We reconnected via phone from his home 40km outside London to do this interview, and find out more about the most recognized cycling commentator in the English-speaking world.
I was first struck by his openness to chat with fans in 1990, while following the Tour near Mt. Blanc. A buddy and I had just spied Phil covering the Tour for ABC tv, filming his end of day wrap-up in a field beside the final climb of the day’s stage. After much courage-building (“we’re not worthyyyyy”), we finally approached Phil and asked if he’d help us play a joke on our buddies. We were more than a little shocked when Phil happily agreed to staging a fake interview with me, as if I was actually riding the Tour. He was so cool and professional about it, not at all what I’d expected from a media personality of his stature.
The impression he left was huge, and I was eager to ask if he remembered our meeting, and find out more about the most recognized cycling commentator in the English-speaking world, what it’s like to “be Phil Liggett”.
JUST THE FACTS
- Hometown: Bebington, near Liverpool and Chester. Live now in Bayford, 25 miles n-e of London on a farm estate.
- Favourite Piece of Furniture: “An airplane seat, but not by choice.”
- Favourite Non-cycling Activity: “Bird watching and walking.”
- Which languages do you speak? “A little French when Paul Sherwen’s not around.”
- Do you have a website our readers could visit? “I have, but there’s nothing on it!”
Traveling about 200 days per year, Phil meets more than his share of monkeys, but truly loves what he does.
THE REAL DEAL
RP – I’ve often wondered about the path you traveled that led you to your place as the premier English-speaking cycling commentator. Can you tell us a bit about your career history, the jobs you held and your involvement in racing that brought you here?
PL – This is a complicated trail without a guide. I started out as a zoo keeper in Chester Zoo and an ambition to be a zoologist. This failed, largely trough parental lack of funds, and I took up accountancy for three years. I always rode a bike (to go fishing) and wanted to be a professional after I moved into touring riding. I always talked a lot (so I was told) and had a great imagination – all good for a writer and commentator. I started to race when almost 18 and quickly became a 1st category rider. I went to Belgium in 1966 to be a pro and got a contract for 1967. However, I had also applied for a job in London as a trainee journalist with Cycling Magazine. I didn’t get the job first time around, but was offered it later and took it , so no pro contract and I had made the hardest decision of my life. I raced for about 8 years as a reasonably good amateur after this and lost so much weight trying to do two jobs, I retired. My path took me to organising the Milk Race for 22 years and during this time I fell into radio, writing and eventually TV commentating. I am the luckiest person in the world because I never asked for any of the jobs, and still don’t. Everywhere I worked, other networks offered me jobs like CBS and NBC in the US, and C7, 9 and 10 and SBS, in Australia. I have always followed my nose and so far, it has not let me down.
RP – You must have a very supportive wife, as being away from home can be tough on any relationship. How do you maintain the homelife while on the road?
PL – I have indeed, although the older we get the more difficult it is to travel. Pat has her own business and lectures on the body and dance science at university. It is difficult to get quality time together, but I’ve given up trying to work that out. We’ve been married for over 30 years, but life gets no easier!
RP – Tell us a bit about your history as a cyclist… We’ve been watching you for years on the tele, but ‘ve often wondered about your own time as a racer. Did you ride professionally? How long was your racing career – any notable results?
PL – I think this was answered in No 1. I raced from 17 to about 29, but after taking my journalist path, at 23 I was only allowed to race by the magazine providing it was the major event of the weekend, so I had to stay very fit. The result was I lost weight (to 135lbs) so I stopped. I didn’t ride at all for a while, but that didn’t last long and now ride as much as possible wherever I go. I won races, and one season felt like Sean Kelly, with 15 second places, but I never won anything worth noting.
Personal appearances, like signing autographs at Interbike, are a big part of a job Phil loves.
RP – For many fans and riders, cycling means much more to us than just riding a bike, it’s freedom, power, a metaphor for life’s struggles and triumphs – What does it represent to you? Can you share a memorable anecdote that signifies what the sport means to you?
