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The Voice of Cycling: Phil Liggett Q&A

James Spender
9 Jul 2021

The ‘Voice of Cycling’ charts his career from racing while working on Fleet Street to forging sport’s longest commentating partnership

Photography: Christopher Parsons

You’ve followed every Tour de France since 1973, but how did you get into journalism in the first place?

I was trying to be a professional in Belgium, and I thought that Cycling magazine wasn’t giving a fair crack reporting on us riders. So I phoned them up and they said, ‘Well, we haven’t got the money for a reporter, so write us a story every Sunday and tell us how you’re all getting on.’

So I’d go down to St Peter’s station in Ghent, to this little cafe opposite, borrow the guy’s phone and put in a reverse charge call to London which took 90 minutes to be returned, so I’d sit and drink a coffee or have a beer and then I’d dictate a weekly report when the call came through.

At the end of the year I went back to the UK and the guy at the magazine said, ‘Listen, there’s a vacancy, come in and interview.’ I didn’t get the job, but three months later the guy who did left, so I cancelled my ambitions to be a pro rider and became a journalist instead.

• Want to hear the Voice of Cycling, not just read about him? Phil Liggett was a recent guest on the Cyclist Magazine podcast, where he discussed all this and more in person. Click here to listen

Was that the end of your racing career then and there?

My editor was a chap called Alan Gayfer. He said, ‘Can you type?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You have ten days to learn otherwise you’re sacked. And you realise you can’t race anymore?’

I thought, ‘Yeah right,’ so I didn’t stop racing. He found out and said I could continue so long as I only raced the biggest races each weekend and reported on them at the same time. I worked Sunday night through to midnight, and then I was back at my desk at six in the morning to put the paper to bed. I’d sleep on mailbags downstairs in between and give the cleaners a terrible fright when a mailbag started moving.

It was tough. I was getting thinner and thinner, living off beans on toast and trying to compete in the biggest races in Britain. I couldn’t keep it up but the riders helped.

There was Pete Matthews, the Liverpudlian British champion, and someone would say to me, ‘Do some work on the front,’ and Pete would say, ‘Leave him alone, he’s alright, he’s carrying the weight of a typewriter in his pocket.’ But after three, four years I had to stop. If I’d have turned sideways I’d have fallen down a drain.

And how did that lead to France?

PL: I got offered the job of organising the Milk Race in 1972. Me? All I’d ever organised before was a 10-mile TT. But it worked out and it got me well known in European cycling.

David Saunders was speaker for the Tour of Britain and he said ITV were doing a big show on the Tour – would I like to be his driver for the 1973 Tour? So I did. But five years later Dave got killed in a car.

I sat on the end of my bed and cried and cried. I’d lost a real friend. I certainly wasn’t going to ask for his job but ITV said, ‘Dave would have loved to have you involved – will you take it?’ So I did.

Did commentating come easily?

My first ever live broadcast I was 100 foot up a ladder in a box watching a race at Crystal Palace. I remember saying, ‘Now we have World Champion Gerrie Knetemann breaking wind at the front.’ I thought it went pretty crap, but it turned out it was OK.

I could always talk, and I’ve always said – I used to say this to Paul – on a world feed there are 150 million people watching and you’ll be lucky if two million are cyclists.

They can turn off the sound and still know what’s going on, but the old lady watching for pleasure has no idea about a 42x28 gear ratio. So if you can stop the old lady going to make a cup of tea when the cycling’s on, you’ve succeeded.

You mentioned Paul there – Paul Sherwen – your co-commentator for 33 years until his untimely death in 2018. How did you two come together?

Paul used to race, and he’d go to the start line of the Tour every day, to the riders’ food truck, and sneak me back half a grapefruit. We consolidated our friendship like that over ten years, and when he approached retirement in 1985 I asked him if he’d consider commentating with me.

He still had two years left with the Raleigh Banana team so he served out those years too. How he commentated on a three-week tour and then joined back up with the pro peloton to race beat me. But I’ll tell you that guy was special. I miss him dearly.

Then aged 75, many would have expected you to retire, but you’ve carried on. How did you manage to bounce back?

I read all the press comments and someone did say, ‘Phil doesn’t seem the same now he’s wandering around without Paul,’ and they were right. We did everything together, got in the same car each morning, ate together every evening. Of course I suddenly looked different and lonely, because I was by myself for the first time in 33 years.

But my mourning was personal. As my wife will tell you I’m good at shutting stuff out. Television makes you a very hard person, but you never lose your memories.

This year will be your 44th Tour de France. Who will you be backing?

Well, [Tadej] Pogačar is the hot favourite and he has a strong team. Primož Roglič has disappeared off to train at altitude, but it’s a gamble to come straight back from that to ride the Tour. Will it work? We’ll find out.

The route leaves plenty of room for surprises, and I’m always impressed at the organisers bringing something new to a race that’s been going since 1903. This time it’s Mont Ventoux: two ascents and now going down it as well. I can’t believe it! It’s going to be terrific.

Aside from his ongoing commentating commitments. Phil will also be presenting the inaugural Collins Cup triathlon tournament, beginning 28th August. See protriathletes.org for more details

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