First Impressions of a Titanium Mountain Bike

I’ve wanted a titanium mountain bike ever since I started mountain biking. Of course, 1993 Justin had no idea that, when he would eventually get his ti fighter, it would have 29-inch wheels, a single belt-driven gear and a tapered headtube. But that’s the form my long-awaited ti bike has taken.

titanium mountain bike
My first ride on a titanium mountain bike.

My experiment with belt-drive singlespeeds started with my Raleigh XXIX, which I built in 2013 as a leftover model from 2011. It convinced me that I could deal with a singlespeed on many of my local trails, and that belt drive is a very cool alternative to using a chain. The fun factor of the XXIX made me consider a nice steel frame -- I’d look for specs close to my Raleigh but with a touch more standover height, swap out the parts and call it good.

The Long Road to a Titanium Mountain Bike

I actually tried twice in recent years to buy custom steel frames (I’ll unspool those stories at a later time). I also considered a Burmese-made bamboo frame, but the company never quite convinced me on the quality front; I had a constant "caution" light flashing in my head.

In mid March, I stumbled upon a Domahidy Designs ti hardtail. The company is now known as Viral Bikes, and their only product at the moment is a titanium Pinion Drive hardtail called the Skeptic. They were (and probably still are) selling titanium frames from their previous incarnation as Domahidy Designs. The company owner and namesake, Steve Domahidy, also has a great reputation from his previous work as co-founder of Niner Bikes.

The price was super-attractive, and the build quality and handling had a very good reputation from all I could find online.

titanium mountain bike
Steve Domahidy committed to the belt drive … which was a big draw for me.

About the price – I could find ti frames slightly cheaper, but they’d require an upcharge and some time to build as a belt drive-compatible frame. I ultimately chose the Domahidy for two very big reasons:

First, I had more confidence buying a frame that was purposely designed as a belt-drive bike from the word go. I have a feeling that Steve Domahidy’s belief in that system will ultimately make this a “keep forever” bike just as much as the fact that it’s made from titanium. My gut tells me that he’s considered aspects of the belt drive’s impact on frame design beyond “sure, we can add a belt drive splitter.” That gives me a lot of confidence.

The second factor is incredibly important: When I shot an email to inquire about the frame, Steve replied within hours. He was enthusiastic and friendly through the entire email change, and he personally handled my order. And that’s to help a guy rooting around in the bargain basement of his offerings. This is sadly atypical in my experiences with other companies. An example: A few days before finding the Domahidy deal, I emailed another well-known titanium frame maker to ask about the possibility of getting one of their models in a belt-drive version. I didn’t hear from that company until after I’d placed my order with Domahidy. When they contacted me, I thanked them and explained the situation – and said that I’d always liked their bikes, and would keep them top of mind when it’s time to replace my 1999 Lemond Zurich road bike.

If I were in their position, my reply would’ve been something like “No worries, good luck with the new ride and we’ll be here when you’re ready for an awesome road frame.” But they actually didn’t reply. Since I never heard from them … well, it’s a little harder to get excited about them as a company. The takeaway here, Frame Makers, is be prompt and be friendly. Seriously, Be Like Steve. (I’ve since replaced my Lemond road bike with a Lynskey road plus bike — and not from the guys I’m talking about here.)

titanium mountain bike
The etched-into-the-head-tube approach to a head tube badge is quite cool.


As for the rest of my experience, Steve walked me through the process and set me up with a headset, extra dropout adaptors (allowing me to switch between hub and axle sizes) and a headset adaptor to allow my straight-steerer tubed fork to fit his tapered headtube. My titanium mountain bike frame was on its way!

It arrived about a week after placing the order, expertly packed and equipped with everything I needed to start. And it is an absolutely beautiful frame. How beautiful? I took it to a local shop erroneously thinking the headset needed to be pressed in – yes, it’s been a long time since I built a bike, and a few of the cool new standards are throwing me for a loop. This is a shop where it’s rare to see any bike with a pricetag less than $5,000. As the mechanic put it into the stand, nearly every other rider in the shop clustered around, saying stuff "Look at those welds!" and "That [drive-side] chainstay is badass!" This was a serious bunch of bike cognescenti, definitely not the sort of people to get excited about ho-hum bikes.

The Build

Holy cow, this thing went together so easily. I love the internal headset because you don’t need a headset press to install it. The brake line guides and routing are in the perfect place. The belt drive is the hardest part to set up, but that’s to be expected. I notice that the CenterTrack system is considerably noisier when it collects some dirt, where the previous version was dead silent. Maybe some wear to loosen the interface between that center ridge and the belt will help.

All the bolts related to the belt drive splitter and dropouts are big and solid. The frame tubes themselves are a larger diameter than you might usually see for titanium, looking almost like aluminum tubes rather than steel (the welds, of course, are a dead giveaway that it’s ti). There’s a “built to last” vibe about it all.

titanium mountain bike
Beefy hardware, clean welds. That’s what you’ll get with a Domahidy or a Viral Skeptic.

There’s just one thing I wonder: The bike is designed so you can add derailleur cable routing to the bottom of the downtube via what looks like water bottle bosses. Would it have been possible to add another one so that there could be a third water bottle boss? I’ll bet the long-distance hogs who would be interested in the Viral Skeptic would dig that as much as I would.

Hitting the Trails

So far, I’ve had it on a few rides. And I have had an immense amount of fun on both – the Domahidy handles beautifully. I don’t need to muscle it around nearly as much in the tight, technical stuff. I’ve noticed that it likes aggressive countersteering, pointing the knee into turns and aiming a bit more with the hips. It also has a remarkably gentle ride. It’s a subtle feeling of small shocks dissipating before they go shooting up the seatpost.

titanium mountain bike
And there’s a look at the drive splitter.

I have a pretty good amount of Strava data on both rides. On one 2-mile climb on the first ride, I beat my previous fastest time by 1:20. I wasn’t trying to – I was just riding at the pace that seemed right. Same deal on another 7-mile section -- about two minutes faster, and that’s with climbing and extending sections of downhill. It was solid on tricky, twisty downhills, too – I PRd my time on a 1.2-mile mostly downhill run by about 2.5 minutes. This was all apples-to-apples singlespeed-versus-singlespeed data.

What about pitting the Domahidy against my Santa Cruz Superlight? I recently did the Six Hours in the Papago race, so I had a lot of data about the area. I wasn’t willing to ride the duller bits just for the sake of collecting data, but I did have some interesting takeaways: fastest-ever time on a 1-mile downhill by about 20 seconds; second-fastest time up the steepest climb on the course (keep in mind we’re also talking about geared versus singlespeed in the steep stuff); 20 seconds faster on another steep hill. I doubt I could sustain this through multiple laps, but I still think these numbers are a good indicator that the bike fits well and makes me better in certain situations.

