Phil Liggett MBE turned down the opportunity to become a professional cyclist in favour of a career as a journalist. Since 1978 he’s commentated on nine summer and five winter Olympic games for ITV, the BBC and channels in Australia andAmerica. Having worked on no less than 40 Tour de France challenges, Phil hasn’t been at home in July since 1973. Each year he flies around 120,000 miles and spends more than six months staying in hotels.
Luckily, we caught Phil while he was working on the Spring Classics such as Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastongne-Liege for NBC Sports Network in the USA and ITV in the UK from his home in Hertfordshire.
How hard was it to turn down the offer of a pro cycling career to become a journalist Phil?
Saying “no” to a professional contract was the hardest, and indeed, the only decision I’ve ever had to make. I was not at the very top when comparable to the great riders of my day such as Eddy Merckx, and this prompted me to accept a job as a trainee journalist in London. It turned out to be the right one as I moved into commentating and was than asked to try out as a TV commentator. The move led me to covering 14 Olympic Games and 40 Tour de France’s.
As the ‘voice of cycling’ you’re known for your colourful expressions when commentating. Do these come to you on impulse? Or do you think of them in advance?
My “Liggetisms” as they have been named by fans are always a surprise – even to me – I have no premeditated thoughts before I go on air. I just hope they keep coming. I look at the TV monitor and phrases shoot to mind.
How do you manage all those useful cycling stats and data that you’ve gathered over the years?
I love statistics and was a statistical accountant before I became a journalist, so keeping records to me is fun. I devised my own programme for every individual top rider – man and women – and also a separate one from the Tour de France. I update them every day, so I am ready for any broadcast without doing extra research before the show.
You demonstrate some pretty astounding facts about French landmarks along the TDF route each year. Do you research those yourself?
Many people, especially in the UK, watch our programmes on the Tour de France for the stunning scenery and chateaux. France too, has realised what a beautiful country is has to sell and the Tour is best place to do it. Nowadays, the organisation produces a special book telling us the history of every monument on the route, and we do our best to tell the viewer when we are on air. The book is heavy with information and finding the right page can be difficult when our programme is live, but we know how much it is appreciated by the viewer, so we try very hard to get it right!
As part of the TDF commentary team, you and Paul Sherwen are often talking to four different countries in four different time zones within one broadcast. How do you know who you’re talking to? And does this change the style of your commentary?
You’re right. We are live to the USA on the NBCSN and also to the UK on ITV4. In Australia, it is SBS live and in South Africa Super Sports, which is CET. Primarily our main transmission is to the USA and the other three tap in to our commentary. We use a traffic light system to know where we are and when my red light in front of me to the World is off, then I am talking only to the USA and Paul Sherwen carries the rest until I can get back. At the height of the action it can be confusing but basically it works. We try and keep updates and stories about riders to each country quiet until we know that that particular country is in tune with us.
What’s a typical day like when you’re working on the TDF?
Our day is long and starts at about 9am on the finishing line of that day’s stage of the Tour. We spend an hour checking overnight stories and then do individual pieces to camera for the four networks. These are recorded and are “bolted” on the head of the live show, because once we are live we cannot talk to individual networks. We do a pre-show live for NBC and then move into the commentary box at 2.30pm to pick up commentary until the race ends around 5pm. After this we do a closing show for NBC and then the usual blogs and internet before setting off to drive to the next stage town finish. We usual get to bed around 11pm or a bit later. Meals are taken on the run and the three weeks fly by!
Apart from the Tour de France, which is your favourite race of all the classics and tours?
The Tour de France is the stand-out race in any professional riders career, but the one-day Classics, often referred to as the Monuments of the sport, are also coveted by the riders. For me, Paris-Roubaix is the best, covering almost 260kms and including over 50kms of cobbled and unmade roads in Northern France. You need good fortune and a strong will to survive this ancient race, which was first held in 1896 and the fans flock in their thousands to watch this “Queen of the Classics”.
