The fact that Billy Ocean is on my playlist still irks me somewhat, but it is, and I’ll try to explain why.
When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going was used brilliantly to back up a post-stage video mash-up of Bernard Hinault, Urs Zimmermann, Robert Millar, Pedro Delgado, Luis Herrera, Greg LeMond and the rest, racing through the heat of the 1986 Tour. It hit me hard. After watching that, I just had to be a racing cyclist.
But getting goosebumps to Billy Ocean? Much as I wanted it out of my head, it stuck in there during my training rides (and still pops up nowadays when I need a little inspiration). I could even hear the occasional interruption of Phil Liggett’s voice and see “the Badger” in yellow amid sweating faces lit by the summer sunshine as the bass line rolled along…
“Darlin’, I’ll climb any mountain…”
At long last, in 1986, British TV audiences could watch the Tour on a daily basis on Channel 4, and that’s how long that song has been there for me. It changed a small part of my musical taste, probably forever.
But, you see, it wasn’t just Billy Ocean – it was Phil Liggett that switched the light on for cycling in the late ’80s when all my riding mates and I clung on to his every word. His infectious enthusiasm for cycle racing and his ability to call a race brought millions of people to cycling, in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and in the USA. To any cycling fan in these countries, Liggett is a legend. And Phil Liggett’s voice is still the highlight of the summer months. “The voice of cycling” is a sort of soft Wirral English accent, by turns calm, excited, eloquent and concise.
Phil had raced in Belgium as an amateur and written about the exploits of his peers for Cycling Weekly before moving on to national newspapers and eventually commentating for ITV’s World of Sport. That TV gig led to full-time television work, bringing the sport to life for those of us who had previously never heard of the Col du Tourmalet. He is also an experienced race commissaire and a some-time magazine editor. But, most importantly, Liggett’s a cyclist, and he’s a big fan of cycling. He is one of us.
But Phil is just half of the story. Paul Sherwen was possibly one of the most respected domestiques of his era, a rider who had shone in the British peloton and was always destined for bigger things. His racing years bridged a massive sea change in cycling, covering the era that spanned Joop Zoetemelk to Greg LeMond and the duration of Bernard Hinault’s career.
In this changing pro peloton, he was well regarded as one of those clever riders who could read a race and ride himself into the ground for a team leader when called upon. Paul was British national champion twice (1986 and 1987), rode the Tour de France seven times and participated in all the major European tours and classics, racing consistently in Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
Sherwen was a rider that the Belgians would call a flahute – a tough guy. But it was his bravery at the 1985 Tour that turned him into a bit of a cycling legend himself.
It was stage ten, Epinal to Pontarlier, and Sherwen had crashed in the opening kilometres. He was a long way back and the peloton was having one of those days when the “sortie de Hotel” guys had decided that they wanted to keep the pace high from the gun. Two of his teammates had dropped back to help him catch up, but his back was badly bruised after smashing into a metal barrier and he couldn’t risk sticking with them and holding them up.
In true phlegmatic style, he told them: “Leave me, fuck off.” Sherwen didn’t chase as such, but knuckled down to a solo effort on the final climb to try to get to the finish in time. It was a futile battle, and the broom wagon was metres in front of him, but he carried on when others would have thrown in the towel and climbed off.
He was well outside the time limit, over an hour behind the winner, and as he rolled across the line the podium was being packed away and the winners were already at their hotels. In true hard man style he said afterwards: “They can kick me out, but I’m not going to abandon.”
It took some persuasion, but the organisers argued his case, and the judges repaid his efforts to beat elimination by letting him line up again the following day. He went on to complete the race, his last Tour de France.
That miserable day in the saddle epitomised his riding style and his confident, fantastically belligerent personality. I think it said as much about the Tour as it did about the rider – glorious stuff indeed.
He had other historic days in the Tour too, usually when expertly calculating the time and pace of the grupetto (the Italian slang for the “slow” group of non-climbers, known in France as the autobus). That skill won him the ironic nickname of “the climber”. His experiences of suffering and knowing just how long it should take the autobus to reach the terminus made him a popular riding companion in the mountains.
So when he hung up his wheels, he was a keenly sought-after cycling mind. Raleigh employed him as a directeur sportif and he later became PR manager for the US Motorola team. But in addition to this and building a gold mine in Uganda, he stepped into a completely new environment that we now know and love – a celebrated media partnership that has lasted well over 20 years…
So, gentlemen, how did you first meet?
Phil: Obviously, I knew Paul as a racing cyclist while I was a journalist. At the end of his university career, he moved over to France for the next ten years, and during that period we met up at the races. He used to get some sandwiches at the stage starts for me [freebie refreshments were scarce for journalists in those days] so I had some food for the day.
Then he was packing in at the end of ’85, and I went up to him in the Boulevard des Anglais, Paris-Nice, and said, “Is it true you’re packing up? How do you fancy doing television? "We’re increasing the coverage of the Tour de France and we need a second commentator.” He said he’d give it a go.
And your friendship is the reason why you’re still working together after so many years?
Phil: Well, it helps if you like each other.
Paul: Especially when we used to sleep together.
Phil: Yeah, we slept together for about 18 years – his wife often complained about that. But as cycling sport grew, it became known as the perfect team in cycling.
Christian Prudhomme was full of praise when Paul got his service award this year at the Tour de France – what did he say? He said, “the best English-speaking duo in television”, which I thought was incredible, to have the boss of the Tour de France say that.
Paul: I think he actually said “the best commentators in cycling”, and he was also pretty complimentary about the work that we do for TV and for ASO [Amaury Sports Organisation, the organisers of the Tour de France]. We do all ASO’s English-speaking output, recorded at their studios in Paris.
You’re both coming at it from slightly different angles. Paul, did you ever think that’s what you were going to end up doing?
Paul: I never thought that I’d make a career out of cycling. I went to university in Manchester and got a degree in paper technology, which was always my guarantee of a job when my professional cycling career went belly-up.
I turned professional in 1978 on a two-year contract and thought, “Cool, I’ve got two years as a professional cyclist,” and I got another year after that and another year after that – and then it had been ten years. I had my reconversion into civilian life all planned out and it didn’t include becoming a television commentator.
I was going to work for a financial consultants but then I was asked to manage a team for a couple of years, and then after that I was asked to manage the PR for the Motorola cycling team. All the time, people were trying to get me to quit the TV career to dedicate myself to a full-time job, but I knew that as long as Channel 4 were doing the Tour de France, I could keep doing the Tour with Phil. So any contract I ever signed excluded the month of July.
And when you first turned pro, Paul, your directeur sportif was the great Raphaël Géminiani. What was he like?
Paul: He was a laugh. I mean, he was good. I really enjoyed having Gem as a team manager, although he probably fucked up my whole career, because he had some weird ideas, such as not wearing a rain coat in the rain, because if you’re wearing a rain coat you’re not racing. I lost races because he wouldn’t allow us to use a 13 sprocket at the start of the season, and I finished second at the Grand Prix of Monaco and I’d needed a 12 for the sprint.
But it was fun listening to his stories, because obviously he was a big buddy with Louison Bobet and Fausto Coppi. Gem would tell us stories about this era, and I thought that was great – but as a team manager he was old school and things were changing dramatically. That was the time when Cyrille Guimard was coaching Bernard Hinault and looking at winter conditioning and aero gear and frame geometry. Géminiani just said, “Here’s a bike – ride it.” But it was fun – his stories were great.
I had Bernard Thévenet too, who was very quiet as a team manager. But probably the best DS would have been a guy called Jos Braeckevelt who was a Belgian guy, and he was always second director for all the teams he worked for – he’s still in the business today. He was one of those guys who had never ridden a bike in his life. Well, that’s not completely true, because he was a postman in Belgium, but he could always tell within five or ten kilometres when the break was going to go, and if you had a team meeting in the morning, he’d say, “This is what’s going to happen today. That’s going to happen there and these are the guys to watch.” He was usually pretty spot-on when it came to that kind of stuff.
And what was your favourite race when you were racing?
Paul: The Tour. The Tour was the best. Although I got pretty motivated by Paris-Roubaix.
And you finished 15th once?
