Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Butts Awaken from Winter Slumber

The spring Bike to Work campaign is already started. Despite at least one reminder from a co-worker who forwarded me the above video, I missed opening day, just as I was caught off guard by the switch to Daylight Savings Time.

The campaign (held every spring and fall) began on Monday. If you're not signed up, you've actually only lost one day to log mileage (kilometer-age??). Contest rules allow you to log distances retroactively up to two days. Also, the campaign lasts til April 30, so you have plenty of time to catch the leaders.

The rules are pretty straight-forward: You register on-line with a team of up to four co-workers. Companies with more interest than that can register multiple teams. Once you're signed up, you just check off the days you commute by bike on the on-line cycling diary. Each individual team member logs his or her own commutes and the system automatically computes the cumulative distance for both you as an individual and your team as a whole. The website updates team standings daily to let you know how you're doing compared to other teams.

At the end, top teams get nice gifts such as bicycles, although with several thousand participants each year, getting the top spot requires serious dedication and/or a substantial outlay in anabolic steroids. Those of us whose performance can't even be artificially enhanced will have to settle for consolation prizes such as reflectors, bike seat covers and T-Mobile bandanas. Of course, the real point is not to win stuff but to have fun and get your butt out of its winter hibernation. I'll be rallying my troops tomorrow.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Car-free holiday -- almost

For the past several winters, we've gone on family ski vacations somewhere in Italy or Austria and this has always been one of the rare weeks out of the year where we abandon our car-free ideals for the sake of speed and convenience. This year, however, we went some way toward rectifying the situation.

In Europe, it's actually quite possible to do a car-free ski trip. There are train and/or long-distance bus connections to virually all resorts and everywhere I've skied, I've always noticed local buses ferrying skiers up and down the mountain. However, at large ski areas, it's often the case that the only affordable accommodations are quite removed from the main roads. And while a half-kilometre walk to a bus stop wouldn't put me off in normal circumstances, it seems like a slog when I'm freighted down with gear and hobbling in ski boots.

This year, though, we went to a smallish resort in Carinthia a couple hundred kilometres south of Salzburg called Mallnitz. We found a decent, affordable pension in the middle of the village that was within a 5-10 minute walk of everything we needed: grocery store, restaurants, ski shop and even a swimming complex with sauna and jacuzzi. A free-of-charge ski bus left every 20 minutes in mornings and afternoons, offering a 10-minute connection to the closest alpine slopes. For those of us on a cross-country regimen, a nicely groomed circuit lied less than five minutes from our rooms in the village.

Our friends who drove us to Mallnitz from Budapest managed to go the whole week without using their car. Among other things, this meant they could have some wine or beer with lunch without worrying about European zero-tolerance drunk driving rules. But probably the nicest thing about Mallnitz was just being in the kind of place where a car is absolutely unnecessary -- a village that you can negotiate by sidewalk, checking out restaurant menus, shop windows and sale prices until something caught your eye.

As it turned out, we hadn't even needed the car to get to Mallnitz. We'd investigated rail options before our holiday, but made the mistake of consulting only the site for the Hungarian Rail Company, MÁV: there we could find only some really difficult connections. As we learned after our arrival in Mallnitz, there is more comprehensive information on the portal for the Austrian rail servoce, ÖBB. This shows daily trips in both directions lasting about eight hours -- almost on par with the car trip if you include rest and meal stops.

So as an experiment, my 5-year-old boy and I took the train for the return trip to Budpest. The train from Mallnitz to Salzburg was completely packed with vacationers, and became more so as we stopped at one ski resort after another up the Gastein Valley. We had an hour stop in Salzburg, and then boarded a brand-new, high-speed Austrian train called the Railjet. This is a fantastic way to travel, comfortable, quiet and clean ... and cruising along at 200 kph (127 mph) on countryside stretches. Aside from the aforementioned advantage of being able to drink -- an essential ingredient to any vacation in my opinion -- the Railjet also included a little "kinderkorner" with a TV showing and endless loop of Disney cartoons. The whole trip from Mallnitz to Budapest wast just EUR 60, including the free-of-charge ticket for my boy.

It seems the longer I go without regularly using cars, the less I like them -- the tight space, the lack of air, the fact you're moving so fast with nothing but flimsy metal panels and tempered glass between you and disaster. This last trip opened my eyes to an excellent holiday option that doesn't require a car. We were so psyched about the trip that we're already planning a return in summer -- and this time bringing our bikes.