PL – I’m sure cycling is no different to any other sport that becomes your life. For me I cherish the moments away from the limelight, but I am never happier than when I am riding a bike and can stop atop a mountain and look out at the world. The sport and pastime,( I’m also president of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, which has a membership of 70,000 and look after the rights of cyclists) has been kind to me and led me to meet many great people – from youngsters growing up with ambition to the likes of Lance Armstrong. I have a million tales to tell, but they can all come under the same umbrella of having enjoyed the company of people who have found the same incentives and pleasure of our hobby, as I have.
RP – You are considered by many a true gentleman in the sport. At signing sessions at Interbike, not only did people go away with an autograph or a picture, I would imagine every single person walked away feeling like they made a friend. Is it the love of the sport, or the love of people and the job that make you the person you are.
PL – This is embarrassing! I am what you see and do what I do – there is nothing false! I never cease to be amazed at how people want to meet me, tell me their stories, and stay nice things. I look at myself on TV and say “why”. Perhaps it is because they can see themselves in me or feel I have never outgrown my place in life. I often go to bed tired, occasionally wondering why I do it. Then I lie down and think, but if I’ve made a few people happy on TV today, then I can sleep with a clear conscience. I have met so many people around the world who have given me so many wonderful stories of their lives, I often feel very inadequate.
RP – Did any of the guys you rode with on the continent go on to big things? Did you see guys racing on the amateur scene with you, then commentate on/write about them in later years?
PL – Yes, Eddy Merckx did, I believe. He was too good for me and indirectly prompted my decision to be a journalist, as I would never have been as good as he was. (we raced together in belgium in 1966) Most of my contemporaries still race as masters these days. I’m sure they would still beat me too. I have written about them, and some have even built me a bike, like Pete Matthews, who was once the British road champion.
Phil was once a zoo keeper, perhaps this is where he learned to “talk to the animals.”
ON THE JOB
RP – What’s you favorite part of your job? What particular moment do you look forward to at races that gives you special satisfaction or pleasure? (ie: meeting riders, calling the race, the atmosphere?)
PL – Calling the race is the best moment. You sit down with thoughts in you mind and if you manage to get them all out during the commentary and call the race accurately and with panache, then I walk away on a high. I prefer to observe riders from afar and make my own opinion. Don’t misunderstand me, I am friends with many of them and often ride with them, but I prefer to be in a position to form an opinion without coloring from them. One of the greatest satisfactions is having known the rider from being a young amateur, to when he wins a stage of the Tour de France – like Robbie McEwen, for example. My wife, Pat used to be his masseuse when on the Australia national squad when he was 18. We are good friends and he has become the great rider we said he would be.
RP – You seem to be involved in a lot more than just television reporting. What are some of the other projects you have on the go?
PL – I do ski jumping and the opening and closing ceremonies for American and Australian networks at Olympic and Commonwealth Games. CBS pulled me into this in 1991 and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I have commentated on many sports since like four-man bobs, cross country skiing, water polo, judo. And still do the ESPN coverage for Ironman races. I was asked to do this summer’s World athletic championships from Paris, but felt I couldn’t do it justice just after the end of the Tour de France, and turned it down. Commentating is only easy if you have done your research well and it is too easy to ruin your reputation.
RP – You must have an incredible amount of gadgets to keep you connected from various parts of the world. What essential items do you never leave home without when heading off to cover a race?
PL – My laptop is my office and I have all the riders’ records in every discipline just in case. I also have a lot of friends around the world who e-mail me every day. It is much easier now to stay on top with the internet sites, but 20 years’ ago you had to work really hard to find things out. I devised my own records years ago and this allows me to bring up things in commentary that many may have forgotten. The thing about being a TV commentator is that you must remember most things as you make a spontaneous live comment. Gone are the days when, as a writer, I could refer back and make sure my facts were 100 per cent solid before signing the article off.
