Competitours Race – Day 4 “Brussels” (with video)

As part of our Gadling on the Road series, Kent Wien and his wife Linda are participating as Team Gadling in the first run of Competitours, an Amazing Race like competition taking place in three different countries in Europe. Follow along as Kent documents their progress.


After day three of our race in the Amsterdam area, we were excited to travel to a new location, Brussels. This would be the start of a completely new contest for all the teams, since the slate would be wiped clean, and a second prize awarded to the team that performs best on Thursday and Friday.

We awoke early enough to fit the free breakfast at the Amsterdam Acro hotel into what would be a very busy day. Unfortunately, we discovered that they wouldn’t be open for another 20 minutes, and Linda began to panic about the possibility of missing breakfast in order to catch our train. If it came down to the train or the breakfast, I’m not sure we’d be on the train.

You tend to discover new things about your partner on this race. It’s nearly impossible not to have some differences, but I’ve learned that most issues can be overcome by avoiding contact with my wife during her “Pre Meal State.” Otherwise known as PMS, this time before breakfast can be very dangerous, since she tends to be a little out of character when she’s awake for more than 15 minutes without her warm cup of tea and something to eat.

Especially bad, she says, is being promised food and a warm drink, only to have it delayed by a long search for the right restaurant or an unexpected closure, something rather common along this trip.

Fortunately we managed to take in breakfast and still arrive at the Amsterdam train station in time for our trip to Brussels. Crisis averted.

I think every team has also discovered something about the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and their teammates. For example, one of our favorites, Team Swizzle, knew early on that Bill was much better at the computer and video work, while Caroline handled the navigating duties and much of the communicating with the locals. Anytime they strayed from their specialties, they’d run into problems.

Because they knew this, they did rather well and rarely stumbled along the way. For the videos, they created a persona, with Bill “Swizzle” as the lead character. It worked rather well, in fact. I couldn’t stop laughing at this indoor skiing challenge video that Bill produced:

Linda and I once again looked over the challenges while on the morning train heading for our next destination, Brussels. We sat next to Bill and Caroline and enjoyed watching each others’ videos.

Upon arriving in Brussels, we chose to accomplish two 30-point tasks in Gent, a medium-sized beautiful town just outside Brussels.

After buying tickets in the train station for Gent, we raced upstairs to catch the train that was just about to depart.

Once aboard, we relaxed for a moment and talked about the competition so far and how it might change now that it’s fixed at a maximum of 75 points.

Strategically speaking, it was good that no one seemed to be on the train with us, but we would’ve still enjoyed visiting with some of the other teams along the way. Most of them, and one reporter, went to Bruges, which was just a bit further than Gent.

After we arrived, Linda and I looked for a modern/abstract art museum that was a tram ride from where our train dropped us off. These can be risky challenges because the museum or attraction can often be closed in the off season. My heart stopped a bit when the museum told us that it was being renovated, but they explained that we’d still be able to see 15% of the museum at a much lower price of just €1.

This also served to get Linda out of the museum faster. Don’t get me wrong, I like SOME museums, but I preferred to see one when we weren’t trying to make our way to each challenge before they close.

We still managed to hang out there for at least a half hour, (28 minutes too long, I thought) to see the three sparse rooms of exhibits that were still open.

Our task was to comment on a piece of artwork we liked, one that had us perplexed, and one that we disliked. We managed to find all three examples and stealthily film our reactions. Two security guards wandered around the only two rooms that were open to the public but I managed to film a few scenes with Linda when the guards were talking to each other.

We went outside and asked some people for directions to the city square. We preferred to get back on the train, but many of the locals tried to talk us into walking the distance.

“It’s such a nice day, you should just walk it. It’s about a half hour from here.” They’d say.

It was, in fact, a great day. But if they had only known how much walking (and running) we had already done that week, they’d understand the appeal a fast tram had for us.

We worked our way to the city center before running into a gentleman who pointed us in the right direction for us to order a Stropke beer. Stropke means noose in Flemish and there’s a long connection with this symbol in Gent.

We had to learn the reason why from the people in the bar while enjoying a Stropke drink. It was a challenge I had been looking forward to! Thanks to Steve for including so many good beer, wine, champagne and chocolate challenges in the line-up.

Our next challenge was located at an amazing tower in the city center that had an ingenious security system for its day. We needed to learn what made it unique and report on that with our Flip video camera. We asked two different people to get the straight scoop.

Since Competitours will no doubt come back through Belgium again someday, I don’t want to give any of their secrets away. I’ll just say that we heard a few differing stories about the security method, but we managed to ask enough people and the truth finally came out. We taped our findings and moved on to the next task, to find a subtle carving of a serpent in a church.