Want more comparison data from Strava? I did a head-to-head test with the Dohamidy and the Santa Cruz. It’s pretty enlightening!

More Than Just a Great Titanium Mountain Bike

After all the years drooling over them, I’m excited to have a titanium mountain bike. Its differences are subtle but noticeable, adding up to a riding experience that is definitely what I hoped it would be. I’m also glad I found the Domahidy – buying from the company now known as Viral Bikes was a very positive experience. Steve clearly cares about the quality of his products. If you’re considering a Viral Skeptic, you’ll feel very good about spending money with Viral just because of the service. And you’ll like them even better after you spend some time riding one of their bikes.

And let me add this: I trashed the rear wheel (the third WTB wheel I’ve mangled in recent history). Since ordering one from a local shop, I’ve been waiting. And not being able to ride the Domahidy has made me a little … testy. Sure, my Santa Cruz is still solid. But there’s just a little extra fun about any good new bike – and the titanium magic seems to take that up a few notches.

 

Review: Lufthansa 747-8i

Right now, the Boeing 747-8i is one of the coolest, newest airliners flying. People who are into air travel should put this on their "must fly" list.

This October, I got to fly in a 747-8i to Frankfurt Airport from O’Hare Airport and back. Lufthansa was my airline of choice. And I know that air travel nerds like me will want to know what the 8i is like.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Our 747-8i parks next to another one.

What’s the Deal?

If you like air travel as much as I do, you probably already know what’s so cool about the 747-8i. But for the rest of you might need some background: The 8i is built on concepts learned from the 787 Dreamliner. It’s incredibly fuel efficient thanks to new engines and a wing that sweeps upward steeply, especially after takeoff. It’s also the longest passenger airplane flying.

Inside, it’s all slick modern goodness, from LED lighting to fairly spacious lavatories to huge overhead luggage bins. And on-demand entertainment at every seat, of course.

How Did I Like the 747-8i?

On both flights, I had seat 34A, right up against a bulkhead and behind the wing and engines. So this wasn’t a quiet place to be.

747-8i
A look at the 747-8i cabin.

Our choice of seat was based on getting a bassinet for our 9-month-old daughter. The flight attendants attached it to the wall after takeoff, and the little person got some quality sleep.

The on-demand entertainment worked perfectly and included some cool extra programming, like short documentaries offering looks inside Lufthansa operations, in addition to movies, TV and sports. I would’ve loved some German language lessons.

This was also a very comfortable slimline seat. Usually, my buttcheeks get achy and numb  starting at about 5 hour. I had no problems at all on these 8-and-a-half hour flights.

747-8i
The 747-8i has some comfortable coach seats.

Boeing wisely skipped the Dreamliner-style window dimmers and opted for traditional shades. There are also power plugs at every seat, including a USB port. The USB port did seem to have an oddly loose fit with our cables, though.

What Complaints Do I Have?

No plane is perfect, not even the 747-8i. It didn’t have air nozzles at the seats to cool you off. This could be a problem if one gets left in the sun to bake; this is a trait it shares with the Airbus A330.

There are also some problems with the bassinet and retractable video screens and tray tables. They can interfere with each other, and their appears to be some inconsistency: It wasn’t a problem on the first flight -- a minor bit of Tetris allowed me to move the tray and monitor without moving the bassinet. The second plane. though – the monitor didn’t rotate as far, so I was out of luck.

747-8i
These slots on the bulkhead are where the flight attendants can mount a bassinet. I’ve probably seen these on other planes, but never thought about it before being a dad.

I also have yet to find a plane like the Asiana 777 that has self-serve water fountains. That is so much better than waiting for shot glass-sized water cups from the flight attendants. Why every airline doesn’t do that is beyond me. One thing I noticed in Europe is that people don’t drink water like we do in the U.S., especially in Arizona. So this could be partially a culture thing.

Summing Up the 747-8i

This is a graceful, elegant aircraft in spite of its size. Generally, I think all aircraft are industrial art forms. But the 747-8i is especially pleasing to my eye. It extra-awesome when you see the wings flex upward as the plane lifts off.

747-8i
The small person tests the bulkhead-mounted bassinet – her review was pretty favorable.

Strictly from the passenger experience, though, the Dreamliner still has a modern, starship-like mojo that tops even the 747-8i. And there’s that aforementioned Asiana 777 that I love so much. I probably won’t make a huge effort to get aboard a 747-8i in the future since the Dreamliner and 777 (depending on the individual airline’s configuration and service, to be sure) are out there. And I have yet to fly an A-380, so my next Lufthansa booking will probably be on an A-380 of my schedule allows. And yes, I’d fly Lufthansa to Europe again in a second.

Be sure to check my other review for Lufthansa; it focuses on the airline’s kid-friendly flight attendants and amenities.

HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review

I have a great guest post from Debbie Lee for you today. Debbie is the community manager at Trippy.com, a really fun travel site that I frequent. She was headed to Germany just after HolidayPhone asked me to review their product. Since I didn’t have any upcoming travel plans, I asked Debbie to write this HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. She has some great observations and also took all the photos in this post. Enjoy! -Justin

For someone who’s traveled extensively and is pretty tech-savvy, one thing has remained a mystery to me since the advent of smartphones: how to access data affordably on my iPhone while traveling internationally.  I already have enough trouble doing that at home, much less overseas in a foreign land.

When I’m staying in one country for longer than a week, I just buy a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone.  There’s a slight bit of hassle in doing this because you have to research which wireless provider works best, which plan makes the most economical sense, and then you actually have to find a store that carries that SIM card and possibly attempt to buy it without knowing the local language (usually not a problem at the airport for English speakers, but possibly an issue at stores outside of the airport).  Once you get the SIM card, though, it’s typically smooth sailing from there.
HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review
Driving around Germany with the HolidayPhone SIM card.

Last summer when I visited Europe, though, I was staying in Italy for 4 days, then Switzerland for another 6. Since I was country-hopping, it didn’t seem worth it to buy local SIM cards for such short periods of time, so I just called up my wireless provider to put me on an international plan. When I got home and looked at my phone bill, it was the most horrible thing ever. And the worst part was that the data speed was never fast, so I vowed to never do that again if I could help it.

This past month, I found myself in the same boat, where I’d be country-hopping in Europe, and I was determined not to end up with a huge phone bill and to get my phone situation squared before I left home. So I posted a question asking what the best SIM card to use across Europe would be on Trippy.com (I’m the community manager there!), to which Wandering Justin reached out to me about the opportunity to write a HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. Despite the mixed reviews that I had read online about them, I decided to give it a shot.
Prior to leaving for Europe, and even when I first got there, I wasn’t exactly sure what countries I would be visiting (I like being able to be spontaneous!). I just knew that I would be flying in and out of Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Other countries I thought I might be visiting were the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Poland, so I had wanted to find a SIM card that worked for all, or most of those countries.

