They’re Dancing on the Pedals

Holy bitumen! It's Phil and Paul, the excitable Brits who give le Tour its champagne gush.


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BASTILLE DAY in the French Alps: Alexandre Vinokourov is screaming down the Côte de la Rochette, on his way to winning Stage 9 in the 2003 Tour de France. Fifteen seconds behind him on the mountain, Spain’s Joseba Beloki is desperately trying to keep the Kazakh rider in his sights, and Lance Armstrong, seeing his lead eroding under the aggressive attack, is clinging to Beloki’s back wheel. France is in the middle of a heat wave; the surface temperature is around 125.

“Look at the road,” comes the clipped, velvet voice of commentator Phil Liggett, going out live on the Outdoor Life Network. “The sun has melted the bitumen today,” he says, using the British term for asphalt, “and it’s making it very, very slippery indeed.”

Ten seconds after Liggett makes the call, Beloki hits a slick spot, fishtails, pumps his brake one tragic time, and goes down in a sickening 40-mile-per-hour spill. His femur, elbow, and wrist are instantly broken, and his run at the yellow jersey—in many analysts’ minds, the most serious threat that year to Lance’s fifth-straight victory—is kaput. With about a second to avoid the wreckage, Armstrong veers left and off the road, narrowly missing a gaping ditch, and glides into a farmer’s field.

The drama is not, however, relegated to the race alone. In the broadcasting booth, as Beloki’s crack-up and Lance’s grace-under-pressure move are playing on the monitors, something rare happens: Phil Liggett, the dean of cycling announcers, a man who’s seen it all in 31 years of covering the Tour and has matched the turbulence of the event’s great moments with language straight out of a lit prof’s lecture notes—where the athletes are “great avengers” who “turn the first pedal in anger” and “cross swords at the front”—is at a loss for words.

“Oh!” Liggett blurts. “And oh! Beloki’s gone down and Armstrong’s taken to the grass! This—oh! They—and oh! I hope Beloki’s not hurt; that was an awful crash. Armstrong’s—as a grown, ah, ah, the, ah … Armstrong is now crossing the course. I have never seen that in … mylife …”

IN THE MIND OF Phil Liggett, pro bike racers are gladiators—”bronze gods” who “put each other into difficulty” with legs that are like “huge pistons.” Except, of course, when they’re thoroughbreds—”He’s got the bit between his teeth!” Or, in the case of one suffering Danish cyclist at the 1993 Tour, a lower form of life: “And Bo Hamburger is, dare I say it, friiied!

While American sports fans have happily endured the monotonous play-by-play that accompanies baseball and the lame, grammatically challenged clash-of-titans imagery that NFL commentators unleash upon viewers, a small but fervent cult has quietly formed among cycling freaks the world over. The fuel that drives their mania is called the Liggettism.

Web sites have been tracking these oracular nuggets since the early nineties, and in recent years the other half of the OLN duo, Paul Sherwen, has been responsible for a growing archive of Sherwenisms. Phil-and-Paul bingo cards can be downloaded (place a tile when Paul says “tough bi’ rider” in his deep Liverpool–meets–East Africa accent), and the cult’s fringiest elements have designed drinking games around the broadcasts (take half a drink every time Phil says, “My goodness me!”). Meanwhile, on group rides all over this nation, cyclists routinely talk about “stretching the elastic” and “dancing on the pedals.”

The first recorded pedal dancer was Dag-Otto Lauritzen, who in 1987 was chugging to the finish on the Pyrenean peak of Luz-Ardiden, about to become the first Norwegian ever to win a stage of the Tour, when Phil gave birth to an outburst that was both hysterical and understated: “He’s dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way!”

In 1998, the late Italian rider Marco Pantani, on his way to his first and only yellow jersey, was described by Phil in Miltonic tones: “He climbs like an angel!” And since then, many a grimacing rider at the end of his rope has been said to be “wearing the mask of pain!”

Though Phil is the more renowned wordsmith, his partner is no slouch when it comes to verbal zingers. In 2002, as he witnessed a heroic breakaway by one of Lance’s teammates, Paul gave us one of the Tour’s most memorable remarks: “And now you’ll see Roberto Heras dig into his suitcase of courage!”

Pain masks and courage suitcases—is this a British thing?

“I never lie in bed thinking of what I might say the next day,” Phil explains. “These are the words that come out of my brain at the time, because that’s what the picture tells me. And until I see the picture, I don’t know what the story will be.”

