Clearing out the Cobwebs

Warrenton 300k
April 4, 2015

When it Really was all Greek to me

In between the time when Greece was the cradle of Democracy and the time when it became the grave of European Community, there was a period where Greeks seemed to be making a concerted assault on middlebrow popular music.

Or so it seemed to me growing up in New Zealand in the late 70s where a couple of high profile singers were briefly and inexplicably wildly popular.  Well not in the US, from what I’ve read, but certainly in Europe and the UK (then as now steadfastly resisting the idea of being part of Europe) and if it was popular in the UK at that time then it was popular in cringing Anglophiliac New Zealand.  The forerunner of the Greek invasion was singer Nana Mouskouri; she had a series of albums that mingled some traditional Greek tunes with some non-threatening folk stuff, she had a TV show that was popular in the UK for a while (and hence, almost inevitably, in New Zealand) and she toured downunder in the late 70s.  Mouskouri made an unlikely pop icon with her long black  hair and thick black glasses.  Although I guess you could see her as the forerunner of Tina Fey.

Nana Mouskouri

Nana Mouskouri in her heyday.

And the music was undeniably awful.  The middle-of-the-road music industry’s response to the carefree hedonism of Disco on the one side and the bleached bone anger of punk on the other was to coat everything with saccharine layers of unnecessary orchestration to leave no heart string untugged.

Why would you submit yourself to this kind of thing?  Well, it may have been alternately bland and overwrought, but it was safe and familiar, a lot like English “cuisine,” which may explain why Mouskouri did so well there.  Back in New Zealand, meanwhile, we didn’t have a choice.  If she was on TV, that’s what you watched.  Because there wasn’t anything else.

My media education during my childhood is not simply inconceivable to my students, but also to even those of my own age who grew up in the US at the same time.  While many places in the US were already drenched in a dire tide of shit via multiple television channels, when I arrived in New Zealand in 1974 there was a single TV station for the entire country.  A seismic upheaval happened the following year when the country got a second TV station.  People were in a panic: how would you ever be able to find enough stuff to fill two stations.  And that was the way it stayed all through my adolescence until the launch of a third TV station fourteen years later called, imaginatively enough, TV3.  I often think that TV must have had an influence on my friends and I that was much greater than its effect on the many kids growing up in the US who not only had multiple TV channels (even before the cable TV boom of the 80s) but multiple TVs in the home.  Because there was no choice.  If you craved entertainment, or information, or education, or simple diversion, you watched what was on.

What does any of this have to do with biking?  With randonneuring? Bear with me.

Mouskouri wasn’t the only Greek singer to make it big; also popular in the antipodes was Demis Roussos who died this January.  I think he may initially have been introduced via Mouskouri’s TV show, but I may be wrong about that.  He wasn’t popular at all in the US or even in the UK, but Europe went nuts over him.  It is, I admit, often difficult to figure out why Europeans go nuts for the music that they do, as the winners of the Eurovision song contest regularly attest.  He was like Mouskouri, only larger, hairier, and male.  The music, however, was the same over-wrought pap.  Inexplicably, he became not just a pop sensation in Europe but a sex symbol as well (refer to previous comment about the Eurovision song contest).

I acknowledge, however, that I never really gave the man his due.  Come to find out later that prior to being a purveyor of pop pablum, he was a member of pioneering prog rock group Aphrodite’s Child, one of whose members was none other than electronic music pioneer Vangelis, who would go on to achieve fame for his movie and TV soundtracks (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, Opera Sauvage), a couple of brilliant collaboration albums with Jon Anderson from Yes, and one of my favorite albums of all time, Heaven and Hell.  That, however, was all in the future, and in the late 70s Vangelis was overshadowed, literally, by his countryman.

For Roussos was not a small man.

Demis Roussos

Demis Roussos in his heyday.

This is one of those moments where you realize what an obnoxious twat you could be as a child.  Don’t ever let anyone sell you on the idea that children are innocent.  When they are out of your sight, dear parents, they are cruel little shits striving every day to find new ways to prove Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” to be a radical understatement.

Roussos was a man with a beautiful high tenor who dressed proudly to display his Greek heritage.  To the parochial sniggering minds of myself and my adolescent friends he was a hirsute mountain clad in a circus tent.  So we mocked him mercilessly.

Now when it comes to merciless mockery at other people’s expense I am no slouch.  But my friend Alistair put my friends and I to shame when it came to this particular ability.  His impression of Roussos typically involved warbling one of his hits, “My Friend the Wind” in a high, nasal whine, that sounded like a castrato on crack.

So I blame the geographical accident of my upbringing, my restricted television diet, and above all my friend Alistair for the fact that I had that phrase “My Friend the Wind,” in particular Alistair’s tremulous rendition of it, stuck in my head for this ride.

All.  Damn.  Day.

The Long and Windy Road

The randonneuring season so far seems determined to test us with a variety of extreme riding conditions.  My first 200k  of the year was ridden almost entirely in the rain.  A second 200 that I (gosh darn it!) missed was ridden in high winds and snow flurries on the mountain passes.  Today’s forecast was for strong steady winds (20mph plus) with gusts of the 30-40mph variety.  As we headed north out of Warrenton promptly at 5am, the forecast proved, unfortunately to be accurate.

