As the 2020 Tour de France congregates in Nice for the ‘Grand Départ’ on Saturday, there is one man missing from the biggest bike race in the World – Paul Sherwen. Paul, along with Phil Liggett made up the ‘voice of cycling’ and the Tour will not be the same without him. Most years we have managed to have a chat with Paul during the build-up to the start of the French Grand Tour – Here is a selection of Paul’s best memories.
Paul Sherwen rode his first Tour de France in 1978 and started in six more. In 1986 he moved to the other-side of the camera to commentate with Liggett on every Tour until his untimely death in December 2018. Paul was always happy to talk to PEZ and give us his thoughts on the Tour, and cycle racing in general, so we have put together a collection of the best conversations over the years in memory of a great man who is missed by many, especially at the Tour de France.
Over 17 years we have put many questions about the Tour de France to Paul, usually specific to certain years, but this selection could be from any Tour and from any year:
(2003) PEZ: Did you have any experience in television?
Zippo. Zilch. Nothing. But I was lucky, because Phil and I got on well together, we’d known each other for about 10 years… You could put almost anybody into a commentary position with Phil and he’d get the best out of them. The Tour de France is the biggest tv gig of the year, and I was asked again and again and we developed a rapport…and I really enjoyed the statistical side of the sport, and Phil is very good on the historical side. Together we make a pretty good team… I crapped myself the other day when I realised we’d been working together for 18 years! (34 years by 2018).
Phil and Paul
(2003) PEZ: How are you able to spew out so many statistics and tidbits during a race, is all that stuff in your head, or do you have a computer program you use?
A mixture of both really. Phil and I share a database which we put together and update ourselves on a daily basis. We use it to create records of the guys, and now it updates itself automatically when we input new data. But a lot of this stuff is memory. You can’t do a live broadcast without just knowing a lot of this stuff.
(2003) PEZ: Do you ever get bored?
Never. I love it, it’s a passion. To me it’s exciting… Sometimes I listen back to the call that Phil and I do of a bunch sprint in the last 5k’s… the blood is hot when you’re doing that. You always get a buzz when you’re doing a bunch sprint, or a mountain top finish. We’re on the edge of our seats as much as the guy watching TV is…
How Paul met Phil
(2003) PEZ: The amount of travel involved with doing your job has to be one of the toughest yet least talked about aspects of following pro bike racing?
I’m very lucky in that my wife was involved in television before, so she knew what this career is all about. But it is not easy and not normal. I probably do about 150 days a year of television, not including the traveling time. I hazard a guess that I do 80 flights a year – every one a 7-8 hour flight. But when I’m home it’s for a month, and if I was doing a normal bankers job, I’d be working like mad Monday to Friday and see you 2 days on the weekend. I’d be knackered on Saturday and then just starting to get ‘round, then back into work again. Every system has it’s benefits and pitfalls…
(2003) PEZ: What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
My favourite thing about what I do is calling the final 1.5 km of a sprint, when Mario Cipollini’s lining it up with all of his boys.
(2003) PEZ: Least favourite?
When I’m commentating on a 6 hour mountain stage that’s flat for the first 2 hours and the French decide to cover the whole lot and you’re talking about blokes getting off for a piss…
Paul’s first Tour
(2005) PEZ: As a rider, what were your first impressions of the mountains in the Tour de France?
They were the worst nightmare for a guy who couldn’t go uphill. I had never seen anything like them, I had never seen anything as majestic as they were. You want me to ride up that thing? This is just ridiculous! It wasn’t just riding up one, it was three, four, even five in a day, sorry boss, same thing the next day! Maybe going back with today’s training, it might have been different. Either way though, if you can’t go uphill, it’s a bloody nightmare. There are guys who really want to finish the Tour but they don’t know if they can even finish the stage. Petacchi probably feels the same. And by the way, don’t let Bob Roll tell you he was a climber, I reckon he would have been with me back in the bloody bus.
(2005) PEZ: What was your training like at the time?
We trained 6-8 hours a day, basically, the fine tuning was done through racing, high-end was accomplished in racing.
(2005) PEZ: Do you find one Grand Tour more entertaining than the others?
I like each individual Grand Tour because of its own individual personality. Not to sound too simplistic, but the Giro is very Italian in every way, the Tour is a worldwide event, and the Vuelta is very Spanish. I always find Spain a very beautiful country – but I live in Africa. I love the dry tracts of Spain.
Yep, looks pretty barren
The time of year is quite right as well. When it was in April, I didn’t like it so much. You can get some incredible weather in September. I remember commenting on the day a few years back when Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano won – we only commented on 20 minutes of the race because the stage was so fast. There was a howling tailwind that day. I think Spain is a beautiful country, and the Tour of Spain is magical.
The Giro is the race for the real lovers of cycling, if you’re an aficionado, the Tour of Italy is the one. It is much more approachable than the Tour. The Tour is the Olympics, it’s huge, but the Giro is accessible. The roads are good, the terrain is fantastic, the fans are great. The fans appreciate every single rider in the Giro. If you ever get to do the Giro, you’ve got the Italian food as well – it doesn’t get much better than that: magical bike racing, amazing food, and great fans.
The Tour is simply the biggest and the best, the queen the king, everything. It’s climbing Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro, it’s going from Cape Town to Cairo on foot. It’s the Tour. It’s the Olympics, but every year. It’s everything. I know the ProTour is trying to bring down the significance of the Tour de France, but they can’t.
