If you want insights into the colourful world of professional cycling, including the ice-cold mentality of disgraced champion Lance Armstrong, talk to Phil Liggett.
The celebrated commentator was one of the seven-time Tour de France winner’s most loyal defenders – having joined him to host cancer fundraisers around the world and once declaring an investigation into his drug use “a waste of time” – until Armstrong eventually admitted doping.
But Liggett’s first conversation with the fallen champion since that admission in 2013 was telling. It came just two years ago, months after the sudden death of Liggett’s beloved co-commentator Paul Sherwen, when American TV network NBC employed Armstrong to provide comments down the line during the Tour coverage.
“Lance came up in the break [and I said] ‘Hi Lance’,” Liggett says. “He goes, ‘Hi’. You’d think having read all the press reports on the way I’d been ripped apart just trying to defend him, he might have said, ‘I’m sorry about all this mess, Phil’. Not a word.
“In fact, all he said was, ‘I really thought it was the old man who died rather than Paul’ … That was Lance talking to me: ‘the old man’.”
When they went live, Armstrong immediately made things worse by accidentally calling him by his late friend’s name: “He said, ‘Well, Paul’,” Liggett says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The 77-year-old, still sounding as bright and smooth as ever in lockdown outside London, is talking ahead of the release of a new documentary, Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling.
While he admits feeling betrayed by Armstrong – “in fairness, I’m glad they got him” – Liggett concedes there is now a good argument his Tour titles should be reinstated given the organisers have never elevated the runners-up to winners.
“Lance was probably the most gifted cyclist of his time,” Liggett says via Zoom, with wife Trish in the background. “Drugs, as I always say, don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.
“They just make you 10 per cent better. But the mentality of Lance, that’s why he beat cancer. He was so much stronger than the average person.”
So how clean is cycling now?
“Official figures – and the results of tests – show that we’re outside the top 10 in sports for drugs now,” Liggett says. “I’m sure that somebody is finding a way of taking something somewhere, but you can see by the racing now that it’s not a race of doped cyclists.
“They make the effort and then they have to ease up. They cannot keep it going.”
Liggett considers it a totally different sport now.
“I think it’s 80 per cent clean,” he says. “Maybe even higher.”
The documentary, directed by Eleanor Sharpe and Nickolas Bird, opens in cinemas on March 8 and shows sides to Liggett that will be news to many of his fans. His early ambition to be a zoologist. His time as an aspiring professional rider, who became a cycling journalist then organiser of Britain’s Milk Race before moving into TV commentary.
His passion – living part of the year in South Africa as well as travelling to Australia for the Tour Down Under – for raising funds to save the rhino. And, surprisingly, his love for model trains.
The documentary also explains what will be a mystery to many Australian fans of the Tour: why Liggett and Sherwen disappeared as commentators on SBS TV’s coverage. Did the network want to bring in Australian commentators in 2017, led by Matt Keenan, Robbie McEwen and now Bridie O’Donnell? Did it want younger voices describing the world’s greatest cycle race?
Liggett says tour organiser ASO forced the change by insisting on different commentators for the American and international coverage.
“SBS wanted to continue but the Tour de France wanted to change the way they gave SBS the pictures,” he says. “We were devastated [and] our fans around the world, they went berserk.”
The documentary also shows how distressing Sherwen’s death from heart failure was for Liggett.
Their friendship dated back to when they were a commentator and racer who grew up 40 kilometres from each other in England. Learning that Sherwen was retiring, Liggett invited him to join him in commentary.
For many years, they shared hotel rooms at bike races so they could “go to sleep laughing, talking about things that happened in the sport”.
Liggett says they were “definitely a pair”, with a similar sense of humour, when they teamed up. “The next 33 years, we became the longest-running sports duo in history,” he says.