CategoriesGear

Review: PRO Packing Cubes and Gate Check Pro XL

PRO packing cubes
PRO Packing Cubes getting tested in the real world!

This summer, I started testing a few new travel products – one for a problem I’ve always had, and another for a brand-new problem caused by traveling with a child stroller.

Getting the Most Out of Luggage Space: PRO Packing Cubes

The first problem is pretty obvious and familiar, even if you don’t travel with a little person: I don’t know a single frequent traveler who doesn’t constantly tweak the way they pack. It’s a constant cycle of stuff like giant, vacuum-sealed plastic bags, stuff sacks, dry sacks, you name it. The PRO Packing Cubes are zippered, vented pouches that aim to bring order to the chaos of your travel luggage of choice (in my case, that’s either a Swiss Army carryon or a Kelty Coyote backpack).

They don’t seal air out like the stuff/dry sacks I typically use. So I’m not trying to find exactly the right amount to stuff in them, which is kind of nice. They simply squish as needed as the luggage compresses.

PRO packing cubes
A closer look at the diferent sizes.

So far, I’ve had the PRO Packing Cubes on several domestic trips and one mega-intercontinental journey to New Zealand. While packing for the New Zealand trip, I let my wife get in on the testing fun, and the PRO Packing Cubes quickly became a favorite (I’ll have to make sure she’s not constantly swiping them from me). Throughout testing, there were absolutely no quality issues: The zippers are still perfect, and there are no rips or tears in the fabric. Also on the New Zealand trip, I started off putting the packed PRO Packing Cubes into dry sacks and sealing them. The shapes didn’t quite align with the dry sack being a cylinder rather than a rectangle. So from then on, I just kept the dry sack around just in case we ran into bad weather that would soak my gear. Otherwise, I just put the cubes straight into the backpack. They still fit with ample room left over.

The PRO Packing Cubes concept isn’t exclusive, and I’ve seen similar products elsewhere. But I haven’t tested them – so though they may be the same conceptually, I can’t say that any brand will hold up as well. I’m inclined to pick up another set of PRO Packing Cubes just in case my wife gets any funny ideas.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB Ironman is awesome, but some help during flights could make it even better. Could the Gate Check Pro XL help?

Shielding Your Stroller: The Gate Check Pro XL

It took me awhile to put the Gate Check Pro XL through its paces – many of my trips since this summer have been of the business variety -- so no little person to accompany me. The New Zealand trip meant we had to take our super-cool BOB Ironman stroller for its go-anywhere capability. And that also meant a golden opportunity for the Gate Check Pro XL –  with flights from Phoenix to Honolulu to Auckland to Nelson to Auckland and back, there’d be plenty of legs to test.

On previous trips with the BOB Ironman, I’d fold it up and use any combination of cordage – from bungee cables to camping gear ties to even shoelaces – to prevent it from unfolding. I was more than willing to see what the Gate Check Pro XL could do.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB all wrapped up in the Gate Check Pro XL and ready for departure.

I was skeptical: Could this big blue bag contain the mighty Ironman and stay sealed? Would I fumble with it while stuffing it into the bag at the gate. Yes, and no. Folding the Ironman and putting it into the Gate Check Pro XL went quickly and easily – and I never had to worry about it unfolding via the rough ministrations of a baggage handler. Oh, and it was so distinct that I could actually see it being loaded onto the plane from the boarding area (nice to know it will show up at the destination!). It also folds up small enough that I could stuff it into the lower cargo area of the BOB Ironman.

I have absolutely no reservations about using the PRO Packing Cubes or the Gate Check Check Pro XL on future trips of any length.

Love Pro Travel Gear provided these items for review. But rest assured that I’m always ready to give an honest review. The products in this test earned praise by actually being good!

CategoriesGear

Yes, This is Another Blog Post About Out-of-Control Bike Prices

These tires are way too pricey.
These tires are way too pricey.

I just bought a tire for $90.

Normally, I wouldn’t squawk about that. But this wasn’t for my Subaru – it was for my damn road bike. It was a nice Specialized tubeless road bike tire (I’m typically a Continental guy, but --). And yeah, the shop owner lopped 20 percent off since we used to work together at a different shop. I have a feeling he is happy I don’t work at bike shops anymore, and am thus ineligible to fart his his shop up.

steel road bike
This American-made steel frame ain’t the cheapest thing I ever bought: But nearly 20 years of service elevates its bang for the buck factor higher than any other bike I’ve owned.

But this bicycle tire is literally the same price as each individual Pirelli on my Subaru. And seriously, there is nowhere near as much material on it as what goes into my car tires.

There is really no better reflection of the out-of-control costs of bike parts. Everything associated with wheels seems to be going especially crazy -- it’s not hard to find $2,000 wheelsets (and I just read a bike comparison of "value priced" rides, most of them in the $3,000 range – wtf?).

mountain bike review, x-fusion
Another good example of dollars well-spent: the X-Fusion brand of suspension forks.

It doesn’t take a very big nick or a very little manufacturing defect to sideline this way-expensive piece of rubber and Kevlar. Worse yet, it’s the sort of part that can fail in a way that leaves you injured or stranded. Will it be that much better than a $45 tire? Or should regular slobs – myself included – train a little harder instead of trying to buy a tiny smidgen of speed?

I love riding my road bike, and I’ve had the same one since 1998. I’ve broken stuff and replaced it over those years, and it makes me happier as a rider than the day I bought it. My mountain bikes? Awesome. But I am getting to the point where I have to ask some pointed questions about what I’ll do when the pivots on my Santa Cruz are worn – will I even bother with a new fully suspended bike, or will I go for a nice custom steel frame that I can keep for decades? Even that option is fraught with peril – I’ve tried twice to buy custom steel frames, once from an upstart who I had to shake down to get my money back when he couldn’t deliver, and another time from a respected craftsman who just stopped replying to emails (fortunately, before money changed hands).

I’m a huge believer in finding that balance between quality of price -- that nexus that smart buyers call value. It’s where performance and execution matter more than cool factor or flash.

It seems, when a road bike tire costs the same as a car tire, the bike industry at large has forgotten where that nexus exists.

If the bike industry doesn’t believe me, they should read the comments thread following this review of the Marin Hawk Hill, a budget full-suspension bike.

CategoriesFitnessAdventures

Recap: 6 Hours in the Papago

My training plan for the 6 Hours in the Papago mountain bike race wasn’t a winner: A month before the race, I came down with strep throat. Before my antibiotics even ran out, I was headed to New Zealand for two weeks. That doesn’t add up to a lot of pre-race saddle time.

Fortunately, I didn’t plan to win anyway. Did I have fun, though? Oh, hell, yes. It was one of my better days at a race … I credit the pre-race dinner of raviolis and Stone Xocoveza.

If you’re looking for a good race when January rolls around next year, here’s what you should know about 6 Hours in the Papago.

It Used to Be 12 Hours in the Papago

That’s right – 6 Hours in the Papago was once twice as long as it is today. The change in length had something to do with permitting from the City of Tempe. The new setup did wonders: Twelve hours is a LOT of time on a 7-mile loop in Papago Park. No, downright monotonous. But for a six, it’s pretty spot on.

6 hours in the papago
That’s me at my last Papago race – the 12-hour edition!

The Course is Jam-Packed with Stuff – Kind of

Each 7-ish mile loop will give you about 500 feet of climbing. That’s pretty solid as the laps pile up. And they’re not long, grinding climbs. Instead, you get short bursts. There are also no long downhills, but there are a few parts that can be tricky – especially as people jockey for position.

You’ll also spend some time blasting along flat, smooth canal bits. Not the most exciting, but … hey, it’s a mid-metro area mountain bike race.

The loop doesn’t include any of my favorite parts of Papago, probably because it would be hard to deal with crossing Galvin Parkway and -hey!- the city of Phoenix managed to destroy those awesome bits, anyway.

The Course Volunteers Were Off the Charts

From the course marshals to the crew of kids at the refueling station, every 6 Hours in the Papago volunteer was smiley and helpful from the first lap to the last. They put out a lot of energy to give the race a very fun vibe.

Organizers and Sponsors Had Their Priorities Straight

Look, I don’t need a huge medal and a bunch of useless sponsor coupons in my race bag. And frankly, I have exactly one race t-shirt that I’ll wear out of the house.

What I got for my entry fee at the 6 Hours of Papago was frankly, far more valuable than any of that: a well-stocked refreshment tent where I could fill up my water bottles and grab some sponsor-supplied Hammer gels whenever I needed them (I could swear the electrolyte mix was Heed, which I supplemented with Kola Nuun tablets – exactly why are those delicious little tablets discontinued?!).

Speaking of sponsors, AZ Barbecue was there selling food; racers got a ticket for some free bbq, but I didn’t partake – my priority after a ride or race is to take my shorts off and brush my teeth, and one of those always causes me problems if I do it before I leave the venue. Oh, and SRAM was the title sponsor. I’ve had soft spot for them since the Grip-Shift days, and my current bike is mostly SRAM. Just sayin’.

