now, personal safety is our primary concern.

I've been thinking of ways to keep safe while bike touring:
  • I think the number one item on the list should be to keep yourself up to date on current affairs and travel warnings issued by various national organizations.  For example, there's a warning issued by the Swiss on travel in India.  Treatment of women in India, and in particular sexual assault, has been in the spotlight since the brutal rape and murder in December of a 29-year-old student on board a bus in Delhi.  I'd take heed and avoid solo travel in India/Pakistan or otherwise travel in a larger group.
  • The second on the list is to avoid known trouble spots or potential problem areas.  Find out by reading the travel forums online or check with the locals or other travelers.
  • Portray a relaxed, confident attitude.  Never arrogant or aggressive.  Smile a lot, make eye contact, and always have your radar up.  If someone or a group is not smiling back or avoiding eye contact, that's a warning sign.  Similarly, if a group is staring at you, or appears to be watching you, that's a warning too.  Be kind, smile and talk to the locals.  This builds allies who may give you a warning, or perhaps talk a hostile local out of action, or perhaps shame someone with hostile intent away from acting out.
  • Number four would be to not display wealth or expensive items, like a laptop, or a lot of cash, in restaurants or in public.  
  • Number five would be to not leave town in the evening, especially after dinner.  It's too easy for someone with hostile intention to watch you, make a plan, gather reinforcements and follow you out into the darkness.
  • Number six:  Camping in Asia is usually not done.  It's too crowded and too easy to be observed.  I keep thinking back to Ned Gillette, who was shot to death in his tent while camping in Pakistan.
That's all I have for now.  If anyone has any more ideas, I'd love to hear from you.  Just post them to the comments below.  Thanks.  Peace :)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

EVEREST: Realizing The Dream

I'll be giving a talk on "How to Climb Mt. Everest" to the National University of Singapore Mountaineering Club on Monday 4th February at 7pm at the SRC (Sports and Recreation Club) Conference Room at the National University of Singapore (click the link for a map).  The talk is open to the public and all are welcome.


View SRC Conference Room in a larger map
 
The presentation will last about two hours and is really a compilation of all the "tips" I've gathered to make it to the top.  These tips include finding sponsorship, experience building, training, equipment, choosing between climbing from the South or the North, and using Diamox and other supplements.

Although I've been climbing on and off for over 30 years, I'm by no means an expert, so these "tips and tricks" are from a wide range of sources that I'd thank:

Lim Kim Boon, Singapore's only mountaineering guide, my old friend and climbing partner;
Jamie McGuinness (Project Himalaya), experienced, intelligent, super-nice guy;
Lien Choon Loong, who climbed Everest the year before me and whose tip on 'sprinting' completely revamped my training method;
Brian Oestrike, from Hypoxico High Altitude Training Systems;
The SWET girls, especially Joanne Soo;
Mark Twight (Gym Jones) for his training guide Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High and for leading me to Crossfit;
David Lim, from the First Singapore Mt. Everest Expedition; and
Jamling Bhote, my Sherpa, my friend.

What I learned from these sources was an immense help to my successful climb up Everest, and now, it's my turn to pay back and share what I've learned.  If you've got dreams to climb Everest someday, I hope you can make it down on Monday, 4th February at 7pm to the SRC Conference Room at NUS.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Phuket Bike Touring

Setting off a lantern on New Year's Eve at Nai Yang Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Phuket, jewel of Thailand, turns out to be a great launching point for a cycle tour.  While the south of Phuket is awash with tourist traps and tourists, the north is relatively uncrowded.  We started our tour from Nai Yang Beach, which is just a few kilometers south of the airport.  We would suggest you arrange a hotel pick-up and drop-off if you are traveling with your bikes.  Arriving at night on New Year's Eve, we had to make some private arrangement to get ourselves and bikes over to my cousin's house, where we stayed.

The first day from Nai Yang to Khao Lak is about 95km, flat with some rolling terrain at the end.  It's about half on backroads and half on highway.  The backroads are narrow, but traffic is very light.  The traffic on the highway is moderate, but traveling very fast.  However,  there is a 2 meter wide shoulder on highways for cyclists and motorcycles which we stayed comfortably on.

