The Passion of Paul Sherwen
How he informed and entertained while creating a generation of loyal cyclists and fans
December 4, 2018
Any cyclist that’s watched a North American race in the last thirty years has worked hard and ridden fast to emulate their favorite riders. Iconic cycling moments include; Cipollini's fashion sense, Armstrong's high cadence, or Cavendish's low sprint profile. Throughout it all, there’s been one constant presence.
Regular riders no doubt have had another cycling hero in their heads, but not because of his riding style—although he was a champion—but rather his voice. This, of course, is why Paul Sherwen means so much to the cycling community. We've all had imaginary commentary in our heads during a treacherous climb or a harrowing descent. We’ve all thought; What would Paul or Phil say about our ride? We may have even had friends or teammates do their best impressions, using fake commentary to motivate us to put in that extra effort.
Paul Sherwen's death on Sunday has sparked an outpouring of support and sadness, as well as anecdotes from across the cycling world. Paul had an uncanny ability to make the viewer feel like they were the only person he was talking to, which is perhaps why his death resonates with so many fans. He could transform the most boring and long Tour De France stages into an educational seminar. He’d touch on the history of the towns that the riders were passing through, or who lived in a particular castle during the middle ages.
Paul’s commentary enhanced the experience of a sport that sometimes even the most die-hard fans find tough to sit through. He could quickly identify what rider was in which break. He would not only tell you their stats but provide background on where they grew up, if they came from a cycling family, or what injuries they’ve had. He put in the work to bring an intimacy to each race.
We know that Paul Sherwen's upbringing, cycling career, and subsequent commentary career is legendary. He broke barriers as one of the top British riders and took that talent to the Tour De France. He was part of a wave of new riders that penetrated the French, Belgian and Italian dominance of the race. He would comment in a humorous and self-deprecating manner that while he was often a bottom tier rider in the Tour De France and Classics, he was still there! A sort of cyclist’s cyclist.
Paul had African roots, dealings in gold mines. He started out after a pro career working as the press officer for the then-American squad, Motorola. He maintained many relationships throughout the years. He’s been there through cycling’s highs and lows. Part of Paul's wealth of information was thanks to his access to riders, connections that other journalists can only dream of. As an ambassador for the sport, many pro riders grew up watching, racing, and listening to his commentary. To be interviewed by Paul was an honor.
Beyond that honor, Paul always went the extra mile, which paid dividends to the audience. During a race, he would talk about a rider, then casually mention “I walked up to them during breakfast and asked how they were feeling before the stage.” His kind of passion is rarely found in other sports. Do American football commentators casually bring up that they had coffee with Tom Brady and discussed the game plan before kick-off? No.
Paul would also respectfully correct his co-commentator Phil Liggett on any and all inaccuracies in reporting—rider, stage, placing, the name of a climb, he wasn’t afraid to be right.
I remember seeing this photo of Paul after Paris Roubaix, in one of Graham Watson's books, the caption read "When Paul Sherwen's mother saw this photo, she cried."
Dr. Allen Lim can attest to the character of Paul. He share's "I remember I was walking into an elevator right after the 2017 Tour de France and Paul Sherwen was in the elevator. I was star struck and didn't know what to say. He immediately broke the ice and greeted me by my first name even though I didn't really know him or thought he knew me. He told me he'd been watching my croissant reviews on Instagram and has been loving them. This was Paul Sherwen. He was the kind of person that paid attention to others...who made it a point to know something about others even if they didn't know anything about him."
While broadcasting some of cycling's most significant events, Paul would balance several different duties. At any given moment he was monitoring the action on several screens, listening to live radio updates, and deciphering spotty live feed coverage. He knew the name of each rider during essential parts of the race, despite shaky camera angles. Then, of course, he’d call (sometimes shout) the race during the closing kilometers.
Expressions such as; "throwing the cat amongst the pigeons" or "they’re looking for a bit of respite" are now cycling lingo, because of Paul. After races, if the top riders were not English-speaking, he would translate in French, Italian or Spanish. He’d immediately leave the confines of the commentary box to be in the thick of it, battling out for a quote with other journalists.
His experience educated riders on how to handle themselves on the bike. His expertise and commentary is something many riders still refer to today. During a particularly wet and rainy stage of the Tour De France, Paul explained how the British legend, Sean Yates, hacked descending by using a line of sight with race vehicles up the road. Yates would watch their tail lights turn on and use that fixed point to do the same on his bike. Waiting for the last possible moment to brake and gaining valuable seconds. This is something many recreational cyclists use today to navigate unfamiliar descents.
Paul was a true renaissance man and ambassador for the sport. More than that, he had the ability to transform casual viewers into cycling experts by the end of a Grand Tour. You’ve more than likely rattled off one of his facts to a local group ride after listening to a race. Generations of riders have used Paul's wisdom and tips to help their own cycling.
We’ve all looked forward to hearing the familiar voice of Paul Sherwen. The loss of his iconic presence is a huge blow to the sport. Racing commentary will never be the same. Thank you, Paul, for a lifetime of service to the sport that we all love.