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The World is Flat

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Bill Oetinger  The Biking Life

   by: Naomi Bloom 1/1/2009

Flatworlder with an Agile Compass

"The World is Flat," Thomas L. Friedman told us in 2005. Not exactly a news flash to Michael Khaw, who's been living in a flat world since he was born in Burma 52 years ago. For starters, although his mother is Chinese and his father Burmese, the only language he grew up with was English. His parents met in college in the U.S. and English was their only common language. They sent him to British missionary schools, moved the family to New England, then Santa Monica. He finished high school in Bangkok, Thailand.

Fast forward to 2009 and, depending on the time of year, you may find Michael in Sunnyvale, where he's active in local bike clubs. Or he might just be on the other side of the pond (the Atlantic one), as chief guide and bike washer at Agile Compass, his own bicycle tour company operating in Italy and France.

Along the way he picked up a BSEE at Stanford, attended grad school at UC Berkeley, and labored in high tech as a software developer. But he was happiest riding his bike on tour in Europe, especially in Italy. "I started thinking of taking some time off from work and spending a summer working for one of the big tour companies as a guide," he remembers.

In 1995 he was looking for something different from the usual place-to-place tour. He'd seen ads forItalian Cycling Center and asked his travel agent to set him up there. Upon arrival he met up with his hostess Liza Dolza. "I thought she was taking me to ICC but it turned out she had her own company, Cycling Made in Italy. Married to an Italian, she'd been living and cycling there since 1989.

"I was the only person there that week. It was like having my own custom tour. Liza was looking to get her company on the Web, so I offered to build her website in exchange for corresponding with her in Italian."

Then came the dot.com bust. By then Michael had had his fill of programming and Liza needed someone to help run her business., so he became her business partner. They ran CMI together for three years before he branched out on his own, forming Agile Compass as a sort of spin-off.

Agile means "dynamically customized"

Michael describes the Agile Compass approach as "dynamically customized bicycle tours. Unlike most conventional bike tours, we don't work from a cookie-cutter, predetermined itinerary. . .. Instead of moving from city to city, Agile Compass chooses a base in one village. Clients stay there for the entire tour, typically a week. . .. I don't have a pre-set weekly itinerary. It's sort of free-form. We ride the first day and I figure out [what] we're going to do. We pick destinations based on how strong people are. We might want to push one day, then take it easy another day."

It may be a little unusual not to tell people in advance exactly what they're going to be doing on tour. But he's found that "everyone who has come has really enjoyed it and found that it really works."

Most of Michael's tours take place in the Piemonte, or Piedmont, in extreme northwest Italy near the French border. "Just over the coastal mountains is the Mediterranean. Nearby, the Alps form a natural barrier between France and Italy. This region isn't known as a cycling area by Americans, but foodies and wine enthusiasts know the Piedmont is a major gourmet and wine producing center. The cycling there is really fantastic. And there are all kinds of cultural attractions."

From his Italian base in the eastern foothills of the Alps, and one in France near the Italian border, "we can get into the Alps," he says, "but we also have the choice of going into easier, rolling terrain. However, if people are looking for completely flat rides, they would probably be better served looking elsewhere."

What about the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia, you ask? Agile Compass does indeed focus on the Grand Tours. This year the first week of the Giro offers a superb touring opportunity. "I've gotten to know the Dolomites reasonably well, and this year they go right through there the first week, so we will too."

And, of course, there's a tour planned to coincide with Tour de France Stages 16, 17 and 18 in the Alps.

Michael's fluency in Italian is also an asset. That Italian correspondence with Liza paid off. "Everyone over there wants to learn English because they think it's the international business language," he claims. But I find my Italian is better than their English."

Back home in California

It was Stanford that turned Michael into a bicyclist. "I of course learned to bike as a kid. I used to bike to junior high in Santa Monica, on an 'English racing three-speed' from Pep Boys (the auto parts store). My freshman year at Stanford my friends I got me into bike touring. One spring I volunteered to race in a criterium for intramural competition. When I crossed the finish line and threw up, I decided racing was not for me."

As a fledgling software developer Michael joined a start-up assuming he'd have time to finish his Master's at Berkeley. Yeah, right. "The last place I worked as a regular employee was at wine.com," he told me. The company name has since been bought out, but the website still exists, run by completely different people. Still, it was an good education in viticulture while it lasted.

More recently, he's built websites for a number of small businesses. "Website development is a way to keep my hand in the software world," he told me. He displays his work on his own personal site Dorky Pants R Us, where you'll immediately see how it was inspired by Scott Adams's Dilbert.

One of Michael's most compelling Web projects is his collection of links to bike-related companies in the Veneto. "Most of the people who come to the Veneto page are searching in Italy for one of these companies and their search points to me," he discovered. "I noticed most of visitors were from Italy so I rewrote the content in both English and Italian."

While at home on the Peninsula, Michael leads a traditional weekly ride, "Hills R Us," from Los Altos every Wednesday. Don't show up if you don't like extended climbs! He also serves as one of the webmasters for Western Wheelers.

Still, his aerobic heart remains in the Alps, and not just for the rides. "If you just want to go out and hammer you're probably not going to enjoy Agile Compass," he warns. "We're going to stop, visit local places, visit artisans, enjoy good food. Lots of people don't want to stop and eat. But this is different. You're supposed to be enjoying yourself."

By now you may well be daydreaming about touring with Michael and his dynamic approach to new experiences. Whet your appetito with his fantastic photos at Agile Compass. Just remember, it's all flat -- but it's not all level!


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