First Look at the HolidayPhone Package

After informing HolidayPhone about my possible travel plans, I was sent a tracking code; a few days later, I received my HolidayPhone package, which included SIM cards for Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands, and even a mobile hotspot device so that friends could tether off of it. They mailed it to me in San Francisco all the way from Sweden. I was super excited to test them out!
When I landed at the Frankfurt Airport for a layover, I took the opportunity to test out my Germany SIM card from Blau Mobilfunk, a presumably smaller wireless provider that I wasn’t familiar with. No matter how many times I entered in the PIN number and subsequently PUK code provided on the card, though, it just would not work. Through the airport wifi, I emailed Melina, the HolidayPhone rep whose business card was included in my package, about my issue. She and another colleague, Daniel, attempted to help me troubleshoot, but to no avail.  Then randomly when I was on the tarmac to head to my next destination, my entering of the PIN number finally worked. Perhaps it just didn’t work in the airport? We’ll never know. But the SIM card did start to work outside of the airport.
HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review
Here’s Debbie trading her city girl status for some time in rural Germany.

By the way, I do have to give Melina and Daniel extra kudos here — this was Christmas day when I emailed them and they got back to me within hours. Seeing that it was Christmas, I would’ve understood if they had gotten back to me the next day, so that’s great customer service right there.

I wish that the actual Blau Mobilfunk SIM card was as good as their customer service, though.  I ended up not going to any other countries, but decided to do a cross country road trip through Germany instead, so I only used the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card.
My home base was in the little farming town of Greven, which is pretty rural. I occasionally connected to a 3G network out there, which felt like I was using dial up internet. That was something I could tolerate as I understood the limitations of living on a farm.  Unfortunately, most of the time, the connected network was E or GPRS and sometimes there was No Service, rendering data transmission impossible on my phone, so Blau Mobilfunk was pretty much unusable where I was staying. I thought it was due to me living on a farm, but when local friends came to visit, the data on their T-Mobile and Vodafone networks worked just fine.  Those are two wireless providers I’ve actually heard of, which makes me wonder why HolidayPhone chose Blau Mobilfunk over them.
When I went on my cross country road trip, I got 3G data in the heart of the major cities, like Munster, Hamburg and Berlin, which was about as fast as dial-up Internet. Unfortunately, when I was actually on the road on the major highways and freeways, it was back on E, GPRS, and occasionally No Service, meaning that we couldn’t research anything on the road, stream music or get addresses and directions (we had in-dash navigation, but there were a few instances where it was incorrect and we needed Google Maps). I wasn’t sure if this was a Germany thing, or if it was a Blau Mobilfunk thing, though after comparing with my local friends’ phone connectivity, I’m pretty sure it was the latter.
Then there was the mobile hotspot device — the ZTE MF65 Mobile WiFi Router.  When I was in places where I had 3G connection, I would pop my unlocked SIM card into the device; but despite me following all the directions that were provided to me, it continually said that there was no SIM card or that it was unrecognizable. I was just testing it out for the sake of testing it out because they sent it to me, but fortunately, I was able to tether my other wireless devices directly off of my iPhone with the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card in it … when I had 3G connection, of course.

Wrapping up the HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review

The SIM card that I received was data-only, and I got 1 GB of data at 3G speeds that would be valid for 30 days. I felt like I had barely used the data (most of it was spent waiting for pages to load, or loading to “Please connect to the Internet” and “Server could not be reach” pages) before I received a text that said my 1 GB at 3G speeds was up just four days into my trip. This package is supposed to be $43.90, which I definitely would not have paid for such unreliable service. To add on the mobile hotspot device was another $79.99, which, as I mentioned earlier, didn’t even work.
This is all unfortunate because I really wanted to love HolidayPhone and was hoping that they were the answer to my prayers. I think that they’re really onto something here with their service and that the concept is great. I’m willing to pay a little extra money to have a local SIM card already on me when I arrive at a destination. It definitely takes the hassle out of things and is one less thing to worry about when there are so many other things going on during international travel. Unfortunately, their choice in wireless providers was not up to par with my fairly reasonable expectations; I had simply expected them to send me something that, for the most part, worked and was reliable.
The next time I travel overseas, I may just sign up for a T-Mobile month-to-month account at home as they seem to have decent international plans. People keep telling me that it gets slow after a certain point (as explained on the T-Mobile site), but after this experience, I can deal with slow data, so long as it’s reliable.
If anyone has any suggestions for what I or anyone who’s country-hopping should check out, please do comment!

Sol Republic Tracks Air Headphones Review

Tracks Air Headphones
Make a long flight better with wireless Tracks Air headphones.

After too many miles of travel and too many good, hard hits, my old JVC headphones broke. Not too surprising – they’d traveled from New Zealand to Norway with me. With their demise, I was stuck in that limbo of indecision that comes from being under-equipped in audio gear knowledge. Then Sol Republic offered me a chance to review their Tracks Air headphones.

These Bluetooth-equipped headphones sounded like a good bet – no wires to tangle me up when I fly, a 100-day, money-back guarantee -- Sol Republic seemed confident in their product, so I said "sure!"

First Look at the Tracks Air Headphones

And then they arrived in a classy looking box. This was my first time using anything via Bluetooth, and I worried it would give me problems. But four minutes after slicing the box open,  the Pandora app on my Android phone piped some Tarot tracks into the Sol Republic headphones. I wandered all over the house, leaving the phone in my secluded, top-secret computer room – and the music kept coming until I walked outside. Impressive range! I also used my Amazon cloud player, and everything worked perfectly. Sound quality? I’m not an audiophile, just a guy who played guitar in a loud heavy metal band for a long time. And I can appreciate the difference between MP3 and WAV files in a second. With that out of the way, the Sol Republic Tracks Air sound quality pleased my ear.

Tracks Air Headphones
Yes, this is Alex – the guy I turn to for advice whenever I need consumer electronics advice. Don’t let the bunny ears fool you.

I should also note that my wife – who usually doesn’t care about headphones – nearly conked me on the head to steal the Tracks Air headphones.

Second and Third Opinions on the Tracks Air Headphones

The next day, I took the Tracks Air headphones to work for a master’s evaluation. My work buddy, Alex, is a hardcore, trade show-attending, audio nerd. I turned the Tracks Air headphones over to him with no instructions manual and just said "This is the power button, this is the volume button – let me know what you think."