With that video completed we moved on to the Gravensteen Castle, by far the highlight for us in Gent.

The task said to find new uses for some of the items in this middle-ages era castle. We had to come up with an alternate use for the weapons, armor and torture devices. Linda and I put together a video as if we were a couple considering buying the place as our new home in Gent, taking advantage of the ‘down market.’

Here’s what we came up with:

We came back to Brussels with a potential of 60 points under our belts. We just needed a 15 point challenge to reach our maximum of 75 points possible that day.

We chose to do the Mannekin Pis challenge, where we’d travel to three different statues in Brussels; Mannekin Pis, Jeaneken Pis, and the ‘t Serclaes monument. We needed to come up with some made up explanations for these monuments to share with the judges. Since there were many others who did the same, we can only hope for the maximum 15 points. The top half will get the greater points with the bottom 50% receiving only 5 points for the challenge.

We finished the night with a stop in a crêperie to enjoy a nice dinner crêpe. Just minutes after we sat down, another team, Caitlin and Jennifer, a pair that had never met prior to the trip, joined us for dinner.

We made our way back to the train station in time to retrieve our bags and to board our train to the next city.

And just as I had imagined in the first post of this series, our final city was Paris.

But Steve had a number of challenges planned for Paris in locations that I’d never been to before. The finish line was plainly in sight! But who was leading?

I’ll leave you with a few scenes from Gent and Brussels and a glimpse of the other teams during the Thursday competition.

A scoring update:

I’ve been promising the standings from each of the two parts of the game, Cologne and Amsterdam and then Brussels and Paris for a few days now. It seems some videos haven’t been uploaded to the judges yet and they want to make sure everyone has their videos judged before they finalize the scores. So it may be a day or two before we know for sure. I’m hoping to have the results from both parts available by the next post.

Read about the rest of the week: Pre-departure, departure, day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4 and day 5.

Competitours Race – Day 3 “Amsterdam” (with video)

As part of our Gadling on the Road series, Kent Wien and his wife Linda are participating as Team Gadling in the first run of Competitours, an Amazing Race like competition taking place in three different countries in Europe. Follow along each day this week as Kent documents their progress.

We checked into our 2 star hotel in Amsterdam at about 9 p.m. on Tuesday night after the 3-hour train ride from Cologne. There’s nothing fancy about these hotels, but it didn’t matter to us, since we were only there to sleep and to do a bit of video uploading and research the next days tasks. So when I discovered that the WiFi was free, I considered it a fine place to stay, even though it was a tad smoky.

Some of the other teams had issues with the noise from the bar or lobby and one of the eleven teams checked out and and stayed at a quieter place on their own dime.

Linda ran out to a grocery store to pick up something for us to eat while competing the next day. We found that fruit and vegetables kept us going when we couldn’t stop for a normal meal.

I managed to upload a video for Gadling and post all the events from Tuesday while Linda looked over the 15 challenges and picked the two with the highest point totals, which were located well outside of the city, in the towns of Den Haag and Leiden.

After a nice breakfast provided by the hotel we were ready to start the day’s challenges just a few minutes after the allowed starting time.

The challenges are presented to everyone usually the night before in a Google Maps format. Printed copies were also placed under each competitors hotel room door.

Clicking on each envelope opened up the task, it’s location and occasionally details on how to get there.

We traveled to an attraction called Madurodam in Den Haag, which is a 1/24th scale model of the important sights of Holland including Schiphol airport, the port of Rotterdam, famous buildings and typical villages. The challenge read: “Here’s your chance to star in your own Godzilla movie…”

We modified the task and put together the following video highlighting the tiny people of Stena, known as the “Holland Fairies.”

It was our best video yet.

We were definitely hoping for the full point value of 40 points. Even if another team had trekked out this far, we thought we had a good shot at keeping them to the lower point value of 20 points.

On the train to our next task in Leiden, we discovered the game had changed significantly.

Because of the unlimited points accrual allowed for the first three days, some teams felt they were out of the running after just a day or two, especially after seeing the results from some of the leading teams, who had been able to upload everything on time.

So Steve decided to wipe the slate clean and award the grand prize of 7 nights at a Starwood hotel and $700 to the highest point earner for the Monday to Wednesday period based on the videos they’d submitted during the first three days.

For the remaining two days, Thursday and Friday, teams would be limited to tasks with a maximum potential of 75 points, just as the Competitours website describes. Future Competitours vacations will also include this change.

