An Interview with Phil Liggett

01.17.2011 | 7:19 am

Here’s a little something you may not know about me: I’ve interviewed people before. For real live magazines and stuff. Back in the ol’ days, I edited a couple of programming magazines. So I’ve interviewed Bjarne Stroustrup (the inventor of the C++ programming language). I’ve interviewed Anders Hejlsberg (the inventor of the C# programming language). I’ve interviewed Kent Beck and Alan Cooper, together, which actually made some waves in the world of programming, back in 2002.

And while I don’t work in magazines anymore, I still interview people all the time. It’s a big part of my day job.

My point is, by now I should be used to interviewing people.

But interviewing Phil Liggett was different.

About two hours before the interview began, I got very nervous. I got very sweaty. Distracted. Had to go to the restroom about three times.

“Why am I nervous?” I asked myself. “I actually know a lot more about the topic of this interview than I do with a lot of the interviews for my day job. I know that the person I’m interviewing is a great talker; we won’t run out of things to talk about. And I’m pretty sure he won’t still be holding the “Phil Liggett Fired” thing against me; it’s been five years, for crying out loud.

But honestly, I knew why I was nervous. I was nervous because I was starstruck. I was nervous that I’d be so excited to be talking with Phil Liggett that when the time came I’d completely blank and wouldn’t be able to say a thing.

To hedge against this possibility (okay, probability), I IM’d with dug to figure out a bunch of good questions. A mix of funny, flip questions and real questions.

As interview time approached, I told The Runner that I wanted her to leave the house while I was conducting the interview. I was going to be sweating enough as it was; I didn’t need the additional pressure of having my wife watching over my shoulder during the interview.

Then I set up my phone to record, and waited for Phil to call.

And while I waited, I went to the restroom three more times.

201101162117.jpg Changes

As soon as I heard “Hello, Phil here” on the other end of the line, all my plans went out the window.

For one thing, the audio wasn’t so great. I think that Phil must have been in a very crowded room, in which every single person was talking very loud, because we each had to speak very loud to drown out the voices. And the repeated use of “what’s that again, please speak up” doesn’t exactly lend itself to witty, spontaneous exchanges.

Much more importantly, though, was the fact that when it came right down to talking with Phil, I couldn’t make myself ask the goofy questions I had written down. He’s too respected. Too respectable. He doesn’t need his generosity with his time to be repaid with questions about what citizens of Adelaide are called (Adelaideans), and whether it’s possible to say “Adelaidean” without following it up with “Eeee-hooo!”

So I scanned my questions, rooting out the impertinent ones on the fly. As I listened to him, I marveled at the way Phil always responded in well-formed, complete sentences. At the way he treated each of the questions as if it were a really good question, and deserved a complete and considered answer.

Entertaining Things Phil Said

It would make me so happy if someone besides myself listened to the entire interview. Later today, I’ll try to get it uploaded for your 22-ish minute listening pleasure.

That said, I won’t hold it against you if you just don’t have that much time to listen to Phil try to understand the questions I ask him. In which case, please at least try have a Phil-like voice in your head as you read the following quotes:

  • Apart from sprints, where will the drama of the Tour Down Under be? “Whoever finishes first on the old Willunga hill (Saturday’s stage) will be the overall winner of the race. That’s the way it works. You’ve got to be an outstanding rider to win the Willunga stage, because they just rip each other apart on the hill. It’s unbelievable. And then there’s a very, very fast descent on the backroads along the vineyards to the finish. If you lose ground on the hill, there’s not a lot of chance to rejoin the leaders.”
  • Should race radios be banned? “The use of race radios seems to make since. I’ve been against them because I don’t want to see a sport of robotic men. At this level, there’s only a fe w percent difference between their abilities. So if the team manager tells you soon enough, you’re going to go with your guy and probably hang on, and I don’t like that. If they say, “No, it’s safety. Without them, we can’t tell riders there’s a crash around the corner or there’s a hole in the road.” I agree entirely. Then — they can’t have an argument — everybody on the race is on the same frequency. And then they wouldn’t be interested because they couldn’t talk tactics, and that’s the real reason. So I’m against them if they all stay on different frequencies. In these modern times, they’ve got televisions in the car, and the race has got wall to wall coverage, so they can see who’s on the front of the race doing all the work. And guys are moving up and saying “Watch out, because Contador’s moved up 15 places in the past 10 Kilometers, he’s going to make a move, keep an eye on him.” Look, the riders are riding the bike race, not the managers. This isn’t a made-for-TV sport like soccer or baseball. This is a bike race and it’s still individuals.”
  • What are those big headphones Phil and Paul wear for? “It depends on what we’re doing. Basically, we hear our own voices in the can. We can also hear the radio of the Tour, and the producers of the program directing us to ad breaks or telling us what he needs from us or explaining something. There are three or four conversations going on in the cans; the most complicated is Radio Tour, because that’s in French and it’s coming at you thick and furious sometimes. But you get used to it. I was a journalist and used to compose stories with ten phones ringing in the office. So I can block out peripheral noise easily. And so can Paul, funnily enough. But we’re also paying close attention to what’s going on in the screens, because we only ever see the same picture you see; we get no extra advantage on that.”
  • How do you communicate with each other? “It’s a sixth sense. Sometimes in the flow, Paul might put a finger up to say he wants to make a point and I’ll get out at the end of a sentence and he’ll jump in. But we have a policy that we never designed — it just happened — that we’ll never jump in on each other, because that’s just annoying to the listener. We’ll wait until the other guy’s finished, and then we’ll carry on. We’ve been a great team, and are officially the longest-serving commentary duo in any sport, something like 25 years now, which is quite nice to know.
  • Did you know that practically every cyclist has you and Paul in our heads as we ride our bikes? “It’s amazing, but people stop me in the street and say, ‘Hey, you got me over the hill yesterday.’ I’ll say, ‘What?’ They say, ‘Yeah, I heard your voice saying “he’s losing it, he’s losing the gap, I’ve got to get on and close it now,” like they’re listening to my commentary. People are just amazing.
  • Any chance Phil and Paul will commentate the Ironman if Lance does Kona? “Well I’ve done the Ironman for NBC in the past, when Mark Allen was the big champion. And I still do commentaries for Ironman, from afar usually. But last night I asked Lance if he was going to do the Ironman, and he said, ‘heh, I want to,’ but he’s not saying, ‘I am.’ Because he says, ‘If I do it, the cameras will stay with me, and man, I might want to stop and walk, but the cameras will not go away.’ When he did his 2:59 marathon, he said, ‘Boy, I wanted to walk, and I couldn’t because the camera followed me the whole 40 kilometers.’
  • Who’s the most erudite cyclist you’ve ever talked with? “Probably somebody like Eddy Merckx in the old days. I used to race against him and I was useless. Then I became a journalist and we seemed to bond very well. He tells the truth, tells it like it is. He doesn’t pull any punches.
  • Who had the best team kit, ever? “I liked Barloworld. Very easy to pick up on television, and it’s sad they’re no longer in the sport. Their red and white was a perfect design. This year, though, we’re faced with three problems with Leopard, Sky and Garmin all looking identical when their heads are down in a bunch sprint.
  • Who had the worst team kit, ever? “For me it was probably that bloody horrible brown thing (Footon-Servetto). It’s such a horrible brown thing, it makes you feel sick every time you look at it! Although AG2R do well to coming pretty close to the worst.
  • Who’s the class clown of cycling? “It’s still Jens Voigt for a bit longer. He just has brilliant responses when you ask him questions, and he’s a character. He has six kids now, he just had his sixth baby yesterday.
  • Who’s the best director of all time? “Well, Johan Bruyneel is certainly the best director ight now, and arguably ever.”
  • How do you and Paul survive the long, boring, uncontested stages? “Well, that’s when you earn your money I think. You’ve got to get out your stories, and tell them well, and not bore people. I listen to people on other televesion channels and I want to turn the bloody television off. So we have to start making people enjoy themselves. We hope (boring stages) don’t come too often, but when they come, we’ve got to get out of it, so we try to make it interesting.

And in the end, he even cheerfully accommodated my blushing request: to record an outgoing voicemail message for me.

PS: Be sure to check VS on TV for daily 30-minute recaps (6pm ET all this week) of the Tour Down Under, as well as for expanded coverage.


  1. Comment by Heather S | 01.17.2011 | 7:56 am

    So did Phil have any questions for YOU?

  2. Comment by jodie_a | 01.17.2011 | 8:04 am

    Great interview Fatty! I don’t think I could have asked the crazy ones either.

  3. Comment by Bryan (not that one) | 01.17.2011 | 9:03 am

    Very cool! I’m gonna listen to the audio just to hear him do your outgoing voicemail message. :-)

  4. Comment by muskyhunter | 01.17.2011 | 9:14 am

    Phil is in my head on every climb, usually saying “he’s in a spot of bother” or “he’s popped”, but sometimes on a good day “he’s tapping out a rythym on the pedals”.
    Oh, for the good days……

  5. Comment by Squirrelhead | 01.17.2011 | 9:42 am

    I definitely plan to listen to the audio of the interview when you put it up. Maybe I can add it to my ipod so I can listen to it while I am on the trainer.

  6. Comment by Nic Grillo | 01.17.2011 | 9:43 am

    Awesome! Looking forward to listening to the audio.
    BTW, registration for Levi’s Gran Fondo opens this morning at 9, pacific time.

  7. Comment by rallen | 01.17.2011 | 10:05 am

    Nice interview. I kept thinking you might pull a Chris Farley interviewing Paul Mccartney on SNL. Look forward to more from you in the future

  8. Comment by skippy | 01.17.2011 | 10:39 am

    Jens Voigt is definitely a favourite for all, takes the time to be friendly with all that he comes across.
    Will pass through Luxembourg in the next hours as i head towards UK but don!t expect to see him out riding in the dark !
    Perhaps i should camp out and try to scout the area tomorrow as the weather is so mild. Could get lucky to ride with “LeOpard Team” before they race.

  9. Comment by Larry | 01.17.2011 | 10:43 am

    Wow, was the interview about Phil or about you?

