01 Jun, 2016

The Voice of Cycling


Continuing our regular Q&A with cycling personalities, we chat to legendary British cycling commentator Phil Liggett (72), who has one of the most recognised voices in world cycling, and who spends quite a bit of time in his second home, South Africa.

MC:What was the spark that ignited your passion for cycling?

PL:There was no car in my family in the mid-50s, so I cycled to school and went fishing by bike. Then my best school friend asked me to go riding with him into Wales, a country just 20km from my home in England, and I did. That was it. I saw things I never knew existed and then came a burning desire to race, so my life was shaped from the age of 15.

MC:Who taught you to ride a bike?

PL:No one. I remember my mother standing outside the house watching me ride up and down the road, which was a cul-de-sac, on my first full-sized bicycle. I showed her how I could get off with my leg over the saddle and stop without falling, and never looked back! My parents had never ridden a bicycle.

MC:What is your favourite cycling memory growing up?

PL:The freedom born from riding is my favourite memory, but my first road race win will always stay with me. It was when, with a kilometre to go, the leaders hit an island when turning into the finishing road. I dodged around the fallers and never looked back until I had won the race. The first prize was a set of gears that never did work!

MC:Who would you say was your mentor growing up?

PL:I’m not sure I have had a mentor. I have always seen my way and once I decide on something, I try and achieve it. My best friend, Robin, was pretty close, but he was not interested in becoming more than a club rider, so I got no inspiration there! I always listened to the top riders in my early cycling clubs and admired the great riders like Tom Simpson, the Englishman who died in the Tour de France in 1967. I wanted to be the best. It always worried me when my mother said, “You aren’t like other children.” I hope I didn’t let her down!

MC:When did you discover your talent as a commentator?

PL:I am not sure I ever have. I had no ambition to be anything other than a professional rider, which I never was, but throughout my early years as an amateur I used to write articles and talk about cycling, because no one else did. At 18 I was told I talk so much, I should write a book! When I was offered a job as a journalist in London in 1967, I took it, and then 11 years later, I was asked to commentate on the sport after my friend, who was the then TV commentator, was killed in a car accident. For two years I found it difficult and nerve-racking but then I awoke one morning and realised how much I loved it. Telling a story has never been difficult for me.

MC:Is commentating a hard industry, and was it hard to get your foot in the door?

PL:In the 70s and 80s, there was no “commentating industry,” and no media studies at university, so if you got the chance, you took it. My halo is that I have never, not once, asked for a job in television. I have been so lucky. Every network in the English-speaking world has called me, including my first appointment with ITV in the UK in 1978. Nowadays, people are hitting the screens at an alarming rate, and very few are any good. Now, it is a very competitive business and I really think that the TV networks are not always choosing the best.

MC:Besides the Tour de France, what is your favourite race to be a commentator on?

PL:There are still people who think I only work in July, but joking apart, I love the Tour Down Under in Australia, because it has a wide following and sells the sport and South Australia very well. Another favourite is the Cycle Tour in Cape Town, because it is so unique and I have been going there for more than 25 years.

MC:What is your most embarrassing commentating blooper?

PL:My fans on social media are the ones to ask! When you are live, you can’t retract anything you say incorrectly, but over 40 years, I feel I have been pretty lucky. You say things like “and here we have the World Champion, Gerrie Knetemann, breaking wind at the front.” Or “Adrie Van der Poel has won five silver medals at the World Cyclo Cross Championship, and none of them gold.” No one is perfect!

MC:What was your most exciting moment as a commentator?

PL:There have been many, but calling Greg LeMond’s eight-second victory in the Tour de France in 1989 was special – it could have been six or nine seconds, but I got it dead right. Also, I love guiding the viewer via a rider in a sprint finish – it is exhilarating if he wins, and I go to bed with a nice glow that I’ve done my job well.

MC:What moment in cycling history took your breath away?

PL:There have been many, but as a commentator I have been blessed to have called every English-speaking winner of the Tour de France. All were special moments: Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Bradly Wiggins and Chris Froome. Even the seven ‘wins’ of Lance Armstrong.

MC:Who is your all time favourite cyclist and why?

PL:I only have one answer and it is without doubt Eddy Merckx. For those lucky enough to have seen him race – I even raced against him as an amateur – you knew he was the master of his trade. He rode 1500 races and won 525 of them. He was virtually unbeatable, hence his nickname, “The Cannibal.” I now count him as a great friend.

MC:What has been your hardest moment as a commentator?

PL:Obviously, the tragedy on the Tour is always difficult to report, such as the death of 1992 Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli on the col de Portet d’Aspet, but for me the uncovering of Lance Armstrong as a cheat was devastating. I defended him until he confessed, and since that day I have never heard from him. It was a very sad deception by a very talented athlete.

MC:What goes on behind the scenes when you are commentating?

PL:Ah, now if I told you chaos, I would not be exaggerating! We have ear-pieces, known as IFB’s, and this gives the producer the ability to talk to us. Then you add in Radio Tour, your own voice coming back, and your co-commentator’s voice, and headaches ensue! I have the ability to shut the world out when I am working, yet hear when I am spoken to. I think this came from my training in Fleet Street as a journalist, when you could still write a good story while every phone in the office was ringing! My motto is “when you are live, let the others panic when things go wrong!”

MC:How much preparation do you do before an event?

PL:I do my statistics on riders and races every day of my life, wherever I am. This way I am ready on a phone call. The Olympics are different, as I will talk about many competitors who are little known. When I do other sports, such as Alpine skiing, then I work long and hard to get the athletes on the tip of my tongue. No matter how much you do, if you are live, you have to call from memory and with authority. Fortunately, I love statistics – I began life as a statistical accountant – so I enjoy the research.

MC:Do you have a pre-race ritual to get yourself ready?

PL:No, not really. I always visit the commentary box a few hours beforehand to see everything is ready. I place my computer where I need it and make sure the technical things are all working. But, no, I am not a superstitious person, so life is how it comes at me.

MC:Who is Phil when he is not commentating?

PL:Well, I live a reasonably private life either in London or South Africa. My interests are all flora and fauna, but these days I am very involved in work to save the rhino. I am a Patron of and also of Birdlife SA. I am also very involved with other animal-based organisations. Of course, I am a commentator and my friends always laugh when we are driving to a pub, for instance, and they tell me that I am even commentating on the drive. Can’t help it!

MC:Where is your favourite place to ride?

PL:I have always said the most beautiful road in the world is between Gordon’s Bay and Kleinmond in the Western Cape. I ride it whenever I can, gazing out over False Bay and seeing seals and whales. It just relaxes me and makes me feel the lucky person I am.

MC:What is your favourite country to travel to?

PL:I have been fortunate to see many beautiful places in the world. I fly about 300,000km a year and feel at home wherever I land. I’ve made a kinda home in South Africa near the Kruger Park and feel very privileged to be able to live with only the wilderness and my wife sharing the beauty of our world. Of course, there is a bicycle on the deck and riding the turbo to stay fit is a pleasure with just the elephants, hippos and bushbuck as spectators.

MC:What is your advice for those who have just started riding?

PL:Firstly, what a good decision! Age does not matter, and neither does ambition. You have discovered something very special and your life will change forever. A word of warning: When you buy the bike, make sure it fits you, and don’t go out and try to set a world record on your first ride. Those that do come home so tired that the bike never leaves the garage again! A bicycle gives you a freedom that you will never have known before, so enjoy it to the full.