Paul: Yeah. And I fell off nine times when I finished 15th. It was a wet Paris-Roubaix [in 1984]. I fell off badly at the section of cobbles at Mons-en-Pévèle…
So you weren’t really given options to race for yourself?
Paul: Those days, our team didn’t really have a major hierarchy. When I raced, I was usually working for Alain Bondue. So that day I led him into the forest of Arenberg, and I was in that bit of the breakaway with him. Some races, I got the chance to ride for myself, like at Flanders or the Four Days of Dunkirk, which I once finished second overall in and I won a stage [both in 1983]. Apart from the Tour, we didn’t have a hierarchy in the team.
What was it about the Tour then?
Paul: It was just the biggest, the best, the hardest, and even when I was going through a rough time, it was the race that had the biggest crowds and the biggest razzmatazz. And that’s why it’s still the most exciting today.
I was doing a bit of research and the stage where you were racing… the story about you and Allan Peiper? You were getting caught, and he got into a bit of an altercation with a Dutch spectator, and you said, “No, come on, we’ve got to press on… to make the time cut.”
Paul: It was a Dutch guy pushing a Dutch rider in front of Allan, and Allan actually rode into the guy and fell off, because once he’d pushed this Dutch guy, he stopped. And Peiper just lost it – he had him up against a wall, and he was beating the shit out of him, and I had to pull him off and put him back on his bike and say, “Come on, Allan, we have to get to the finish, get inside the time limit.” [They made it by 90 seconds.]
I seem to remember Phil saying that you were always the captain of the grupetto, you would always work out the time splits…
Paul: Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time doing it.
With that sort of tactical side of it, did you ever think that maybe you should have been a full-time DS?
Paul: For a while there were no openings. I managed a team in the UK for a couple of years, and I think it was a pretty well-run team. When the company that was sponsoring decided to cut the budget, I said I’m not going to do it because I can’t do it properly for that, so I pulled out of that role, and after that I ended up being more involved in TV.
So it was the Tour in the late ’80s and the Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond era, that really started it off for you both in TV?
Phil: Paul came on board at the time when the changes were about to happen, because Channel 4 were going to take the show live every day, and I’d done it for one year alone. It was going to be improved by having two commentators and a more professional direction, and then he came on board – it became a real show with a full team.
At that time, CBS in America were also doing a weekend show that was hugely expensive, and they didn’t have a commentator, so they approached me and asked if I would I work for them. And I said, providing that ITV didn’t object, yes. So we moved forward working for everybody, never signing exclusive contracts. We work now for the Tour de France, South Africa, Australia, Versus – the main contract in America – and ITV, and they all mesh together. That’s why you sometimes get several voices going out, because we’re talking to different audiences for three or four minutes and then we get back together again. It’s the only way to do it and keep us working for everybody.
And you now cover all the races from February through to…
Phil: January! We start in January in Australia. I go to the Australian championships, which is a week long, then to the Tour Down Under, then to the Tour of Langkawi, then to the Tour of California.
Paul goes to Paris-Nice, because I’m at the Tour of the Cape, and we can’t do everything together. Then we come together for all of April, which is the classics, Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and then we split again. I tend to do the Tour of Romandy, and then we go back for all the remaining classics. And then we do the Tour of Italy, Tour de France…
What’s your favourite?
Phil: I don’t have any favourites anymore, to be honest. I like going to Australia because I hate British winters, so it’s nice to start in a lovely, warm place, and the small, five-day tours there mean you actually get to meet the riders, chat with them, and set yourself up for the year.
On the Tour de France, you can’t speak to riders, because we’re working a day ahead – when they cross the finishing line, we jump in the car and go another day ahead. So we never speak to them.
But you guys are popular with the riders – you’ve obviously got a very good rapport with them.
Phil: Fabian Cancellara paid us a compliment in Altdorf this year [at the Tour de Suisse]. He came out of the team bus, he immediately spoke to Paul and said, “Every time I go on YouTube, you two are always talking to me. I don’t do it for anybody else.”
Paul: I think what a lot of the athletes appreciate is that we’re really supportive of the sport, whereas if you listen to the French commentators, or the Belgian, or the Dutch, they’re down on the sport and the athletes all the time, complaining a lot about this guy and that guy and hammering on about the drugs problems. We talk about what we see – we talk about the picture, we talk about the story. And we’re always very positive and upbeat about the sport, even when there are bad things happening.
