By Michael DiGregorio | Photos by Kristof Ramon
There are those rare, almost crystalline moments when, despite 20-plus hours in a commercial airliner, followed closely by another five breakneck hours hauling over broad cols and ripping through intimate Southern French villages in a beater Renault, that it all remarkably lines up.
First, there's the one up-market dress shirt packed specifically for the interview with Daniel Mangeas (pronounced Mahn-jhas).
Meant to convey respect as much as project a fleeting bit of professionalism on your interviewee—who is to cycling in France and Belgium what Fela Kuti was to Afro-beat—you find that it's miraculously not trashed once your waterproof duffel tumbles out at the Lyon-St. Exupéry baggage claim.
Then there's that old friend from the Ardèche region southeast of Lyon. The longhaired, heavy-footed Frenchman that got you to the first stage of the Route du Sud—the Southern Road—and didn't get arrested for a driving offense—until, thank Jehovah, after the mid-June, 733-kilometer epic.
Clearly, to gain an audience with Daniel Mangeas, it had to play out this way: layers of quiet, obscure, personal drama leading up to world-class cycling theater.
On the morning of June 14, 2012, I arrive in a village called Lacaune les Bains.
At the bottom of a rolling green valley, crossed by a few wavy curves of cobblestone and vertically marked by ancient church towers at its core, Lacaune les Bains boasts the same lush attributes as the adjacent Rhône Valley.
Today though, it's the former that will ring in the 36th running of the Route du Sud: a four-day stage race historically set in the Pyrénées. Inasmuch, only one stage of this year's event, the third, takes to the mountains: namely, the Col du Tourmalet.
Viewed as a warm-up to the Tour de France, some of the routes and ascents the riders are set to hammer will be tacked onto the 3,479-kilometer Tour itself.
On a similar note, I come to find Daniel Mangeas warming up. He's seated at his signature wooden podium, head down, reading a newspaper. The podium stands at the far left corner of a stage that extends, in smart, mechanical fashion, out from his bus' port side.
Leading up to the event, my only contact with Mangeas took the shape and tone of his cell number. Yet it wasn't Mangeas' voice I heard. Rather than the iconic voice of the Tour de France, I hear that of Belgian actor-satirist Benoît Poelvoorde, whom Mangeas had apparently hired to belt out his voicemail prompt.
In a tone that evokes a half-mad Cajun, Poelvoorde actually calls out Mangeas for not cycling.
"C'est Daniel Mangeas. Bien, no, ce n'est pas Daniel Mangeas; qu'il n'est pas sur son vélo. Oui, c'est exact. Ha ha. Laisser un message." ("This is Daniel Mangeas. Well, no, this isn't Daniel Mangeas. He's out on his bike. Yeah, right. Ha ha. Leave a message.")
That self-deprecating sense of humor, as much take as give, is central to Mangeas' repertoire. Just the same, at 63, Mangeas can still claim the endurance of a seasoned cyclist. But owing to the demands of calling 200 cycling events per year, he admits to far more walking than riding these days.
Today, the sunlight greeting Southern France is so soothing it verges on sensuous. A crowd of spectators some seven rows deep takes in Mangeas. They are as old as young. It's not a stretch to imagine some of these elders have shared Mangeas, his verve and deep emotional investment in the sport since his first Tour call in 1974.
That year, the official commentator, Pierre Shori, got sidelined with car trouble en route to a stage finish. Mangeas was the deputy commentator, or, in the lingua of North American sports culture, the color-man.
Raymond Poulidor, then 38 years old and one of Mangeas' childhood heroes, won the stage that day. Eddy Merckx won the Tour that year, with Poulidor taking second.
I approach the stage. Staking out a spot next to a stack of loudspeakers to Mangeas' left, I place my digital recorder at the foot of his podium.
We've never met. Nonetheless, Mangeas warmly acknowledges me with a nod and a sincere grin that curls into a Cheshire's. On a subliminal level, it's as if he is saying, "Hey kid, welcome to the carnival. Get ready; it's going to get rich."
At first glance, he looks like Iggy Pop, circa the Lust for Life album cover. Then, at second glance, there's a slight resemblance to David Letterman. Mangeas' wit, without question, is every bit the match of the "Late Night" host.
In brimmed hats and tight blue trousers that flare out at the hip, a phalanx of dashing gendarme strides by the stage. Mangeas salutes them with a wry smile and a wink beneath his glasses. Next, he singles one out with his mic.
"Vous ne voulez pas de tromper avec celui-là; il est une tête de pirate." ("You don't want to fool with that one; he's a head-cracker.") The crowd breaks out in hearty laughter.
A 60-ish gent dressed in humble farmer's garb, his black beret neatly raked to one side, places his hand on another fellow's shoulder, then bellows, "Classique Mangeas! Ce qu`un sage-ane." ("Classic Mangeas! What a wise-ass.")
Mangeas—the man, the mouth, the legend—is just getting started.
No less than two hours from the start of the stage, Mangeas isn't simply holding space—or the audience's attention—he's got them roiling: teens on cycles, mademoiselle out to do the morning shopping, race officials.
But he's not through with his police harassment. "Impressionnant contingent de gendarme ici. Apparement, il ny a pas de chats a sauver encore ce matin." ("Look at this rather impressive police presence. Apparently there hasn't been a 'cat up in a tree' rescue call yet.")
