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Phil Liggett says Lance Armstrong did not need to cheat to win

Phil Liggett is at the race this week for the Versus TV coverage.
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich, epicimages.us)

The legendary English-speaking sportscaster of professional cycling, Phil Liggett, is renowned for his knowledge of the sport, anecdotal quips and a pleasing tone of voice, but his recent comments in Australian media were sharp and abrupt when talking about American Lance Armstrong.

“Lance was probably the most gifted cyclist of his time. Drugs, as I always say, don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred,” Liggett said in February interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Liggett has been making the rounds in the Australian media to promote a 114-minute Demand Film documentary on his career in television commentary and his personal interest in wildlife conservation, while providing insightful comments about his beloved sport.

Armstrong was one of the main characters in the peloton to fill hours of commentary for Liggett over the course of his ongoing 48 years of broadcasting. In an interview this weekend with 7News.com.au, Liggett said thought Armstrong, known more for his use of performance-enhancing drugs and ruthless path to winning, could have won races like the Tour de France as a clean athlete.

“He was naturally just extremely good,” Liggett said to 7News.com.au. “When Lance realised that the Tour de France was drug-ridden, he told his team ‘We’ll do it and we’ll do it better than they do it’. And if they didn’t agree, they were off the team. Most of his team had to take drugs just to back him up ... because Lance was exceptional.”

Throughout Armstrong's years of dominating the Tour de France, he bullied competitors, staff, journalists and anyone else who insinuated that he was doping. He only came clean after USADA's Reasoned Decision resulted in him being banned for life and stripped of his Tour titles. He confessed to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013.

Although there were plenty of clean riders who struggled against the tide of doping in the late 90's and early 2000s, Liggett painted that era's peloton in broad brush strokes.

“Don’t forget [Armstrong] was racing against other drug users, they also passed the drug test but the fact is the Tour de France itself didn’t promote the second-place riders to wins, that’s unprecedented. We’ve got seven Xs in the history books. All the guys who finished second have all had drug involvement or controversial situations but they were never nailed,” continued Liggett, who has covered 47 Tours de France.

“But they didn’t give them Lance’s victories, there’s simply no winners at the Tour de France for seven years, so they knew the guys in second place took drugs but couldn’t prove it."

He said he does not stay in touch with Armstrong these days, last speaking to him “as a friend” in 2011, “Lance was his own person, I never mixed in his inner circle which was like five guys.” Liggett does still admire him for what he has done to help cancer patients and families and said he “would never hate Lance Armstrong at all.”

“I know how he beat cancer, I know how he fought hard and that’s the mentality of the man who can only do things one way and that’s the very best way,” Liggett admitted. “I admired him for his achievements but I can’t condone drug cheats, it’s not for me, I just can’t do that.”

In addition stories about Amstrong, Liggett discussed the emotion he felt to take the broadcast booth for races after his long-time friend and announcing partner Paul Sherwen died in 2018.

The documentary projecting colour and life into the voice of Liggett is set to launch this year in six countries - Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States - and a series of cinemas across Australia will begin public viewings from March 11. The world premiere was held at the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival. Directeurs of the film, Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe, are the duo who brought audiences the lighter side of cycling several years ago with “MAMIL: Middle Aged Men In Lycra.”