Phil: It’s not the sport that’s at fault, which is what a lot of journalists like Paul Kimmage think – it’s some of the people within the sport. You don’t blame the whole of the police service because four policemen are corrupt. You’ve got to understand that as commentators of the live aspects we can’t go into a full reportage. You’ve got to sit down and write a feature; that’s when you do that. We get 30 seconds, he gets 2,000 words, and that’s the way it is.
That was one of the attractions when I was coming into cycling – you two guys knew what you were talking about, and the way you put it forward was in very plain English.
Phil: A lot of that’s American training, because Americans insist that you explain the ABC – the ABC to Z, actually. If you sound the slightest bit vague, they stop the take. Don’t confuse the issue – they just want the name of the lead and things like that. We want cyclists to watch the shows, and they will, and they can always turn the sound off.
But the people who stop me in the street, primarily, are elderly women and guys who have been brought into the sport by enjoying what they see. People turn it on and think, “We’re looking at a bunch of cyclists. How can you call this exciting?” But when you explain the tactics and the teams and the thinking, they say, “This is a really good sport.” So it’s important that you explain it to the viewer. Always imagine your viewer is not a cyclist.
Paul: I think the viewing figures massively exceed the number of actual cyclists who watch the show, and those are the people that we feel we need to talk to. The cyclists are always going to think they know more than we do anyway. It’s as if you’re an ambassador trying to convert people, getting them interested in the sport of cycling.
And how do you keep the enthusiasm going after all these years – do you not find that after a while you get a little bit jaded?
Paul: Every race, when Phil and I call a sprint, I can get the excitement back, like when I was actually setting myself up for a sprint in the front end of the main field, just without having the pain and the agony. You can actually relive that excitement and I think that’s one of the things that we do when we’re calling a sprint or calling a climb. It’s getting your mind into the race situation and trying to explain what it’s like, and I can remember that excitement without remembering the pain.
Do you miss it?
Paul: The pain? No.
Do you miss the racing, though?
Paul: No. I raced everything I did, and I got everything out of my system, and I didn’t leave the sport with any regrets. There are things that I would have done or could have done differently. If I’d been racing now, I would have lived in a hillier area because I lived in the flatlands in the north of France, which I don’t think were really ideal for training. But I had a good solid career, and I don’t regret anything.
Since you’ve come out of cycling, it’s changed dramatically…
Paul: When I raced, we had a lot of fun, and we joked. We didn’t get paid a load of money, but we had a good laugh. Once the big money came into the sport, it became a lot more serious. The guys are a lot more serious now and they’ve got a lot more pressure on them – it’s a big business. Whereas I did stupid things, like ride up the road and hide in the bushes, which nobody really does anymore.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? How do you see that, both of you?
Phil: It’s just a maturing of the sport, really. Riders always complained that they didn’t have any money, and since the days of Greg LeMond that’s changed. They do have money now, but they have to deliver the goods as well, and therefore racing is much harder.
Whether they like it or not, the Tour de France is one of the most important bike races in the world, and that’s where you make your reputation. That’s where you will inevitably end up if you want to be a star of the sport – so we tend to feel that way too when we go to the Tour de France.
Paul: I think I like the way the sport has changed. I went to university and had a scientific background, and I know that when we trained, we trained in an empirical way. We had a rough idea of what we were doing, but now with heart-rate monitors and stuff like that, you can be very exact in how you train, and that’s why Great Britain was so dominant at the Olympic Games. And that’s why I think you see the sprints being so much faster and more organised – the teams are so much more organised than they were.
Do you think the racing is as exciting as it was, though?
Paul: Yeah, I do. If you look at Paris-Roubaix this year and the Tour of Flanders, they’re as exciting, and they might even be more exciting than they were years ago.
Phil: They’re a bit more clinical now because of the way they calculate the attacks, because of the way the race radios constantly keep the riders in the right positions at the right times.