Fifteen minutes later, he was at my desk with a few thoughts. First off, the Tracks Air headphones synced easily to his Windows phone. He called up a playlist he specifically uses for evaluating headphones, and here’s how Alex summed up the audio quality:

"This is better than Beats by Dr. Dre. I rate this 9 out of 10 chicken wings! I’d be happy to pay for these."

He wouldn’t mind a touch more bass response -- but only the barest amount. He also loved the Bluetooth feature.

"When you’re in the kitchen deep-frying up a bunch of chicken, you don’t want wires dipping into that," he said (and yes, everything is all about food with him). "You think I’m joking?"

Another co-worker slipped them on, listened for a bit and then ordered a pair of Sol Republic headphones as a Christmas present for her boyfriend.

But hey, this is my review! I can’t wait to travel with these – they sound great, they’re easy to use and I love the idea of not being wrapped in a cord while in my airline seat. Here’s something else – it uses the same Type B micro USB plug as nearly every electronic item I own – Android phone, Kindle, Android phone, chargers -- really, everything but my Pentax K-50 DSLR camera. This is huge for me. Using my phone’s Bluetooth doesn’t seem to drain the battery at an absurd rate. Speaking of battery life, charging the Tracks Air headphones via the USB cable gives a charge it says is good for 13 hours of listening.

The Tracks Air headphones also have controls on the right earpiece. There’s a power button, a volume button and a multi-function button. With these, you can so all the obvious stuff, plus skip songs and take phone calls. There are mics built into the headphones, which makes the phone calls easy to deal with. The buttons are large enough and placed well – even I didn’t get irritated at them (unlike the weird buttons and layout on my Sansa MP3 player). They also seem much more solid than my old JVC headphones – they don’t fold up, so the Tracks Air headphones take up a bit more space. For the fit and durability, though, that’s a fine trade-off.

If you’re thinking about new headphones, give the Tracks Air a shot. If you don’t like ‘em? Well, take advantage of the 100-day money-back guarantee and find other headphones that work for you. But I’m betting you’ll keep a hold of them.

Sol Republic provided the Tracks Air headphones or review. All opinions are the product are my own.

American Airlines Review – 4 Domestic Flights

American Airlines review
English: DFW American Airlines Departure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never done an American Airlines review – I don’t live in one of its hub cities, so I rarely fly it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I needed to grab a last-minute flight to Washington, D.C. United and American Airlines were dollars away from each other. From there, my choice came down to fleet versus flight times. And the American Airlines schedule worked in my favor, so it was my choice for these flights (PHX-DFW, DFW-BWI – BWI-ORD, ORD-PHX).

Here are a few thoughts that should give you an American Airlines review that covers more than a few bases, from social media to check in.

The American Airlines Fleet

As I mentioned earlier, fleet is often a deciding factor. And American Airlines does not have one of my favorite fleets; its MD-80 planes are long in the tooth at best – American Airlines may call it the Super 80, but there’s little super about it. I poked some fun at the Mad Dog-80 with this Twitter message.

Justin Schmid ‏@wandering_j23h

.@AmericanAir should dress its flight crews in steampunk clothes to match its raggedy MD-80s. #travel #airlines #avgeek

American Airlines responded with this tweet:

American Airlines ‏@AmericanAir23h

@wandering_j Justin, our fleet is evolving! Check here for more info: http://bit.ly/AAEvolution

American Airlines review
I still haven’t flown a shiny American Airlines 777 for an intercontinental flight. Fodder for a future review?

Fair play to American Airlines for the response, and a friendly exchange of follow-up tweets. I’d like to think that anyone involved in social media got a giggle out of the notion of steampunked flight attendants. Bottom line, though, my recent domestic flight on a United Airlines Dreamliner was a big difference from the American Airlines Mad Dog. Planes change the game for some people, and a few hours of difference in schedule could’ve made American Airlines lose this booking. On the plus side: It’s easy to avoid middle seats on an MD-80 because of its 2-3 seat configuration. It’s also a quiet ride if you’re up front, but a roaring beast in the back.

Where American Airlines Gets Technology Right

When I boarded my flight, I peered into the all-analog cockpit of the MD-80 and noticed that the first officer had an iPad docked on the instrument panel (the captain may have, too, but I didn’t have the angle). I guessed it was a supplement to paper charts. I was close: The iPad is a complete replacement for paper charts and manuals. An article in American Way, the American Airlines inflight magazine, gives some interesting stats:

  • 400,000 gallons of fuel savings from reduced weight
  • 24 million fewer pages printed
  • Electronic updates save hours versus hand-written updates of paper manuals

Before flying, I also downloaded the American Airlines Android app. I hadn’t gotten an email confirmation for my flight, and I wanted to cover all my bases. The app worked beautifully, which scores some points in my American Airlines review. It presented no problems for the TSA agents, nor for the gate agents. It reminded me of last year’s flights in Scandinavia, when upwards of 90 percent of passengers on my flights boarded with smart phones. Also, American Airlines updated the (admittedly paltry) miles in my account quite quickly.

In the Air

I didn’t interact much with the flight attendants. There was no meal service on any of my flights, and I filled my 24-ounce water bottle before boarding each leg. It was mostly just a nap-and-read affair for me. The flight attendant on the flight from BWI to O’Hare managed to get some chuckles for his wordplay during the safety speech (I’ve noticed a pattern lately – some really good FAs on regional jets).

American Airlines Review Bottom Line

The fleet renewal can’t come soon enough for me. American Airlines scores points with a website that I find easy to use, even when cashing in frequent flier miles. A few years ago, I snagged a first class upgrade for AAdvantage miles – and the transaction was smooth as a curling rock’s bottom. Better planes can give American Airlines a leg up against the shiny United Airlines fleet that I’ve enjoyed so much for domestic trips.

I have mixed feelings about the potential merger with US Airways, my current hometown airline. I like the US Airways Star Alliance airlines far better than the oneworld counterparts.

Wrapping it up, I haven’t flown a long-haul flight on American. I have a hard time handing my cash over to a US-based airline for an intercontinental flight when I have a wealth of evidence that foreign carriers trounce them in Economy-equivalent class: Qantas and Asiana Airlines brutally pasted United Airlines in my recent intercontinental flights. Even the relatively so-so SAS comprehensively outperformed United Airlines. So, I can’t say much about what American Airlines offers those riding in the back. Who knows, though? Maybe that’ll be the topic of a future American Airlines review.

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787 Dreamliner: Regular Guy’s Review

787 Dreamliner
A United Dreamliner preps for a flight from Houston to Phoenix.

(UPDATE: I now have a more thorough 787 Dreamliner review for a nice, long US-to-Japan flight.) By now, just about every elite blogger has scored a free ride on the 787 Dreamliner. But what’s the Boeing wunderflugzeug like for a regular guy who pays for a cheap seat? Find out!

How I Caught a Flight
I needed to be in Chicago, and I was on my own for the flight. I could’ve caught a direct flight on any number of airlines, but I picked United Airlines since it flies a 787 Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago O’Hare. I paid marginally more for the flight than I would have for a direct flight. But hey -- I had to find out what’s up with the 787 Dreamliner. (If you want to fly the Dreamliner, check this list of airlines and routes using the 787.)

Step 1 involved a flight on an Embraer regional jet from Phoenix next to a couple of guys who sounded exactly like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. The flight had a particularly good flight attendant. This is just a small thing: She saw that I emptied the tiny cup of water from the beverage service into my 24-ounce sports bottle – and she offered to give me a second cup. I thanked her, but said I didn’t want to hog all the water. She promised to return if she had some left over. She stopped by awhile later and topped me off. Again, it’s just a small thing. But it was a nice thing to do.

787 Dreamliner
An unstaged look inside a working Dreamliner cabin. Notice the windows?

Boarding the Future of Aviation?
The 787 Dreamliner will catch your eye if you have any interest in design at all. Its nose is sleek. The wingtips rake up, but are not quite as dramatic in person. The engines are huge. The total package just looks modern and built to fly.

When I boarded, there was a "new plane" smell along with a very J.J. Abrams-era Star Trek flavor to the interior – clean white bulkheads, soft-colored lighting, smooth lines everywhere, a touch-screen on-demand entertainment system. I had to pass through first class on my way back. I got a bit envious, but I think the main cabin is the real test of any airplane or airline.

I noticed the on-demand system had a USB port – I presume you could charge gadgets from it. A label on the seatback said there was another outlet between the seats. I couldn’t find it, but I didn’t look very hard (a more thorough search may have seemed creepy to my neighbor).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the upswept wing and cool raked wingtips.

Oh, and how ‘bout those big windows? The 787 Dreamliner windows are notably bigger than any airliner window. It makes it easy to gaze out the window – especially for tall guys. The dimmer function is cool, too: Rather than a window shade to pull down, there’s a button to control the window’s opacity. Nice!

What about comfort? Well, my 34-inch inseam legs had a good bit of distance from the seat next to me. The adjustable head rest was also a nice touch. I managed to fall asleep for awhile and woke up refreshed.

Getting in the Air
The calm, automated voice for routine announcements adds to the Star Trek flavor of the 787 Dreamliner.

Then there’s the engine start and its high-pitched, electronic-sounding whine. It’s noticeable – but even sitting in the first row forward of the wing’s trailing edge, I could hear every word my two neighbors said to each other (Every.Single.One.Of.Them.).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the sleekest nose flying.

Boeing has a lot to say about one aspect of the 787 Dreamliner: its carbon fuselage allows it to have more humidity, plus the air pressure feels more like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet of most other airplanes. As much as I like flying, my head often feels fuzzy after flying. I had none of that feeling when I landed – I’d love to see if this holds up on a longer flight.

The beverage service was pretty efficient. The cabin crew was nice enough – nothing to stand out either way.

I didn’t get up to wander the cabin, so there’s one crucial bit of long-haul knowledge I didn’t acquire: Does the 787 Dreamliner have a place to refill water bottles like the Qantas 747 and the Asiana Airlines 777? I love being able to refill on my own during intercontinental flights.

What About Those Problems?
The 787 Dreamliner has had some niggles. But think about this: What if the 747 or DC-10 launched during an age when the news cycle never ends and every disgruntled customer could use social media as a cudgel against any perceived wrong? Yeah – it would be a lot like what the Dreamliner is going through.

The 787 Dreamliner and its technology will change the way we fly in some small but important ways. More fuel efficiency is good for the airlines. Lower carbon emissions benefit us all. And more comfort in the cabin is great for the passengers.

I’d happily sign up for a Dreamliner flight again knowing everything it’s gone through, whether it’s headed to Albuquerque or Auckland.

And here’s something else: If I have a choice between a 787 Dreamliner or any other plane, I’ll pick the 787 first.

Mountain Bike Reviews – Why They Suck

mountain bike review, x-fusion
The often-ignored X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2 gets some love on this site.

I hate mountain bike reviews. I hate them in magazines. I hate them on websites. And I double-dog hate them in podcasts.

But, but, but -- I do love quality mountain bike gear. I’m the target audience for mountain bike gear reviews. Why do I hate them so? Let’s count the reasons:

Most mountain bike reviews are less about gear and more about the author. Gear reviewers plunge into JargonVille to convince readers that they know their stuff. They spend valuable space saying "hey, I can use all sorts of barely comprehensible language. So I’m worthy of this gig, and you should believe me!" And many vomit up a bunch of marketing language from the manufacturer. The result? I skip most of the middle.

Those who write mountain bike reviews have lost all sense of perspective. I recently saw a review of a $600+ wheelset that the reviewer considers "mid-priced." And I’ve seen too many $3,000 bikes called "reasonably priced" lately. That’s a hefty bit of bucks, bones, clams or whatever you call them. But magazines and many websites are advertiser driven, so they have to do everything to convince advertisers that they can influence YOU, the reader, to spend spend spend. Part of the strategy? An ever-rising line of what’s considered a moderate price.

mountain bike reviews, Clarks Skeletal disc brakes.
Clarks Skeletal disc brakes – they deserve a flogging that the mainstream mountain bike media never delivered.

I haven’t run into a mountain bike review that tells me the bottom line: how Product X will make my ride better or make me better. Is this a product that a racer needs that just might make her edge that other person in the pro class, that one who’s just as good as she is? Or is this something that will make you sweat less about maintenance, and remove a barrier that might prevent you from squeezing in a ride each week? Or is this something that will make you able to ride in a new way that you haven’t been able to tap into yet? That’s what I want from the bottom line of mountain bike gear reviews.

Most of the better-known publications and sites play it safe with mountain bike reviews. They stick to the big, expensive items from the well-known manufacturers. I’ll give props to Mountain Flyer magazine here. Yes, it has many of the usual suspects. But I’ve also run into below-the-radar offerings like the Foundry Broadaxe and REEB Bicycles in its pages. I like that spirit of discovery, and more magazines and sites need to find those up-and-comers. (Hint: It’s no coincidence that some of those new players also spend less on advertising and have fewer products to send for review) But I’d also like to see more gear reviews from varied price points. And here’s a great example: Dirt Rag previewed a set of Clarks Skeletal disc brakes … and never delivered the full review (If you have evidence otherwise, send it my way – I never saw it). Why? Because magazines are afraid to publish bad mountain bike reviews – unlike me!

