John Mangan won 156 continental events and a raft of races in his native Ireland before he headed for France and huge success. Such was his strength both on and off the bike that for a decade he was head of the ‘Brittany Mafia’, the group of riders which controlled racing in the West France racing Heartland.
As we mentioned in Part One of our interview with John, he reckoned that ‘in all the years I was there we only let two wins slip away from us.’…
We pick up our chat with John after discussing his ‘adventure’ at the Munich Olympics which involved hiding in the woods, the riders he respected most, how most of his 156 wins came through pure power, and of course, why the ‘Rider Mafia’ simply had to let him in…
How many seasons – and which one was the best?
“I rode 13 seasons in France, ’76 and ’79 would be my best but the thing about having great form is that it encourages you to keep racing, keep pushing and you pay for it the next season; you’ve gone too deep.
“It’s like a car battery, if you let it run too low it’ll perhaps never accept a full charge again.
“As for a favourite race, there was a crit on a cobbled circuit in Brittany which I won five times, I’d lap the field and if it rained there would be guys in heaps on the corners.
“And I remember having some super days in stage races – I had a philosophy that if I beat someone one day then there was nothing to stop me from beating them again the next day.
“The ‘speakers’ used to call me ‘Master John,’ or the ‘Irish Compressor’ but usually the ‘Irish Locomotive.’”
The inevitable question about guys ‘kitting up.’
“It went on – in stage races and the classics, but in the smaller races there were no controls.
“There were guys caught every year; the controls in Brittany and Normandie were more frequent than in other parts of France where racing wasn’t such a big deal; in central France there would be practically no controls.
“But up in the northwest the prize money was the best so they knew guys would be tempted.
“It’s not true to say that it was ‘a part of the scene,’ management frowned upon it – it was bad public relations for the team sponsors.
“If riders were caught then the talk was; ‘what about the rest of the team, are they on it too?’
“When Tom Simpson died in 1967 that was the start of them getting serious about controls and by the end of the 60’s they were getting their act together.”
Did you never think about going professional?
“Yes and I had offers but initially there was the political situation with the federation I was affiliated to and by the time the Irish Federations were unified, I was too old.
“And there was the financial aspect, there was good money to be made racing as I did, you got your primes on the day and your cheque with your prize money for the year would come through from the French Federation before Christmas.”
I remember the English guy, Dave Wells was a contemporary of your on the Brittany scene and he went pro, didn’t he?
“He was a good rider, winning the amateur Grand Prix des Nations time trial; he did turn pro but didn’t do anything.
“I remember we rode the same criterium a few days after his Nations win – I put two laps into him.”
And you rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names of the day?
“Yes, I’d get rides in the pro criteriums but we’d often meet up with the pros on our way back from races.
“In Saint Brieuc there was the famous Cafe de la Gare (Station cafe) where we’d all meet up on the way back from races, perhaps we’d been racing in the south and the pros had been riding a nocturne somewhere.
“We’d have a bit to eat and a drink there; Luis Ocana was a regular – he was a really nice fellow, great company, sometimes we’d come out of there at 3:oo am!”
Your last race was September 23rd 1984, was there sadness?
“No, my mind was made up the year before – and I almost finished up in ’83, we were three or four miles into a race and guy crashed right in front of me.
“When I quit I can’t say I was sad, my mind was made up and I’d had a good career.
“I could have done another year or two but it would have been very hard, as you get older your recovery gets harder and there’s no way I’d have been able to race 28 days out of 30 anymore!
“Like I said about batteries, earlier – they can only take a full charge on so many occasions.”
Less well known is that you were handy on the track, too?
“Yes, I had the Irish hour record with 41.72 kilometres that stood for a while with several riders going after it but falling short.
“But probably my finest hour on the track was at a track meeting in Henanbihen.
“I was in the same team, Vitfrance as Daniel Morelon the famous track sprinter and I’d found out he was being paid more than money than me by the sponsor – I wasn’t happy!
“He was just back from the 1976 Montreal Olympics where he won the silver medal in the sprint and I put two laps into him in the distance race!”
Your career encompassed the careers of all the Irish ‘greats,’ what are you memories of them?
“I never raced against Shay Elliott but by all accounts he was a good guy.
“Sean Kelly was a fantastic rider; he likes to go hunting and has been down here a few times to stay with us.
“Stephen Roche’s performance in winning the Giro, Tour and Worlds speaks for itself – in the case of Sean and Stephen here in Ireland I don’t think folks realise just how good they really were.
“And there was Mark Scanlon, he won the junior Worlds and was very classy – but he couldn’t climb.”
Has any use ever been made of your huge experience and contacts by the ‘powers that be?’
“No, the centre of everything like that is Dublin; although I often help guys get into teams through my contacts.
“Eugene Moriarty is a Kerry lad I’ve helped over the years; he’s still racing at 43 years-of-age.”
And how did your present hunting gig come about?
“Hunting is a big thing in France and a lot of cyclists are into it; it gets you out in the winter, walking for miles, good for the fitness and the mind.
“The thing about being a full time bike rider is that you develop a massive appetite and that’s hard to suppress so the hunting is good exercise until it’s time to start on the bike again.
“Of well known riders the guy who won Paris-Roubaix twice, Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle was big into it and of course Fausto Coppi died as a result of an infection he picked up while hunting in Africa.
“I mentioned to people in France that the area where I lived in Ireland was good for snipe and woodcock – and deer. Guys came over, one thing lead to another and that’s how we started.”
Do you keep in touch with many folk from the ‘old days?’
“Not too many, JP Maho was here and Andre Chalmel comes over; Andre won the GP Isbergues and Bordeaux-Paris.
“I’ve made a lot of contacts through the shooting and have been invited to hunts in Russia, Romania and Estonia as well as France.”
“I’d love to have been able to compete in the Olympics and Worlds but was very nationalistic and wouldn’t sell out and join a federation I didn’t believe in.
“I wouldn’t take the 30 pieces of silver.
“That said I’d have loved to ride the Tour and raced against guys like Jonathan Boyer who’d finish top 12 in the Tour.
“He came down from Paris to race against us one time, he was a driving a lovely Mercedes – he had a wealthy relative who helped him financially – we put two laps into him in a criterium.”
And that seemed like a good place to end – last word on John Mangan goes to Jean-Yves Le Moal, ‘le Roi des podiums’ (the King of the podiums) and ‘speaker’ at hundreds of French races in the 70’s and 80’s.
When asked for his best memory of the sport, he nominated being the ‘speaker’ at John Mangan’s last race in Ploubalay, where he scored his 156th victory.
That says it all.