We spent the first night at the Nang Thong Bay Resort.  Highly recommended.  Get a garden view bungalow.  Ours was set just one back from the beach.  If you can afford it, the beach front ones guarantee you an unobstructed view of the sea.  Just a short walk up from the resort into town is a small temple, and next to it is a little massage place that is also highly recommended.  We had dinner at the highly rated Sala Thai Restaurant.  The food was good, but we waited over an hour for food.  Seems normal.  I say either go early, be prepared to wait, or go elsewhere.

Sunset at Nang Thong Beach, Khao Lak.  What a view!  My wife took this shot with her iPhone 5 from just a few meters outside from our Garden Bungalow.

When in Thailand outside the tourist areas, you've got learn to speak a few words of Thai.  Here are some useful phrases:

My Pet - Not too spicy
My One - Not too sweet
Hong Nam - Toilet
Check Bin - Check Please!

Leaving Khao Lak, we proceeded North up the highway for a short bit, then a right turn took us along uncrowded backroads.  Total distance is just 75km, but with a hill at the end.  I used RideWithGPS (click the link to retrieve the GPX files) to plan the ride and upload the course onto my Garmin Edge 800.  The Garmin was new, and I'd never used an uploaded course before, so I had brought my iPad and iPhone as backup GPSs.  That was way too heavy.  See below for lessons learned.

The jungles of Khao Sok was a big change from the beaches of Khao Lak.  I can't really recommend the place we stayed at, but found the tree houses of Our Jungle House enchanting and worth recommending.  They are a bit out of the way, and they don't have hot water or air-conditioning at the the tree houses.  If you can live with those limitations, that would be the place I'd recommend.  We ate at a few restaurants, and found the highly rated Thai Herb Restaurant good but with small portions and not good value.  The restaurant at Our Jungle House turned out to be better value with big portions and good food.

Our Jungle House accommodation at Khao Sok.  Enchanting, but no hot water or air-conditioning.

We had planned a 'rest day' in Khao Sok and decided to spend it biking in the park.  Big mistake.  Turned out to be a pretty strenuous hike-a-bike (see video), and not much to see.  If I were to to it again, I'd arrange with a hotel in Khao Sok to store my bike on arrival, then take me out to Cheow Larn lake and spend the first night in a raft house on the lake.  I'd spend my rest day doing the lake tour, and then arrive back in Khao Sok the next day and spend it at one of the tree house resorts.

The 116km from Khao Sok to Phangna turns out to be a really scenic road ride.  We started the first 7km on dirt, which you can avoid if you don't have a mountain bike.  Phangna is not a tourist town.  We stayed at a small inn, and then biked the last 70km back to Phuket the next day.  If you had car support, you could chuck your bike into the car and skip the last day's ride back into Phuket.

All in all, a pretty short and easy bike tour with a good variety of scenery and riding.  If I had to recommend a novice bike tour in South East Asia, this would be it.


Phuket Bike Tour from Adventure Nomad on Vimeo.

Lessons Learned:
One of the useful things about taking a short easy tour is that mistakes made are only painful for a short time.  My next tour is longer (Laos in February), I'll only be using my iPhone for navigation, with back up power via an external battery.  That will save me quite a bit of weight.  I won't be bringing my Olympus OMD EM5 either.  It turns out to be too heavy, and I hardly used it as I shoot more video with the Gopro while on the bike.  I'll be bringing my new Panasonic LX7 instead.  It turns out I can save a little more weight by only using one jersey and wash it while I shower, as it will dry the next day.  On thing we did right was using Revelate Designs bags.  They turned out to be spot on for any kind of minimal weight and gear tour. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Not Just Another Fatbike

Milton Ramos leading the pack with his Sandman Hoggar Ti in the Titan Desert. Photo courtesy of Sandman Bikes.

Fatbikes have always been interesting to me.  Originally designed to be ridden on snow, Fatbikes have evolved to be simple, rugged bikes that you can ride just about anywhere (well, more rideable that a skinny-tired bike anyway).  The fat, 4" wide tires eat up roots, loose ground, rocks, sand and snow.  As a bonus, the wider tires apparently do less trail damage than skinnier tires.  Fat tires offer unmatched grip for steep climbs and descents and have some 'suspension' benefits as well.

