Dancing on the mic – an interview with Phil Liggett

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There can’t be an English-speaking cycling fan on the planet who has not grown up without the voice of Phil Liggett commentating on their two-wheeled day-dreams, says Carlo Jonkerman.

“Digging deep in their suitcase of courage”, and “Dancing on their pedals” are well-known Liggettisms. Imagine a world without the usually baritone Liggett being wound up into a falsetto frenzy as the faceless, Oakleyed warriors in Lycra do battle on the roads of France. Unthinkable. Along with his co-conspirator Paul Sherwen (who also pedalled a mean bike in his day, and finished the TDF five times), Phil has been covering Le Tour since 1973, bringing to life Eddy Merckx’s fourth win out of five in a career that would see him outlast four five-time winners. Yes. Including Lance. As he heads into his 43rd edition of ‘La Grande Boucle’, we caught up with him on top of a small koppie in Mpumalanga. Kind of. That was the only place he can get reception at his bushveld home-from-home in South Africa.

CJ: Everybody knows you as “The Voice of Cycling” but what do your wife and your long-time commentary-box partner Paul Sherwen call you?
PL: Well, Trish probably calls me lots of things when I am away and there are problems at home. We talk every day and sometimes I hold the phone away from the ear! Paul, calls me The Don, as do most of the TV crews I work with in the UK. I quite like that.

CJ: Speaking of which, do you like or loathe that “The Voice of Cycling” moniker?
PL: I feel very flattered to be called The Voice of Cycling – it’s a big honour. It was started at the 1990 Commonwealth Games by an Australian TV reporter, who introduced me as such, and has stuck with me ever since.

CJ: What was your favourite subject at school?
PL: Well, I didn’t really have one, but it turned out to be English. I won the school prize in my final year and everyone was amazed, including me. I never thought it would become so important for me in the years ahead.

CJ: “Phil Liggett is most likely to …” – what would your school friends have answered to that?
PL: I think all my school friends just saw me as a source of amusement. I was useless at ball games and enjoyed going home most. But one of them hit it on the head when she said I should write a book, as I talk so much – so I wrote five!

CJ: Best journalistic advice ever given, be it on writing or broadcasting?
PL: My first TV commentary was in April 1978, and one of Britain’s best-known sports presenters called me and said, “Good luck, Phil – and just remember why you got the job.” I replied, “But I don’t know why I got the job”. He said, “Because they liked you, so don’t change as soon as you start commentating”.

CJ: That pro contract you turned down in 1967: who was it from, and who tried the hardest to convince you to take it?
PL: I was made the offer by a small Belgian team, who offered a bike and a jersey, and then I would try and show how good I was. But during the winter of 1966/67, I was given the chance to join a magazine in Fleet Street and train as a journalist. It was a horrible decision, because I just wanted to race, but it was the right one.

CJ: You have a long history of cycling efforts outside the commentary box: tell us about them.
PL: I guess I have always tried to practice what I preached, and by riding with the stars, you can get so much more out of them. They talk well when they are relaxed. I work and travel so much, it is very important that I keep up a form of exercise and a level of fitness. My longest ride is from one end of the UK to the other – 1 400km in a modest nine days for charity.

CJ: If a rider in today’s pelotons had to play you in a movie about your cycling career, who would it be?
PL: Wow, that’s a tough one. Why would he? That would be my first question, and then… Hmm, maybe Jens Voigt, because he has a good sense of humour and also climbs, time trials and sprints at a level just below the top. I was like that when I raced, so he could play me.

Jens Voigt  pictured during a press conference at the Trek Factory Racing team launch at the Stade Velodrome in Roubaix, France - photo JDM/PN/Cor Vos © 2014

Jens Voigt pictured during a press conference at the Trek Factory Racing team launch at the Stade Velodrome in Roubaix, France – photo JDM/PN/Cor Vos © 2014


CJ: How often do you ride?
PL: As often as I can. My total for last year was 3 500km and, although it doesn’t sound like many, I have to pack the kilometres in between races like the Tour and theVuelta, when I don’t ride at all for three or four weeks.

CJ: Do you remember your first bike?
PL: Of course; I think everyone does. It was a Raleigh Lenton, a very heavy machine with Sturmey-Archer hub gears. I used it to ride everywhere when I was 15. It opened the door to a new world.

CJ: What has been your favourite bike?
PL: I used to race on a Harry Quinn from Liverpool, but over the past 20 years, I have ridden a Trek, and loved it. My last bike will be a Condor from London, as these guys used to sponsor me when I moved to London from the North of England in 1967, and they build a nice bike.

CJ: Is there a particular ride that you’ve done that you’ll never forget?
PL: I have been lucky to ride with the most famous people in our sport, but I suppose the one ride I will always remember is the one I did from one end of the UK to the other. It is called the End-to-End and I did it with Trish and three guys. It was a great achievement when we reached John O’Groats in Scotland – and a long way to drive back home!

CJ: This will be your how-many-eth Tour?
PL: My first was in 1971 – when Luis Ocaña won, and my 44th (hopefully) will be in 2015.

CJ: What abiding memory do you have from your first Tour as a commentator?
PL: I was a driver of a press car and had no idea where to position or drive. It was a huge learning curve, and I remember just laughing uncontrollably as we pulled away from the first day’s start in Holland being chased by the field. I found then that there were two races – one for bikes and the other for cars.

CJ: In which year did you have most fun calling?
PL: I think that has to be 1989, when Greg LeMond won by eight seconds – the closest-ever finish – over Laurent Fignon. It was a great race as they swapped the lead, swapped stage wins and the race was decided on the last-day time trial. The viewers complained that I gave the result away, when I predicted before the start that LeMond would win by six seconds. I could not have, as we were live!

