Daniel Mangeas is the voice of the Tour de France. If you’ve been to the race you’ll know his voice and even if your experience of the Tour is via English-language broadcasts you’ll have heard him as background noise during an interview or live commentary.
He will retire soon, finishing a run of 41 consecutive Tours. He’s another fixture of French cycling with his distinctive tone, a verbal torrent of statistics and encouragement. In a perfect twist he’ll end his career in the same place where it began, although this time by plan rather than accident.
It wasn’t meant to be. Pierre Shori was le speaker of the Tour de France in 1974 but on a hot day in the Pyrenees his car broke down. Mangeas was there as a deputy, limited to introducing riders at the stage start rather than the more prestigious role of commenting at the finish line. But Shori couldn’t make it to the finish that day in Pla d’Adet and legend has it that Mangeas took over that day and never looked back, boosted by the enormity that day of an ageing Raymond Poulidor getting the better of Eddy Merckx. Shori did resume his job but was up for retirement. Mangeas had passed the impromptu test and became the speaker.
“I had a cousin who was a semi-professional and he’d just won the Circuit du Finistère. Two days later he came to ride the critérium de Saint-Martin-de-Landelles and the race’s speaker forgot to say he’d won the Circuit du Finistère. In my mind I told myself that one day I’d commentate cycling races and I’d never forget to remember the performances of one rider or another. I was eleven years old.”
– Interview, Le Telegramme de Brest
He started working as a baker and began commentating on local races at weekends for a few francs when he was 16. But as he put it, the path was set for him, after saying papa and maman it’s said his next words were Robic and Bobet. Even a school exam had a question saying “recount the Tour de France’s visit through your village”. Over the years he rose up the ranks, graduating from village kermesses in Normandy to pro criteriums and in less than 10 years he was at the Tour de France.
Mangeas has been the voice of cycling for 40 years. Whatever changes cycling has seen – and even the wheels are different – Mangeas was a constant. Visiting a race meant being greeted by his unmistakable voice, an audial familiarity so perpetual his retirement seems hard to imagine. He asked the crowd to applaud Tony Gallopin the other day for his yellow jersey. 26 years ago Mangeas was the speaker in a criterium where Joël Gallopin was racing and Mangeas announced the birth of a baby boy called Tony.
The Tour paid tribute to him in 2002 when the stage on 14 July started in his home village of Saint-Martin-de-Landelles, population less than 1,200.
His style is distinctive, even if you’re not a French speaker you’ll recognise the voice from the clip above. Hear the way the each syllable is stressed, a vocal ticker tape. But there’s more than calling the race, he’s armed with notes but can recall many riders’ palmarès without looking. Above all there’s a warmth, you sense just how keen he is to present the riders to the waiting public and regular asks for applause.
Nicolas Loth and Fabien Rosslini are being auditioned to replace Mangeas but the role is changing. Mangeas had done everything by himself from the start village to the finish line and must have a larynx of steel to talk for hours a day for three weeks. Now the start and finish has separate speakers and this year Mangeas is doing the stage finishes in the Tour. The idea is to change the style, there will be a Mangeas-replacement to call the race for the waiting crowd accompanied by another speaker who is there to whip the crowd, walking around the finish line with a microphone to speak to visitors and once the race has finished, to get some words from the riders.
Le speaker acan be a career but it’s first a passion, a fascination. Almost every lowly regional race has a speaker to animate the race and they can get a share of the race’s income. The bigger the race, the bigger the crowd and some can start to earn more for the weekend and then there are bigger races, then the pro criteriums, one day races and stage races and then the Tour de France. That’s the career path in France but it’s not exactly a paved avenue. It’s not easy either, many think they can do a better job than the TV commentator but try it, mute the sound and start talking and see how long it is until you first pause or start to err and umm. Now imagine doing it for hours and then being sure to hit your cues.
It’s hard work. Ant McCrossan is a speaker with childhood memories, “I remember being at races with my dad as a kid. Peering through barriers and wishing I was on the other side. I want fans to listen and feel part of everything that is going on.” Now he’s heard at many races including the Tour de France and Giro where he’s the English voice. It takes a lot of preparation and planning. ” I read everything. Lots of cycling mag, websites, blogs, twitter. This is the part no one sees. It takes days to prep for a race” says McCrossan and then there’s the daily notes, “Then I have one page I prepare every night: that has: all stage details, GC, stage winners so far, stage day before, jersey wearers, race sponsors, names of the presentation girls if we have them and other facts. Means I can look at one page and speak about anything“. “I have tried all sorts of ways of ensuring I am prepared and have everything to hand. iPads on stage, clipboards, folders” but he’s settled on the clipboard because the battery won’t run out. To help ID the riders when calling the race he’s on the hunt for small details, “I look for new things a rider is wearing (colour of shoes) bike, glasses, a new helmet“.
A Tour without Daniel Mangeas will sound different, for many he’s as much a part of the race as the colour yellow. It’s Mangeas’ last Tour but not his last race. He might be familiar as the voice of the Tour de France but he’s at it all year from the GP La Marseillaise in January to Paris-Tours in October. If this is his last Tour, he’ll be calling more races in France for the rest of the season, some post-Tour criteriums, the Tour du Limousin and on. But the circle will be complete when the Tour returns to Pla d’Adet tomorrow. Let’s hope his car doesn’t break down.