The major down side with fat bikes is the weight.  Fatbikes weighing well over 30 lbs is the norm.  The fat tires can be draggy as hell, and the bikes can have sluggish steering characteristics.

At least one Fatbike manufacturer has taken a taken a different approach.  Sandman Bikes were designed from the ground up to be trail bikes, not snow bikes.  How's it different?  Other than the top models being specced with front suspension, I can't really say.  There is scant information available on their website, only just enough to find your size and order a bike. 

Milton Ramos and his Sandman Hoggar Ti.  Image courtesy of Sandman Bikes.
The proof is in the riding, and if I can't get to ride it, I'd like to hear from someone who has, or better yet, have some performance results.  What's encouraging is that the Belgium based Sandman has a sponsored rider, Milton Ramos, who has done quite well riding the company's top-end Hoggar Ti model, albeit using a combination of fat tires and 29er wheels.  Milton Ramos has managed to get the weight of his Hoggar Ti down to 12.5kg with fat tires, and under 10kg with 29er wheels.  Quite a respectable weight, plus the fact that he is riding the bike well says a lot about its handling qualities.

Quite frankly, I'm unlikely to give up my S-Works Epic to race the Hoggar, but it's a different kind of ride, and I'd really like to get my hands on one!

To give you an idea on what this bike is for, here are a couple of excellent videos by Martin Campoy, riding his Hoggar Ti in Nepal:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Langkawi Mountain Bike Race

Langkawi MTB Race 2012. Olympus OMD EM5, 45mm f/1.8.
I'm back from the Langkawi MTB Race where I learned a few things:

One: The Maxxis Ikon sucks in deep mud;
Two: Mud and 2.2" tires don't mix on the Specialized Epic's rear;
Three: Don't race when sick.

As a result of points One and Two (above), I got a few tire tips from the pros and I'll be switching the Ikon 2.2 (front/rear) to the Schwalbe Racing Ralph 2.1 on the rear, and the Schwalbe Rocket Ron 2.25 on the front for the coming wet months.

Me on the urban xc section on Day 1. Photo courtesy Cycling Malaysia.
As a result of point Three (above), I had to pull out after day 3, but at least I got Bury Stander and Todd Wells to sign my bike, so the trip wasn't a total washout!

Bury Stander signing my bike.  Olympus OMD EM5, 20mm f/1.7.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Learn Mountain Biking Skills

MTBSkills Instructor Sandy Maxwell demonstrating a turn
When MTBSkills Instructor, Wilson Low, invited me to join him and two other instructors, Liz Mulconry and Sandy Maxwell, for a couple of days riding at Drak Bike Park in Batam, Indonesia, I gamely joined in.  I'm pretty fit, and was confident of being able to keep up with the group.  I did not expect to be blown away, but that's exactly what happened.  I could keep up on the straights, but as soon as the trail began weave it's way into the jungle... ZOOM.  They were gone.  I tried pedaling hard to catch up, jamming my brakes into each corner, then sprinting out of it, while all they seemed to do was flow effortlessly around each corner, so fast that there was was nothing I could do to keep up, and the only time I saw them again was when they stopped for a break.  It was apparent that I lacked some critical skills.

A couple of days later, we were back in Singapore.  The three MTBSkills instructors were giving a course in basic skills and asked if my wife and I would like to join in.  Laura, who had heard all about my experience on Drak definitely wanted in.
Step One: Get those elbow up!
Vision.  Position.  Momentum.  Technique.  That's their mantra.  It's about looking up the trail, getting your body in the correct posture, and controlling your speed.  It was like a light bulb going off in my head. Yes!  This is the way I should be riding, and no, it's not that easy, because for the past 15 years of mountain biking, I've been doing it wrong.  And that's the problem with getting lessons for biking skills.  We don't know we need them.  As MTBSkills likes to say "you don't know what you don't know".
Walking through the turn that Sandy demonstrated in the top image
Smooth is fast.  On my basic course, I learned to corner (there's a whole lot that goes into making a smooth turn, and yup, I had it all wrong).  And I learned to unweight the front wheel (yup, I got that wrong too), not only useful for clearing obstacles, but also for riding drops more smoothly.    Lessons are typically half-day, cost S$140, and run at a maximum instructor: student ratio of 1: 5.  For MTBSkills courses in Singapore, contact Wilson Low by phone at (65) 98784113 or by email at edgeadventuresports@live.com.au