ONE THING’S FOR SURE: These gents are having a good time. Phil, now 60, and Paul, 48, both grew up outside of Liverpool, England, and they attribute their dry humor to their North Country origins. “I used to race against these big guys,” Phil recalls, “and they’d start whistling. ‘This putting you off?’ they’d ask. And I’d say, ‘No, I’m rather enjoying it.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh. Then I’ll stop doing it.’ I suppose that’s where I learned how to make a quick comeback.”

For the millions of American fans who seek a window into the strongly European world of pro cycling, Phil and Paul are it. Because of OLN’s syndication agreements with ITV in Britain, SBS in Australia, and a host of other international networks, their voices are heard in nearly every country in the world. They work at all the major races, usually together, which keeps Phil on the road more than 200 days a year, and Paul about 150.

If you haven’t heard the pair in action, Phil is the one who sounds like Monty Python’s Eric Idle, his voice raised to Shakespearean heights and always moving at Mach 1. An avid cyclist himself, he raced as an amateur in his teens but gave up on a pro career at 22, because he had the fear of God put into him by one of his contemporaries, the great Belgian rider Eddy Merckx—”a man of extreme talent,” he recalls. These days, Phil likes to pedal the country roads around his home, just north of London, where he lives with his wife, Pat, a onetime Olympic speed skater.

Phil’s earliest ambition was to be a zookeeper. But in 1967, he got a job as a cub reporter with Cycling and Mopeds magazine, in London. Before long he’d moved on to ITV, where he landed in front of the camera one day in 1978, reporting on a London bike race, and discovered he was good at it. In short order, ITV made him their main commentator for the Tour, and over the next few years his verbal acrobatics impressed enough network suits that he was asked to report on cycling for the BBC at the 1984 Summer Olympics, in L.A. By the nineties he was covering skiing at the Winter Games for CBS.

Paul began as a cyclist as well but stuck with it a little longer than Phil. He suffered through seven Tours (his best finish was 70th, in 1978) and was an excellent sprinter, he says, but in the mountains he couldn’t keep up with the likes of five-time French champion Bernard Hinault. Still, he won two British national championships, in 1986 and ’87, and became something of a multitasker: In 1986, while he was still racing professionally, the UK’s Channel 4 hired him to help Phil manage the herculean task of covering the Tour. The two have been a team ever since, even with Paul’s periodic extracurricular activities, like working as the PR director for Armstrong’s Motorola team in the mid-nineties and, in 1999, lending help as a translator when Lance was having trouble with the French media during his first Tour win. But his line-crossing days are over; now he splits his time between covering cycling and running a gold mine in Uganda, where he and his family live.

The chemistry between the two men is what makes them so fun to watch. Phil gets caught up in the rich pageant of the race; Paul brings a calm, analytical voice to the proceedings. Phil likes to prognosticate when a race is in its closing minutes, often only to watch the exact opposite unfold; Paul, with his insider’s grasp of the complex game being played, seems to be able to predict when a rider is going to attack—or bonk—just from the look in the cyclist’s eyes. In short, Paul keeps the ball rolling during the 23-day race, because sometimes Phil just won’t stop shouting.

FOR PHIL AND PAUL, a typical day at the Tour de France begins at 6 a.m. Having traveled the night before from one finish line to the next—often arriving after the hotel’s kitchen has closed—they rise, comb through the French sports gazette L’Equipe, and check out the cycling Web sites. By 8 a.m., they’re off to the broadcast compound, to chat up other members of the international media caravan for news on the riders, medical reports, and any fresh scandals. Meanwhile, the OLN crew meets to go over their game plan—without Phil and Paul.

“Those guys don’t like meetings,” says John Carter, 38, the network’s vice president of production and the only supervisory voice they hear during the show. “When someone’s reached the level they’re at, you can give them a certain degree of latitude. It’s not for me to go in and tell Mr. Liggett, who’s been doing this for 31 years, how to cover the race.”

That freedom was the main reason Phil and Paul signed a four-year, $1-million-plus contract with OLN in 2001. “Most American networks want to see it all written down and delivered as written,” Phil says, “but there’s something exciting about knowing that if you say the wrong thing, you lose your job. The race is about to start and the adrenaline flows in your veins, just as it does in the cyclists’ veins.”

