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When Phil Liggett enters the commentary booth on 29th June in Rimini, Italy to commentate on the first stage of the Tour de France, it will be the start of his 52nd year.   As the race begins, he will be taking the viewers with him on the journey as he eloquently describes the storylines that unfold in real-time during the biggest bike race in the world, something he has done so in a television broadcasting career that has spanned over half a century that has taken him around the world, working for a range of different television networks.

Phil has effectively turned commentating into an art and he’s like a Master Chef who knows what the right ingredients are to use, and when to use them.   I connected with him to understand how he has managed to transcend generations and remain at the forefront of his craft

Focus on the audience

Phil explained that a contributing factor to his achievements is his awareness of the audience that he is connecting with, as he noted, “I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m talking to non-cycling viewers as well as cycling viewers. And as I used to always say to Paul Sherwen, [Phil’s co-commentator], I said, “Look, we’ve got to make these pictures talk to the average viewer. Otherwise, they’ll turn off.”  We’re trying to make it sound pretty exciting and try to pre-empt what’s going to happen next. So, the viewers will stay with us.”

Phil noted that part of the success with commentating is taking the viewers on a journey, effectively telling the story of the race.  He shared an interesting anecdote to articulate his point; “I remember once commentating on Eric Zabel, the great German sprinter and it was his birthday. It was the Tour de France and we were racing to Charleroi, in Belgium.  And it was going to be a sprint finish.  So, I told the viewers that and all day the television pictures concentrated on Zabel. We watched where he was in the peloton. We focussed on him when he started to move up ready for the sprint.

I had the viewers nailed on Eric Zabel. How his lead out team had put him in position in the bunch. It was a big gamble.  But my goodness me, he came out of the pack in Charleroi, threw his arms up in the air and won the stage! And as he hit the line, I just said, “Happy Birthday, Eric.” That was my outline.  We told the viewers a great story. It’s almost as if it had been a foregone conclusion from the moment the flag was dropped, but of course, it never is. He could have crashed. Anything could have happened.  But Eric won!”

Preparation is key

Phil has a story about every rider, for every occasion and this is a consequence of meticulous preparation.  It’s an ongoing process which has evolved over time.    “In my early days, for the first 20 years, there was no internet. I had to mail the Race Organisation, asking to fax me a list of riders.  It’s a lot easier to research now.  I keep my own files, even now, I would check the racing results of the previous day and any incidents reported. I’ve got a record of every rider I’m likely to commentate on. And if there’s a serious problem, like he’s crashed.  It’s all on this record.”

Work is not limited to the riders, as Phil notes “We do a lot of background work on the race route and the chateaux, in the Tour de France especially.  Paul and I were totally responsible for spreading the word on the castles, which has now caught on. Every event now shows their castles and their historic towns, as well as the bike race.  People finally realized that the Tour de France was a shop window for France.”

Having a broader knowledge of non-cycling elements is also something that has been significant to Phil’s longevity.  “I like the flora and fauna, because my first love is animals and birds.  So, when these things come up on television, I tell the story. For example, the release of the vultures in the Pyrenees at first, and then secondly in the Alps. Great success stories, because these birds were almost extinct in Europe, and now they’re breeding again – fantastic!

And so, I tell the story. And the camera, I’m sure the helicopters must be able to hear us at times, because when I start talking about them, the helicopter pilot stays on those birds for a long time, and cuts away from the race!”

Despite this, one of the most important aspects to Phils prosperity is his experience.  This makes his commentary so insightful as he is able to draw upon experiences to add flavour that few can match, as Phil commented “I’ve done the races now for over 50 years, I’ve built up quite a stockpile of stories.”


It is clear listening to him that to succeed you need an astute awareness of what is going on, coupled with desire.  This was evident when he noted “I turned 80 years of age; I don’t feel it. So, I guess there’s not a lot more commentary left in me, but the adrenaline still pours through me. And if I go to bed knowing I’ve told everything that I wanted to tell and made a lot of people happy, then I’m happy.”

Phil’s services are still in demand where he provides live feeds to viewers in the US and Australia.

Critical success factors

It is evident that to be a noteworthy commentator you need the right ingredients, which when all put together creates the perfect blend.  In this case, as Phil described, you need an awareness of your audience and the ability to connect with them, building a story and taking them on a daily journey which is underpinned by details about the riders, the course and the surrounding landscape, which is underpinned by a desire to a good job.  But, there is one final ingredient that Phil failed to mention and that is his passion.  This is the magic and most important ingredient of all, which has kept Phil returning for over 50 years, never missing a single stage in that entire time and that is what has made Phil’s commentary so special for over 50 years.  It’s a passion that the viewers find infectious and what makes his commentary so unique and what above all connects with the audience.