Oi Polloi

Johnny Loco Rides Again: A Fairly Fictional Account of L’Eroica

Published: Tue Jan 08 2013

Seeing as we’re well underway with Pica~Post No.5, here’s a piece from No.4 to quell your thirst. Set under the baking Italian sun, Johnny Loco Rides Again is a story of cycling, taxi drivers and Le Coq Sportif jerseys. For full effect read in the voice of a 1930s detective.

Illustrations by Kelly Angood

“Johnny Loco. That’s what they used to call me, you know loco, as in crazy, as in loco. That was me, the fastest thing on two wheels since Frankie the Mute overcooked a left hand turn down Snake Pass in ’53, but I suppose none of you would know about that either.”

I was rambling again, and although no one on the whole damn plane was looking my way, I knew they were listening. It’s not like they had anything else to listen to anyway, come to think of it. I knock back another Gordon’s courtesy of the fine broad with the trolley and resume my one-way conversation.

“Any of you stiffs heard of the Wright brothers? Well they were friends of mine once, good friends, and I’ve got fifty on the fact they’d be doing flips in their grave if they saw this sorry sight. God rest their sweet souls. This is flight. We are flying. We all paid one hundred and forty six pounds and ninety nine pence to take a trip on this crazy bird, and you lot look like you’re taking a Finglands to Fallowfield.”

No one’s listening. The man on my left is asleep, or at least he looks asleep. Maybe he’s just trying to avoid a conversation with me. It’s happened before. Suddenly I need a slash.

The landing was a breeze. Pilots of the world, Johnny salutes you. After scrabbling around trying to find my bike amongst the luggage, I head out of the airport to see if I can score a ride. And then it hits me like a ton of red hot bricks, straight out of the kiln. IT IS HOT. Damn, if this keeps up I’m going to wind up looking like Crispy Joe after his weekly sojourn to Tanz’in’ere. And that ain’t no look for no-one. I quick-draw the factor 50 and get to work on the mush. Yeah I’m no spring turkey, and I ain’t quite the tom-cat I was, but this brown-eyed old mule hasn’t had his day yet. And if I don’t take care of this fine face, who will?

After sweating my way to the far end of the car park I find a leathery-faced Sal-Pepe who looks like he’s good for the trip.

“This a taxi?”

He shouts something back, I don’t know what he’s saying but his nodding head tells me I’m in luck.

“L’Eroica. Gaiole. Bike race.” I do a pedalling motion with my hands — the universal sign for bicycles, if I’m not mistaken. “You can take me. Yes?”

The driver’s still doing his Churchill-dog routine, and that’s good enough for me. It ain’t long before we’ve busted out of the airport complex and we’re in the countryside. So this is Italy right? Not too bad. Pizza-pies are plentiful on the trees, pasta trickles down the hillside and the clichés stretch out as far as these eyes can see. People always said I had a face that wouldn’t look outta place on the wall of Sal’s Famous, and as I catch the odd glance for someone on the roadside, I’ve gotta say, these guys wouldn’t look outta place in the Loco family album. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t feel out of place. And that’s alright.

Soon enough the scenery starts to look like it’s on repeat so I quit gawking out the window and see what my friend in the driver’s seat has to say for himself.

“How long you been in the business then padre?

He mumbles something back which no matter how hard I bend my ear, I ain’t going to understand. But I’ll let him off, he’s not great at the fine art of conversation but he’s Rembrandt behind the wheel. I keep talking anyway, just ‘cause even if he don’t understand me neither, I don’t mind the sound of my voice much anyway.

“I’m here for the race. I used to be good you know, some said really good. I was fast, and that’s what it’s about isn’t it. By the sixties I was over it though. Done with bikes. Done with head tube angles, wheel lacing patterns and all that. So I wandered around, made a few albums, did a bit of film work. You ever see Battle of the Planet of the Apes?”

For a quick moment he takes his eyes off the dusty excuse for a road, nodding at me.

“Well I was an ape… Anyway, I’m in my office minding my business when the phone rings. Seemed like it had been a good while since I’d last heard that noise, and I’d sort of gotten to forgetting what it sounded like, so after clawing around to find the handset I made sure I answered it. That’s why I’m here, it’s menswear you see. Some shop said they’d fly my hide over to Italy if I’d write something about a bike race. Now do I look like I know much about menswear? What I know about menswear could be written on that little tag on the neck of my favourite Le Coq Sportif jersey, right next to wear it says ‘100% wool’. And writing? The last time I wrote was signing my name on the divorce papers in ’57. But what else was I going to do? Sure the cat might get hungry, but there’s a family of mice hidden shacked-up behind the skirting boards in the office if things get tight.”

I chatted on about nothing much in particular, and just as I was starting to think I’d ran out of things to say, I saw the sign.

Gaiole. Twinned with Egremont.

I’d never heard of Egremont, but if it’s anything like this fine looking little place, then maybe I’ll have to look it up sometime. This place is like something out of a film. I’m not sure which one exactly, but take my word for it; it’s like a film. Old women wearing aprons hang out washing and beat the dust out of rugs whilst dusty-kneed children steal apples from market stalls. Chickens and goats are shuffled through the streets and church bells echo loudly through my skull.

I rustle in my back-left trouser pocket amongst the loose change for the address of the place I was meant to be holed up in for the next few days and press it up to the driver’s eyes.

“You know this place? We near yet?”

He doesn’t answer. He does, however, perform the quickest U-turn I’ve ever had the pleasure of, and after back-tracking about fifty yards, we go screaming down some side-street you wouldn’t notice unless you were really trying, before bashing real majestically up the curb.

Come race-day and I’m not feeling too fresh. Something about the temperature and the grappa has made my stomach feel like an oil slick. The place I’m staying is nice. Crisp white linen, flowers by the window, breakfast will be served at eight in the main dining area. Tasteful. The proprietors know a bit of English and almost seem interested in what I’ve got to say, or at least what my bankcard has got to say.

The breakfast doesn’t help my stomach too much, but I’m sure it’ll clear once I’m on the road. Hell, I used to race the morning after nights on the town with Blue Eyes, so this should be a ride in the park, even for a washed up old dog like me.

If I didn’t already feel old, the starting line-up makes me feel like I just crawled off the set of 10000BC. No bikes made after 1987. Well does that go for riders too? ‘Cause these doe-eyed young-pups don’t look old enough to burp sitting up, never mind ride without stabilisers. In the crowded square I catch the occasional nod my way every now and again. What are they nodding at? The fact I can’t afford a new bike? The fact a has-been like me has scraped himself together enough to race? Or maybe it’s my beautifully constructed and superbly well-designed Le Coq Sportif jersey?

Before we’ve got chance for familiarities the gun fires and we’re out of there. My bike’s rattling, the chain’s skipping through my gears like it’s playing a baby-grand and my brakes are as much use as chocolate sunglasses — but I don’t feel half bad. Not half-bad at all. Sure, this ain’t meant to be too competitive but I don’t know no other way. These upstarts may have the right bikes, but they’re a long way off the greats I used to rub shoulders with — French Bobby supping wine like water and still quicker than a bike-outta-hell, even if he was going the wrong way. John The Beard bit by a copperhead the size of a horse, crossing the line with a face like the moon when it’s holding water. Hell, you couldn’t write that stuff. I mean — we had style.

Johnny Loco they called me. Quick. Tough. The devil on two-wheels. Sure, the wins were never thick, but they were fast. Even when I lost I lost with style, with grace. Tearing over the finish line with two punctures and two fingers to everyone who’d written me off. Johnny Loco, the kid with potential. Johnny Loco, the champion. Johnny Loco named and shamed in scandal. Johnny Loco washed up and forgotten by 30. Johnny Loco throwing up on his own shoes then falling down the stairs. Johnny Loco missing his plane and then having to make the whole damn thing up.

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For those who were wondering, L’Eroica (that’s ‘the heroic’ in Italian) is a cycling race that takes place in October every year in the Chianti region of Italy sponsored by the good chaps at Le Coq Sportif. Taking place on unpaved roads and not allowing bikes made after 1987, L’Eroica aims to recapture the golden era of cycling, complete with mid-race meals of beef-stew, jam-tarts and a fair few glasses of wine.

To get in to the spirit of things, Le Coq Sportif have made a L’Eroica range, consisting of traditional wool jerseys and cycling caps, and as luck would have it, we be stock it.

View all Le Coq Sportif