In 33 years of covering the Tour de France, Phil Liggett has plenty to say and has described some astonishing athletic feats. Perhaps the greatest was what he calls the “to-and-fro Tour” of 1989, “when everything Greg LeMond did Fignon matched, and everything Fignon did LeMond matched.” LeMond won by eight seconds. Another was “the time Eddy Merckx fell off on the Col du Telegraphe and fractured his face. He was told to pack it in and he would not. And that proved to me that the man was a pure champion.” According to Liggett, “Bike riders don’t race against men; they race against the course that’s thrown at them.”
Known for his vivid language as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, Liggett is famous enough to have been impersonated by Robin Williams on the David Letterman Show. (The comedian, according to the commentator, turns out to be “not a bad bike rider.”) But Liggett started out as just another bike-struck kid for whom cycling became “the gateway to everything.”
Walking the walk before talking the talkGrowing up outside of Liverpool, England, Liggett could usually be found in the local bike shop reading French cycling magazines. At 15, he joined a local racing club and promptly decided to become a competitive cyclist, so he knows firsthand the agony and exhilaration that go hand-in-hand in the peloton. One day an English superstar asked him, “‘Why are you fighting your bike? It’ll always win. Don’t hold the brakes so hard. You can see the whites of your knuckles! Just push the pedals and the bike will take you home.’ That was probably the best advice anybody ever gave me,” Liggett recalls. “I’d get into in some terrible states. I’d sit by the roadside eating chocolate or cheese to get strength back in my legs, not knowing how I’d ever get home. Your hands are shaking when you try to get back on your bike. But you know, the pain becomes a thing of the past, and you just want to go back out and do it all again.”
The mike or the bike?The young cyclist moved to Belgium, where he was good enough to land a pro contract. He was already writing for a local paper when a job offer came along from Cycling and Mopeds magazine in London. Liggett recalls this as the hardest decision of his life. “My heart was in cycling, but I was racing against Eddy Merckx and I was nowhere in his class. I thought, ‘If I can't be the very best, maybe I should take a job as a journalist.’ So I did.”
Invested as a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2005, Liggett covers the sport for the London Daily Telegraph and has six cycling books to his credit. But he’s best known as a television commentator, covering various Olympic and endurance events in addition to cycling. He covered his first cycling race for ITV in 1978, promptly became the network’s main commentator for the Tour de France, and now covers the race for four different networks. Over the years he’s amassed his own statistics on every rider, which he keeps in special files that he designed. “I punch the name of any rider who comes onto the screen into my file, and I’ve got his full facts: if he’s ridden the Tour before, where he’s finished, what stage he won,” the commentator explains.
A grueling event for everyoneCovering the Tour makes for a very long day. It begins at 8 o’clock with pre-recorded camera work, such as the opening and voiceovers. After a live preview show, Liggett and the crew jump into reviewing the live pictures of the day, “which are coming at us,” he explains. “You need to spend at least an hour or two just checking on the progress of the race: who’s had problems, who’s crashed, who’s in the breakaway. Things like that.” Live coverage starts by 2:30, at which point “all we have to do is comment on what we see on the TV monitor, and that’s pretty easy for us.” When that’s over he files the day’s online stories. Then it’s back in the car for the drive to the next finish line, arriving in time for a bottle of wine, a pizza, and a well-earned rest.
Liggett lives just north of London with his wife, Trish, a former Olympic speed skater. His work keeps him on the road some nine months a year, but he admits to only one regret: “not being able to spend time cycling around France, which is the most beautiful country.”
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Name: Phil Liggett
Born: Bebington, Wirral, UK, 1943
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Cape Town, South Africa
Job: Journalist and broadcaster
Education: Nothing special
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: Harry Potter and any on how to escape the island
Favorite place to visit: Africa and any wild places
Favorite food: All
Favorite artist/kind of music: No favorites, just anything soothing and restful
Biking experiences: For me, riding a bike is total relaxation. When I go on a bike ride, all my stories are all written by the time I come home.