(Phil Liggett, a co-author with Sammarye Lewis and me of Tour de France For Dummies, will be broadcasting his 34th Tour de France, beginning July 1 in Strasbourg, France.)
By JAMES RAIA
Phil Liggett had just arrived from an overseas journey, and he appeared to be in trouble. With a notebook in hand and his eyes focused on a finish-line clock, the British broadcaster and journalist was trying to take notes on a windy, rainy day in Wilmington, Del.
Liggett has withstood worse days. This occasion, however, the opening day of the now-defunct Tour DuPont 10 years ago, was pertinent for two reasons.
The nasty day represented a perfect day in Belgium, a cycling hub. And it showcased Liggett at his best.
From the Tour de France to the Tour of Tasmania, the Tour of Texas to the Tour of Italy, Liggett has been there.
For nearly 40 years, and sometimes for no apparent reason, he’s taken meticulous notes in wet notebooks on horrid days and while using uncooperative pens.
“I don’t have great faith in computers for everything,” said Liggett, who rarely uses his notations. “I don’t necessarily keep these notes after a year or so, I just let them drift away or they go into a corner of the room.
“But by writing these things down, it lodges in my mind. I have a photographic memory and I’m very proud of it. I can look at the camera and give you a complete report on the race.”
Liggett, 61, is the voice of cycling. He logs more than 200,000 air miles and spends more than 250 days per year on the road following the circuit.
Last summer, while working for four broadcasting networks, one newspaper and one web site, Liggett completed his 33nd Tour de France.
“People say, ‘You must be crazy looking at the same race every year,’ ” said Liggett. “But it’s not the same race. This was one of the best Tours I’ve worked on. It’s been great to write about and report on. There was a story everyday. I never got tired. I mean there are other things I’d like to do, but I have no thoughts of retirement.”
Following an amateur cycling career, Liggett began his print journalism career in 1967 with Britain’s Cycling Magazine (now Cycling Weekly). He opted for freelance reporting in 1971. One day when a broadcasting friend became ill, Liggett was asked to be a last-minute replacement.
Much has occurred since. Liggett’s NBC coverage of ski jumping at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, for example, earned him “best announcer” honors from The New York Times. He’s broadcast the Hawaiian Ironman to various other endurance events. But he’s largely known for his cycling broadcasts.
Liggett also remains loyal to print journalism. He writes Tour de France and other cycling articles for the Daily Telegraph in London, and he’s written five cycling books.
For the past 20 years, Paul Sherwen has been Liggett’s traveling and broadcast partner. A seven-time Tour de France participant, Sherwen, 48, provides co-broadcasting and analysis for Liggett to U.S. audiences on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN).
In recent years, as Lance Armstrong has added to his now six-year victory streak at the Tour de France, OLN’s and the broadcasting duo’s popularity has rapidly increased.
While attending the USPRO Championship in Philadelphia in 2003, Liggett noticed several fans’ signs that read: “Don’t Retire, Phil.”
Liggett has no such plans. Because of his lengthy tenure, however, rumors have begun.
The Sherwen-Liggett tandem works in a folksy style. They can be critical of races, cyclists and organizers, but they also don’t hide their fondness for the cycling and favorite competitors. They’re also prone to picking up on nuances in races before they occur.
During the Tour de France in recent years, Liggett worked for OLN as well as networks in Britain, South Africa and Australia. He voiced over the Tour’s internal international broadcast.
“For the average person, they turn on the television and see the bunch going along hour after hour,” Liggett explained. “They say, ‘Hey, that’s great. But what the hell is going on?’ But if you take them into the pack and pick up on a couple of riders and explain how the teams are trying to position themselves for a finish . . . well, then you really get them hooked on the sport.”
Best friends away from work, Liggett and Sherwen and their respective wives vacation together. The broadcasting duo and several current and former cyclists are partners in a gold mine in Uganda. Both also share an interest in wildlife; Liggett is an expert ornithologist.
“We’re always driving down the motorway and I will say, ‘that’s a black-tailed kite,’ ” said Liggett. “We’re always looking for them. I recognize most of the birds in Europe and in South Africa because I go there a lot. I’m rusty in America. I take a bird book, Audubon, with me there.”
Liggett is also humble. Sherwen once took his broadcast partner on a Kenyan safari. Liggett identified 146 bird species during the journey. He logged each variety in a notebook and then onto a laptop computer program.
“Every year I say I’m going to do less,” Liggett said. “But it hasn’t worked; this has been my busiest year. It’s ridiculous. I dread to think about this year. I haven’t been home. Well, I’ve been home. But it will be about the same time on the road this year, about 270-275 days.”