CJ: Who is the most talented Tour rider that you have commentated on? Most difficult? And the funniest?
PL: The first is easy; it has to be Eddy Merckx. No one could ride with him. The most difficult? Well, if you mean difficult to interview, then probably Bjarne Riis, the Danish winner in 1996. He was very difficult to drag a comment from! The funniest, I suppose was the irrepressible Jens Voigt. He always had a quip or two when you caught up with him.

Eddy Merckx wins Milan San Remo. Photo © Cor Vos

Eddy Merckx wins Milan San Remo. Photo © Cor Vos


CJ: Is commentating on Le Tour dangerous [opening the door to talk about an incident in 1992]?
PL: The only danger attached to commentating is when your chair breaks in mid-sentence, but being part of a huge circus can have its moments. The Tour is a magnet for demonstrations, because so many people watch the race around the world. Terrorists hit me in San Sebastien in 1992 when ETA [the Basque separatist group] blew my car up, thinking I was French. I was in bed and the car was obliterated along with six others, but no one was hurt.

CJ: What does an average day on the Tour look like for Phil ’n Paul?
PL: Long, but it passes very quickly. Up at 7am, at the finish line by 9am and then talk about and record openings for the various programmes we do. Lunch (with our own French chef) and then to the commentary position at 2.30pm local time – earlier if in the mountains. Finish at 6.30pm and then drive up to 250kmto the next stage finish. Dinner is a bonus, and bed as soon as possible afterwards.

CJ: What do you do on Le Tour rest days?
Paul and I often work for the organisers doing rest-day programmes, but we try and catch up with our American crew and have some fun for an hour or two playing boules. Like the riders, there is so much to do on the rest day that it is no rest at all.

CJ: MTN-Qhubeka at Le Tour: in your opinion, how ready are they, and how well do you expect them to perform?
PL: Physically, they will be ready, but there is no way you can prepare for the experience of your first tour. The selected nine riders (and the backup team) are heading into the unknown, and my advice is to enjoy the journey to the full. The journey is long, and full of surprises and pitfalls. Every emotion will be experienced and, at the end of three weeks, the Eiffel Tower is sitting on your shoulder and you have finished the Tour de France. MTN-Qubeka will entertain us and often be in the TV camera lens, but let’s not put any pressure on them – let them enjoy a unique occasion for Africa.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Marianne Vos and Phil Liggett pictured at Momentum 947 Cycle Challenge 2014 - Photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2014

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Marianne Vos and Phil Liggett pictured at Momentum 947 Cycle Challenge 2014 – Photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2014


CJ: Your association with South Africa – how and why did it start?
PL: It started when Lawrence Whittaker, winner of the first ‘Argus’ suggested to M-Net that it should ask me to commentate on the event. So I went over in 1989 and fell in love with Cape Town so much that it became a permanent place in my calendar in March.

CJ: What has made you continue coming and prompted you to buy
your two local bases?
PL: As I said, I love Cape Town – the people, the scenery, the water and, of course, the wildlife and cycling. I felt a bit of a rogue, because, after years of covering the Paris-Nice stage race, I was very close to the organisers, and they couldn’t understand why I never went back to this event. After I realised I was always going to visit, I bought an apartment in Gordon’s Bay and then, in 2003, I bought some land in the bush near Kruger Park, and this is my most favourite place in the world.

CJ: Any near misses with regard to meeting former president Nelson Mandela?
PL: Yes, when I started helping out with Velokhaya in Cape Town, Madiba was rumoured to be coming, and I was up for that. I never did meet one of the most iconic men in history.

CJ: Louis Meintjes: how good?
PL: At 23, Louis is set to become South Africa’s greatest-ever rider. He is progressing nicely and shows all the signs of making the top drawer.

Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) wins stage 4 of the Coppi e Bartali 2015 - Photo RB/Cor Vos © 2015

Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) wins stage 4 of the Coppi e Bartali 2015 – Photo RB/Cor Vos © 2015


CJ: You tweeted recently about Tranmere Rovers’ travails. How and when did your affinity with the Liverpudlian football club start?
PL:The first 23 years of my life were spent living five kilometres from Prenton Park, the ground of Tranmere on Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool. I used to watch them on Friday evenings, when they played, as on Saturdays, the fans watched Everton or Liverpool. So sad they are out of the Football League after 94 years.

CJ: You’ve commentated on numerous other sports and events, but is there any sport that would trip you up?
PL: It is a lot easier commentating on strange sports (to me) with the use of the modern technology. In triathlons, for example, you can see the movement of the athletes and build up an excitement if they are closing in. Just looking at the screen, you see nothing other than the leaders. Commentators who are given a strange sport (to them) feel they have to project themselves to the viewer as an expert. This is a recipe for disaster, and it reminds me of when I was asked by CBS in the USA to commentate on ski jumping at the 1992 Winter Olympics in France. I said, “But I know nothing about skiing, except speed skating (Trish was an Olympic speed skater)”. They said, “Great, you can learn with the viewer!” I did, but I also did a lot of research, too. When I took the American ski team out for lunch to learn about the sport, all they wanted to talk about was Greg LeMond and Eddy Merckx.

CJ: What is your favourite birdwatching moment?
PL: It is every time I see a “lifer” – a bird I have never seen before. I also get excited when I look at, say, a European hobby from my deck in the lowveld, which I did in March this year, and then in April, go to the East Coast of the UK, and see it there (probably not the same one, but you never know).

CJ: If you could have a superpower, which one would it be, and why?
PL: It would be to bring the world together, as one. The hatred around us is unbelievable and we have to exist together. For the moment, I have to settle for helping to save the extinction in the wild of the rhino, and this takes a lot of my spare time [helpingrhinos.org].