A well-dressed gentleman in his late 50s emerges from behind Mangeas' bus, where a catering tent serves coffee, tea, sandwiches and salads. Mangeas locks on him. I learn he's the mayor of Lacaune les Bains.
With a smile that promises verbal fireworks, Mangeas lets loose. "Ce n 'est pas la peine appellant le maire avant 3 dans l'apres-midi. Il n'a meme pas sobres jusqu'a midi." ("Don't bother phoning the mayor before 3 in the afternoon. He's not even close to being sober by noon.")
The two men seem to have some history.
The mayor, moving away from the stage, looks away from his antagonist. Glancing to his right, at the rows of his constituents, some clapping, almost all sharing a laugh, the mayor can't help but smile sheepishly.
To catch one from no less than Daniel Mangeas is high honors: certainly friendly fire, if not the stuff of a great, indirect tribute.
As the start draws near, Mangeas brings each team on stage. "Team Movistar." "Team Eurocar." He introduces the respective riders one by one. With a Russian club deployed to his right, the oddly named Lokosphinx, Mangeas flashes his comedic genius.
"Maxim Kozyrev. Pavel Karpenkov. Mikhail Antonov. Kirill Sveshnikov…." But before the fidgeting, swaying group of eight young Slavs can exit the stage, Mangeas holds them.
Stepping behind one white jersey-wearing racer, Mangeas places his hand over the young man's head. Tongue firmly in cheek, he beckons to the crowd: "D'accord, et c'est qui?" ("Okay, who's this?") Three or four of the Russian racers grin. They're in on it; seemingly they understand Francais.
The crowd guffaws as one. Some appear almost astonished at Mangeas' tactics, his essentially Gaullist bravado.
One spectator takes the bait. He shouts back at Mangeas. The old pro pivots effortlessly. Hand now firmly entrenched on the young Russian's shoulder, Mangeas responds: "Et comment pouvez-vous expliquer de quoi'il s'agit?" ("And how do you spell it?")
To analogize him in a North American context, Mangeas is Chick Hearn—the late, great basketball play-by-play man—meets Andres Cantor, the Argentina-born, Spanish-language football commentator cum cultural phenomenon who famously stretches his "goal" calls to insane lengths.
Beyond the cut-up genius, where Mangeas approaches true transcendence, is in the personal. His knowledge and recall of cycling's elite class is encyclopedic. I don't put it past him to know George Hincapie's dog's name, if not Tom Boonen's favorite aftershave. They're family. And he's protective of them.
Five years ago, in a magazine interview, Mangeas offered the kind of balance and nuance to the doping issue only someone wielding four decades worth of perspective could offer.
"Doping is a social phenomenon," he began. "Students take amphetamines to pass exams. What about the entertainment world? Or corporate execs [who take] anti-depressants to withstand the pressure put on them by excessive profit? It's a method of life.
"Cycling, at least, has honesty in play. Other sports have an ostrich policy."
In Albi, the city at the close of today's stage, 188 kilometers from the start at Lacaune les Bains, I share espressos with Mangeas. Straightaway, I relate not having a clue where he finds his energy.
Mangeas smiles warmly. He likens his energy to a spoon that never tarnishes, "because it's always being used." Some spectators wander past our café table, immediately recognizing Mangeas, who graciously acknowledges them.
It's that very trait that quickly distinguishes Mangeas: the alert eyes. Ever-scanning, ever-connected, he is attached to everyone and everything in his environs.
He starts the dialogue off with a surprising admission of having been a painfully shy child. He discloses that an older cousin, who raced professionally as an independent, competed in a 128-kilometer time trial as a 20-year-old.
The same cousin finished 10th, trailing the likes of Charley Gaul and then-World Champion Roger Rivière. Mangeas admits that he began to imitate the radio announcers who called the race. He called his first race at age 15, in his village, Saint Michel, and recalls being paid 15 Francs.
In middle school, a teenage Mangeas received an award as best journalist, earning the highest grade for an essay about the Tour de France passing through his village. But his career didn't get immediately underway, owing to an obligation to work at his uncle's bakery in Caen for years.
He appears comfortable with the attention given him, focusing that kind of star-power positively. First, he arranges for me to meet the Tour de France director in his bus, post-race.
Then he offers to put me up in his cottage in Normandy, the region where he grew up, next time I visit.
"Next year," he proudly relates, "will be my 40th." I ask him about the preparation. "There is none; it's all spontaneous. My friends perform cabaret; I'm inspired by that."
His answer leaves me incredulous. "Then how does he recall so much about the racers?" I shoot back to our translator. Mangeas leans back in the booth, his body language hinting of ease and complete comfort.
"When you like or love something, it's far easier to remember details. Cycling is more than just a sport. I love the festive atmosphere. You can be a supporter of Voeckler, while not an enemy of Philippe Gilbert. I love that sentiment."
That respect for cyclists continues to charge Daniel Mangeas, to keep him engaged. I'd add, ecstatically so. "As I get older," he closes out, "it's definitely harder to get up and go to an event. But when I get here, it's also harder to leave."
Riders and fans alike are certainly richer for that connection.