The weekly spin: Why Phil Liggett isn’t ready to retire
Phil Liggett has no plans to retire following the death of his longtime broadcast partner Paul Sherwen. Not yet, anyway.
Liggett is in Adelaide this week for the Santos Tour Down Under, his first race commentary gig since Sherwen passed away unexpectedly in December. He’s working alongside Robbie McEwen, though it’s yet to be determined who will share the microphone with Liggett in July.
The one thing that is certain, Liggett tells me, is that he will again be calling the Tour de France, just as he’s done every year since 1973.
That comes as welcome news to Liggett’s countless fans, who feared the Brit might view Sherwen’s passing as his cue to exit the broadcast booth. Those fears were heightened when, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal immediately after Sherwen’s death, Liggett suggested that, at age 75, it was perhaps time for him to end his broadcast career.
“That went around the world, that I was not going to continue,” Liggett said. “Then the tweets started, saying that I mustn’t stop, that wouldn’t be fair to Paul. And once I started to think about it, I couldn’t really stop, because I’ve got contracts with NBC, which are ongoing this year.”
Liggett and Sherwen were scheduled to return to the Tour Down Under as they’ve done for 20 years. Sherwen died just 44 days before the race began, and for Liggett, it wasn’t time to make a major decision about the future.
“Life was never going to return to the same situation, but here in Australia the Australians have been unbelievably nice and fantastic,” Liggett said. “The outpouring of love for Paul, and indeed for me, has just been over the moon. They’re trying just to make it so easy for me, working here, knowing the dreadful circumstances.”
“Robbie McEwen has been given the job, which was a discussion before I got here. I knew that before I came. Robbie is going to have to fill his boots as best he can. There’s always going to be a comparison. That shouldn’t exist, but it will be something that will happen. And the race goes on. The race will go on, and I will go on — for the immediate future, anyway. There’s not a big future left, you’ve got to be honest.”
McEwen, the three-time green jersey winner at the Tour, got his start in race commentary at the Tour Down Under, initially joining Liggett and Sherwen for the final kilometers of each stage as Sherwen headed out to the finish line to interview the stage winner and GC leader. That experience ultimately led to McEwen joining Aussie Matthew Keenan on the official Tour de France world feed; their commentary box at the Tour has been positioned next to Liggett and Sherwen’s.
“I’m very happy with Robbie has a co-commentator, that’s not a problem or an issue at all,” Liggett said, “but he’s not Paul, and the people want Phil and Paul. I mean, we’ve been joined at the hip for 33 years. So I’m not looking at Robbie as a replacement, he’s just a new guy working alongside me until it’s time for me to go into retirement, which can only be another couple of years. There’s no question that he’s replacing Paul. Paul is irreplaceable as far as I’m concerned.”
A relationship of chemistry and companionship
Liggett’s working relationship with Sherwen was one of both chemistry and companionship. He observed and commentated on Sherwen’s entire racing career, and then invited Sherwen to join him on race commentary.
“Just by coincidence, I was the guest of honor at his cycling club’s dinner in 1977, when he left to go live in France and join the Athletic Club Boulogne Billancourt team,” Liggett said. “I wished him well, because I thought he had a lot of talent. He became the top amateur rider in France the next year. And then he turned pro with Fiat, and on to La Redoute.
“And gradually our friendship grew, because in those days the Tour de France wasn’t like it is now, you didn’t have the wonderful Tour village at the start, you had a little truck with a few grapefruit on it for the riders to take and put in their back pocket. Paul used to see me and say, ‘Hey, do you want a grapefruit?’ And I’d say, ‘I’d love one, I missed breakfast, I’m starving.’ They were strictly for the riders, but he always brought me one, and he’d always give me a good line, a good story, when he crossed the finish line.”
It was at the 1986 Paris-Nice that Liggett suggested that Sherwen consider taking on TV commentary as a post-racing career. At the time, Sherwen was winding down his European racing, though he’d signed a two-year contract with Raleigh to race in Great Britain. He’d suffered his way through seven Tours, and finished five. Ten full seasons in Europe was enough.
“I said what about working with me on television?” Liggett said. “He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Oh? I’ll give it a go.’”
Liggett suggested that Sherwen put in a request with his new team director to clear the month of July from his race schedule. And so, for the first two years of Sherwen’s career in commentary, he was also an active professional racer.
“At the Tour, he used to ride the stages, when he felt like it, and I used to follow him in the car,” Liggett said. “We drove from the finish to the start, wherever we were staying, and he would ride his bike. He used to pull the skin off his leg and say, ‘Look at the daylight through that skin,’ and I would say, ‘Paul, enjoy it, because as the years roll by now, you’re going to get fat, just like me.’”
Sherwen’s intimate understanding of the pro peloton proved invaluable for Liggett.
“All his friends were French. He was a brilliant co-commentator because he knew everyone inside out,” Liggett said. “He could pull strings you wouldn’t believe, because he just walked in and talked to everybody. He was a brilliant asset, and he developed nicely.
“But when we finished the Tour in those two years, he had to come back to England and ride the Tour of Britain. And he didn’t have those sorts of kilometers in his legs. What made it worse is that we covered the Tour of Britain on television, so we mic’d him up and then he had to commentate and talk about the tactics while he was in the race and absolutely knackered. He was hardly audible at times, he was so out of breath. But he did it, and that earned him a lot of accolades as well.”