    I lost count of the number of times you write “I” before finally getting to what Phil said.

  10. Comment by The Flyin' Ute | 01.17.2011 | 10:51 am

    I liked it Fatty. Good work!

  11. Comment by bikemike | 01.17.2011 | 11:10 am

    met jens at interbike last year. the only autograph i’ve asked for in the last 6 years. the last one was phil liggett. both are class acts all the way. yes, jens is the funniest athlete i’ve ever met.

  12. Comment by kentucky joe | 01.17.2011 | 11:51 am

    I look forward to the audio and like squirrelhead, think it will make time on the trainer fly by.

  13. Comment by Mike Roadie | 01.17.2011 | 11:54 am

    I have tried several times to watch the big races on the internet feeds, bu tthey are not the same without Paul and Phil (there, I said it!) to narrate and entertain. They are simply the best in the biz.

    Some friends have complained about the TdF TV coverage; that it is boring, or the stages lack excitement, etc., but I can listen to P&P everyday. And, I am disappointed when Versus does not have them doing full coverage of other races.

    BTW good friends at Versus, I am NOT paying extra for a subscription to the coverage either!!!

  14. Comment by TimD | 01.17.2011 | 11:57 am

    If you are in sunny Yorkshire in August, you can ride with Phil

  15. Comment by Haven (KT) | 01.17.2011 | 12:36 pm

    Hey Larry, since Elden writes in the first person on his blog, I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a lot of “I’s”. If you don’t like it, I’m sure he can work up a third-person blog post for you.

    Fats, great post today. I think I would also be very nervous about interviewing Phil, and would have pared out the silly questions too! Can’t wait for the audio, I’ll be listening while I work and I’ll be able to tap out these W2s, digging into my valise o’ determination.

  16. Comment by Geo | 01.17.2011 | 12:40 pm

    Since I’ll never narrate the tour for 25 years, maybe I’ll invent the C$@& programming language so you can interview me.

  17. Comment by Fat Cathy | 01.17.2011 | 12:51 pm

    great questions, Fatty! You did well.

  18. Comment by Wife#1 | 01.17.2011 | 1:16 pm

    I wish I had been reading this while trying to register for Levi’s %$#@^!* Gran Fondo for almost 2 hours. It would have put me in a much better mood. Fun interview and I understand why you could not ask the silly questions, but damn it would have been fun to stick in one or two.

    How about having Phil and Paul pick a charity, and then we get to donate a set amount and ask a question that they then answer online for us? :-)

  19. Comment by buckythedonkey | 01.17.2011 | 2:08 pm

    Well done Fatty. Great questions.

    @TimD: I’ve been dropping hints to Fatty about spreading his wings (a.k.a. acquiring a passport) and doing something over here (Etape, Eroica. Add Phil and Friends to the list).

  20. Comment by Craig | 01.17.2011 | 3:14 pm

    I enjoy reading your blog…very entertaining. A bit off topic, but would love to see you in AZ on April 2nd for the El Tour De Mesa.(Formally the El Tour De Phoenix) Either way, I will proudly wear my “Fatty” jersey.

  21. Comment by Clydesteve | 01.17.2011 | 3:47 pm

    Ok, Fatty, I would have chikened out an done the same thing, I think. But I did have hopes that you would have asked some of the silly questions. Not that I would wish you much harm, mind you.

  22. Comment by Clydesteve | 01.17.2011 | 3:48 pm

    crap I hate seing a mispelin eror rite after I hit ‘Submit Comment’.

  23. Comment by a chris | 01.17.2011 | 4:09 pm

    It’s the ineffable things that keep me coming back to the few blogs I read. Like the probability of seeing a Justin Bieber cutout improved by the pasting of Phil Liggett’s head overtop.

  24. Comment by Carter | 01.17.2011 | 4:32 pm

    Great Interview Fatty! Thanks for sharing your experience rather than just posting Q and A. Made it much more interesting.

  25. Comment by Richard | 01.17.2011 | 11:46 pm

    I was right!

  26. Comment by Born 4 Lycra | 01.18.2011 | 4:41 am

    Fatty we (all South Australians not just Adelaideans) prefer to be called Croweaters and don’t really differentiate between city and country dwellers. Great interview by the way.

    Scary thinq was I bumped into Phil Ligget first thing this morning on the street outside my work and had nothing to say apart from Gudday and wishing him well. If I had read this post first I could have bored him for hours.

  27. Comment by Skippy | 01.18.2011 | 7:30 am

    @born4lycra had you started talking to Phil you would probably not got away from him , he enjoys chatting to the Ladies particularly those with an interest in cycling.
    Arriving near Luxenbourg last night discovered a street party with Blue & Orange strobing lights and 20 miles of traffic heading south banked up on the motorway, so decided to keep going and avoid the festivities. More details on the blog.
    Tour down under won by Goss with Lance’s team mate Robbie Mc Ewen 3rd, good start for the team as they learn to help him beat the other team trains.

  28. Comment by another chris | 01.18.2011 | 3:13 pm

    Barloworld?! Seriously? Over 25 years of jerseys to choose from and it’s Barloworld?


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