Mr Phil Liggett, arguably the most recognizable voice in English-language coverage of our sport is on a Skype video call from his home in Hertfordshire, England where it’s been freezing cold. By the time you read this, hopefully things should be much warmer where Phil has a home in the southern hemisphere.
As PEZ celebrates ten years (!) bringing you the coolest experiences in pro cycling, how has the gig changed for one of the guys who has worked through some of the greatest highs and most crushing lows our sport has seen over the last forty years? Ladies and gentlemen, the thoughts of Mr Phil Liggett …
PEZ: You are off to South Africa where you have a home. Is that down to Paul Sherwen’s influence, and his long-term ties to the continent?
Phil Liggett: No, it was quite coincidental. I went to South Africa in 1989 or 1990 to cover the Cape Argus Classic which had 19,000 cyclists then – it’s capped at 38,000 today!
I got off the plane in Cape Town and I thought: “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” I still do. I ended up buying a place in the Greater Kruger National Park, right on the Oliphants River.
Unfortunately we had floods there a short time ago, and the house was partially flooded. The Oliphants turned very nasty, two feet of rain in seven hours, and burst it’s banks. It’s a beautiful place to ride. I have a bike there, but I suspect that’s been under water as well.
PEZ: Since PezCyclingNews started out in 2002, at the height of the Lance Armstrong era, how do you picture the growth in cycling market?
Phil Liggett: I’ll tell you a story about a bike shop in South Africa, a guy I know. He walked into this shop and said: “I want this bike,” I think it was a Pinarello, “… and I want it in this specific colour with these new components.”
And the owner said to him: “Well, it’ll be difficult to get that exact colour. How about if you just take this other colour?” The guy says that, no, it has to be very specifically one particular colour.
So it was going to take a while to sort it out, but eventually the bike shop owner got the frame, got the parts and the fellow comes to collect it.
The owner asks him why did it have to be that particular colour, and the man answered that he wanted a new bike but he wanted to have it sit in the hallway and look just like his old one so that when his wife saw it she wouldn’t know he’d just spent the equivalent of Ј4,000 on a new bike!
That sort of thing is more and more common now. People are spending a lot on new bikes which is helping to grow the bike market. It’s good for the economy. Mind you, sometimes the missus might think that Ј4,000 could be better spent!
PEZ: In the UK the number of cyclists, whether racers, commuters or leisure riders, seems to have shot up. Do you think that there is an increased acceptance of biking in the UK?
Phil: Today, the CTC (Cyclists’ Touring Club, of which Phil was a past president, between 1996 and 2006) has 80,000 members, an all-time high. British Cycling has 40,000 members, an all-time high. The British Heart Foundation (with whom Phil is involved) has noted that cycling promotions are their highest earners, so they are really trying to work on developing cycling.
I guess you now have people thinking to themselves that the price of fuel is going up all the time, the price of oil is going up. Motoring is expensive. So if you are in the City (of London) and you can commute by bike and save yourself Ј10 a day then it makes sense.
Then there are the health benefits, and people thinking that if they can extend their life expectancy by ten years just by getting fitter and exercising, and cycling is an easy way to do that, you can see why it’s such a growth area.
Nowadays, if you are in London, you’ve got more chance of being hit by a cyclist if you’re a pedestrian than being hit by a car! Bike commuters are nose-to-tail and they’re not hanging about. But this is a wonderful development.
The culture of biking in the UK has changed a lot. Now you see three guys going out and doing 30 miles as fast as they can and going home. It’s not necessarily about the Sunday Club Run and a cafй stop any more.
PEZ: How about as a sport, in media terms, in the UK?
Phil: Well, after Beijing it was just incredible. The recognition for riders grew. When I think back, I was at the velodrome and I was speaking to Owen Slot who is the Guardian’s (UK newspaper) sports editor, and I said to him: “Ah, you’ve found your way to the velodrome, have you?” And he just said to me: “Yes, and you’re going to see more of us here, more of the time.”
There was a recognition that Britain was going to these events and competing for the medals, for the victories. That has changed everything in the UK. The riders are superstars.
Before the average person wouldn’t have known them. Now they know Mark Cavendish is the World Road Race Champion; they think of Bradley Wiggins and it’s ‘Yes, Wiggins, he’s brilliant on the track. He’s won gold medals.’
Even in my local (pub), we don’t generally talk about cycling there, but when the Vuelta was finishing last year, someone leant over and said to me: “This guy Cobo has won the Tour of Spain. Who is he? I don’t know about him” … that would never have happened before.
PEZ: I have to ask you about the Lance Armstrong situation, following the recent closure of the Federal investigation into the US Postal Service team. You were recently quoted about asking Lance that question …
Phil: I was in Lance’s bedroom, and it was a while ago, maybe in 2000 or 2001, and we were chatting about this and that and it came up in the course of the conversation, and I said to him: “Look, I’ve been talking about you on TV and helping to build you up into this icon, and if it turns out you’ve been lying to me and you come up positive, then …” – words to that effect.
And Lance just looked at me and he said: “Man, I’ve looked death in the face, and I ain’t going back there. I’m not taking drugs.” And that was it.
With Lance, I think it’s a case of: “The king is dead, long live the king!” You know, there are fans around the world – whichever side they take – who have made up their minds about Lance one way or another.
He’s either guilty or innocent but no amount of evidence will change their minds. Lance once said to me: “You know, I don’t give a sh!t any more when stuff comes up. I just give the papers to my lawyers and let them deal with it.”
PEZ: With Lance retired a year now, will the sport have new heroes in the USA? Will cycling continue to grow post-Lance?
Phil: It will only continue to get bigger. You’ve got Tyler Farrar who, I think and hope, can win a Classic this year. A terrific young rider. You’ve got Taylor Phinney, who is having a little bit of a tough time in really breaking through, but I am convinced he’ll get there. The USA has a lot of talented young riders.
You know I’m not wanting to blow my own trumpet here, but at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year, I couldn’t believe the number of people who recognised me. I had to get them to move the toilet closer to the commentary booths because if I’d stopped to speak to everyone it would have taken an hour for me to get there and back and I was only popping out while the commercials were on!
PEZ: Looking ahead, ten years from now, what changes or developments would you see happening? Is women’s racing a potential growth area?
Phil: I was actually the Chief Commissaire for the Women’s World Road Race in 1975, and I never saw the finish of that race. I said to my driver: “This could be a boring race, so if I fall asleep, will you wake me up?”
Inside the last kilometre, there was a huge crash and I spent my time picking girls up off the road. I never saw the finish. Now, today, we have some incredible women riders, terrific athletes.
It hasn’t moved on as quickly as it should have though. I really like the development where top men’s teams also have a women’s team – GreenEdge are doing it, HTC-Columbia did it.
But in terms of the rewards and the profile, I worry that it won’t grow quite as fast as it should.
PEZ: One significant area of change, I’d guess, is the fact that the Paralympics are now a sponsor-heavy, main stream event …
Phil: I’ve just watched the Paralympic Track Worlds which was great, and Britain topped the medal table. I’ve really, really got into it just recently. It’ll be a great competition (Paralympics), and I’d expect Britain to do really well there. You know, that team has a lot of interesting characters.
PEZ: We touched on Africa at the start of our interview. In terms of cycling how is the continent engaging with the sport?
Phil: Again, the growth in Africa has been huge. In South Africa, in the post-apartheid era, the hope now is that there will be a big star in cycling and that he will be a black rider. We have Jonathon Boyer in Rwanda working hard developing riders.
And of course there’s a rider with GreenEdge this year, Daniel Teklahaymanot (from Eritrea) who is a terrific bike rider, a lovely guy. He’s really strong and he could breakthrough … I hope so.
PEZ: The Tour de France is still the biggest event and still growing …
Phil: Well, we might be speaking about the last ten years, but this will actually be my fortieth Tour de France! And it’ll be my fourteenth Olympic Games! I’ve covered every Tour since 1973. I went with David Saunders the journalist, as his driver, for my first Tour.
We were the only English-speaking journalists on the race back then, and I didn’t have a word of French. If the organizers issued a communiquй and it was complicated, we were really struggling, but we had to work at it and work hard.
I would imagine that there won’t be any other English-speaking journalists to have done what I’ve done in those terms. There have been others, such as John Wilcockson and John Pierce, who have been covering the Tour for many, many years, but they would maybe be there for a day or two, and then head home. But I’ve done every day since 1973 – I haven’t been at home in the UK in the month of July since then!
PEZ: It must seem like a different world today, with the Tour being such a hyper-organised, almost military-planned operation!
Phil: (Back then) the press cars used to all drive ahead of the race, and they’d be backed up for about two miles, with the race just about 500 metres behind. If the race accelerated everybody had to accelerate together or the riders would be in among the cars!
The Tour has changed beyond compare. It is by far and away the biggest event. We now always travel a day ahead of the race. As soon as our commentary is done, we just pack up and drive to the next hotel. We hardly see any of the racing live, don’t go to the start village, don’t go to the press room – so that is one of the biggest changes.
In the past, you filed your story or finished your commentary or whatever at 6:30pm, drove to the hotel and then went out with everyone for a drink and a chat and a laugh. That’s all changed.
Now Graham Watson will send out a Tweet asking if we’re still on the race because he doesn’t see us. Maybe on the Time Trial stage which tends to start before we go on air, and the start and finish being within half a kilometre of each other, I might wander over to see the riders, to see the early starters.
Maybe Robbie McEwen might be there, in 180th place down the field, and he’ll look up at me and say: “G’day Phil? Have you been here the whole race?” And I’ll just answer: “You ba*t*rd, you know I have!”
PEZ: How about the amount of travelling you do in a season? Has that changed?
Phil: As an example, this summer, I’ll do the Tour de France. Straight after that finishes, I’m back to the UK and meet the crew on the Wednesday for the Olympics with the racing starting on the Saturday.
I do the Olympics, and then fly straight to the USA, to Colorado, for the US Pro Cycling Challenge. And then straight back to the UK for the Paralympics.
PEZ: When we think of the last ten years, we’ve had Operation Puerto, the Floyd Landis situation, and even further back the Festina Affair in 1998. Despite all that, do you feel that there is a greater appreciation of cycling? Or, I guess, do you still find yourself having to defend cycling more than you’d hope you would have to?
Phil: I think there is just much more sympathy now than there used to be. Before, in the UK, the general sports fan used to think: “The Tour de France, that’s a bike race”, but that would be it. Now, people understand that to win the Tour de France, you need to be a great athlete.
Or it would be: “They’re all on drugs”, which isn’t the case. And I’d take them to task and try to explain things.
I look back and we had a drugs problem in cycling in the 1990s … you look at some of those events (from that era – Ed.) and you can make up your own minds, but it was there. But it’s getting cleaner, definitely.
Would I want to be a young professional rider nowadays with the responsibilities and the intrusions into my life? I personally wouldn’t … you go out to the pub or for a meal, and you think ‘Hang on, if we’re going to go to a different pub, I’ll have to change my details on the whereabouts form. I’ll just go on the Internet …’
I’ve been critical of both the UCI and WADA but they are learning the whole time, too, and they are doing a good job generally. I believe cycling is genuinely trying to be transparent.
PEZ: In the late 1980s, the buzzword in cycling was ‘globalization’, the Tour de France started in Berlin, it more regularly began to visit different countries. Now, and since Pez started, the season is genuinely different. The riders have been going a month before the European season even starts …
Phil: That is another big change (the Tour of Qatar started in 2002). The whole season is eleven months now, from the Tour Down Under to the races in China, and that needs to be taken into account when looking at riders’ schedule. They might be contracted for a year, but they have to think about breaks in the season. But in general it’s a positive development to see new races and growing audiences.
PEZ: How about your TV work … are you busier than ever?
Phil: Well, that’s just grown and grown. We work not only for broadcasters in the USA but also for the Tour (de France organization). They send our half-hour highlights resumй out to over 150 countries who take coverage of the Tour, in English. That gives you some idea.
The fact that broadcasts are being taken live to the US on a daily basis from the Tour … it might be 4am in the central states, 6am in New York, but people are watching. For us, actually, live TV is just about the least technical thing we do. That’s not the case for the production team obviously, but it’s wonderful to still be doing it.
I’m not sure we’ll be talking like this in another ten years, but for now, I’m quite happy that I haven’t been pushed out yet!
PEZ: In terms of researching riders and races, the growth of the Internet can’t be underestimated …?
Phil: I spend an hour everyday, even now – I did it this morning – logging the results of the previous day’s races and matching it to my rider files. So I have a complete picture of the riders and what they’ve achieved.
The riders in the Tour de France, I tend to know. But if there is a guy in a break that I don’t know so much about and he’s Basque, for example, I can just wander over to that country’s (broadcast) box and ask for more information.
You know, everyone’s got a computer and those (broadcasting) booths are small. Paul Sherwen will be sitting beside me with his laptop, there’ll be two TV monitors, the computer the organisers have provided so there is little room for anything else. You can’t physically bring all those files with you, so for the Tour it’ll be mostly off the top of my head.
PEZ: The continual struggle for sponsorship is a cause for anguish. We’ve seen teams come and go quickly; the rise of the superteams backed by one rich individual …
Phil: I still think that cycling, as a sport, is an incredibly cost-effective way of getting global exposure for your brand. When you think of where the logos are worn on the jersey, the fact that the brand is the team name so commentators are talking about it, journalists are writing about it, it makes tremendous sense.
You get a heck of a lot of exposure for your investment. Of course, it’s still several million Euros to run a team for a season, but in comparative terms it’s cheap (i.e. compared to other sports such as Formula 1 – ed.)
To come back to an earlier point, I don’t believe Motorola stopped sponsorship because of the drug scandals in cycling. I think they had got what they wanted from their investment in cycling – seven years is a long time for any company to be in sponsorship. If you asked me how many companies or sponsors we’ve lost as a result of drug problems, I’d honestly have to say very few.
Finally, we asked what was Phil’s earliest recollection of PEZ, and any advice for the future:
Phil: I thought you would be like many new sites and be gone in a year! However, you have thrived and are now well respected around the World, so well done! Advice? You never try to advise a winning combination. You have to continue to build on what you’ve achieved and keep everyone else on their toes!
It was great to speak to Phil and hear from someone who knows the sport inside-out, who knows about the trials and tribulations, as well as the highs, that cycling has given us over the last ten years. Here’s to another ten, at least …?
With thanks to Phil for his time. Follow Phil on Twitter.