Founder Steve Belkin has made a number of tweaks to the contest mid-stream to test improvements for the following teams that are competing this summer. We knew going in that this was a beta version of Competitours.

So we felt our next task, located at a health exhibit called Corpus, would be important if we were to stay in the running.

Corpus is a museum devoted to the functions of the body. Thinking, eating and digesting were all on display. We came up with the idea to make a one-minute video describing the functions necessary for a successful competitourist, with our favorite line being, “Digestion: You won’t need to worry about that, since there’ll be no time to eat.”

It turned out that we had another team competing in this task, but we never knew it. Because of a misunderstanding, they were told that no filming was allowed in the museum, so they did their video on the outside of the building.

I saw the same sign prohibiting the cameras, and realized that it only applied to the audio and video guided tour, but not the exhibits afterwards. So that meant 40 more points for us and 20 for the other team, which happened to be the father and son team of David and Alex, the team to beat by that point.

They had done a great job studying the points potential and transportation times and plotted their every move beforehand. Because days one to three allowed for an unlimited amount of tasks attempted, they handily accomplished more events than the rest of the teams. I think Mike and George, a.k.a. “Team Stimulus Package,” came up with the nickname “the machine that is Alex and David” for them.

We still had nearly three hours left in the game after the out of town challenges. So we made our way to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam to tour the home where she and her family had hidden from the Nazi occupiers. We stopped to listen to each video on display. We really took everything in, staying for over an hour.

Afterward, we felt zapped of energy. It was a heavy subject, and we tried to get our heads back into the game, but it was nearly impossible. We wandered around Amsterdam looking for some Mongolian throat singers, part of another task, but we never did see them.

So the decision was made to work our way back to the hotel with 30 minutes remaining. Along the way, we passed David and Alex, who were racing to get one last set of points racked up.

We met up with Mike and George, at the bar in our Amsterdam hotel. They were busy uploading videos, so Linda and I joined them while I also put our videos online. After an hour, the bandwidth at the hotel just shut down, so we weren’t able to finish everything.

Three hours later, Linda was starving, so we chatted with the staff at the front desk, about our dining options. Linda and I went with the recommendation from a KLM pilot who was helping out at the hotel.

The Indonesian restaurant featured a “rice table” which was a huge dish of just about everything the restaurant offered served on t
hree hot tables in front of us. Even though we were starving going in, there was no way for two people to finish this meal.

The game for the grand prize had finished that night, but it would be some time before we knew how we did. Linda was feeling overwhelmed after three days of chasing points.

For her, the lack of sleep, food and the unlimited challenges were taking their toll. She was also responsible for figuring out which tasks we’d accomplish, since I was spending the time uploading videos and writing for Gadling.

All points were wiped clean for Thursday and Friday, with a new prize of two domestic or Canadian airline tickets. Steve also gave an alternative, since free or low cost airline travel is part of the benefits for someone in the industry. He offered 5 hotel nights at a Starwood hotel as an option, which helped keep us going.

I committed to Linda that I’d be in the game with her, pushing back the updates for Gadling by a few days until the competition was over. This took some pressure off of her, and it made for a much better race.

The new Thursday and Friday contest would be run just like future Competitours, where a maximum of 75 points could be attempted, and scoring was based on how well you did against the other teams, and not as much about the number of tasks accomplished.

Eliminated also was the requirement to accomplish the challenge in an eight-hour period. This would make it much easier to stop for lunch along the way. I believe just about everyone was pleased with the new format.

In future Competitours, video uploading also won’t be an issue, since the clips will be handed to a person employed by the company to upload each night to the judges back in the states. So this will allow the contestants to enjoy the trip, and get more sleep.

The standings for the first three days will be official soon and I’ll report on the results in the next post.

Ready for a new game?

We found out at around 5 p.m. that our challenges for the next day would be in and around the city of Brussels, Belgium, after a morning train ride from Amsterdam. Stay tuned, because it’s an entirely new race and Team Gadling is determined to win!

I’ll leave you with a few last scenes from day three:

Read about the rest of the week: Pre-departure, departure, day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4 and day 5.

Amazing Race 14, recap 4: Siberia continued. Wear good underwear, it helps

At the start of this episode of Amazing Race 14, after an overnight rest from stacking wood, shutter building or both, teams took off from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia for Novosibirsk on a 400-mile journey via the Trans- Siberian Railway. The sleeper cars of the night train gave most a chance for some shut-eye and a lovely scene of the moon glimmering on snow as the train wound along the tracks.