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ride for Peace

I've just returned from the 4th edition of The Tour de Timor.  The country has had a checkered past.  It was invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1975, and after a long struggle, became independent in 2002.  It's troubles were not over.  In 2008, an assassination attempt on the life of it's president and prime minister was made, leaving both wounded.  This year, most of the UN peacekeeping force will be leaving, and the task of safeguarding the country will lie in the hands of the new president and the fledgling Timor Leste Armed Forces.

The 2012 Tour de Timor was the first time the race crossed into Indonesia, the land of its invaders, and was aptly nicknamed 'The Ride for Peace'.  Our team from Singapore was sponsored by Air Timor.  We finished 10th in our category and our teammate, Alvin, won the Mens Masters Division.  Here's a quick look at the race from a rider's (my) perspective:


I shot the video with 2 Gopro Heros: An HD, and an HD2.  Here's what I learned:
  • I don't like riding on road
  • The Gopro HD2 is much better than the older HD
  • I really needed my OMD (or GH2) for more lens options 
  • I rode one hard day without the Gopro and missed it
  • It would have been nice to have been able to review some shots
I keep learning more and more about making video, and although I had a clear idea of the video I wanted to make, the task of racing and making a cohesive vid were at occasionally at odds.  There was one long hard day where I elected not to carry the Gopro and focus on the task of racing, and of course, I regretted it.  I should have just carried the Gopro using the handlebar mount, which although is probably the worst possible place to mount the Gopro on a bike, is also the least obstructive position.

Incidentally, I think the best place to mount the Gopro is actually on top of the helmet.  From a single mount on top of the helmet, you actually have 2 positions: facing forward, and facing backwards.  In addition, you can quickly set your helmet on the ground and have a stable platform to shoot from.  I also find that the position on top of the helmet is more isolated from shock than the handlebar mount.  It also picks up less dust and water from splashes.

Some essential shots went missing.  I'll be packing at least the LCD screen so I can review shots and re-shoot any essential sequences.

The Gopro, compact and rugged, is great for race footage, but is really is not enough to round out and tell a full story.  I really needed more options like a longer lens and a faster lens, for low light, and for stills.  I felt my Olympus OMD was too precious to be stuffed into my duffle, thrown around, sat on or have other luggage piled on top of, and left in the sun and rain.  I'll find a way to bring it next time.




Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Welcome Panasonic LX7

Panasonic LX7
It's been a while since I've updated my compact Panasonic LX3.  When the LX5 was released, I didn't think the upgrades made the cost worthwhile, and in fact, bought another LX3.  The result of which both Panasonic LX3s made it up to the summit of Mt. Everest with me.  One of them came home with me, and I presented the other to my trusty Sherpa.  Both are still in use today.

However, my LX3 is showing it's age, and is long overdue for retirement.  What to replace it with?  I'll be frank, I'm biased.  I loved the combination of Panasonic technology married to the Leica lens on the LX3.  I don't think I can go wrong with the LX7 which brings an even faster (bigger aperture f/1.4 compared to f/2) lens compared to the LX3 and LX5.  Cleverly, they have included a built-in ND (Neutral Density) filter in case you want to use a big aperture combined with a slow shutter speed in bright light.  The ND filter is even more useful in video mode when you might want to use a big aperture for creative effect, but are limited to using a certain shutter speed.  I also like what they have done with the control layout.  The ergonomics look pretty good, better than the LX5, much better than the LX3.

Should you buy an LX7?  This comes down to a few factors.  Do you need a camera with interchangeable lenses?  If so, one of the mirrorless M4/3 cameras like the Olympus Pens or Panasonic GX1 might be right for you.  This would increase your creative choices with different lenses, but also increase the size, cost, and weight of your set-up.

If you don't need or want interchangeable lenses, then the LX7 looks pretty good.  It's not the smallest premium compact.  If you are really looking for the smallest premium compact, that honor might belong to the Canon S100.  The small size comes with certain tradeoffs though.  A slower (smaller maximum aperture) lens, possibly harder to grip and not feel as secure in the hand.

