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The Voice: Phil Liggett profile

Mark Bailey
13 Jul 2016

Phil Liggett tells Cyclist about life behind the microphone, the races he’ll never forget and his phlegmatic views on Lance Armstrong.

Phil Liggett will always remember the day Stephen Roche collapsed at his feet. The scene was La Plagne at the finish of Stage 21 of the 1987 Tour de France, and as the commentator stared down at Roche’s heaving chest and flickering eyes he knew that he was an eyewitness to the shocking physical aftermath of one of the great Tour rides. What Liggett didn’t know was that his breathless commentary moments earlier would also enter Tour legend. During the stage Roche had fallen 90 seconds behind his rival Pedro Delgado and his Tour dreams seemed in tatters. But while the television cameras had followed Laurent Fignon to his stage victory, Roche had – unbeknown to viewers or commentators – embarked on a courageous chase to finish only four seconds behind Delgado. Liggett was in shock: ‘Just who is that rider coming up behind – because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche… it’s Stephen Roche, he’s come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado, I don’t believe it!’ Roche would go on to win the Tour and secure a historic Triple Crown.

Sitting in the kitchen of his Hertfordshire home on a sunny May morning 26 years later, Liggett says the memory hasn’t faded. ‘He lay just a few feet away with doctors trying to get oxygen into him and police crowding round,’ recalls the 69-year-old, whose white hair and lilac shirt accentuate a healthy tan. ‘The cameras couldn’t get near him and a voice was telling me to commentate on what I could see. But all I could see was a knackered Stephen Roche. It was chaos. The next day Roche told me, “Ah, Phil. There were a lot of journalists at the finish and I didn’t want to talk to them all, so it may have looked worse than it was.”’

Liggett’s memories are a reminder of the immediacy and intimacy of his Tour de France experiences. The celebrated ‘Voice of Cycling’, who attends his 44th Tour this summer to commentate for NBC (USA), SBS (Australia) and SuperSport (South Africa), has witnessed heroic triumphs and appalling tragedies. He’s met the best bike riders in the world: ‘Cav goes with these long silences and I’m thinking, does he think I am an idiot? Was that a stupid question? You never know when the cogs are turning with Cav.’ 

Liggett is also respected for his knowledge. ‘When Lance [Armstrong] used to email me it was always with a question – “Hey, need to know… Thanks, LA.” I’d reply and he wouldn’t acknowledge receipt. That was Lance.’ And he’s seen what a Tour does to a man’s body. ‘In the hotel after a stage, the riders can hardly walk. They drag their feet around in their open-top sandals. They don’t look fit animals then. They are skin and bone and all they can do is lie down. If things were like this when I was racing, it’s probably not a sport I would have wanted to take up.’

Words of wisdom

Liggett’s thoughts and perceptions matter, because as a commentator he is the conduit through which millions of cycling fans experience the drama of the Tour. It is through the words of Liggett and co-commentators such as Paul Sherwen that the TV footage is explained, put into context and infused with extra emotional resonance. 

It’s a responsibility that Liggett never forgets: ‘When I first started commentating we had 1.1 million viewers and I thought: who is watching the shows? I figured the majority are enjoying the pictures and want to be educated. Some guys say, “Stop talking down to us,” but the mum with the cup of tea or the young child wants to know what’s going on. The guy who services my lawnmower said, “My wife, who is 87, wants to know how they time the Tour.” People tell me, “I went to France last week. I can’t believe they climbed one mountain, never mind three in the same day.” I say, “You want to see them climbing at incredible speeds then descend in the glacial rain.” These are the people I think about.’ 

His quirky ‘Liggettisms’ (‘He’s riding like he has four legs’; ‘He’s really having to dig deeply into the suitcase of courage’) add wit and colour to his commentary. ‘I know people play Liggett bingo and tick off my phrases, but I never plan them, they just come out.’ However, it’s Liggett’s emotional empathy that makes his commentary so compelling. Amateur riders often tell him they hear his voice in their heads, encouraging them up climbs.

‘The best commentaries are emotional. When the riders push themselves until their eyes are blacking out or take risks – like when Cadel Evans bridged a gap of two minutes by chasing Andy Schleck across the Alps – I appreciate their spirit. I also know that they take their lives into their own hands. Life is frail. But the adrenaline pump means that you must hold that wheel at all costs. People will go to the ultimate limit. I know what the kid is doing and I want to get that across to the public.’

In the beginning

Born in Bebington on the Wirral on 11th August 1943, Liggett only rode a bike as a child to go fishing, until at the age of 16 he was asked by his next-door neighbour to join a Sunday ride in Wales with the CTC. ‘I said, “I don’t go anywhere on Sundays because it’s the only day I get a hot dinner,” – I wasn’t from a rich family,’ he says. But when he eventually joined in he was hooked and he developed a driving ambition to be a pro cyclist.

During his amateur years Liggett rode for North Wirral Velo, New Brighton and Birkenhead North End, while working at Chester Zoo (he is fascinated by wildlife) and as a trainee accountant. He also raced abroad in Belgium. In 1967 he was offered a pro contract in Belgium, but then a job came up at Cycling Weekly (then called Cycling And Mopeds). ‘I packed my bags, drove from Liverpool to London, slept in the car and went straight to the office. I decided not to sign the pro contract. I was racing against Eddy Merckx at amateur level in the 1960s and I knew I was nowhere near his ability. That was my balanced reasoning, but of course it broke my heart.’