Here I am complaining about mountain bike reviews – and now here I am pitching in with my own solution: When I write reviews here, I will keep them free of ridiculous jargon. I will tell you whether it’s a luxury product or a true must-have. I will keep a sense of perspective. And I’ll try very hard to find products that everyone overlooks … and that offer a good value.

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adidas Boost Running Shoe – Gear Review

adidas Boost running shoes
Taking a little run in my adidas Boost shoes.

The most comfortable footwear I own is a pair of adidas Copa Mundial soccer shoes – or boots, to you Europhiles.

So it surprises me that in 10+ years of running, I’ve never owned a pair of adidas running shoes. I’ve gone by the recommendations of local running store staff members to find the best running shoes for me. They made me run in front of them, gathered info about my style and presented a few choices – mostly of a pretty neutral sort (apparently, my stride has no outstanding characteristics). I tried them on, run around a bit and picked the winner.

I’ve been in Nike, Saucony, Pearl Izumi, Brooks and maybe a few others. But never adidas. Why all the switching? Well, I’d what seems like the best running shoe for me … and then the companies would change something about them and I’d have to start the search over.

A few months ago, Sports Chalet contacted me about testing the adidas Boost running shoes. That happened just as my Pearl Izumi shoes were falling apart. And I was happy to get a shot to try adidas running shoes.

I’ve now put enough miles on them to have an informed opinion. Here are a few observations in no particular order.

English: Adidas Copa Mundial Football Boot Deu...
Black, simple, all business: Are the Boost shoes the running equal of the Copa Mundial?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are the lightest running shoes I’ve tried. They’re even lighter than the various pairs of water shoes I use to keep my feet cool in the summer weather. I noticed it from the first step. My feet felt like they moved just a tiny bit faster.

Along with the light weight, the adidas Boost is also a very well-ventilated shoe. Despite the black color, my feet always feel cool. And yes, that even means on today’s 5-miler in 90-degree weather.

Speaking of that black color – if Darth Vader took up running half-marathons, he’d approve of the styling. Unlike many of the garish running shoes for sale, the adidas Boost is the Copa Mundial of the running world. All business, but perhaps a bit more sleek.

I’m used to fairly cushioned shoes. The adidas Boost isn’t quite minimalist, but it’s a step between some of the new stripped-down, almost-barefoot shoes and some of the plush offerings.

adidas boost
A close up look … I had to shoo the cat away a few times to snap this photo.

The adidas Boost seems narrow. I have to unlace it pretty well to get my foot in there – and my foot is on the narrow side, too. The short laces add to the narrow feel. I have to be careful not to clamp down too hard on the laces. Another word on the laces – they’re pretty skinny. That made my instep feel a lot of pressure when I laced up tight enough. It’s a sensation that I forget about once I’m about a half-mile into my run. But I wouldn’t mind wider laces to distribute the pressure.

The fit impresses me. I don’t feel my foot roll around, and there’s no fore-and-aft motion causing my heels or toes to rub in an uncomfortable way.

Are the adidas Boost the best running shoes ever? It’s tough for me to say “best” about anything. But I’d buy a pair when I wear these out. I’d lean toward using them for 5- and 10k races … and probably opt for a more cushioned shoe for half-marathon distances.

Thanks to Sport Chalet for supplying a pair of adidas Boost running shoes for review. All opinions are my own.

 

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X-Fusion 29er Fork – Slide 29 Gear Review -UPDATED

The group-think that can plague mountain bike culture led me to the new X-Fusion 29er fork. Many riders think you have to ride a 29er; you have to be on Strava. And of course, you absolutely must ride a RockFoxZocchi. (SCROLL TO BOTTOM FOR AN UPDATE)

Which is ridiculous. There are great alternatives out there, and I’ve uncovered one of the best deals in mountain bike forks in the X-Fusion Shox Slide 29 RL2.

Why Be Different?

So, why not skip the X-fusion 29er fork and just get a Fox? Fox makes great mountain bike forks. I’ve ridden a Fox Float R for six years and had it rebuilt once.

Well, the cheapest Fox fork I could find was $600 – more than I wanted to lay out for building my Raleigh XXIX frame into a belt-drive singlespeed mountain bike. You can pick up an X-Fusion 29er fork for about $400 – a great deal for a mountain bike fork. That’s enough extra clams to get a GoPro Helmet Hero so you can make bad mountain bike videos.

A side view of the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2 on my Raleigh XXIX, X-fusion 29er
A side view of the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2 on my Raleigh XXIX

Setting Up the X-fusion 29er 

I have a good home shop. But no headset press. I turned to a local shop for installation. Good thing, too – the tapered steerer tube combined awkwardly with the Cane Creek headset I planned to use. There was friction while turning the handlebar, and we couldn’t adjust it out. The shop staff put in a Chris King NoThreadSet as an experiment. The result? No friction. A bigger hit in the wallet. But I at least wound up with a cool gold headset.

I guessed at air pressure based on the manual’s 50-150 PSI range. I put it at 100, figuring it might be slightly soft. Did I do the whole bike geek "put a zip tie on the stanchion tube and get on the bike and see if it sags 20 percent into its travel"? Hell, no. The bike stand isn’t real life. Make an educated guess. Take your mountain bike for a ride. Bring a shock pump. Fork blows through its travel? Add some air. You bounce around like a Ping-Pong ball on ice? Let some air out. Done.

Let’s Ride!

On my first ride aboard the newly built Raleigh XXIX, I had questions. Do I have the Gates Carbon Drive Dialed in? Did I install the Stan’s tubeless conversion right? And will this crazy X-Fusion 29er fork detonate into a thousand pieces?

X-Fusion-BIKE Mag Ad, X-fusion 29er

Eight rides in, I’m alive. Looking forward to my next ride. Happy that I didn’t shell out 30 percent more moolah for -- a difference in performance that’s indistinguishable from my Fox FLOAT R. The 100 pounds of air pressure was on the money. I backed off a click on the rebound damping, and the fork was dialed.

Oil marks on the stanchion tubes tell me I’m getting a lot of the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL’s 100mm of travel (it also comes in 80- and 120-mm). But no harsh bottoming. No wiggly steering performance. What’s not to like?

Niggles and Nitpicks

The Slide 29 emits a conspicuous hiss when I smack it into a square-edged obstacle. It reminds me a bit of air-sprung shocks of an earlier era that were notorious for the hiss (Old-timers will remember  "Amp-physema"). But my air pressure checks show no noticeable drop in air pressure. So the air is staying put.

Also, the Slide 29 stanchion tubes attract gunk more than my Fox Float R. That might mean seals with a sloppier tolerance. Or I could be a fork hypochondriac.