If I were undertaking some extreme adventure today, like climbing Mt. Everest (Err... no thank you.  Once was enough!) where keeping it lightweight is of key importance, the LX7 would be at the top of my list.  I'd wait for some pro reviews though, just to be sure that Panasonic haven't dropped the ball. 

Just my 2 cents...




Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Whole Enchilada

Just got back from a mountain biking trip to Durango and Moab.  Although I now live in Singapore, and it's a long journey to get there, I've been to both those places before, and know there's plenty of good biking.  This time around, we had a diverse group of friends with a wide range in  ability and fitness come ride with us.  Ilya, was a former downhill pro rider and Felix, was nearly an absolute rookie who hauled his mountain bike out of cold storage a month before the trip.  Nevertheless, we all had a blast.

The riding was varied and the weather was good for the most part - a little bit hot, a little bit cold, a little bit wet.  All in all, the weather held out for us and could hardly be better.  There was a lot of dirt road, but there were also a lot of scenic bits, and some sweet singletrack.  Of course, the ride included the awesome 'The Whole Enchilada' singletrack Trail, which dropped us into Moab for the finish.

I used my newish Olympus OMD EM5 with mainly a 7-14mm lens, and an old GoPro HD for the POV and timelapse sequences. 


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Just Another Day On Everest

Jetstream Winds Rip the North side of Mt. Everest
 2012 has been a tough Everest season, with overcrowding contributing to four deaths on a single day on the South Col route.  All three climbers, that I know of, from Singapore; Kumaran Rasappan, Grant Rawlinson and Valerie Boffy, were successful in their bids to climb the highest mountain on earth, and I'm very proud of their achievements.  I know that training to climb Mt. Everest is especially challenging for those living on the tiny island nation of Singapore, where the highest hill is only 105m tall.
Chores at Everest Basecamp
It was just a year ago that I stood on the North Ridge, on my way up to the summit after a night of battling horrendous wind and difficult snow conditions.  We had been moving for 10 hours straight, unable to eat, drink or stop because of the intense cold from the wind.  I plonked myself down, trying to find some shelter, but there was none.  I was parched and hungry, but my water bottles and energy bars had frozen solid inside my downsuit.  Jamling, my Sherpa, checked in with Jaime, our expedition leader.  It turns out that Jaime had earlier recalled all climbers back down because of the weather, but now allowed us to continue, given how close we were to the summit.
Crossing a Crevasse on the way up to North Col 7000m
 We were alone on the mountain.  It was just my team mate Esther, myself and our sherpas.  I was tired beyond belief, but we were so close, just an hour and a half to the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.  I asked Jamling who had been to the summit of Everest 6 times previously if he thought we should continue.  He replied, "Ken, for a Sherpa, this is no problem.  It is just another day on Everest."
Jugging up the fixed line to North Col at 7000m
 Those were just the right words.  We pushed on, but Esther would go no further.  Unknown to us at the time, Esther's Sherpa had, for whatever reason, not carried her extra oxygen.  Given the conditions, it had would take us more time than was normal to reach the summit, and I would need all the bottles I had been allocated.
Camp 3 at 8300m the evening before our summit push
There was nothing heroic about my final steps to the top of the world.  I was effectively blind, I had stupidly removed my goggles to see better, and during the final tricky traverse, had my corneas burned by the intensely cold wind.  I confessed my condition to Jamling, but as it was only 15 minutes to the top, he hooked me up to a short-rope, and I stumbled up, giddy from the altitude and short of breath as I struggled to keep pace with the powerful Sherpa.
Traversing the North Ridge of Everest at about 8700m
Through my frosted vision, the summit appeared.  First, a ring of pray flags, then the actual summit, about the size of two large dining tables, decorated with more pray flags, and littered with discarded oxygen bottles.  It seemed we were alone on the mountain.  There were no other climbers, either from the South, or the North.  I sat on the summit for about 20 minutes, worried about how I was going to descend, while Jamling excitedly took video and photographs to capture the moment.
Jamling, me and Pujung very near the summit
I can only describe my feelings as relief.  Relief that I would not have to come back next year: I had seen death close-up on the mountain and was repulsed by the callous manner in which I had to ignore them; repulsed by the amount of trash left on the hill; repulsed by my own selfish attitude in my drive to reach the top of the highest mountain on earth.  Nope, I would not be back.
Top of the world:  8848m on the summit of Mt. Everest
Fixed ropes exist on both the normal North and South routes, which lures climbers into thinking that the climbing is easy, but Everest has not been beaten into submission.  Everest is still Everest, the highest, most inhospitable, isolated place on earth.  No one conquers Everest.  For a short period each year when the jetstream winds die down, a few lucky climbers will reach the top, stay for a few minutes, and escape with their lives.
Looking shit-faced near the Exit Cracks on decent back to Camp 3

