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.
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 versus.com for expanded coverage.