LET’S TALK RACING
RP – Favourite Race To Report On and why?
PL – The Tour de France for the past 30 years. It has no equal and the riders arrive frightened and stay that way to the end. The pressure is on everyone to give their best, be they rider, writer, or TV man. Every other race has it’s place, but there is only one REAL race.
RP – Who gets your vote for the greatest of all time?
PL – I’ve never hesitated; Merckx is my man – after all he changed my career direction! He dominated the sport like no other during his time at the top. Since retiring he has become a great man and stayed with the sport he has always loved. There are others I will always admire, like Lance and Sean Kelly. I was not around, believe it or not, when Coppi was the star, otherwise, I might have been influenced.
RP – Who gets your vote for the most dedicated, hard worker of all time, someone who did the most with not as much talent as the big guns.
PL – All pros at the top are hard workers, but I know what you mean. Sean Yates comes to mind as the super domestique who finally got his reward with a day in the yellow jersey in the Tour. I have no other in mind, but I always appreciate the trier in the sport and am so happy when he pulls off a big win – like Aussie Matt White in the Tour of Switzerland. Matt is a teammate of Lance and dedicates himself to helping others win.
RP – What was the greatest feat, race effort you ever saw – For example
Museeuw winning Paris-Roubaix after breaking his knee cap? Lemond
winning the Tour then Worlds in 89? Lance winning the Tour after
PL – Well, you’ve named three of them and I was there for each one. There was also Stephen Roche’s big three in 1987. Stephen matured in one year with his battle with Visentini and tifosi in the Giro, Delgado in the Tour (especially on la Plagne)and he entered the World’s to help Kelly win, but had to do it for himself in the final sprint. In every race, riders make heroic efforts, but many are never seen or spoken of.
RP – Where do you see cycling on the world’s sporting front in 10 years
PL – In 10 years – going pretty much as it is now, but further down the road I fear for it. The sport relies on access to roads and towns and they are clogging up at an alarming rate. The sport needs youngsters and plenty of them. On the plus side, venues around the world are realising that cycling and racing can sell their areas to the touring public and reach places farther away then ever. It is a great tourism tool. So-called fun rides, Audax and Randonnee will continue to increase in popularity, but I hope will not in the long term reduce the interest in competing.
RP – You’ve seen bike racing evolve through sum very formative years. What is the single biggest change you’ve witnessed in our sport (ie: technology, ethical issues, the racers…?)
PL – The sport has streamlined itself and become a world sport and not just a European one, as it was in the 60s/70s. Happily, it has never had any ethical issues and all are welcome. I would love for a black cyclist to make the grade right now as this would send the sport skyhigh in South Africa, for example. Equipment, with the arrival of the Americans, has changed and the best innovations have been the handlebar, Sti brake levers and clipless pedals. I hate the use of radios on riders and this should be banned. We have seen the problem manifest in motor sport last year and it could ruin the pro races this year if the riders become so robotic the thrill of the sport will die. Let’s leave the racing to the riders once the flag has gone down.
RP – You prefer: Pint of Guinness, glass of Chianti, or single malt scotch?
PL – Glass of chianti (but had you said a pint of real ale from Great Britain, then you would have guessed right).
RP – Food choice: Tex-mex, Sushi, or Pub Pies?
PL – Pub pies.
RP – Most memorable practical joke you ever saw?
PL – When Raphael Geminiani poured a bucket of water over the commissaire on Paris-Nice after he had penalised his riders who he felt had ridden their hearts out that day.
It was a real treat chatting with a man who has seen so much in our sport. In the middle of our conversation, Phil’s laptop froze up, prompting a string of coloful expletives that I’d never heard him utter in ten years fo watching his race coverage. It was one more a small thing that made me realize just how “regular” a guy he is.
Oh – and Phil did remember our 1st interview from 10 years ago…