Paul: Like at the Tour – you know which riders you’re going to be talking about for the first ten days, who you’re going to be talking about for the middle ten days. But here, for example, at the Tour of Ireland, we have two days to go and we still can’t tell who’s going to win. No idea. When we go to the Tour Down Under in January, you’ve no idea who is going to win, because these races are much more wide open.
The effort that riders of Paul’s generation used to put into an attack, though – you don’t really see that any more. It’s all pretty much calculated risk.
Phil: I did see it this year, in the Tour – the way multiple riders attacked at the start of climbs. Twelve guys would attack on a lot of the mountain stages, as if there was no caution, nobody was holding back, because they had no reference points, and everybody felt that they could and would attack.
Do you think that’s because they’re on a better level than they were back then?
Phil: I think there are more riders at a similar level than there were 30 years ago. You had ten guys who were really at that top level, and now you’ve got 50 guys at a higher level. In the Tour in the old days, you had a peak with a small number of riders who were really exceptionally good and then there was quite a gap, whereas now, because of that scientific approach to training, more riders come up to the top, so you’ve got a bigger base of highly-trained athletes. Obviously, with the Tour, when there’s one guy going for the GC, the team must be almost as good.
Phil: Look at Lance Armstrong’s team. A lot of those guys could have finished in the top ten of the Tour themselves, and you’ve got to build the team for the goal you have. Tom Boonen’s lead-out man can win sprints himself. In days gone by, you would have had eight or nine guys who were nowhere near as good as the leader, and now you’ve got eight or nine guys who are almost as good as the leader.
So what’s the hardest thing to call when you’re commentating?
Phil: You get good days and bad days. Some days you’ll sit down, and it’s just like having form as a racing cyclist – everything you do is correct, you call the right names, you hit the right intonation, you read the race correctly, you even pick out the winner before he crosses the line. And they’re the great days to call. And there’s the other days when everything you do seems to go wrong, or there’s a technical problem – they’re the bad days.
Paul: Bad days are also sometimes the long days that you have to talk for two or three hours before you actually get to the serious part of the race, and you’ve got to fill in time and talk about churches…
Phil: Well, everybody wants to see cycle racing, but I often think that sometimes we over-expose the sport. People can’t understand why it’s going slow for two hours and then getting down to the chase and wheeling in these poor guys who’ve led for four hours.
OK, we can tell stories, but I’m not sure that’s selling the sport in the best possible light. On a mountain stage, but even those… we’re broadcasting from the start, telling them that it’s the Tour de France, and it’s 40 kilometres before we get to the first climb and that’s when the race starts. We could do without the 40 kilometres, and I think sometimes we try to over-expose.
You don’t do many long days like that any more?
Phil: On American television, of course, we’re live every day, and the offer is usually from the start of the day. But in America, it’s three o’clock in the morning on the west coast and it’s six o’clock in the morning on the east coast, so I can’t see people getting up to see the start of a stage of the Tour de France when they can wait three hours and get up at a reasonable time and enjoy the action with us then.
And live – is that better?
Phil: There’s only one way to do television and that’s live. It’s great. The thrill is there – just like in a cycle race, the same feeling in your stomach when you go to air, because you know that if you make a serious mistake, you’ve just lost your job. If you say something literally incorrect, you’re out, because it’s live.
And how do you stop yourself from doing that?
Phil: That comes with experience. You can only joke on television off-air and if you’ve had plenty of experience. Never do it if it’s your first time out, because you’ll say the wrong thing.
Paul: I think once you put the cans on and look at the TV, you’re not thinking jokingly. You’re looking at lots of different information, you’re looking to figure out who the riders are, you’re looking to figure out who’s in what position in GC, and if you’re in the truck you’re listening to three people talking to you at the same time, chatting and counting. You’re pretty much concentrated on the job in hand.
Phil: There are times when you think, are the lights on, or are they off? And I can’t remember if they’re on for America or for Australian television – I can’t remember which audience I’m talking to! And you try to give that audience an update on their riders. I know people in England want to know where David Millar is, but in America they want to know where George Hincapie is, and in South Africa where Robbie Hunter is.
So we try to save comments on those riders until we know that audience is with us, and you’re looking at these lights and going, “I can’t remember – which was it?” Or I’ve thought of a great line, but I’ve delivered it with the wrong audience, and now I want to work it back in with the right audience – and then I can’t remember what the line was.