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return to Drak

We made a short trip back to Drak Bike Park on Batam, Indonesia, a couple of weeks ago and made this short video.  Given the limited riding space in Singapore, and the close proximity of Batam to Singapore, Drak has a lot to offer.  Here's a sampling of what a day's ride could look like:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Next Adventure Bike

About three and a half years ago, I wrote a piece on the Surly Long Haul Trucker titled The Ideal Adventure Bike.
The Surly Troll.  Image from the Surly website.
We'll, my wife Laura, and I have decided that long distance road touring really isn't our thing.  We'll ride road, but prefer it leads out to some dirt.  She prefers a mountain bike setup as well.  This means we could tour on our mountain bikes (Giant Anthem X), or outfit her LHT with front suspension, flat bars, V or disc brakes, and rapid-fire shifters.  Touring with our Anthems is possible, however, since we've built up the Anthems to race, and they are somewhat precious (not to mention fussy).  Rebuilding the LHT into a mountain bike will cost us more than the stock bike, and so we began the search for our next adventure bike.
Take a few moments to get your head round this mind-boggling slot dropout, and you’ll see how clever it is. I love a bike with versatility. The Troll can run derailleurs, a Rohloff Speedhub – a third bolt anchors the OEM2 plate in place - or slim down to singlespeed. The position of the disc brake tab allows a conventional rack to be teamed with Avid’s mechanical BB7s.  Image and caption © Cass Gilbert
The search lead us back to one of Surly's strong, low cost, steel frames: The Troll.  In short, the Troll is a 26" steel mountain bike that is disc and rack compatible.  But that's not why it's cool.  The Troll can take any brake setup - disc, V or cantis; it's clever dropout design can take a Rohloff, derailleur, or single speed; build it up rigid or front suspension; and fit up to 2.7" fat tires, or big wheels like 650b (or even 29er?).
Unleash the Troll. Take it across a continent… Image and Caption © Cass Gilbert
I've never ridden a Troll, so I set out to find out more information from others who have.

Troll vs. LHT
Cass Gilbert (whileoutriding.com) has allowed me to reprint some of his thoughts on the Troll:

'So which is best for what? If paved roads and good quality gravel tracks are your staple diet on tour, you’re probably better off with a Trucker. It’s built for the heaviest of loads and from what I’ve seen, has become to go-to bike for those tackling the Panamerican Highway. But if you hanker after more challenging trails, envisage battling through muck and mud, and ride singletrack on your days off before visiting the local museum, then Troll is where it’s at. The fact that it isn’t designed to handle as much cargo shouldn’t be an issue, as by default, those heading offroad tend to pare down their kitlist.'

Read the rest of Cass Gilbert's extensive review on the Troll here.

Joe Cruz, my bike guru from the original LHT Ideal Adventure Bike post, adds the following to the Troll vs. LHT discussion:

"Where there's a mix of asphalt and dirt roads with the occasional mountain bikey singletrack (but not weeks of it), I stand by everything I've ever thought about the LHT. In a different sense, it can do anything, too. If you told me I had 600k of asphalt to cover in three days, great, can do on LHT. If you said I then had to ride 40k of mountain bike trail, yeah, LHT can do that, too. When both of those are going to show up on a single tour, that's the bike I'd bring."

Conclusion
Both the LHT and Troll are valid choices, and the bike you choose will very much depend on the type of riding you want to do (dirt or tarmac), and how long you will be out for (will you need racks/panniers).