Tumbling out of the mint green train station, teams made a dash to find taxis to take them to Punkt Tehnicheskogo Osmotra which somehow put Mark & Michael darting across the multi-lane road in the middle of traffic. But as one of them said, “Being stunt men, we know how to get hit by cars.” The taxi ride to the first clue box was the last of other people driving which might have been welcome relief for those who have problems with taxi drivers smoking.

For the first task, teams drove themselves either to Stadium Spartak to drive a snow plow or to a massive apartment complex to look for a Russian bride and drive her to a specific church to find her groom. The first task was easier. Driving the manual transmission Ladas to get to the snow plows was harder than actually driving the enormous vehicles through an obstacle course. Roads in Siberia after a snow are slick and the traffic, although organized with traffic lights and roundabouts is not easy when looking for landmarks. As Victor ground gears and slid he said, “Clearly, we don’t know how to drive in Russia.”

Luckily each time teams got lost, people were more than willing to help and a couple of times led teams to their destinations by driving in front of them so they could follow.

There was only one point when Tammy gave me the impulse to smack her. While she was waiting for Victor finish driving the snow plow for her turn, she said something like, “The largest thing I’ve ever driven is a Mercedes Benz..” Yes, Tammy, you are special.

As the episode editing cut back and forth between those driving the plows and those looking for the bride, the church and the groom, it was clear that the snow plow driving was the easiest choice but not so interesting. The bride finding involved a trip up stairs to knock on doors to see if a bride would come out–sort of like a cuckoo clock striking the hour. The teams interacted with the brides commenting on how lovely they looked. Flight attendants Christie & Jodi apologized for not being dressed appropriately for such an austere occasion. “If we really came to your wedding, we’d look a lot nicer,” one said.

Only one bride became worried by the exercise of driving with Americans who didn’t know what they were doing. took their bride to the wrong church at first. That was after they had stopped to ask a gaggle of young men drunk on vodka for directions. They didn’t take these yahoos advice, through particularly after one of them pinched Christie’s butt and asked for her phone number. Another person they asked for directions led them astray, but as one of them said, the church was lovely–just not the right place. Instead of bitching at each other, they decided to just keep forging ahead which certainly makes for more enjoyable travel–and television. Once the right church was found, the bride ran to her groom in relief.

Next stop for each of the teams was the Gosudarstvennaya Publichnaya Nauchnaya Tekhnicheskaya Biblioteka and the next clue. This is where one team member stripped down to his or her underwear to run 1.4 miles to the Novosibirsk Ballet and Opera Theater in 27 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Very funny and an indication of how people do things while traveling in another country that might horrify them at home.

If you’re ever on the Amazing Race, pay attention to the underwear you’re wearing. Christie ran in a G-string and Jen had to put on underwear before she started running. The passersby didn’t seem to mind. Christie’s dash was met with a lot of whooping and car honking. Mark reported he was given his fair share of attention also. Considering he’s shorter than five-feet tall, I can imagine.

This leg was where Margie and Luke’s decision to U-turn Amanda and Kris paid off. This mother & son duo came in first again winning a trip to St. Lucia. As each member of a team came dashing around the last corner in his or her underwear, the ones who had come in before cheered.

Christie & Jodi came up last, but happily this wasn’t an elimination round. With Jodi’s finger bandaged after slamming it in the car door and Christie wondering what her father might think of her G-string, this was a happy ending to a visually interesting episode. It was particularly beautiful at the end where there was the visual treat of a ballet being performed on stage. Each time a new team stepped on the mat, a young girl broke out from the corps and headed to center stage with a graceful sweep of her arm saying, “Welcome to Novosibirsk.”

I bet the teams had a great time rehashing this particular day. One thing that’s clear this year is that this is any team’s game.

[Photos from Amazing Race 14 Web site.]

Competitours gets off the ground!

As part of our Gadling on the Road series, Kent Wien and his wife Linda are participating as Team Gadling in the first run of Competitours, an Amazing Race like competition taking place in three different countries in Europe. Follow along each day this week as Kent documents their progress.

Without much fanfare – well, without any fans and a modicum of fare paid – the 11 teams participating in the inaugural Competitours event have finally met in person at the Newark airport before getting on a Continental 767-200 for the flight to Frankfurt on Sunday night.

Early that morning the challenges and the cities were finally revealed for the competition that starts on Monday, with a rather significant surprise for my wife Linda. We would be traveling to Cologne, with tasks to be completed in Dusseldorf, Bonn, Duisburg and Koblenz.

Of all the places we could have flown to in Europe for this challenge, we ended up in the area where Linda grew up! In fact, she lived just an hour away from Cologne.

