This story was originally published July 20, 2006
Watching the Tour de France can be a difficult endeavor. The rules are complicated. The course is uneven and filled with strange checkpoints. There are mysterious symbolic jerseys. Ninety-five percent of the cyclists aren’t even trying to win.
Then there is the telecast itself, a repetitive wash of hills and dales, spinning wheels, and indistinguishable clusters of riders. There are more than 300 hours of coverage on OLN this year. They consist mostly of helicopter shots, which tell us little about the race or the racers. The whole thing, in other words, is fabulously addictive.
It’s addictive partly because of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, the long-time narrators of the tour. Liggett, who has covered the race since 1973, is known for his complicated metaphors. He delivers these linguistic knots in a breathless stream, and cycling fanatics trade their favorite ’Liggettisms’: “And so the first pedal has been turned… in anger.” Or, “He’s digging deep into his suitcase of courage.” Sometimes Liggettisms delve into the convoluted heart of grammar: “Lance will be the first person not to forget it.” Or, history and grammar: “The Spanish fans have climbed the Pyrenees in their thousands the way Hannibal did with his elephants!”
Liggett is a sixty-one-year-old Englishman. Sherwen, his partner since 1986, hails from Uganda. In his off-hours he runs an African gold mine in which both Liggett and Lance Armstrong are investors. Their voices are beamed all over the English speaking world. Stateside, they are relegated to the cable ghettos (After cycling, OLN broadcasts competitive barbecuing. Last year’s programs included “Samurai Sportsman” in which Yoshi Amao, a martial arts master, tried his hand at bass fishing and log rolling. In the winter OLN shows a sport where grown men on ice-skates hit each other with sticks).
Liggett is the more colorful announcer. He can sustain a note of amazement for a full three-hour broadcast. Sherwen adds a calm authoritative tone. But their partnership is more of a symbiosis than a contrast of styles. Liggett can pick up his colleague’s half-finished sentence and launch into a three minute digression. Then Sherwen can follow his lead, add a tale of his own, and bring them back around. “I don’t have a problem filling up 2, 3, 5, even 7 hours,” Liggett told me. “I suppose in English you’d say it’s the gift of the gab.”
“The tour,” Liggett said, “is like life.” Then he launched into a winding disquisition on the history of the race. “In 1903 as you know they wanted to publicize the magazine Auto and get more sales.” He covered the early poesy: “The most romantic writers, not sports journalists, but the most romantic writers have written into the folklore about these men they used to call the ‘convicts of the road’ because they would steal fruit off the boughs and out of the shops and not pay and keep on riding.”
Soon he was up in the Pyrenees. “They called it the circle of death because they thought nobody could ever ride those mountains on a bicycle. And I must confess the way bicycles were set up in those days I might have agreed with them, but of course they did. The people that lived up there were simply sheepherders and monastery people, and as we know the monks make the best liquor in France, and that’s what they were passing up to the riders who were walking past the end of the monasteries. They couldn’t believe these people were toppling the mountains.”
One complaint lodged against Sherwen and Liggett is that they cater primarily to the tiny clan of cycling insiders. If you don’t know your peloton from your domestique, watching the live broadcast might not clue you in at first. But this is part of the appeal. After listening to them for a hundred hours or so, you start to follow from monasteries to team tactics and back again. The unchanging, poorly filmed countryside floats by, and the tiniest movements become high art. There are so many tiny movements. There are politics and power plays. There is intrigue and gamesmanship. There are breakaways and blocks.
Once you know the significance of the polka-dot jersey (It’s worn by the best climber) and can sense an attack before it starts, you may find yourself trading Liggettisms: When Armstrong caught the last member of a breakaway group on the famous peak L’Alpe d’Huez: “Hello. How are you? Thank you very much. Goodbye.” Or when a group was bearing down on an audacious leader, “They’re breathing down the seat of his pants.”
You’ll also be ready, after all the mini-drama, for the game seven, bottom-of-the-ninth moments. Liggett recalled the last stage of the 1989 tour, the closest finish in history, when Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon were neck and neck. During the morning broadcast Liggett told Sherwen that LeMond would win by six seconds (Sherwen had predicted a victory for Fignon). “Fignon came onto the Champs-Élysées. He sprinted for the line. We knew the time he had to beat,” Liggett said rhythmically. “The time expired 150 or 200 meters from the finishing line, and as he hit the line, I calculated in my brain very quickly. I said, I don’t believe this, but Greg LeMond has won the Tour de France by eight seconds. The executive producer in London said, ‘Next time, Phil, get it right.’ And then I burst into tears.”
What a stage yesterday! It was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen on the Tour. Floyd Landis went out on an early break and led the whole way. He gained almost eight minutes on the leaders. He has a chance to win it all in the time trial on Saturday. And his name is Floyd!