What amazes me is you’ve put up with quite a lot of… hardship is quite a hard word, but it’s not glamorous, is it?
Phil: The thing is, with all television, we love it live, all of our production team. We’re called “talent” in the States, which I always laugh about – we’re called talent, and talent is supposed to be highly-paid and snooty, which we’re not. We are highly paid…
Paul: Well, you are.
Phil: …but we’re not snooty. What happens is that the boys do all the hard work, wiring up all the commentary boxes, and when we go home they’re still there taking it all down. And they’re the guys who make friends with us and they always come and tell us that they’re enjoying our company. If it goes wrong technically, it’s always the commentators’ fault back home. We get the letters saying, “We lost pictures – why was that?”
They never blame the technicians, so if we’re going to get all the criticism then we should also get all the compliments. But it’s a team and we all mesh together, especially when you’re on the road for three weeks. And I have to say our American company is a fantastic team. They’re all working really hard and over the years they’ve come to understand the sport and the intricacies.
There’s nowhere to point the camera – they might be showing us the lanterne rouge. That happens especially at big games like Olympics or Commonwealths, because those are brought-in cameramen. Never seen a Madison – a cameraman, doing his first Madison. All they do is look at our commentary and look for the numbers we’ve just talked about.
That must be a really difficult thing to call, the Madison…
Phil: You have to keep your eyes on the television. You cannot look away, because when you look back, you don’t know where the camera’s gone. You stay on a high for ages when you come off a good commentary. It takes a while to come down even if it’s very late and you desperately want to go to sleep.
Paul: That’s why I have a glass of wine. Or a bottle.
Phil: The happiest thing is when people come up to you and say, “Because of your commentating, I started cycling.” Today, a guy came up to me and said, “I’m 55. I never took up cycling until I was 50,” and I looked at him and he was fit, and I liked that. We’ve introduced someone else to the sport. They’ve found something new to do and they’re really into it, and they feel good about it.
Paul: Not necessarily just get into the sport – a lot of people come to see the sport for holidays. They watch the Tour de France, or Paris-Roubaix, or the classics, and they’ll actually go and try to physically see it, and that’s another thing – to actually get the interest out to people, with the places that we go to, the bike races.
Without wanting to call you a PR team, you are essentially acting as that.
Phil: We are, and we feel we are. And with all the drugs scandals and all the problems that the sport has had in the last few years, we think we’ve defended it as best we can. Because we’re defending the sport, not defending the cyclists who’ve cheated – we’ve got no time for them whatsoever. But I’m not going to put the sport down just because a few cyclists are doing it the wrong way.
Just changing the subject slightly, what do you think of the future of the sport?
Paul: It’s in a bit of a mess.
Phil: It is, but it’s coming out of the hole. I think there was a lot of misguidance from the old guard at the UCI, and I feel very sorry for Pat McQuaid for having to inherit the problems, but I think the agreement they’ve done now is the way forward. I also think that the other guys, the riders and the organisers, realise that they can’t break away and form their own organisation, because they haven’t got the infrastructure to do the organising for a world title. So there’s got to be a common work point, and I think we’re very close to that.
Paul: The sport’s not big enough to have two or three different federations. I think even the people in the UCI below the high level realise what role the UCI has to play in the sport going forward. I think we’ve been through the rough times because of the scandals, but also because of the infighting. And I think that now we’ve got to a point that’s a fresh start – the Tour was a great start.
Despite the fact that a couple of people were busted, I think it was a very clean Tour, and I think it’s a good starting point for the whole sport and the organisation to move forwards. The people still love the sport – when you go to the Tour, the people standing at the side of the road are as numerous as ever, and that’s not going to change.
Phil: If you watch a cycling race in the States, there’s tens of thousands of people going to the races. Go and take a look at the Tour of California – 8.1 million people. It’s the most-watched sporting event in California. Every year. But you have to think of television as well. People who don’t have listings, and if you don’t know it’s on, they won’t buy it, and I hope we never get to that situation.
