Phil Liggett of Enfield, Middlesex, has forgiven America and bicycle racing is the better for it. His gesture allows a six-man U.S. team to line up today at Southend-on-Sea against 10 other teams to start the Milk Race, the free world's premier amateur road race.
As organizer of the 12-day, 1,100-mile grind, Liggett issues the invitations. This year he asked teams from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and two from Great Britain. All accepted, of course, plus the U.S.
Last year, the U.S. was invited, accepted, then sent regrets. An American promoter was going to put on a road race in the wilds of North Carolina which U.S. officials said would serve as a pre-Olympic tuneup instead of the Milk Race. He couldn't get up the money; the race was canceled; the yanks stayed home; and Liggett said he didn't think he would ask them again.
He changed his mind. Five years ago Liggett invited the first American rider to compete in the race sponsored since 1958 by Britain's Milk Marketing Board. Although American racers are still short of the first rank internationally, he invited a full team to race in 1974 and asked them again in 1975 when Dave Chauner startled all by winning a leg of the race.
"We may have suffered some in not riding the race last year," admitted John Allis, coordinator for the American team in a telephone interview from his Boston office. "It helps your mental preparation for tough international races, gives you more confidence."
An international competitor himself until last year, Allis said, "European fields are more aggressive. They attack for the lead often. The teams are involved in more tactical situations, something we lack since there is little experience in team racing here."
Allis thinks Americans may be competitive in four or five years in international events.
"It's really hard to say, however.We just don't have the depth in quality riders the European countries have," he said.
George Mount, sixth in the Olympic road race last year, Jim Ochowicz and Dale Stetina will lead the U.S. squad. Liggett has engaged a top mechanic and masseur to attend them. For the first time, the Americans can afford to bring their own manager along. Once in England, all expenses are paid and competitors get a little spending money, too.
Liggett had hoped the Americans could spend several months abroad before the Milk Race.
"I think I could arrange some engagements to help with their expenses," he said. "Amateurs get cash vouchers for prizes here; pros get checks. An amateur can't make a living racing, but he can earn money."
More than anything else, Liggett wants a close race. It generates more publicity for the sponsor, a government agency, which spends about $200,000 a year on the event. Before the Milk Board took it over, the race was contested over sheep tracks in remote areas. The police chased the cyclists and harrassed the motor caravan accompanying them.All that has changed.
"England is not too busy for bike racing," said Liggett. "Cities bid to have stage finishes. Town councils ask to be put on the route. The police lead the race now. Naturally, we try to avoid rush hours. I can recall only one serious complaint since I began organizing the race in 1972. A veterinarian was upset because he was delayed in reaching a cow in labor."
A first-category racer himself, the 34-year-old Liggett is most sensitive to charges the course he sets is too hard or too easy. He rides almost every mile of it himself during the year's planning.
His experience is fed into the 150-page manual every competitor gets describing the entire route and listing the prizes. To keep the action going, there are awards for hill-climbing, springs and other competitions within the overall race. A winning team can earn as much as $12,000 in merchandise and cash vouchers.
In planning the route, Liggett must make sure no day's racing exceeds 110 miles, the international limit, and try to take it through areas where milk consumption is low. The sponsors don't relate the race to sales figures, which may seem odd in this country, but do feel the press coverage the race brings can't hurt sales.
Liggett must also engage the 100 officials needed to supervise the race and obtain cars, trucks and motorcycles for them. He also arranges hotel space, the promotions, the program, the course's directional arrows, racing jerseys, souvenir caps and plastic bottles.
Liggett's skill at orchestrating men and material into a traveling sports spectacle has earned him invitations to many nations to help him in planning similar races. He would like very much to come America, but not especially for a bike race. For some reason, he is wild to visit the Florida Everglades, with or without his bicycle.