By taking my bike to Bike Whisperer Phil at Bicycle Space I’d managed to get the electrics sorted out, although neither he nor I were terribly confident in the repair since all he did was unplug and then replug the same connector I had unplugged and replugged three times already that day.  But everything was working well, and I relished the sensation of riding in the middle of the brightly lit group of cyclists.

In the end, the wind did not prove to be the factor that I anticipated.  Our route was generally South and then North, and with the wind WNW it was mostly from the side.  That isn’t to say that it was a non-event.  There were stretches where the constant pressure of the wind pushing at you from the side could be quite wearing, and many was the time I was glad to be riding a big heavy bike.  Moreover, the few times when we did turn into the wind, it was a killer.  I hung with the lead pack for the first fifteen miles or so, realized that I had only been able to do that because they were taking a leisurely warm-up, and when I was promptly shelled out the back the headwind hit me full-force.  Almost instantly I was in my low gears and making barely any headway.

Fortunately, those moments were rare.  The only other time where the wind was a serious problem was when we approached the climb up Etlan road, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge and Old Rag.  I’d noticed last week when riding out of Culpeper that when the wind funnels over that ridge it does all kinds of crazy things, coming from directions that logically it has no business coming from.  That however was a relatively short stretch, as was a grueling pull into the wind near Louisa.

I’d ridden this route last year and had enjoyed it immensely, even though I finished more tired than I had (at that point!) ever been in my life.  One thing I was determined not to do this year, however, was to try and prove my testicular fortitude by taking the gravel road detours.  I’ve got the bike for it, but last year the first of those detours on a steep and windy newly graveled road had shortened by life by several months.

My major goal for this ride was to work on my stopping time.  One thing I noticed in my first real year of randonneuring is how strangely time behaves when you are stopped.  You will swear you’ve only stopped for five minutes but then you get back on the bike and discover that it has been 15.  As the mental and physical fatigue accumulates, the time dilation increases.  I had been staggered when going over my results from last year to see how much of my total time was stoppage time.  This year I am trying to cut that down a bit.  So prior to each control point I mentally rehearsed what I needed to buy, and tried to be efficient without rushing.  I carried more food with me on this ride, and when I bought food I made sure it was stuff I could eat while riding.

That plan seemed to be working up until Orange.  However the stretch into Orange was a particularly soul-destroying one for me.  You are biking through country that isn’t that attractive; forestry cut-over and a few scrubby replacement pine plantations.  Few buildings of any kind.  Plus a few exposed wind sections.  So although I bought portable food at the McDonald’s in Orange I found I needed to take “a moment” to recover and get my head back in the game.  On my way out of Orange, however, I met up with fellow riders Kelly and Eric, the former an experienced vet and the latter riding his first 300k.  Eric and I were climbing slightly faster than Kelly so we soon outdistanced him and together survived the hair-raising (but mercifully short) stretch along Zachary Taylor, the only stretch where in retrospect it might have been worthwhile taking the detour as I did last year (which is why I had no memory of the monster-truck-towing-a-boat nightmare of a road).

That would have meant that I would have missed a couple of other really lovely roads, however, and one thing that I noticed throughout the day was how beautiful most of the scenery was.  It can be pretty hazy in the internal VA region but the strong winds had scoured the place clean; late in the day the sky was cloudless, every field and fence sharply defined in the afternoon light.  Even if I had had a camera with me (the one piece of kit I forgot) I wouldn’t have been able to do justice to my surroundings because the clarity was as much a feeling as a view.

Kelly rejoined us when Eric and I stopped at a gas station to refill our bottles for the final push.  The last part of the course (which I rode on a different ride last year in the dark) is a little strange in that you end up crossing and recrossing what is seemingly the same freeway over and over.  One of these crossings coincided with the end of my cue-sheet, so once we had made it safely over I was in the process of flipping my sheet when Kelly who was in the lead took a hard right and accelerated off into the distance.  Suddenly, Eric’s Garmin began making frantic “off route” chirps, and a moment later mine started doing the same.  Very quickly, the two of us figured out that we should have gone straight rather than turn.  By this point, Kelly was a speck moving rapidly toward the wrong horizon.

So we chased him down.  And by we I mean Eric.  Because when I am 175 miles into a 190 mile ride I don’t do chase.  Fortunately for Kelly, Eric is a better human being than I (and also a substantially younger one) and so he retrieved the fleeing Kelly while I pulled up our map and double-checked that he wasn’t in fact chasing down Kelly only to find that Kelly had been right all along!

The three of us finally made it back to Warrenton just before 8.  My overall riding time was slower than last year which is what I had expected.  I’m not quite as fit as I was this time last year, and I also didn’t have the incomparable Damon to haul my increasingly weary arse around the countryside like I did last year.  But my overall time was over 15 minutes faster, due mainly to the fact that I cut my stoppage time in half, shaving just under an hour.  Moreover, even after fighting the winds all day, I finished feeling much better than I did last year, so maybe I also rode what proved to be a more sustainable pace for me.

Despite the howling winds and the howling of an ancient Greek pop star in my head, it had been a great day.  I got to ride with some cool people, saw some beautiful countryside, and made some significant progress on one of my rando goals for this year.

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