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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Light Snow
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Colorful announcer Phil Liggett headlines Saris benefit
Biking's biggest booster
Liggett: Cult figure?
Liggett: Cult figure?
Credit:Tricia Liggett

"He's in a spot of bother now!" "He's wearing the mask of pain!" "He's riding like he has four legs!" "He's reaching deep into his suitcase of courage!"

Phil Liggett is known for exclamations like these. They are Liggettisms, uttered by the veteran British cycling commentator across decades of Tour de France broadcasts. They have inspired a Facebook page, been collected in the book Dancing on the Pedals: The Found Poetry of Phil Liggett, the Voice of Cycling, and earned him a vast, devoted following. He continues to mint fresh Liggettisms almost every time he is near a microphone.

In a reprise of his visit here three years ago, Liggett's appearance at this year's Saris Gala promises to be a big draw. Hundreds of cyclists and bike advocates are expected to attend the annual Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin fundraiser, scheduled for 6-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, at the headquarters for Saris Cycling Group, 5253 Verona Rd. Saris president Chris Fortune says that beyond Liggett's popularity and vast knowledge of the sport, "The big thing is that he cares about cycling. He's nonstop."

In addition to Liggett, this year's festivities include food and silent and live auctions of bicycles, signed jerseys and more.

The annual benefit has grown from modest beginnings seven years ago to become one of the BFW's most significant fundraisers, with 500 to 600 attending and raising $100,000 each of the last two years.

"It's a great encouragement event," says Amanda White, director of the federation's Madison office, "a great way to celebrate bicycling in Wisconsin."

This makes Liggett an ideal fit as this year's special guest. Few figures, if any, rejoice in the sport more than the avuncular, erudite and excitable cycling announcer. Even when he laments over doping and other scandals that have plagued the sport in recent years, he brings to bear decades of devotion to bike racing with an exquisite colloquialism as illuminating as it is inventive. To hear him call a beyond-category ascent up the Col du Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux, or a wild sprint finish, is to be educated, entertained and drawn into the thick of it. To listen as he elaborates upon the distinctive characteristics of chateaux, agricultural regions, industries, foods, wines, cultures, flora, fauna, history, geology, weather and other features along a stage of the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia is to travel at his side by way of armchair.

New to this year's fundraiser is a group ride out the Southwest Bike Path to the gala, starting at 5 p.m. from the path's intersection with Regent and Monroe streets. The date's proximity to Halloween makes the group ride a costume-friendly prelude to the main event, which will also feature a costume contest that White hopes will be judged by Liggett himself. She promises a "really delicious" menu by Blue Plate Catering and other sponsors. New Belgium Brewing will tap kegs of its Ranger IPA and signature Fat Tire Amber Ale.

On the eve of the gala, a special VIP event is scheduled at Fortune's home to benefit the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin's work on a Safe Routes to School initiative for the Madison Metropolitan School District. Tickets are $500, and that includes a four-course dinner prepared by Lombardino's chef Patrick O'Halloran. White hopes that night's ticket and auction proceeds will generate enough revenue to satisfy a $20,000 matching grant from the National Alliance for Biking and Walking. (Attendance for the VIP event is capped at 38 people, and more than half the tickets have already sold.)

Fortune has led Saris from its origins as a designer and manufacturer of bicycle racks to its acquisition of the CycleOps line of cycling computers, trainers, rollers, power meters, indoor bikes and related gear. He looks forward to hosting both evenings, having staked Saris on bicycle advocacy. But there is also the opportunity to welcome Liggett. His favorite Liggettism? "There's so many. Probably," he says, "the suitcase of courage."

Tickets for the Saris Gala are $35 in advance from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin at 608-251-4456, or Tickets at the door run $40.

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