I Think I Missed Solo Alley

I thought there was supposed to be a place where solo riders could park and make a little encampment. But it looked like that plan morphed into more of an area for teams and clubs to congregate. I really could’ve used having my car and gear around … my 6-, 12- and 24-hour race plans always involve (I know this sounds gross) copious amounts of V-8 and chocolate milk, and that run to my distantly parked car  — and the cooler inside it — was a bit of a pain. But it was hardly enough to put a damper on things. Just a small tweak that could be in the works for next year?

What’s the Strategy for Average Joes?

I’d like to improve my standing the next time I do this, and I’m trying to lock onto a good strategy. I noticed that my first four laps were considerably faster than the dudes just ahead of me in the standings. Then my times ballooned up again (corresponding with the laps where I had to jet out to my car). Maybe I’d be smarter to hold back a tiny bit more … maybe use some lower gears in the climbs and hit the electrolytes a bit harder earlier.

I did start spinning low gears a bit, and the decision seemed to pay off, especially after my final infusion of V-8 kicked in. On my last lap, my quads came back online to nearly full power with no danger of cramping … that was after the previous three laps where I relied on calf power to spin the pedals (and frankly, no small amount of farting – to anyone who’d been with 150 feet of me, my deepest apologies).

Final Thoughts

I’ll sign up for 6 Hours in the Papago next year for sure. It was fun and well-supported, not to mention 10 minutes from my front door in the middle of a huge metro area. That’s an opportunity not to be missed.

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

How Does Hawaiian Airlines Measure Up?

best passenger planes
Hawaiian Airlines has solid 767s still flying. But they’re making way for Airbus A330s.

If you ask me whether I like something, I can give you a definite answer. Do I like black licorice? Oh, hell, no. Do I like a nice big bowl of tonkatsu ramen? You betcha. Do I like Hawaiian Airlines?

Hmmm. OK. I’ve just flown four long legs on Hawaiian Airlines, and I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. You’d think it’s a simple question -- but it’s hard to evaluate the sum of the parts versus the individual parts themselves. Let’s break it down into pieces so you can see whether Hawaiian Airlines is right for you.

[textbox rows=”4″]
Where I Flew
Phoenix, Ariz. to Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand
Return
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Let’s Start with the Schedule and Airports

One of the reasons I chose Hawaiian Airlines was to avoid Los Angeles International Airport, both outbound and inbound. Hawaiian’s flight from Phoenix gave me a great morning flight on Thursday as opposed to a late-night flight.

Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330
A Hawaiian A330. Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

Hawaiian also connects via Honolulu to all sorts of destinations in Asia, and our future travel plans include South Korea and Japan (both on our list). So if they passed this test, they’d be a perfect airline for future trips.

Oh, and Honolulu International Airport? It’s wonderful for a layover on the way to Auckland Airport. The little garden area and semi-outdoor corridors give it the nicest vibe of any US airport. Unfortunately, its customs, immigration and baggage areas are an absolute morass. I’d take LAX any day, and that’s saying a lot.

How was the Hawaiian Airlines Staff?

Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents -- no matter what their role at Hawaiian Airlines, they were all far nicer than your typical North American Airlines. Here are a few examples.

Hawaiian Airlines 767 Iwa
Heading out to Honolulu on Iwa, a Hawaiian Airlines 767.

I slept through the initial snack/meal service on my flight out of Auckland. I went back into the galley and asked if they had anything left. I got a nice little sandwich, some fruit and a cookie. And no disgruntled attitude about why I missed the flight attendant’s pass through the cabin.

On my flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, I drained my 24-ounce collapsible water bottle and was feeling the thirst. I took the empty bottle back to the galley and asked if I could get a bit of water. Well, the flight attendant kindly filled it all the way up.

Small stuff, right? But it adds up.

Speaking of Food ….

The meal services on the flights were fairly nondescript sandwiches and chicken/rice dishes. They were still considerably better than most meal options I’ve had on long-haul flights with US legacy airlines, though considerably short of the fare on Asiana or All Nippon Airlines (with Asiana being downright tasty).

On the flight into Honolulu from Phoenix, they also served some fun flavors of the islands: sweet onion potato chips and some sort of rum punch that was plenty tasty.

Hawaiian Airlines A330 Nahiku
This Hawaiian Airlines A330 was delayed for three hours.

