An interview with TdF legends Phil and Paul

[Editor’s note: This interview appears in Issue #12, which is headed to newsstands and subscribers now. Pick up a copy to see the exclusive artwork illustrated by Rich Kelly that accompanies it.]

by Jeff Lockwood

Every sports fan in any given city has grown up with the voice of their home team. Philadelphia had Harry Kalas, while Pittsburgh had Myron Cope. People were born, lived and died listening to these pillars of the local sports community calling every play of every game. Their voices and personalities became inseparable from the teams and people’s personal experience listening to the games. The duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have been calling every maneuver, sprint, tactic and attack of the Tour de France, and many other cycling events around the world, for 26 years. That’s longer than current Tour favorite Andy Schleck has been alive. As such, Phil and Paul have risen to an international level of recognition and association with a sport that has never been seen before, in any discipline.

Many people feel your personalities are just as much as part of the racing scene as the athletes. How do you see your roles within the context of people’s experience watching the Tour or other races?

Paul Sherwen: The role I’ve adopted for many years is to bring cycling to a much larger audience than just the average cycling sports fan because I’m of the belief that cycling, as much as the sport itself, is very exciting. It takes us into very nice and beautiful areas…interesting areas, whether it’s geographically, geologically, historically, culturally. One of the biggest parts of what Phil and I do is to talk to those people about the interest of the area we’re going into.

Do you feel you have to adjust your coverage and commentary to make it more understandable and appealing to the casual cyclist…or even people who don’t ride bicycles at all?

Phil Liggett: Yeah, absolutely. American television producers are the world’s worst—or the world’s best—at making sure we do just that, depending how you look at it. I get all sorts of rude comments about mentioning Lance Armstrong too much…even when he’s not riding the race. But the fact is that they [the producers] make me tell the viewers where Armstrong is. Our big television shows in Britain might get two million viewers, but there aren’t 100,000 cyclists in Britain. So we’re talking to the man in the street who’s enjoying the bicycle race, but doesn’t know hardly anything about it. So you’ve got to constantly bring those people into the picture. So I say to all the kids, all the experts who know as much as I do, “Look, turn the sound off. You’ll enjoy just as much. Because we’ve got to keep on reminding people of the basics of the sport.” And it’s a very difficult sport to understand if you’re not explained it every minute of the day.

You just did the Tour of California. How do you see people in the United States accepting cycling?

Paul Sherwen: I don’t want to just be asked about the United States. You look at the U.K. You look at South Africa, Australia, and the United States—the English-speaking market—there are more and more people, not just watching cycling as a sport, but more and more people using cycling as a pastime. If you think about South Africa…what do people know about cycling there? Yes, a lot of people ride bicycles in Africa to get from point A to point B, and to transport produce. But when you’ve got an event in South Africa that has 36,000 participants and a mass-participation cycling event, you’ve got to realize there’s a lot of people riding bicycles around the world.

Phil Liggett: The United States is a very big country. Every country grows up with its national sports. In Britain, it’s cricket, rugby and football. And you’re never going to break those bonds. The kids are sort of brainwashed at school with the sports they play, and cyclists are the people who break away and want a different way of life. And that’s exactly how it was with me. I was absolutely useless at school sports until the masters in charge realized I was pretty good at riding a bike. Then they said, “Hey…you can go for a cycle ride while the other guys play cricket today.” Because of that, we’ll never break into the national sports of any country.

On the other hand, there is a great interest in cycling in the United States, and it’s in pockets…because, as I said, it’s a big country. But whenever there’s a major cycling race in the United States, you’re guaranteed big crowds. Well-organized events like the Tour of California now, but in the past, races like the Tour Du- Pont, Tour de Trump…before that, or course, the forerunner was the Coors Classic. People just like to see something happen! Especially Americans! They know how to enjoy a day out, the Americans. It wouldn’t work if it were just a cycle race and just a flurry of action, the guys sprinting across the finish line. You’ve got to have all the sideshows, all the things for people to do. But, I believe it’ll not grow much bigger than what it is around the world, but in pockets it’s going to be a major sporting happening. And long may it continue, because once you’ve got cycle racing into your blood, you’ve caught the dreaded fever and there ain’t no cure.

How do you see big races like the Tour de France and pro athletes relate to, and influence, everyday cyclists and commuters? How do these athletes connect to people?

Phil Liggett: In their own countries like Belgium, Holland and Italy—the hotbeds of cycling—they are the icons of sport. They are heroes. Those people can attach very simply, as you can attach to a great NHL player, a great basketball player or a footballer. But for everybody else, even though they’re superstars in their own country, when they step off the plane into the United States, they’re sometimes quite surprised how people actually do recognize them…like Andy Schleck is well-known. Of course, that’s only amongst the cycling enthusiasts. The other men in the street don’t know him from Adam. There’s a genuine interest to know about people. We’re going through a bad phase with drugs in the sport, a battle which I think we’re winning. But they want to know things like, “Is Contador going to get off or not?” So they’re reading about the sport now, when they never were fifteen years ago.

