ARGELES GAZOST France (Reuters) - Ashes fall from his cigarette as his puffy fingers play a distinctive staccato on a 38-year-old Lettera 32.
Gianni Mura, who covered his first Tour de France in 1967 for La Gazzetta dello Sport, is the iconic figure in the race press room. Its memory, too.
The 68-year-old Italian, who now works for La Repubblicca, has seen Raymond Poulidor in his bath and drunk beers with Felice Gimondi.
Almost 50 years after following his first Tour - the Tour when Tom Simpson died, he recalls - Mura has not changed a bit.
He still dictates his stories to the newspaper after having typed them, usually just outside the press room, fag hanging from his lower lip.
“Sometimes, Japanese reporters come to me asking if I’m not afraid of bothering people with the sound of my typewriting,” he says.
“I reply that it is their silence that bothers me.”
Mura, who is above all a respected soccer journalist in Italy, has witnessed the changes in cycling, “the toughest sport there is”.
“Essential things have changed, especially in our jobs. We were named ‘suiveurs’ (followers) because we were literally following the race, we would drive right behind the breakaway riders,” he explains.
“We were inside the race. Now we’re more ‘preceeders’ of the race.”
Journalists reporting on the Tour de France are now rarely allowed near the peloton, which has grown much bigger.
Mura also longs for the years when riders would take risks and reinvent the race every day.
Only Spain’s Alberto Contador has his favors for his all-in approach to cycle racing.
“That’s what I’m looking for. But when I see a rider with earpieces, I think of the Badger (five-times Tour winner Bernard Hinault). He would have been furious,” says Mura.
“We were also much closer to the riders. In the evening we would have dinner with them, or would share a beer with them.
“We would interview the riders in their rooms. I once interviewed Poulidor while he was in his bath, in which he would put a bit of vinegar.”
But in the 1990s, cycling dived into the EPO era and the atmosphere changed.
“Access to the hotels was forbidden to reporters because of what was happening behind the doors,” says Mura.
“He has poetic idea of cycling,” says Philippe Brunel, a veteran reporter from L’Equipe whose spindly figure is in sharp contrast to Mura’s gargantuan stature.
“He has always been looking for the same thing on the Tour, and it’s not just the race, it’s the human angle. Because after all, the Tour will always just be riders on a bike.”
Logically, Mura’s focus has shifted, even if he still reports on the race.
His wife being a food and cuisine correspondent for La Repubblicca, Mura naturally travels around France with a food guide in his pocket.
At 68, he declines an invitation to one of the best restaurants in the Pyrenees “because, where is the risk? I know it already.
“I’m looking to report on what I find along the road. Today, I also write about Luzenac, a (football) team who were promoted to Ligue 2 but then denied promotion because of a financial problem. I wanted to tell the story of that village of 500.”
As Mura points out, the Tour de France is much more than a cycling race, even if it is the biggest in the world.
“I am fascinated by the Tour de France mainly because it is in France. Its songs, cuisine recipes, it’s the story of terroirs (the land),” he says with a discreet smile on his face.
“It’s something I don’t find anywhere else. It reverberates with the past. But that’s an old geezer talking.”
This year’s race, however, is one of the editions Mura has enjoyed covering.
Mura has covered the Tour from 1967 to 1972 and every race all since 1991 apart from 1994 when he was working at the football World Cup finals in the Unitede States, and last year, when he was ill.
“I can say I have seen fabulous, dramatic Tours, with fighters. There were a lot of stories to tell. But I have to say this edition is a very good one,” he says.
“There have been crashes, there has been a lot of action, something happens almost every day.”
Once we are done with the interview, Mura will resume his typewriting concerto before calling the office to dictate his story.
Would anyone dare to tell him he must use a computer like everyone else?
“Listen, I’m not a small car that you can park anywhere. I’m a old truck, with its habits. And my career has earned me this privilege.”
Editing by Rex Gowar