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Armstrong's lies crushed Liggett

Voice of Le Tour, Phil Liggett is not yet ready to hand over the mike.
Voice of Le Tour, Phil Liggett is not yet ready to hand over the mike.

If you're a sports fan, you might not know Phil Liggett's face.

But you'll know his voice. He is to cycling what Richie Benaud was to cricket, Bill McLaren was to rugby and Peter Montgomery is to sailing.

Liggett, alongside fellow commentary veteran Paul Sherwen, delivers the mellifluous narrative to the Tour de France.

The 72-year-old is a constant July companion whether you enjoy a live slice of Le Tour with supper or record it so you can dance on your wind trainer pedals before breakfast.

He visits New Zealand this week as part of Thursday's Legends Of Cycling gala dinner in Auckland featuring former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and New Zealand's Julian Dean.

Liggett took up cycling because his family had no car and it was "an easy way to get around" his Merseyside hometown.

He moved to Belgium but turned down a pro contract because he knew he could never compete with the likes of Eddy Merckx.

He joined Fleet St instead.

"That was the hardest decision, but the only decision I ever made regarding work," he says.

"From then on, I was always offered jobs in television."

Liggett attended his first Tour de France in 1973. Television segments came in 1978 with 20-minute summary reports each weekend.

"I converted a hobby to a way of life. I never carried an ambition to be a journalist. In those days, it was about compiling your facts and figures without the internet.

"Part of the skill was finding out more than anyone else."

Liggett still keeps his own files on riders so, when he reaches Le Tour, most of his preparation is done.

What Liggett didn't prepare for was the fall of Lance Armstrong. He had been a significant advocate, even as the seven-time Tour de France winner's fiefdom started to crumble against doping accusations and the diligence of the US Anti-Doping Agency.

Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. Liggett says it was a demoralising period.

"I built him up. I created him into a great cyclist, and he was, even though he took drugs.

"On the other hand, I feel hurt and cheated that we made him look better than he should've and turned him into a star. To be fair, it wasn't just Lance. Pretty much all the top names were doing it, some of whom were never caught.

"I can't totally decry Lance. He raised US$600 million [$925 million] to fight cancer. I'd MC his gigs around the world.

"I don't believe anybody truly knew him. He'd rock up, shake hands, say 'What are we doing?'

"I'd say, 'This, this and this.' Then straight afterwards he was in the car with black windows and off.

"People say I was in his pocket and strong friends but that's totally untrue. I was hoping against hope it wasn't drugs.

"I wanted absolute proof before I spoke against him and, despite what they say, they never got the proof. But they got the confession. That's what counted.

"The guy was still an incredible talent and a brave man. He was virtually dead with cancer but became a life support for millions of sufferers. He spent incredible hours helping those people and raising money.

"It's hard to simply say, 'I hate Lance Armstrong.' And I never would."

Liggett says other sports like athletics and the AFL are now negotiating the doping pain which cycling has been through.

"All professional sport is suffering the same problem, and it is only going to get worse for some.

"Often it goes to a national level, plus we've got records from the likes of East Germany where many were on drugs. They need to get those athletes now, put them on camera, and see how they look.

"Cycling is no longer the odd one out, and is probably more transparent than any other sport."

Liggett still cycles for fitness and has no intention of relinquishing the microphone. He and wife Trish, an Olympic speed skater at Grenoble in 1968, will clock up 45 years of marriage this year.

He is due to commentate his 15th Olympics at Rio.

"I've always said I'd stop working when the phone stopped ringing.

"It hasn't stopped yet."

- Herald on Sunday

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