When the riders line up at the BESTmed Jacaranda Satellite Classic on the banks of the Hartebeespoort Dam on Saturday, October 22, they will hear South Africa’s own voice of cycling, Johnny Koen, behind the microphone.
It may not be the stage he once dreamed of as a teenager, but the would-be rock star still ended up in the spotlight as one of the country’s first professional cyclists and SABC’s official commentator for the sport since 1991.
Koen, who chalked up 300 race victories, including two national pro road championship titles in the eighties, has done the hard yards and knows his subject intimately.
Although he rarely gets on a bike these days, the 54-year-old has been completely immersed in the sport for 43 years and the wheels of fortune have often turned for him in unexpected ways.
“In standard nine I was shaping nicely on the bike, but I was planning to give up cycling and become a bass player/fridge mechanic,” laughs the Pedal Talk presenter.
“My old man got wind of this and sold every guitar, plug, amp, cable, lead and plectrum he could find and parked a new bike in my bedroom. Then he took me by the ear to the old Holiday Inn in Port Elizabeth, where we lived, and showed me the middle-aged entertainer playing to three people on a Tuesday night.”
Swiftly disabused of this notion, young Koen chose cycling and by the end of his matric year had made the junior national team that won the Tour of Rhodesia, and placed in the top 10 in the elite category at the SA road champs.
He admits to being his school’s first Springbok and worst scholar as he was forever attending races. “I think I never went to school on a Monday or a Friday!”
Following an enforced hiatus in the army, the 19-year-old completed his first of a dozen Rapport Tours in 1977 and won the 25-mile Boxing Day race in Paarl, the oldest and most prestigious track cycling event in the country.
In 1981, with a couple of national medals and provincial titles under his belt, Koen was one of the first cyclists to be approached by South African Cycling Federation president Raoul de Villiers about turning pro.
The decision had been prompted by the iconic Alan van Heerden, who had been cycling professionally in Europe.
“That was the best move ever for cycling in this country and for me as a bike rider. I was the sixth pro in South Africa.”
Koen’s first contract was with the Rand Carpet Layers team, sponsored by renowned track cyclist Jack Lester. He moved to Anchor Life in 1982, where the sponsor insisted that the full logo appear on the kit.
With this sponsorship quite literally hanging by a thread, Koen and his wife set about sewing the kit on the dining room table and adding the logos using potato prints.
“They were fantastic – until you washed them. Then all the printing was gone. So we had to get them back quietly and reprint them.”
The results were the envy of the peloton and orders started streaming in. “We were sewing the stuff at night, then we started a factory with two workers and so it went until it became a very meaningful business.”
That business was Anatomic clothing. He eventually sold the company before starting Velotex, which now manufactures and exports cycling apparel to 20 countries worldwide.
Often labelled the joker in the pack, Koen’s light-hearted approach belies his serious achievements throughout his cycling career.
He notched up six top-six finishes in the Rapport Tour and played his part in setting up seven overall victories for team-mates like Van Heerden and Robbie McIntosh.
“McIntosh was a brilliant tour rider – the worse the adversity, the better he got. If you got him the yellow jersey, you could bank the cheque and go straight home.
“With Van Heerden on the other hand, that’s when the trouble only started. We’d have to carry him, encourage him, talk to him, even though he was the best oke in the race by a long way.”
Because of his ability to lift the team spirit, the two adversaries vied for Koen’s professional attention, poaching him repeatedly for their respective teams.
His team-mates often fell foul of his wicked sense of humour, however.
Coming back from a race in Carletonville once, Koen let Van Heerden drive his Alfa GTV6, which the latter had been eyeing for a while. “I said, ‘Sure Van, but this is a very fast car and you’ve got to be cognisant of the fact because you could kill us.’”
What he had neglected to mention was that the speedometer had broken the previous week and had been replaced with another unit that was over-reading by a huge margin.
“So we’re on the Potch road and Van’s doing about 80 but this thing’s showing 180. His knuckles are white and he’s breaking out in a sweat, just trying to keep it on the road. Meanwhile we’ve got chicks passing us in Citi Golfs on the left-hand side.
“Eventually, he stops at his house and gets out with this huge sweat patch on his back. He says to his wife, ‘How we got home safely, I just don’t know. It’s unbelievable!’
“Till the day he died, I never told him.”
Having had the inside track on some of this country’s greatest cyclists, Koen can confidently voice his opinion on the subject.
“Van Heerden was seriously the best single day rider I’ve seen in my life worldwide. He could time-trial, climb, everything.
“If I had to fill a podium, I’d say Van right on top, followed by McIntosh and Willie Engelbrecht, with Malcolm Lange and Robbie Hunter also in the top five.”
In true Koen fashion, it was this readiness to share his views that saw him literally fall into commentating just as he was contemplating finishing his riding career.
“I was involved in some incident on the 1990 Rapport Tour. There was a fight and SABC producer Chris van Tonder asked me to come to the TV truck and explain on camera what had happened.”
Flawlessly filling the 30 seconds of airtime he was given, Koen so impressed the producer that he was hired on the spot. Ever since, he has presented his weekly half-hour show and emcees at approximately 40 races a year in-between various ad hoc media commitments.
He counts an off the cuff introduction of the legendary Eddy Merckx at the 2007 Pick n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge media conference as one of his most spine-tingling moments. “I spoke for 45 minutes until Merckx became so embarrassed, he asked me to stop.”
Koen says his clothing and commentating businesses fit together seamlessly “with a 24-7-365 approach” and he will continue doing both for the foreseeable future.
He also co-ordinates Cycling Legends, an annual gathering of former Springboks and Rapport Tour and Boxing Day champions who get together to reminisce about their glory days.
But the Capetonian still dreams of being a rock star after playing at the Mother City’s official New Year’s party at the V&A Waterfront in 2006.
“I’ve got a beautiful guitar collection. If I had to sell Velotex, I’d definitely be the lead guitarist in a crap band in a downmarket bar somewhere.”
Koen modestly rates himself as the “arch fun-rider of guitar playing”: expensive equipment, but little talent.
“I’m a much better commentator,” he laughs, ending the interview on a fitting note.
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