Now, you might think this would give us an advantage, but after reading the challenges Steve Belkin, the creator of Competitours and his staff have put together, we’re not so sure.

While we could have poured over the details and researched the challenges all day Sunday we decided instead to meet up with fellow Gadling bloggers Grant Martin, Tom Johansmeyer, Annie Scott and Jeremy Kressmann for brunch at the Manhattan restaurant called Public.

It took an hour to get a seat, but the conversation made up for the delay, even though we were missing out on some valuable Competitours preparation time. Fortunately, this didn’t keep us from enjoying the Sunday brunch.

We’re officially known as “Team Gadling” although we joke with each other that we’ve actually become “Team Crews Control” since we’re both airline crew members (in Linda’s case, a former flight attendant) and we’ve taken a somewhat relaxed attitude about the Competitours journey.

I’ll introduce you to the other teams as we get to know them this week. These frequent flyers come from all over the country, and even Canada to participate in a game that, so far, seems to be very well organized and designed.

After parting with half the Gadling staff at brunch, Linda and I stopped into Paragon Sports to pick up an Arc’Teryx sweater for her before making our way to the airport about 3 hours before our departure time. We used this time to pour over the details and research some of the clues in advance before we met the other teams.

Monday’s tasks will include a scavenger hunt in Cologne worth 10 points, a visit to a church in Dusseldorf where we’re required to video our comments on its most prominent architectural defect and come up with an alternate, and hopefully humorous, explanation.

Other cities such as Koblenz offer challenges such as a go-kart race, with the top 50% of the finishers receiving 15 points and the other participants earning 5 points and a walking tour of the city worth 10 points.

Many of the challenges have two point values like the go-kart challenge above. Judges will award the top 50% of those participating in the challenge the maximum points. Other challenges score a fixed amount of points if they’re accomplished correctly. In all, there are 14 challenges worth a total of 175 points on Monday alone.

Since this is a trial run of the game, changes are to be expected in it’s design. Sure enough, a few days ago we were informed that instead of having a limit of 5 challenges to choose among a list of 9 to 12, we would be allowed to accomplish as many events as possible, at least in the shortened first day.

That’s changed the game considerably, and for the better, I think, emulating the harried pace of the Amazing Race to some extent.

So from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday we will be working our way from task to task, filming the results to be uploaded to the web for judging each night before midnight. We’re required to time stamp our progress with a picture sent via cell phone either by text message or e-mail to the judges. We’re not allowed to post the video from the competition online, but we’ll do our best to film some of the places and challenges we come across.

I’m currently on the flight to Frankfurt as I write this. Everyone else is trying their best to get some sleep, since we’ll be afforded only an hour or two to rest in Cologne before getting started – time which will likely be put to research rather than sleep.

Since it’s nearly impossible for me to sleep on airplanes, I’ll be running around in a mental fog when we get there, I’m sure.

Rumors are spreading through the airplane that one of the team members left a bag in the President’s Lounge. Keep in mind, lounge access was easily obtained for many of these teams which are made up of some very seasoned frequent flyers courtesy of

Linda and I considered working our way over to the Newark pilot operations of my airline, but the thought of sitting around listening to dot matrix printers spit out flight plans while crews came and went didn’t really compare well to the idea of access to a private airline lounge.

Two teams are made up of travelers who only met each other today. We struck up a conversation with Kevin who is on one of those teams and discovered that not only did he retire very early from his job to travel the world for the past 4 years, he has lived in Germany and France for some time, and is fluent in those languages. So we felt our local advantage slipping away rather quickly.

I’m not sure how successful we’ll be, considering that, in addition to uploading photos and video for the day’s challenges each evening and reviewing and researching the revealed challenges for the next day, I’ll be hacking away on my mac, trying to report daily on the week long competition.

Follow along on my twitter account while I solicit your help with some of the clues to the challenges, if you happen to be a twitter user at

We could use all the help we can get!

Read about the rest of the week: Pre-departure, departure, day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4 and day 5.

Happy Holi: Another version of India than Slumdog Millionaire’s

As the big win of Slumdog Millionaire has moved out of the top story category, here’s another version of India, one that I experienced, but without all the choreography and singing. Today is Holi, a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I forgot about it until being reminded by this Intelligent Travel post. Here’s a happy Holi experience for you.

If you watched Season 13 of the Amazing Race, you may remember part of it occurred during Holi. Some of the team members were totally covered in powder. If you have blond hair, good luck getting out the green. When we went to a Holi celebration, one of my daughter’s friends, a fair-haired, fair-skinned girl, looked like she was related to Shrek for about three days.