Da Planes, Da Planes!
[textbox rows=”4″]
Tail Numbers and Aircraft Names
PHX-HNL: Boeing 767 with Sky Interior (N588HA, Iwa)
HNL to AKL and Back: Airbus A330 (N388HA, Nahiku; N389HA, Keali’iokonaikalewa)
HNL to PHX: Boeing 767, old interior (N581HA, Manu o Ku)
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This is where Hawaiian Airlines has some problems. I really liked our first 767, even though it didn’t have AVOD (on-demand entertainment) at each seat, which is pretty much the standard for long-haul flights on other airlines. It’s the old-school drop-down screens. But I didn’t really care since the Hawaiian Airlines flights were about $1,000 cheaper for my party collectively than competing airlines. Plus, I had a Kindle loaded with some great books. I also like the 2-3-2 seating configuration on the 767, which also gave me ample legroom (6’2 with a 32-inch inseam).

The 767 from HNL to Phoenix was older, and had the earlier, dingier interior. Still, the legroom was perfect.

Hawaiian Airlines Keali'iokonaikalewa
We’re both happier than we look – I just have a horrible fake camera smile, so I just go neutral (and this was before the delay).

Now let’s talk about those A330s. They’re the future for Hawaiian Airlines as the 767 gets phased out. The A330 in and of itself isn’t a problem: How Hawaiian Airlines chooses to configure them, though, is a big-time pain for tall travelers. I slid into my seat, and my knees immediately contacted the seat in front of me. So I did what all smart travelers do: I pitched all the reading material in the seat pocket onto the floor in front of me. It opened up some space, but not enough to separate me from the seat. It’s odd that seatguru.com lists the pitch at 31 inches; I’ve flown on plenty of planes with 31 inches of pitch that gave me a little room between seats. The seat cushions were pretty bad, with my left buttock aching about an hour after takeoff.

Also, the Airbus cabins were Yukon cold on both flights. They did have AVOD, but most content would cost. Again, not a big deal for the price break. But factoring in the tight spacing, this becomes more of an issue.

I will definitely avoid any Hawaiian Airlines A330 in the future until they decide to provide some extra space, regardless of price or convenience. There’s just too much competition out there.

Hawaiian Airlines Keali'iokonaikalewa A330
That’s Hawaiian Airlines Keali’iokonaikalewa in the background … and before we loaded aboard, got settled, then deplaned for the mechanical problem.

Another Little Hitch

Our flight to Auckland was delayed a full three hours by a mechanical problem. That put us at the gate in Auckland just short of 2 a.m., which is pretty rough. Our scheduled 22:25 arrival was already late for travelers craving rest in a real bed.

But things happen, and I get that. Still, Hawaiian Airlines could’ve scored some points by setting passengers up somehow for the delay. Maybe by providing meal vouchers for the delay, or waiving the in-flight entertainment charge. Unfortunately, they missed that chance to make a better situation of a long delay.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I really wanted to love Hawaiian Airlines. I still want to, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s a bummer, because the actual on-the-line employees got it right. The corporate suits, unfortunately, have handed them either aging or cramped aircraft that are well short of the standards being set by other airlines. They’re addressing the aging planes, but they’re replacing them with cramped sardine cans. This is a huge disservice to their pilots, cabin staff and ground staff who do so well.

Fortunately, it’s also reversible. The suits could make some adjustments to the aircraft coming into the fleet, and heed my very good advice when it comes time to refresh the cabins of the A330s currently on hand.

Here’s the good news: If you’re of a shorter stature, the seat pitch won’t matter as much to you. My wife, who is 5’7, had no problem catching Zs on the 767 and A330. Obviously, my 2-year-old wasn’t bothered by the seat pitch!

But since we come as a package and I’m the guy who gets to book the flights, I don’t see Hawaiian Airlines being my go-to airline for future flights unless they’re on a 767 or the A330s get a bit more room for us tall guys.

CategoriesAdventuresFitness

This is the Worst Place in the World to Go Mountain Biking

The Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua is absolutely the worst place in the world to go mountain biking. If you ride here, you will go back home. You’ll prep your bike for a ride and get yourself to what used to be your favorite local trails. You’ll straddle your bike at the trailhead, look down the trail and think "Well, this is a bit pointless."

That’s because your local trail doesn’t beckon you with the fragrance of spruce. It isn’t protected from the sun with a canopy of redwood trees and ferns. Its ground doesn’t grip your tires just right.

What I’m saying is that, next to the Whakarewarewa Forest, your local trail probably sucks. I’m sure you love it. I used to love my favorite local trails, too. But within 6 minutes of cruising through the Whakarewarewa Forest, I felt like it ruined my local trails for me. I thought of my usual rides -- mile after mile under a punishing, unrelenting, angry sun through acre upon acre of dried-up Tattooine-like dirt that is practically unfamiliar with concepts like moisture or wetness.

worst place in the world to go mountain biking
I could ride here every damn day.