How do you define the heart and soul of bicycle racing, or even cycling, in general?

Paul Sherwen: To me, the heart and soul is to be able to get out into the fresh air, into the countryside, and feel the elements. Actually feeling the changes in the elements. I always say to people who come to Africa for safari…they fly from point A to point B to point C. My argument is if you do that in Africa—though the distances are long—you should drive it because you can see the change in the vegetation. You can feel the change in altitude. And that’s the same thing with the bike—even if you stay in your own area, you see those changes every day. Whether it’s through the fall, the springtime… or even if it’s just feeling different cold fonts coming in and departing. To me, that’s what it is. It’s enjoying nature.

Phil Liggett: For me it’s easy. I never lose my passion for the sport. I’ve never been bored with the sport and I’ve done it for…I dread to think now…I’ve been in it for 50 years now. I’ve been involved with cycling since I’ve been 15 years of age. I can’t walk away from it. I’ve done 38 Tours de France, and I’ve never been bored with it. People say you can’t keep going back to the same event. And I tell them I’ve never been back to the same event. I’ve never seen the same event twice. This is a major sporting happening, and it’s like going to the football league championship every weekend. You just don’t see the same event. And for anybody that can attach to the sport, then you realize just how good professional cyclists are. Even all these years down the road, I’m mesmerized by just how fast these guys can climb the mountains in the Tour de France. One after another. Things that mere mortals just can’t do. And it’s not drugs doing that. It’s a different person on the bike than we are.

I’ll never lose my passion for the sport, but what I want to do is make sure the great pleasures it’s given me, and what I’ve taken from it, I can pass that message onto the man and woman watching it on television. Many, many, many of our viewers are in fact women who really enjoy the sport for television purposes…to see the scenery, to see where these riders race. Because we’re existing in one of the few sports left in the world where the arenas are the roads of the world and the grandstands are the villages and the towns. It’s not made for television. This is real, and if you can bring those people in, they can see what a lovely world we live in as well.

How often do you get out and do a ride yourself? Do you ride often?

Paul Sherwen: Unfortunately for me living here in Africa [Uganda], the roads are very bad, and the drivers are very dangerous. So my riding is pretty much restricted to riding on a CatEye Turbo trainer three times per week. My wife’s family is from Hilton Head in South Carolina, and when I get there, I enjoy riding because there are lots of bike paths, and it’s nice and safe. We’ve even got cruisers for riding on the beach. There’s a ten-mile beach in Hilton Head, and the sand is so nice and compact, you can ride ten miles along the beach.

Phil Liggett: I try to ride my bike whenever I can, and at the end of the year I chalk up what I’ve done, and I usually finish up at around 2,500 miles per year. And that’s the best way to meet the people.

What’s your favorite Liggettism?

Phil Liggett: [laughing] I really don’t have one. Really, because I’ve never written a Liggettism down. They just come out of my brain. I’m looking at the television, which is very much smaller than the television in your own home, and I’ll see something in that picture, and I’ll say it. It’s a picture that forms a mental thing like, “He just jumped on those pedals.” I didn’t ever think to say, “This guy’s dancing on the pedals.” It just appeared to me that’s exactly what he was doing. When guys are being left behind and they’re clearly having difficulty, where I come from around Liverpool, you say, “He’s in a spot of bother now. How’s he going to get out of this?” Everything’s spontaneous. I’ve really got the pressure on to hope that more will appear on the day. But don’t ask me what they are because until they appear, I won’t know.

Nobody can imagine the thought— and no cycling race fan can bear to even hear the question posed—but when do you think you would want to retire from calling races?

Paul Sherwen: I don’t even think about it for the moment. I’m still only 55, and I’ve got a lot of other business interests going on, which I’ll be involved with for quite some time. I don’t see myself retiring in the near future, anyway.

Phil Liggett: [laughing] Sometimes I feel the pressure. When I’m feeling very old and fed up, which isn’t very often, I’ll see someone holding up a sign that says, “Phil Liggett, Never Retire!” and that just recharges the batteries for me because people have grown up with me. I’ve been commentating since 1978, so many people were born in those years, and my voice is on television from just about when they could understand sounds. They say to me, “I’ve done this right through my life. I’ve gone to college, graduated and you’ve always been with me. You must never leave me now.” I get that at least three times per week from people around the world. I’m very flattered. We all have to have icons in our lives that make you remember things. For example, everybody remembers when John Kennedy was shot. I can tell you exactly where I sat on the day, and everything. You’ve got to live with those icons because they are your life. If I’ve come into somebody’s life, and there are countless cyclists that come to me that have just ridden up a mountain, and the only thing they could hear is me saying, “He’s losing half a length,” or “He really should start dancing on those pedals, he’s nearly to the top.” I think that’s really fantastic.

In action

As a bonus, here’s a video of Phil and Paul’s coverage of the legendary 1989 Tour when the race was decided in the final time trial by only eight seconds.

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