Their on-air skills are appreciated not just by viewers but also by some stateside colleagues. “It’s amazing to watch those guys work, because pro cycling is their life,” says Al Trautwig, 48, an announcer on the MSG Network who has worked with the duo several times since the 1989 Tour, and who will be hosting OLN’s prime-time show in July. “I think of them as the Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully of cycling. Phil will say things about old Tours the way Vin Scully talks about baseball—‘I haven’t seen that since Jackie Robinson did it in ’51!’ If you’re not a baseball fan, you look at Vin Scully and go, ‘What?’ Then you realize that this guy is the walking encyclopedia of his sport.”

To become an encyclopedia means a lot of off-camera work. Phil and Paul compare notes before and after each stage, and they don’t go anywhere without their PowerBooks, toting them into any Internet café they find to catch up on sites like Files are kept on all the pro riders, and once the camera rolls, they both crib off their laptops while being fed other tidbits by Carter.

“I learned long ago that you can do all the homework you like,” Phil says, “but when you’re calling the race, you’d better hope it’s gone into your brain, because you’re not going to find the page you want when you need it.”

The way Carter sees it, “There’s no way to mold the story line to your liking. It’s better to be reactive to the way the race is unfolding.” Take, for instance, 1989, when Phil and Paul were covering the Tour for Channel 4, and Trautwig was doing ABC’s prime-time highlight show. They had all become friends with Greg LeMond over the course of the race and were disappointed when he entered the final stage, a short time trial, in second place. To win the Tour, LeMond needed to make up 50 seconds on Frenchman Laurent Fignon.

“On paper, it was impossible for Greg to win,” Paul remembers. “Theoretically, logically: 24 kilometers; slightly downhill; Fignon was a great time-trialist. There was no way Greg was going to win.”

“We assumed it was all over,” says Trautwig. “We were just sitting outside the trailer eating our sandwiches, and then my producer stuck his nose out and said, ‘You’d better get in here.’ ” It was the most thrilling finish any of them has seen, before or since: With a mind-bending effort, LeMond somehow made up the deficit and edged out Fignon by eight seconds.

“If a guy is going out and giving 110 percent of his body to try and succeed, then I want to make sure he gets his just deserts on television,” says Phil. “I know what it feels like out there, when you have to hold on to the guy alongside you, and your legs are screaming in pain, and your lungs are dead. And they know what they’ve got to do to win a race—they know they are in extreme difficulty.”

PHIL LIGGETT NEVER goes on the road without a bike—mainly because he loves riding, but also because it helps him do his job. “Trying to sit a rider down for an interview—it’s like dragging blood out of a stone,” he says. “But if you can get them on a bike, they’ll lose their inhibitions and tell you all sorts of things.

“Besides,” he adds, “riding is the only thing that keeps me sane.”

Sanity is good, especially in this sport. Phil has covered one-third of all Tours de France, and he and Paul plan to sign on for four more years with OLN at the end of the 2004 season. You might say their timing is very good indeed. Last year, a record 1.2 million American viewers tuned in to OLN’s daily Tour broadcasts; this year, with the Armstrong saga building to a Valkyrian crescendo and the two men narrating it working at the peak of their powers, OLN is hoping to double that number.

So a vast swath of the world will be watching. Do the announcers think Lance can do it again? Yes and yes.

Phil: “There’s only a handful of guys who have the ability, and Lance still beats them all on the mental side of the equation.”

Paul: “The tough thing about winning the Tour isn’t getting the yellow jersey; it’s keeping the yellow jersey. All that stuff that goes on around him? Lance has learned over the years to be serene and be above all that. Some people say he’s going for two more.”

Both men acknowledge that the sport will be dealt a “body blow” whenever Lance decides to retire, as it was after LeMond bowed out. But they’re optimistic that this time a faithful American following will remain in place.

“I think that when Lance stops riding, he’ll stay with the team—probably as a coach, or directeur sportif,” says Phil. “Because that man loves riding a bike. He loves to feel the wind in his hair.

“I know how he feels,” he continues. “I tried to stop riding once, and I just got depressed.Their chemistry is what makes them so fun to watch. Paul keeps the ball rolling during the 23-day race, because sometimes Phil just won’t stop shouting. One of the nicest things in the world is to go out and climb a mountain … look at the scenery … talk to no one … freewheel it home. And all of your problems of the day are gone.”