The decals will look thrashed in a few months. I’ll probably wind up peeling them off, rubbing the residue off and winding up with a Spinal Tap "how much more black could it be?" look.

Where Do They Go Now?

After just short of two months, I like my X-Fusion 29er fork a lot. I hope I still like it as much after six months – if I do, I’ll say "Buy without Reservations". It looks good now, but time will tell. Right now, I ride my Raleigh XXIX and come home happy. That’s what it’s all about.

A close-up of the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2, X-fusion 29er
A close-up of the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2

The hard part is in X-Fusion’s court. It has to make a case with bike manufacturers’ product manager to get spec’d on bikes. They need to make a performance case and a business case. With the brand loyalty and economic power of Fox, Rock Shox et al, that could be difficult.

X-FUSION 29er UPDATE NOV. 9, 2013

A problem cropped up with my X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2. Here’s what I sent to X-Fusion:

Hi there. I’ve been riding a Slide 29 RL2 since February. It’s been a great fork, but I have a problem and wanted to see what you’d recommend. 

Here’s the situation: I did some work on my brakes yesterday, and had to remove the caliper from the threaded mount on the fork. The problem occurred when I re-installed the caliper. As I was tightening one of the bolts, I felt it something give and I could tell that somehow the threads had stripped. I removed the bolt and sure enough had some metal come out. Before I started tightening, I had the bolt lined up properly and there was no unusual resistance that would indicate cross-threading. 
If this info helps, I was using an old set of Hayes 9 hydraulic discs. I’ve also attached some photos. Do you have any advice that can get this fork back on the trail?
X-Fusion replied with advice to use a longer bolt on the affected mount. That’s a workable solution since only a few millimeters of thread are damaged. If more of the threads were trashed, we’d be in real trouble. The mounts are molded into the fork’s lowers, unlike the mounts on my Rock Shox fork (its mounts bolt to the lowers). So if this problem gets worse, I’m looking at a new set of lowers. Not really ideal. My guess is that the molded lowers let X-Fusion keep the price a bit lower. But it might be worth a few extra clams to have removable mounts.
Oh, and X-Fusion responded to my question within hours. I deducted points for the molded-in mounts on the Slide 29 RL2 (a factor I hadn’t considered before). But the company earned points back for being responsive.
  • 20 Signs You’re Addicted to Mountain Biking

Hot Yoga in Scottsdale – My Review

English: Bikram Yoga
This is not Hot Yoga University, because taking photos in yoga class is kind of creepy. But you’ll do stuff like this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a terrible yoga dude. First, I absolutely will not call myself a "yogi" (though I’d love to somehow earn the title "swami"). And I have a low tolerance for the baggage that comes along with yoga: If you get all New Agey on me, I will laugh – openly. If you turn yoga classes into Janet Reno’s Dance Party, I will find a new studio. Straight up.

This means I hope Hot Yoga University stays exactly as it is. Does that mean it’s perfect? No – but it’s close enough. Let’s take a look at this much-needed addition to South Scottsdale -- and why I like it so much after five classes.

1. It’s a hot yoga class, as you probably guessed from the name. I like the extra challenge from the heat. You burn more calories, you get a deeper stretch. Local yoga folks will immediately think of Sumits, which offers hot yoga all over the Valley. You’ll see more about how it stacks up to Sumits later.

2. It’s reasonably priced -- especially for a hot yoga classes. I did the new student special -- $20, 20 days unlimited. Drop-in classes are an impressive $10. I defy you to beat that anywhere, hot yoga or not. Four classes in, I’m convinced Hot Yoga University is not just cheap yoga – it’s good yoga.

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Rise Energy Foods, Tested On the Besseggen Trail in Norway

A perfect place and perfect time for testing the Rise energy food bars.

A boxful of Rise energy foods got me through two of my big days in a recent trip to Norway. It was only my second experience with the Rise energy bar – the first was the time I found one of its “Crunchy Carob Chip” bars at a local bike shop. I am a sucker for carob (the pudgy 12-year-old me used to love carob ice cream from Haagen-Dazs).

The interesting thing with Rise energy foods is that they’re formulated for different purposes – breakfast bars, energy bars and protein bars. I tried to stick to the formula during my trip. Though being vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free don’t really enter my testing calculus, some of you might want to know about that. And some bars are dairy-free and vegan. I do, though, like that the Rise energy bar is minimally processed. See the Rise FAQ page for more info.

There was one particular day that really let me put the hammer down on the sampler platter of energy bars that the folks from Rise sent me for review. That was my 8-hour hike in Jotunheimen. The bars would have to fuel me through steep climbs, through snowdrifts and in pelting sleet and heavy winds.

Sarah

Burning energy on a climb on the Besseggen trail in Jotunheimen, Norway.

and I both sawed through the various flavors. What we found is that the Breakfast and Energy+ were our favorites. They had a nice moistness that made them easy to eat – and you got the feeling of eating real food. There was an unprocessed vitality to them. The Cherry almond, Crunchy perfect pomegranate and Blueberry coconut energy foods topped our list.

Flavor-wise, I had no qualms about the protein bars. A hike in Norway is bound to be cold – and Jotunheimen and its 9-mile Besseggen trail didn’t disappoint. The cold temperatures made the protein bars harden. My solution was to shove them into my gloves for about five minutes before eating. Even then, I’d gnaw off a small chunk, let it warm up in my mouth, chew, swallow and repeat. The protein bars were tasty enough when warm, and actually had a trace of moisture (unlike many protein bars).

They propelled us to the end at Memurubu, keeping the calories coming without weighing us down. That just made more room in our bellies for a post-hike pile of ham, mashed turnips and potatoes.

A few days earlier, the Rise energy bar also powered me through a 10K run in Tromsø , a city in Norway above the Arctic Circle. I ate a bar about an hour before the start. I had a nice, sustained supply of energy and no growling stomach.

We all know there’s no shortage of energy foods in the world. And I know why we have our old stand-bys. If those flavors are getting a little stale, though, be sure to check the Rise energy bar a shot.

The minor towers next to the citizen.

Scottsdale Night Run 2012: Quick Race Review

UPDATE (May 13): According to the Scottsdale Night Run Facebook page, someone stole the first water station. I’m still confused about why someone thinks it’s a good idea to just drop a bunch of stuff off for a race and leave it unattended. That’s still on the race organizers. Take care of your equipment and your venue. People count on you. The race results page also seems weird – I started about three minutes late, and my chip time and my clock time are the same. How does that work?

The 2012 Scottsdale Night Run managed to get one of the most important elements of running a race dead wrong: water.

It’s May in Arizona. That means every water station should be in place before the starting gun ever goes off. I ran past the site of the first station, and volunteers were still carrying the table and water into place. It wasn’t until nearly 5 miles into the race that I saw my first water station.

And there? I got myself two cups of air-temperature water. And, again, it’s May in Arizona. Failure. And potentially dangerous for the people who struggle to complete the distance. I’m not exactly a fast runner, and I started the race a good two minutes late. Yet the water station wasn’t ready to go. Some people behind me were able to get some water, though.

More notable problems: There were no mile markers, and there were long stretches of the course that were completely dark … and over bad pavement. And I still can’t believe any race organizer thinks it’s a good idea to route a running race through Scottsdale’s club district … which is generally full of idling, exhaust-spewing taxis.

The water, though, is the biggest problem with the Scottsdale Night Run. If organizers had gotten everything wrong but the water, I could be somewhat forgiving. But I can’t see signing up for the Scottsdale Night Run again. Not without some guaranteed changes. First, water. Then, course.

I feel bad for the Scottsdale Night Run volunteers who probably endured the wrath of people who needed to vent. The paid folks deserve the blame, not the kind people who did their best and donated their time.

 

Long-Term Gear Review – Switch Vision Sunglasses

Switch Vision sunglasses
Rollin’ with my Switch Vision Stoke sunglasses – always.

I’m having a Switch Vision sunglasses giveaway. Check this blog post for the rules! Deadline is March 30, 2012.

Last year, Switch Vision provided a pair of Stoke sunglasses for my review more than a year ago. Since March 2011, they’ve been my go-to glasses.

My initial review praised their optics, fit, cool factor and their very innovative magnetic lens retention setup. Magnets hold the lenses in place, giving every Switch Vision model the absolute fastest, easiest way to change lenses that I’ve ever seen.

So what do I think of these Switch Vision sunglasses one year and buckets of my nasty sweat later? Well, they’re still awesome, with the lenses still giving a crystal-clear view and the frames holding up well. I only have a few observations to note:

  • A funny quirk – If you drop your Switch Vision sunglasses in the dirt (which I do, all the time!), you might notice that the magnets in the frames will pick up little magnetic bits. Not really a problem, but kind of amusing.
  • My toxic sweat has an odd affect on the lenses. It puts rainbow-colored streaks on the lenses, which affect the optical quality. A thorough wipe-down with a soft microfiber cloth erases the smudges. On the trail, that might not be feasible. If you have gloves with a strip of terrycloth, you should be OK.
  • I wouldn’t mind an adjustable or replaceable nosepiece. Sometimes, when the going gets sweaty, the glasses will slide down my schnoz. This would help for people with smaller features, too: My wife ruled the Stokes out immediately. In her triathlon bike-riding position, the fairly spacious nose piece allowed the glasses to slide right down her nose.
  • They’re still hard to find. Switch Vision needs to bang hard at REI’s door. I like Switch Vision far better than any other glasses at REI.

All said, the Stoke sunglasses are by far my favorite sunglasses. I keep the lenses clean, and the reward is a clear but less-bright view of the world. I’m a Switch Vision sunglasses fan; if I lost a pair, I’d stick with them and buy another pair immediately.

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Gear Review: Switch Sunglasses

Switch sunglasses
The Switch “Stoke” sunglasses survive their first off-road test handily.

Last year, I bought sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. But actually changing the lenses is a pain even under the best of circumstances. They’d drive me crazy if I had to change lenses out on the trail at dusk in the middle of a race. I managed to put the clear lenses in, and I left them in. I used one pair of old glasses for daytime riding, and the "interchangeable" pair for night riding.

That paved the way for Switch Vision to offer a pair of its sunglasses for my depraved dungeon of product testing.

All the items in the Switch sunglasses line have a magnetic system (Magnetic Interchange Lens System, in the parlance of Switch) that holds lenses in place. When I first read about it, it sounded like a great theory.

Switch sunglasses
This is a look I call Blue Steel.

Switch delivered a pair of its Stoke glasses in a tortoiseshell finish to my door.

Forget reading the manual – what about this magnetic deal? Well, the lenses slid right out with a gentle tug. There are metal bits embedded into the top edges of the lenses – I’m not sure if those are the magnets, or if the other metal bits in the frames are the magnets. Either way, I was eager to see how they get back in. With my other glasses, this would cue twisting, pushing and profanity.

Not this time. I got the lens in the vicinity, and the magnets sucked the lenses into place. Impressive! I tried it a few more times with the same result.

I drove around wearing the Stoke glasses for a few days. Then I hit the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, one of the rockier beasts in the area.

Hitting the Trail

First, the optics are super-crisp. I have the Switch "Glare Kit" of lenses, which includes the Polarized True Color Gray and Rose Amber lenses, along with a plastic lens pod. The True Gray turn even the brightest light into something your eyes can live with. (I tried the Rose Amber a few days later on a cloudy day – they allowed a bit more light in while keeping the harshness out.)

The Stoke is not a lightweight pair of sunglasses. But they never dented the side of my nose. They didn’t slide down my pointy beak despite being lubricated by sweat. The rock-and-rolling of well-rubbled off-road trails was not a factor.

Even without magnetic lenses, Switch gives you some very sharp optics and a comfortable fit. Add the cool lenses, and you have a standout product.

I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just giddy over cool factor, so I showed them to a few buddies. The magnetic retention amazed them all. A few were extra-impressed by the availability of prescription lenses. After the oohs and aahs, they asked "Where can I get a pair?"

Here in Phoenix, the answer so far is that you can find Switch sunglasses at selected local eye clinics. I hope that expands in the future to bike shops and other sports suppliers. For now, it looks like you can also find Switch sunglasses online at REI. I saw the Stoke advertised at other websites from $169. The new Switch model, the Boreal (the company’s first full-frame model), will range from $119-$189.

What’s Missing?

One thing I didn’t notice in the lineup of Switch sunglasses is an all-clear lens for middle-of-the-night mountain biking. That’s an easy fix, though.

Bottom Line

Someone at Switch thinks like an outdoor enthusiast: Dealing with small, finicky bits while your heart is pounding, while you’re getting dehydrated, while you’re started to cramp -- is absolutely no fun. So they made sunglasses that take at least one gadget-related worry of your mind.

What’s Next?

A long-term flogging. The Switch Stoke sunglasses have impressed me. They’re a lot pricier than my usual glasses, but I see what Switch is offering for the extra scrilla.

I’ll update this post in a few months with new observations and thoughts – the kind that only come from lots of hard-core flogging and use. Stand by!

In the meantime, Switch sunglasses deserve some props.

You can find more by following Switch on Twitter at @InsanelyFast. You can also see far prettier pictures of the full line of Switch sunglasses at Switchvision.com.