Looking forward to this year’s tour, in your opinion should Wiggins defend the TDF title or should he support Froome in his challenge?
Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner of the Tour last year. He did it over a route that suited his talents down to the ground. This year the route is very mountainous and difficult for a time trial rider of note, and for that reason alone, I think Wiggins will not defend his title but try and repay his loyal team mate, Chris Froome. Wiggins has purposely not followed his race pattern from last season, so that he could not be compared to what was an outstanding season. His eye is on becoming the first British rider to win the Giro d’Italia and if this goes well, then expect him to stand by Froome in July.
Are there any new breakthrough riders or teams that are likely to surprise us during this year’s tour?
Judging by the results of the Spring Classics, there will be plenty of room for surprise in the 100th Tour de France. Alberto Contador, Wiggins, Andy Schleck and others are not showing great form at the moment. There are young riders, especially from Colombia, who are beginning to show through while France may be able to perform better than usual and surprise us with a win – their first since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Who do you admire most in the current pro peloton?
I really don’t have any favourites in the peloton. I like a brave and attacking rider who is willing to gamble with a win by always attacking. Riders who have not quite got the talent to win all the time but who use their courage to attack and succeed against the odds, are my favourite type of riders. One example is the Australian Simon Gerrans who has won stages in all of the Grand Tours and the longest classic race, Milan-San Remo, because of his fighting attitude.
Do you think Lance Armstrong’s doping confessions have made an impact on the profile of the sport?
What we should remember is Armstrong’s confession comes years after the offences, and the sport has already moved on. Cycling is more popular than ever and the racing is more open. This is evidenced by the diverse results this season. The sport has become transparent and the riders of today welcome this, as gone is the feeling that one must dope to win now. The Armstrong era must never return, but it is clear now that there was a culture of doping and it seems most of the top riders had done it at some time or other.
You’d supported Armstrong throughout his career. How did you feel when you learnt the extent of his drug taking? And have you been in contact with him since?
I was very sad indeed when I learnt the extent of the drug taking, not just by Armstrong, but by his team and many of his contemporaries. It was the biggest deception in the history of sport. It was a dark period and many of the performances and results must always be regarded with suspicion. However, the sport and pastime goes on and what happened is now a part of history. The people who took up or began following the sport because of the riders of that period, are still with us and have found a great enjoyment. I haven’t seen or spoken to Armstrong since September 2011, but it was a period of my career that, despite the revelations, remains the most enjoyable for me from a progressive and professional viewpoint. You can’t roll back time.
In your opinion, is it possible to win the Tour de France without drugs?
I have always believed that it is possible to win the Tour de France without taking drugs, but for the talented few who can win the race, most it seems have taken drugs as an insurance. I feel confident that Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans, two recent winners, both did so in a clean way. The sport has changed now and the top riders will have to select their races and not be expected to win every time they take to the start. The body cannot take the punishment expected of it by the public without resorting to drugs to survive a long season and perhaps more than 35,000kms of pedaling.
For you, who has been the ultimate TDF champion?
The ultimate Tour champion has to be the legendary Belgian Eddy Merckx. He won the race five times and then conceded his sixth attempt in 1975 because of a crash during the race. He was head and shoulders ahead of his rivals and won 525 races from 1500 starts. He was the best.
Do you think Morzine-Avoriaz will feature on the 2014 tour route?
The organisers go to extremes to keep their annual route a secret, so I don’t know if Morzine will be on the route in 2014. It has been to Morzine 18 time since its first visit in 1975, and I have been in the lovely town every time. It has not been back since a stage start in 2010, so it is time we returned!
Outside of cycling, and when you’re not working on other projects, how do you like to spend your time?
When I’m not following bike races I have properties in South Africa where I escape into the wild. My lodge near the Kruger Park has all of the big animals including lion, elephant, rhino, and they come right up to the house. I am a patron of Birdlife South Africa and work to help the wildlife survive. I also support the village children with bicycles as they are not as fortunate as we are.