In an earlier column, I wrote that the 33 years Liggett and Sherwen spent together was longer than most marriages. And in some ways they were like a married couple, traveling the world together, finishing each other’s sentences, and, at times, correcting one another on air.
“In the early days, Paul’s wife Katherine said to me that after 18 years of marriage to Paul, she said to me ‘You’ve slept with Paul more than I have.’ And that was probably true. We always insisted on staying in the same room — in single beds, I hasten to add. We were very close friends. We went to sleep laughing and joking and telling stories, just like we did on the Tour, like we did walking around the compounds of the Tour, or the other races.
In recent years, at Liggett’s urging, Sherwen had taken a more prominent role at NBC Sports, commentating on events such as Paris-Nice, and the Colorado Classic, Vuelta a España, and the World Championships alongside Americans Bob Roll and Christian Vande Velde.
“Those races no longer involve me, though they might in the short-term future now because Paul isn’t there unfortunately,” Liggett said, “but that’s something to be decided later.”
Liggett and Sherwen saw each other less frequently, working together annually at the Tour Down Under, Paris-Roubaix, Amgen Tour of California, and Tour de France.
“After the Tour was finished in July, over these past few years that was the last time we saw each other until being here in Australia at the Tour Down Under,” Liggett said. “We talked, we Skyped, but we wouldn’t see each other again until January. That’s what makes it even tougher now, to come to Australia without him. After the first year of the Tour Down Under, which is now in its 21st year, the race became so popular that they asked me if I thought Paul would come and work with me, and I said, ‘I’m sure he would,” and so Paul came on board, and it became the Phil and Paul show.
“The City of Adelaide has just been in mourning here. They’re making three tributes to Paul during the tour— one at the team presentation, one during our live coverage, and one at the Legends’ Night Dinner, where we’re opening the whole thing as a tribute to Paul. Everywhere we’ve walked here, the first drink has been a salute to Paul. It’s been said, ‘Cheers Paul, thanks for those great memories.’ He was very popular here.”
— Santos Tour Down Under 🚴🚴♀️ (@tourdownunder) January 13, 2019
Liggett is widely loved, but also has critics. He’s been known to butcher names — just as Sherwen became known to gently correct him. Liggett’s steadfast support of Lance Armstrong, and criticism of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation, left a stain. And a younger generation of English-language commentators, led by Keenan and Eurosport’s Rob Hatch, has established itself and developed a following.
To some, Sherwen’s death might have signaled the time for Liggett to step aside, but that’s not how Liggett sees it.
“My wife Trish, she’s always on television patrol to make sure I don’t talk rubbish,” Liggett said. “Once I start talking rubbish, then it’s time to say, ‘hey, you’re getting on, it’s time to get off the screen.’ That time hasn’t come yet. I still enjoy the job. You can only retire from a job, and I’ve never had a job. Retirement, to me, is turning your back on a lot of friends, a world of people who love you, and a lot of free air tickets around the world to meet those friends.
“So why would you retire from that, unless you have to? It’s a passion. It’s not a job. I’m not a coal miner looking forward to the day I don’t go down with coal face any more, or a woodworker, or a painter, and then I can enjoy life after the fact. This is my life. There’s no after the fact. This is the way I am. This is what I do. There’s nothing more pleasing than for people to constantly write you and say, ‘please don’t retire, because it won’t be the same.’ And now, these last four or five weeks, after all these tweets saying, ‘please don’t retire, we’ve lost Paul, we don’t want to lose you,’ what can you say?”
While Australia’s SBS replaced Liggett and Sherwen with Keenan and McEwen in 2017, in the United States, NBC Sports stood by Liggett and Sherwen, and will continue to do so with Liggett.
“NBC paid me a great honor two or three years ago,” Liggett said. “The bossman flew to England, and he sat me down, and I thought, ‘Wow, why is he coming to London to speak to me?’ That wasn’t the sole reason he came, but that’s what happened. I met him in a London hotel, and his first question was ‘When are you retiring?’ I said, ‘Whoa… you’re the man with the contract on me, I guess you’ll tell me when I retire.’ And he said, ‘Look, as far as we’re concerned, you and Paul are the ‘A Team’ of the sport. We’ve only done this once before at NBC, and it was with a golfing commentator, but we want you to tell us when you want to stop.’ And that’s how it stands to this day. I’ve got to give him one year’s notice. But at the moment, I haven’t done that. So I’m definitely on this July, that’s for sure.”
Liggett said he’s aware that his commentary won’t be the same without Sherwen, and that the“Phil and Paul” era has come to an end. But Liggett is choosing his own exit as more of a transition from one era to the next, rather than as an abrupt stop.
“Paul and I, we have so many stories locked away in our minds,” he said. “His knowledge of France, when we drove around, was incredible. That’s what we are going to miss. Whatever happens on the Tour, we’re going to have to work harder to get that atmosphere. We had a lot of time, and a lot of fun together. I’m afraid that’s gone now. And life goes on, one way or another. We’ll see what happens.”