PHIL Liggett has been the voice of cycling for four decades, covering 14 Olympics, 43 Tours de France and thousands of races in between for networks the world over.
Liggett – who visits the Gold Coast in September for the Jewel Residence Oceanway Ride – tells ROBERT CRADDOCK about the sport’s greatest cheat, Lance Armstrong, life in war-torn England and why he likes Anna Meares.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen while calling a race?
On an early Tour Down Under we had a (riderless) horse start the race. When the peloton slowed down, so did the horse and it also quickened up when the riders did. Those things, if they don’t cause a disaster, are quite amusing.
You were born in Liverpool in World War II. Is there any sight or sound of the war you can still see or hear?
Visions of the searchlights trying to pick out the planes are vivid. Like noughts and crosses in the sky. The Luftwaffe were always aiming for the Liverpool docks, near our house. I was only two but until I was 14 we still had an air-raid shelter in our back garden. We were constantly bombed. They kept missing the docks and hitting the houses.
You once said that when Lance Armstrong fessed up to cheating, you were so disappointed you fleetingly contemplated giving your trade away.
I was devastated because I had defended him. I am a great believer in honesty but I cannot condemn anyone without actual proof and all they ever had was circumstantial evidence. I wanted final proof. I did a lot of gigs for him, I saw him raise over $600 million
How big were those gigs?
Some nights we walked away with $2.5 million for his charity. I knew him from that side but nobody can say they were friends with Armstrong because you never got inside him. I never drank with him after gigs and would not see him again until the next gig. But one night, I sat in his room and said “Lance, I hope you don’t take drugs because you are finished if you do.”
What did he say?
He said “man, I have been on my deathbed and I am not going back’’.
What contact have you had with him lately?
Lance must have read all these comments where I tried to defend him but he has never contacted me since September 2011. I know the date because I was riding with him in Canada. For all of that, I find it extremely difficult to hate him because of the way I had seen him help cancer victims. And he was still the best rider of his era. I have alway said drugs don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.
What’s going to happen if or when you see him again?
To this day I don’t know how I will react if he ever contacts me or meets me in the street.
As a journalist I felt particularly sorry, then happy, for Sunday Timesjournalist David Walsh, who was tormented for years for questioning Armstrong’s integrity. But he was right, wasn’t he?
I went and saw the official private showing of the Armstrong film recently, which David was the main adviser for. David was there and I went up to him and said: “David, you stood by your guns, took all the flak and were proven right … many congratulations.’’
Walsh was just relentless, wasn’t he?
I admire David and Paul Kimmage. They stuck the needle in. They did not do it in a pleasant manner. They made a lot of enemies, they went around in circles to avoid talking to me because they felt I was in Armstrong’s camp. I feel very sorry for them both in some ways because Kimmage is financially ruined after losing all his lawsuits. Those people were necessary to flush this out and if Lance had never come back from retirement, he would never have got caught. That would have been so bad for cycling. Where would we be now with everyone thinking they could not get caught?
After reading Tyler Hamilton’s book The Secret Race you just lose the trust in anything that has happened in the sport. Can you understand it?
You are right, that proved that cyclists were in secret camps. They always share rooms but they would not even tell each other. There was no trust even among friends. It was all to do with money. When the big money came into cycling in the mid-1980s, people started cheating.
You are hosting a corporate ride and lunch at the Oceanway Ride in September on the Gold Coast to raise money for life savers. Do you ride much?
Not as much as I would like because I am so busy. But the Oceanway Ride (oceanwayride.com.au) should be a really good event and I like the way they are getting the families involved. It has taken me back because my very first visit to Australia was 1988 for the Commonwealth Bank cycle classic from the Gold Coast to Melbourne. I remember walking through Sydney airport and thinking “how do I get to Coolangatta?’’
Now let’s get your thoughts on a few Aussies. Robbie McEwen?
He had a magical career. He brought the best out of me as a commentator because of his exciting finishes. I used to call him the guy who wore the invisibility cloak of Harry Potter because he is small and never had a great team around him, and you wouldn’t see him until 150m to go. Then bang. He was a super hero in Belgium and was on all the placards.
What about Phil “Skippy’’ Anderson, Australia’s early Tour de France hero?
He trained near where I lived north of London in the late ‘70s and stayed with a friend. I knew him as a friend before I knew him as a bike rider. He is still the epitome of fitness. As strong as a horse. Even now (at age 58) he would whip the backside of most of the up-and-coming riders. I am doing a river cruise with him in 10 days time from Budapest to Amsterdam.
Was it true you wanted to be a zookeeper when you were young?
I have always been involved with animals. I am patron of Birdlife South Africa and a patron of Helping Rhinos. Animals always intrigued me and my first job from school was in Chester Zoo.
So how did you get into the media?
I was useless at all sports but bike riding I seemed to be able to do better than most. I wanted to be a professional. I got a pro contract in Belgium. I was about to sign it but I had been freelance writing because I had been fed up with riders not getting publicity for their efforts when they were spending their own money.
So you were offered a job at a paper?
Yes. My big decision was easy because I was racing against the great Eddie Merckx and he was simply too good. We became friends and still are.
I hear you are a big fan of (two-time Olympic champion) Anna Meares.
She’s a beautiful, gentle person and a fantastic rider with a championship temperament. I love her attitude to life. She does not ride to impress, she does it for herself.
Can she win in Rio?
She would not be going to Rio if she did not believe she could. I don’t think she can win the sprint but I’m looking for her in the rough and tumble of the keirin, where I think she can win a medal.
You always said you thought Cadel Evans was a clean rider. What did you make of his Tour de France win?
He is a very introverted character who is difficult to interview. I told him on Mt Wellington in Tasmania in 1998, where he whipped all the professionals as a mountain bike rider, that he could win the Tour de France. Phil Anderson and I got him after the race and said he had to get out of mountain bike riding. When he did win, he said “you told me all those years ago …’’
You are 72. How long can you call for?
I am constantly told on a daily basis “you can’t retire because your voice has been there though my life or my children’s life.’’ That keeps me going. People’s faces drop when I tell them I am 72. I was very flattered when the NBC boss came to London and said I have a job for life. I couldn’t believe it … I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad.