Jul 17th, 09. Liggett & Sherwen. If you thought these two were legends before, you'll be further impressed when you read how their Tour de France commentary works.
Sarah chats to Liggett about the kiwis in the pro-peloton (c)RoadCycling.co.nz
Back in January this year, at our first event as cycling media, RoadCycling.co.nz joined the South Australia Press Association's monthly lunch chat, Their guest speaker was Phil Liggett.
For New Zealanders, Phil & his offsider Paul Sherwen are the voices of cycling. It's them we listen to as we try to stay awake for Sky Sport's live Tour coverage, or whom we wake up to for the early morning replays.
At the luncheon Liggett spoke at length about Lance Armstrong's return to racing and about who he blames for bringing drugs into this sport, but it was his insights into the Tour de France commentary that had the audience captivated.
Had you noticed Liggett and Sherwen never speak to a rider or do interviews?
Liggett began by explaining he and Sherwen never speak to a single rider during the Tour de France. As commentators they are always 24 hours in front of the peloton.
Liggett said he often has riders asking why he never interviews them. He has to explain that he's always a day ahead in the finish area media commentary box, "As soon as they start the Tour we immediately travel to the finish of the next day, they cross the line and we drive to the next finish and so it goes. If the riders do 3,900 kms, we're likely to do 5,000kms. We do incredible kilometres during the Tour, and if there is a scandal it can be a lot worse," he said.
To whom am I speaking?
Liggett's main commentary contract is with Versus in the United States, but he also contracts for Australia, South Africa and Britain. "Only the Americans are allowed to talk to me though, I don't want seven guys in my earpiece as well as the French commentator on the tour radio," Liggett said.
What was surprising to hear is how Liggett's commentary changes depending on which audience he is talking to. "We have a series of lights on the front of the desk. There's the international lights then the USA lights. On an intense day I may be speaking for maybe four hours between the different channels."
Liggett shares his tales at the luncheon (c)Roadcycling.co.nz
"In South Africa they all want to know how Robbie Hunter is going. I know South Africa intimately so I can drop in a few facts and figures on the South African situation for them, but that's not going to be very interesting for Australians. Then up will come Stuart O'Grady and Australia wants to know about him but no-one in Cape Town is going to know too much about Stuart."
"Then we've got Mark Cavendish winning all the stages for Britain, and then you've got the real people who pay for it all, Versus, who want to know everything about everyone - as long as they're American!"
Liggett determines who he is talking to depending on which lights are on. "These lights start flashing on and off, when it's on Versus only it means I'm only speaking to America, when they're both on I'm speaking to everybody, then when the States take a break I'm on the world feed only," he explained.
In addition to the difficulty of determining which riders the audience are interested in, the time zone also becomes an issue. "I might get told I'm heading to Australia live so I give them a nice welcome, 'It's already 10pm where you are, so I know you're all getting ready to head to bed, or perhaps open a bottle of wine', but at the same time in America on the West Coast it's 3:30am and I'm saying to them, 'Sorry guys you better get out of bed as we're about to start the stage', and then in Britain, well you get the point," Liggett said.
Does it get confusing? Of course it does. "We are bound to get totally confused at some part of the day about who we are talking to and what time of the day it is. I'll be looking at Paul Sherwen as my lights are going off and on, I'll drop him a note saying are we talking to Australia? He'll say, I have no bloody idea."
How do they know all the facts about the famous landmarks?
No matter where the camera pans, Liggett and Sherwen always have a fact or two to share with us. The French tourism body create the race bible that Liggett and Sherwen use. Liggett said the French don't like to give it anyone who isn't French, however they are allowed a copy. One copy. Liggett says he never lets it out of his sight. "I may make it sound as though Sherwen knows it all, but this book has every chateau, every landmark in it, stage by stage."
When two becomes one
Although we think of Liggett and Sherwen as a duet, if you listen carefully you may notice there is often only one talking at a particular time in the race. The other is likely off talking to another part of the world.
Ben adds Paul's signature to the RoadCycling "T'shirt of fame" (c)RoadCycling.co.nz
Liggett shared a tale of how two years ago Lance Armstrong came to the Tour de France and sat in on some Liggett and Sherwen commentary.
"He comes in and sits down between Paul and I. We've got this guy with a big white polystyrene board that supposedly acts as a sound proofer, I ask Lance a question but I can't hear his answer as this guy swings down with the huge board. Lance is wondering what the hell is going on! Lance has to give his answer to Paul Sherwen as he's still in America and I've just moved out to Britain."
Liggett says Armstrong's comments at the end of that session sum it up, "Is this what you guys are doing all the time?" Ligget said yes, Armstrong said "you're mad".
Listen carefully when you're listening to their commentary tonight, see if you can tell when Liggett or Sherwen cuts in or out. You may notice the links, "yes Paul, I quite agree" - Ligget has just re-joined the conversation.
Tour de France demystified series