As far as British television goes, with the Tour de France on ITV4, and Australian TV’s record figures, 39.5 per cent of the national audience – talk of the whole country watching. Here in Ireland, they had a 22 per cent market share two nights ago – when it was on at a quarter to midnight. Twenty-two per cent! So that meant that a fifth of those watching television in Ireland were watching the Tour of Ireland. That’s fantastic. And they watch it not just for the sport, they watch it for the scenery, as a way to see the country.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said?
Phil: I’ve never said anything that was a world disaster…
Paul: How about “breaking wind at the front”?
Phil: I said that in my very first commentary in 1978. I thought that was the end of my commentating career on day one. But I found out that if you don’t say anything earth-shatteringly wrong, the producers don’t even listen to the commentary. I have strong opinions – I hate race radios, and I say so – and I’ve sat on a committee this year for the UCI to discuss how they can be improved.
But I don’t like giving all the secrets away, and I don’t like the riders being referred to as robots. I’ve said other things like, “He’s won four silver medals and none of them gold.” You say silly things and they come out. That’s the thing about live television.
Paul: There’s “It’s so hot today, it’s going to fry the riders’ brains like a fried egg.”
Phil: That was the Tour, wasn’t it? And it was on the wall of my local when I came back from Beijing. It also said, “On the steepest part of the climb, and I hate to remind the riders, but it gets even steeper around the corner.” Well, I don’t remember saying it, but obviously I did.
Apparently, Robin Williams does a very good impression of you, Phil…
Phil: He does. I know him quite well, and he’s a fabulous actor. He rang me up and asked to speak to me – and I was talking to myself! I said hello and he started commentating. And I just said, “I’ve been looking for you, Robin Williams. I want your full name and address and I want to sue you for a wrongful impression of me,” but we’ve become pretty good friends. He came on and I interviewed him for the San Francisco stage of the Tour of California.
Paul: Well, you didn’t, really – you gave him the microphone, and he was off!
Phil: Well, yeah. He came on stage, so I asked, “Just a quick word?”
I said, “You live locally, don’t you?” and he said yeah, and I said, “Well, you must know all the people in the audience, then.”
He said, “Yeah – every one of them, from rehab!” [Williams had just come out of rehab for his alcoholism.]
He rides with Lance all the time. Very strong bike rider and a fantastic actor, and so funny. I was very proud that he did an impression of me on David Letterman.
What’s the easiest thing and what’s the hardest thing that you do?
Paul: Him sitting there, having a sleep next to me while I’m driving. That’s pretty easy.
Phil: Yeah, that’s easy. When we’re on the Tour we have a simple system: Paul drives and I sleep. Or I read all the papers and find out what’s happened at the Tour. The easiest thing? I don’t know, really – it’s a job. As long as I get to the television with all the prep, and I usually do because I do it every day of my life.
In the commentary, you hear you two really bounce off each other. How do you keep the enthusiasm for the work?
Phil: I don’t know why, but I’ve never lost my enthusiasm. And I don’t know why because you’d think I’d be bored to death now, 36 Tours de France and 12 Olympic Games. In 1990, I was working for Channel 5 Australia, and a guy called Stephen Phillips introduced me as “the voice of cycling”, and for some reason it stuck. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve never actually asked for a job in cycling. They’ve always rung me up, which is great.
And you’re still cycling.
Phil: And I’m still cycling.
And you’re not, Paul? Not at all?
Paul: No. I ride a turbo at home, but it’s not exactly very easy to ride on the roads in Uganda. Bit tricky – full of holes and crazy drivers.
Phil: Even on a mountain bike?
Paul: I travel so much that it’s hard to get the fitness to go out with some of the guys. There are guys who go mountain bike riding, though. I stopped riding for so long that now I’ve got no base condition, but now I’ve started riding on the rollers again.
Phil: That’s the other thing that’s changed, and that we’ve noticed change over the years – now I cycle with CEOs of companies and their employees, their MDs and so on. The CEO of a huge company – his company sponsors ten bicycle races a year – once said to me, “This is the golf course. Anybody that works for me rides a bike. The lycra golf club – we talk all our business on the bike ride.” I think that’s a trend around the world. A lot of powerful business people now ride bikes, and their employees ride with them. Even George W Bush rides a mountain bike.