Oddly enough, what we've taken back from this discussion is that all we really need is just a hardtail mountain bike.  We don't need eyelets for a rack/pannier setup as we travel really light, and although steel is nice, we would rather have a lighter frame that we may also race with.  So we are now looking at getting a 29er aluminum hardtail, build it up with some rugged parts, strap on some bags (like the bags from Revelate Designs) and just go ride.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's Not All About Flipping Tires

There's a lot of Crossfit bashing going on, most of it directed at the elitist cult that Crossfit is perceived to have grown into.  I'm not going into that.  For me, it's about the training method and principles.  Forgive me, I'm a Crossfit Zealot.  Nevertheless, I shall do my best to break it down into what I see as the good and the bad, and how I've adapted it to enhance the enjoyment and competitiveness of my sport, activities and life.

Crossfit is a community developed, empirically driven, clinically tested strength and conditioning program.  I've been using Crossfit as my primary strength and conditioning training for more than two years, training both with an affiliate (that would be a gym with instructors), as well as on my own.  Prior to that, I used a conventional bodybuilding-based gym training approach.
Mmm... Prowlers... My favorite workout!  Photo © Laura Liong
Constantly Varied
You don't get to choose your workout.  In essence, your Crossfit workout is 'randomly' selected out of a hopper and could range from heavy weightlifting, to fast sprints with gymnastic movements, and could last from a few minutes to over an hour. 

The Good:
We tend to choose to do what we like to do and avoid doing what we don't like to do.  This leads us down the dangerous path of training our strengths and avoiding our weaknesses.  A varied, randomized workout avoids this.  It's training for any and all contingencies, the unknown and unknowable.  This type of training works well for the person who needs to be a generalist: Soldiers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and some athletes (like mountain climbers, rugby players, mixed martial arts fighters). 

The Bad:
If you are a specialist, for example an athlete involved in a sport requiring high skill, in a known environment for a fixed time (like an indoor track cyclist), then you may need more than the generalized training that a pure Crossfit program provides.  If you have a coach who can identify your strengths and weaknesses, you would benefit more by targeting your specific weaknesses, than from a generalized program.

My Take:
These days, I train Crossfit on my own, usually twice a week.  I choose my workouts based on the longer term goals of my training program, a race or event.  I'm at risk of falling into the trap of training my strengths, but it's a compromise given the time I have.
A broken foot is no reason not to workout.
Functional Movements
This is the current buzz word at fitness centers worldwide.  What does it mean?  Functional movements are how your body naturally does real-life work, like lifting things.  Your body knows to move that way because the movements are naturally efficient, powerful and safe.  For example, lifting a heavy sack of potatoes efficiently to your shoulder would be a movement called a 'Clean'.  The clean is naturally the most powerful, and hence efficient, way to lift a load from the ground up to shoulders.  Executed at a high skill level, it is part of an Olympic lifting movement. Examples of other functional movements are squats, running, and pull ups.  Functional movements are proven to illicit a high neuroendocrine response which in turn does a whole lot of good things to your body, like increasing bone density and human growth hormone.

The Good:
Form follows function, and unlike some other workout programs that focus purely on cosmetics, Crossfit uses functional movements almost exclusively because their goal is making you stronger, faster and more durable.  Most workouts can be done with simple equipment: a barbell with weights, medicine ball, kettlebell, jump rope, pull-up bar and some space to run. 

The Bad:
Although natural, some complex functional movement patterns need to be taught, because our bodies haven't learned the coordination and sequencing needed to do those movements.  For example, the Clean.  Crossfit is one of the few training programs that still teaches the Olympic lifts - The Snatch and The Clean and Jerk.  Both of which are excellent power builders that induce a profound neuroendocrine response.

My Take:
I haven't stepped into a conventional gym in years.  Years of spending time on machines doing isolation movements like leg extensions and leg curls haven't done much for me.  The proof is not in looking at yourself in the mirror, it's in living your life, now and in the future.  If you lose the ability to squat (a functional movement), you lose the ability to walk up stairs or lift yourself up off the ground.  In short, you lose the ability to live life independently.  No amount of leg extensions or leg curls will give it back to you. 
Someone to Watch Over Me.  Supervision plus motivation: another reason to workout at an affiliate.
High Intensity
The heart of the Crossfit program is that the workout, ie. the constantly varied, functional movements, is executed at a high intensity.  Why?
To answer that question, we have to get scientific:

(force x distance / time) = Power

That is the definition of power.  The less time it takes to do a given amount of work, the more power.  In simple terms, Power = Intensity.  The more intense the workout, the more power you are putting out.  Training for more power will improve just about any sport.