I’ve ridden in some cool spots like Whistler, BC. But the trails there didn’t make me think I’d hate returning to my local trails.

Seriously, This is What It’s Like to Ride the Whakarewarewa Forest

I started my ride out by renting a bike at Mountain Bike Rotorua, which is perched right at the edge of the trail area. My Giant Something-or-Other full-suspension bike, some packets of Gu and a map cost me $60 NZ for 2 hours, but I planned to go longer (they promised to make up the difference later). I brought my own pedals and a helmet. Just one thing: I was so eager to get out on the trails that I forgot to get a pump from the staff. This would come back to haunt me. No fault of theirs at all, and everyone was perfectly nice and accommodating.

Anyway, the trails meander uphill, but not consistently. They roll and dip upward. You might gain 100 feet of elevation but climb for 160 feet. Jeep roads radiate up the hill and intersect with the trails. Much of the singletrack is directional, with a general net loss of altitude. I guess locals go up the Jeep roads, then grab the trails on the way down.

So all these trail intersections make it really easy to get lost. And it’s easy to lose your place on the map. I made life harder by taking photos of the map before handing it over to my wife so she could hike – the important one came out blurry.

The trails themselves feature lots of changes of direction rather than relatively straight, fast runs. You’ll do a lot of steering, and you need to pay attention. There are steep chutes and the occasional drop-off. And you’re going to work hard: I climbed 1,800 feet in about 20 miles.

Worst Place in the World to Go Mountain Biking
My ride for the day

How was the Rental Bike?

A mixed bag. It was my first experience with a 650B/27.5 wheel. It thought it handled almost indistinguishable from a 26er, which is nice considering the sharp turns and switchbacks. It was also my first time on a 2X11 drivetrain, which I found really agreeable. This one wasn’t very well tuned, though, and the chain often wandered in the first two cogs. It probably worked fine in the bike stand, but things change when a drivetrain is under load.

I’ve been on the other side of this equation. There were a few creaks and groans throughout the whole package, too. The Fox fork worked well. Overall, the Giant just didn’t have that meticulously maintained feel of my personal bikes – but hey, what can you expect? It’s a rental, and it wasn’t built part-by-part by a guy like me. And it doesn’t get broken down to bare frame and rebuilt regularly like my bikes.

Tell Me About That Missing Pump

Welp. I got a flat. I had a patch kit, but I made the mistake of leaving port without a pump. I nearly brought my own on this trip (I also forgot to bring an SD card for my GoPro, so I took the ill-advised route of one-handed cellphone camera videos).

Anyway, I walked a good way looking for someone with a pump. I went through six riders before finding a few that had pumps. The upside is I got to banter with some nice people. My patch kit and borrowed pump saved the day; the Mountain Bike Rotorua staff seemed inordinately surprised that I used my own stuff to patch the bike up.

worst place in the world to go mountain biking
One of the many trails that make up the worst place in the world to go mountain biking

I wasn’t really thrilled to be out there without a pump, so I tried taking some roads as a shortcut back, and I got really damn lost on all those roads. And my blurry map photo was no help. I actually got to a place where I was clueless about my whereabouts, and I was genuinely nervous. I thought back to my training from Cody Lundin, and cultivated my "party on" spirit – which involved riding back to the last location where I knew where I was – even with legs about to cramp and no Gu left. Sure enough, that got me back where I needed to go. My 2-hour ride had ballooned to nearly 4 -- but the Mountain Bike Rotorua folks didn’t charge me for the extra time because of the flat.

So is Whakarewarewa Forest the Worst Place in the World to Go Mountain Biking?

Yes. I have a six-hour race the weekend after I get back from New Zealand. All I can think about is how I’m gonna keep from falling asleep of sheer boredom turning laps on this dry, dusty, barren expanse of trails. I mean, I had strep throat a week before my trip. I haven’t been training per se during my two-week trip. But hey – I’m not expected to win. And six hours isn’t that long for the physical effort. But man, mentally it will be hell after riding in the Whakarewarewa Forest. I’ve actually thought about not showing up, but I just can’t bring myself to not do something I signed up to do.

I suppose I’ll get over it and start taking my pleasure in my local rides again. But my wife and I have both the phrase “the next time we’re here” already, and you can bet I’ll have some serious mountain bike plans when that time comes. And may it be sooner than later.