Do you think it’s going to be different to the sponsorship, because a lot of sponsors are now drifting away?
Paul: There are also some coming in – look at Garmin, look at Team Columbia. You always lose sponsors and others come back in, and I think it’s important to see serious sponsors come in like Columbia, which is a pretty well-known brand around the world.
Phil: They’re delighted, too, with the sponsorship, and the team.
Paul: And Garmin coming in to take over Slipstream – it’s a serious sponsor. They sponsor not only the team, but they sponsor a lot of events. They’re involved in the support of the Tour of California, and they play a brilliant part, so the future looks good.
Standing in a car park in the middle of nowhere at the Tour of Ireland is a huge, plainly painted, articulated truck, that resembles a Transformer robot with appendages, steps and cables sticking out from the base of it. It’s a couple of hours after the stage is over and this vehicle and a few hire vans are all that’s left at the race finish. I am ushered inside “the robot” and into an interior that resembles a Bond villain’s cave.
A high-tech portable editing suite which travels around following the races is dark and quiet with screens, levels, dials and LED lights flashing all over the control panels. I immediately feel out of place and a little in the way. The show is live at seven and there are problems (in live TV, it appears, there are usually problems).
The helicopter pilot has decided to land miles away without passing over the tapes from the day’s racing, so the conversation is hushed and hurried. There are some very long faces and a lot of well-spoken swearing.
I try to chat to Gary Imlach, Phil and Paul’s reporter sidekick for most of the ITV shows, and get told in no uncertain terms to shut up and bugger off by a producer. No matter, we’ll chat tomorrow. The show is late and they’ll have to do the final quarter of the show while the first three-quarters are going out. It’s not chaotic but there is certainly a feeling of urgency.
For a journalist normally used to long deadlines and relaxed printing schedules, this is intense stuff. Luckily, I’m rescued by Phil and told to come and chat to them in their voice-over suite; we can carry on with our interview in between takes.
Outside, it’s raining again. The voice-over studio is the front seats of a tatty transit van. Paul is outside, leaning against a bracing Atlantic wind watching the boats in the harbour. “We get to see some of the most glamorous car parks in the world,” he says, but glamour isn’t really what I was thinking.
Nor was I six months earlier at Paris-Roubaix, when we’d first chatted about doing some pictures and agreed to follow them as they scurried around the cobbled streets of Compiègne interviewing riders and team managers.
At the Roubaix velodrome on the following typically cold and windy April day, they had sat in the open air in front of two TV monitors, all day, with barely a chance to grab a coffee. They sat in that dismal grey hulk of a grandstand huddled together like two street urchins. So, no, glamour is not what I was thinking then, either.
Then onto the summer and the boiling heat of the final day of the Tour de France in Paris. For the 22nd day of their regular July sojourn, they had rushed and run from one cramped set to another in suits and ties with just enough time to dab away the sweat before going live again. Keeping up with these boys is pretty demanding. I eventually gave up and headed for the press room.
What’s so different about Phil and Paul isn’t just their love of the sport but also their love of the work, which they take in their stride and with a polite matter-of-factness that is rare in any media work. They are clearly great friends, great company, and care little for the hardship along the way. There is something old school about them – no drama, no prima donna behaviour, just an incredible energy that they put into their work which puts most journalists to shame.
I noticed their admirable attitude when I first met them after a stage of the Dauphiné a few years back. I had finished for the day, filed my copy, and sat in the permanence trying to work out an annoying and intermittent internet connection (still dial-up in those days). Paul and Phil were walking past on their way to start another voice-over but stopped to talk to photographer Gerard Brown and me.
I doubt they remember, but I was taken by the fact they were happy to help figure out the French modem connection for me rather than rush off, something that is rare in a usually pretty hostile press environment. It stuck with me – nice guys.
Their public face is similarly convivial and the way that cycling fans react and relate to them is quite astonishing. On any day at the races, many, many people come up and shake their hands, tell them how much they enjoy their commentary, even how much they have changed their lives.
But it’s how courteous they are, even when on top of a tight deadline, which is all the more remarkable. Because when the going gets tough, as it often does in TV, they’re just happy to stand and chat.