The Good:
There is increasing evidence that shorter, high intensity workouts are far more beneficial than long, slow workouts.  They are also very time efficient.

The Bad:
High intensity workouts hurt.  A lot of beginners are turned off by this sort of training.  The loss of form as fatigue sets in is one of the bones of contention that Crossfit objectors raise.  Functional movements are inherently safe, however, it's best to work out at an affiliate where others can watch and correct your form.

My Take:
High intensity training works. However, it is strong medicine and I have to be careful about doing too much, which can quickly lead to overtraining.  I scale down both the load (weight) and number of sets as required.  If I feel the need, I'll even substitute a functional strength training session instead of Crossfit by removing the intensity.

Bottom Line:
It's not for everyone.  Check it out and decide for yourself.  Learn more at Crossfit.com

If you are in Singapore, try one of the affiliates:
Crossfit Singapore; or
Reebok Crossfit Enduro

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Black Hole


The past six months of my life have been something of a black hole, sucked up by a mountain bike race in South Africa called the Cape Epic.  During the three months leading up to the race, I biked an average of 1000km a month, climbing over 37,000m... and it still wasn't enough.  I failed to complete the race with my teammate.

It wasn't a total loss.  I learned a lot too.  Still photography is difficult to do on a bike, and even more difficult to involve a viewer in the action.  But strapping on a small video camera to capture moving footage on a bike is relatively easy to do and easy to involve the viewer, and I so began the  process of learning how to shoot video.

GoPro HD Hero
I bought myself a GoPro HD Hero camera with various clips and attachments, and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 with 14-140mm kit lens, a Panasonic 7-14mm f/4.0 wide angle zoom, and a Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 Pancake Lens.  I also bought Final Cut Pro X, and along the way, learned that the iPhone 4s makes a pretty good video camera ;o)

Since my Cape Epic race was a bust, I thought I'd show you a couple of my training trips, and share a little of what I've learned about shooting video on a bike.   Keep in mind I'm still learning this stuff, so if you've got some feedback for me, I'd love to hear it.
Olloclip Quick-Connect Lens with Glif Tripod Mount

Here's an early trip in December last year.  I shot this entirely on my iPhone 4s and edited the footage on FCP X.  Since then, I learned that the iPhone makes an excellent bike touring camera.  With IOS 5.0, you can turn on the camera and shoot one handed.  It's not really wide enough when shooting video as the iPhone crops down a bit, perhaps because of the image stabilizer.  I'll probably buy the Olloclip Quick-Connect Lens Solution,  which gives you 3 lenses in one - fisheye, wide-angle and macro lenses.  I probably also pick up the Glif Tripod Mount which I can use with a small Joby Gorillapod.



This second video is from a trip to Northern Thailand in March this year.  I had learned a little more.  Compare this video to another from an earlier trip to Thailand in February Here.  In this one, I've incorporated a greater variety of shots and blended them better into the action.



There are many places you can mount a GoPro.  I tried to incorporate a variety into the final production.  In this video, I shot from my helmet, forwards and backwards, used the Chest Harness, shot from under the down tube and from the handlebars.  If I have a preference, it is to shoot mainly from the helmet.  It collects less dust and water that way, and can be slightly more stable than from the handlebars, and can be changed quickly to face either forwards or backwards.  Also, If you need to handhold the camera, it is easier to remove your helmet and shoot holding your helmet with the camera on top than it is to unscrew the GoPro from the handlebar mount.  Putting your helmet with camera on top also makes a good impromptu tripod.  Because I can't see what I'm shooting, I generally shoot in 4:3 mode (960p Tall Mode r4) and then crop to 16:9 if possible during post-processing.

Here's what I would do more of in future:
1. More pre-planning;
2. Use copyright free music;
3. Steadier shots with a tripod;
4. Clean the camera lens more often;
5. Risk more - attach the camera lower on the bike to show wheels, or derailleur.