Paul and Phil commentate on 2009 Tour de France – Mont Ventoux stage 20
(2009) PEZ: Which was the most exciting race for you to work on in 2009?
It’s sad to say, but it’s always the Tour, because the Tour is the biggest. This year it was even more interesting because of the intrigue surrounding the relationship between Lance and Contador.
(2009) PEZ: Do you ever think the Tour will pale for you?
I say this to people all the time … every year, the Tour de France is completely different. Every time it starts, there’s a different story, a different scenario, a different group of characters, and it’s totally unpredictable.
Paul helped by Fiat teammate Serge Beucherie
(2009) PEZ: What do you miss most about your own racing days?
The racing was absolutely the best part, the training was the drudgery. What I miss most is being fit at that level, and the competition. But commentating on a sprint finish, you can get the excitement into the commentary on a sprint finish as if you were participating, as if you were actually in the bunch! That’s something that Phil and I both get a huge buzz out of and takes away a lot of not being competitive.
On the Koppenberg
(2012) PEZ: Is your choice of favourite race different as a TV commentator than from when you were a rider?
This particular week that we are in at the moment (Flanders & Roubaix) was always my favourite week as a professional bike rider. The Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are two of the greatest one day races, which I still get excited and nervous about. Those two races are fantastic. They are old fashioned, they are archaic, but they have remained in the modern World. Those are the one day races, but the same as a bike rider the Tour de France always was and still is the biggest and the best, to this day there’s nothing that comes near it. For a bike rider and from a journalist’s point of view, the Tour is huge, but you can still enjoy the Tour of Italy, it’s at a slightly lower level, it’s a purists event if you like, much more a cyclists event than the Tour which is a Global event.
On the road
(2012) PEZ: Is it better to be in Europe to do the race coverage?
Yea, you cannot beat being on site to do the commentary. In this day and age of internet connection you have a lot of information to hand if you are commentating from Stamford, Connecticut, which is where Phil and I cover a lot of the races from in television jargon; off tube. You’ve got access to a lot of live tickets, but there is nothing as good as the real race radio to keep you up to date with what is happening.
(2003) PEZ: Did you ever get over the loss of your pen knife when it got blown up by the ETA?
Hahahaha! I was very lucky because a lady who was a friend of my wife worked for Credit Suisse, and she actually replaced it for me. I love knives. It was 1989 Tour de France, Phil and I were staying in a small town just outside of San Sebastien, and the Basques Separatists put an incendiary device under our vehicle, and blew it up. Phil, to this day, claims that he was very happy about the fact that my cd collection was destroyed… I like quite a lot of blues, but my musical taste is quite wide and varied. The knife was one of those large Swiss Army ones… called the ‘Champ’. Today I carry and use the Swiss Army ‘Tool’.
Paul with La Redoute in Flanders
(2014) PEZ: Who would you say has been influential in your careers and your different lives?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, if you are talking about my African life, my cycling life or business life? First of all one of the most influential guys in my life would be Frank Howitt, who was my surrogate African father, he taught me everything I know about Africa, living and surviving in the bush, all about wildlife, tribes and African culture. I have to say my mother as well, you knew my mother, she was a tough lady and made the right decisions at the right time, for example, despite being a single parent family, she was quite adamant that I had to finish my University degree before I even thought about a professional cycling career and so, obviously, she was a very strong part in my growing up. Then in cycling the first really important person in my cycling career would have to be “H” of course being Harold Nelson BEM, British Empire Medal. (Harold Nelson coached many famous riders in the North of England and many not so famous). After that it would have to be Philippe Crepel, who I rode for as a professional at La Redoute, he came from a business background, he brought a professionalism into cycling, in those days, from basketball and I think that La Redoute was a very well organised and a well run professional team before its time and as you will know, I tried to bring that professionalism to the Raleigh-Banana squad that we worked together on it in ’88 and 89 and then after that, probably Jim Ochowicz who I worked with from ’91 with the Motorola cycling team, so you’ve got about half a dozen people there.
Merckx – Simply the best ever
(2014) PEZ: And the most impressive bike rider?
Eddy Merckx. Without a doubt I would like to have seen Fausto Coppi, I actually raced with Eddy, I didn’t race with Coppi, unfortunately he died of malaria before I started racing, yes I’m older than most people these days, except Phil Liggett! Eddy was a god, as much as the Americans will talk about how fantastic Lance was as a bike rider, Lance was the greatest Tour de France rider of all time, Eddy was the greatest rider of all time because Eddy put his bike on the starting line to race and win everything, it was ridiculous what he did; fifteen hundred races and he won more than five hundred.
These days we talk about Cavendish, Greipel; oh! They won twenty-twentyfive races and think that’s phenomenal, Eddy used to win 50 a year and what I love about Eddy is that he still has that passion for the sport. I was very lucky to work with his son, Axel on the Motorola team for a long time, so that gave me the opportunity to get close to a guy who was always my hero, I had Eddy’s picture on my wall at home as a kid growing up. Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel, we talk about them winning Milan-San Remo, Eddy won it seven times. So I was very lucky to work with Axel, fancy having the name Merckx and then deciding to be a professional bike rider. This all allowed me to get close to the Merckx family and both Eddy and Claudine are still very keen cycling supporters, they still love the sport and they have helped a lot of bike riders along with their careers and still do today.
The Tour de France rolls on without one of the big characters of our sport, but Paul Sherwen will always be an indelible part of the Tour and pro cycling for ever.
Thanks for the memories.
For more information on the Paul Sherwen Project ROAD iD, visit ROADiD.com.