Liggett juggled racing and writing by reporting on the weekend’s big event. ‘Doug Dailey and Peter Matthews were the stars of the time. I was always exhausted but I would get in the breaks and they would let me ride at the back so that I could write about them. But I was knackered, living on beans and toast like all single men and after two years I was so thin I knew I couldn’t do both.’

Picking up the mic 

Liggett quit racing to concentrate on journalism and would later work freelance for The Telegraph, The Observer and The Guardian. He was also technical director of the Milk Race from 1972 to 1993 and in 1973 became the youngest ever UCI international commissaire. He had no ambition to become a commentator until a pivotal day at the Lincoln Grand Prix. ‘I just picked up a mic and started chatting because nobody knew what was going on in the race,’ he says. ‘People asked me to commentate at their races, but I never got paid.’

He started doing reports for BBC Radio before David Saunders, who covered the Tour de France for ITV’s World Of Sport show, asked if he would be his driver at the Tour in 1973. ‘He wasn’t paying me but it helped me to work freelance,’ he says. When Saunders died tragically in a car crash in 1978, Liggett was offered the job of commentator. ‘Back then it was just a 20-minute show but in the 1980s Channel 4 decided to go live from the Tour and all of a sudden I was doing that too. We brought in Paul Sherwen and that’s the way it has worked ever since, with us doing live commentary for different channels. The only rule I set was that I would never sign an exclusive contract.’ 

Liggett has witnessed first-hand the changing atmosphere of the Tour. ‘In the old days riders would start racing at 7.30am and still be racing at 7.30pm,’ he recalls. ‘People were tired and were dying. Most French companies used to employ rally drivers [to pilot the team cars] as they knew how to drive, but they would pressure you if they came up behind. When I got bolted to the commentary box I wasn’t unhappy because previously I’d go to bed ticking off the days I had survived.’

Technology has wrought the biggest changes to his profession. ‘There used to be a complete din of typewriters in the press room,’ he says. ‘There would be four telephone operators and you had to wait your turn. Your deadline would be approaching and you’d be in the shit. The Colombian journalists would run their whole shows out of France. They would carry five or six kilos of coins in a bag and just pump money into phone booths to play their whole radio programme to Bogota, putting a tape recorder to the handset to play adverts.’ In emergencies they would knock on people’s doors to use their phones. ‘Then with the mobile phone and computer, silence fell on the press room,’ Liggett recalls.

Liggett has embraced the digital age, with 138,000 Twitter followers and a self-built database of cycling stats. ‘Young commentators say, “Can I have it?” and I say, “Fuck off,”’ he laughs. His database has information on 601 riders, which he updates every day. ‘When I read out stats people think I’m bloody brilliant, but I’m not really.’

He says one of his career highlights was commentating on Robert Millar winning the 1984 King of the Mountains jersey. His favourite riders include the Australians Phil Anderson and Robbie McEwan and the Irish sprinter Sean Kelly. ‘I have never met a harder rider in my life,’ Liggett says. ‘He never suffered bad morale and he never worried about the weather.’ But he tries to keep a respectful distance from current riders: ‘If you get too close your reporting becomes warped.’

The Armstrong affair

Liggett rejects any claims that he was close to Lance Armstrong, with whom he worked on various Livestrong events. ‘I did a lot of gigs for Lance and I saw him raise a lot of money for cancer. On the plane travelling between events he would just sit at the front doing his internet at 40,000 feet. “OK man, get this plane out of here.” That would be his attitude. So I didn’t know Lance well, but I was very sorry and distraught when he came clean.’

He feels betrayed that he was taken in by Armstrong’s false successes but takes the philosophical view that most of the world was duped through a desire to believe. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time everyone was very excited.’ He has an old US Postal-branded Trek bike and other memorabilia, but refuses to build any bonfires. ‘Some people turn away everything to do with him and leave the sport, but that’s a bit extreme. You have to draw a line. The legacy of Armstrong is that he introduced a lot of people to the sport and they found a way of enjoying a hobby, riding a bike and finding the pleasures and beauty of cycling, and those people haven’t gone away. They found that way of life and they wouldn’t give a shit what has happened to Armstrong now.’

What would he say to Armstrong if he saw him again? ‘I haven’t spoken to Lance since September 2011. I don’t know what I would say. It would be a wry smile and… I don’t know… because I have no feeling either way. It was the way of the world at the time. He found the best way to dope and took his team with him, which is really sad.’ 

Liggett has also commentated on summer and winter Olympic Games, covering everything from triathlons to ski jumping. He has won an Emmy in America and been awarded an MBE in the UK. When not working he divides his time between his homes in Hertfordshire and South Africa and enjoys bird watching (he is a fellow of the RSPB) and wildlife (he helps with rhino conservation in Africa). Wildlife pictures taken by his wife, Trish, a former speed skater, adorn their home. But cycling remains his passion. He still rides regularly and diligently records his mileage on his MacBook.

‘I admit that after the Armstrong affair if I didn’t have any signed contracts I possibly would have said I don’t need to do this now,’ says Liggett. ‘But I enjoy what I do. It should be a great Tour this summer with lots of attacks in the mountains so I’m very excited. People say I have a great job and I say I’ve never had a job. This is my way of life. They ask when I will retire. I say: retire from what?’

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