In memoriam: Paul Sherwen, 62, the Voice of the Tour de France

Are you watching the The Tour de France? Begun in 1903, it is one of the greatest and most demanding athletic competitions in the world. Some 200 cyclists organized in 20-22 corporate teams of eight riders race some 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi) through the villages and cities, the coast, plains, valleys, gorges and mountains (the Pyrénées and the Alps) of France. Like the other Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España), it consists of 21 day-long races or stages over a 23-day period. This Sunday, July 28, it will finish on the cobblestones of Avenue des Champs-Élysées, 1.9 kilometres long and 70 metres wide, running between the Place de la Concorde and the Place Charles de Gaulle, where the famed Arc de Triomphe is located.

In 1986 and 1988 I had watched the brilliant achievements of Canadians Alex Stieda (the first North American to wear yellow) and Steve Bauer (winning a stage, leading the race for five days in yellow) respectfully, and then began to watch the Tour de France annually around 2003. It took me a few years just to sort out the teams and their composition, hierarchy and financing; the different individual and collective competitions (e.g., Maillot Jaune [Yellow Jersey or overall champion], the Polkadot Jersey [King of the Mountains], the White Jersey [Best Young Riders Jersey], etc.); the races within the races and especially the opaque tactics; the surprising sportsmanship upheld by the athletes; the remarkable history, personalities and profit motives; the utilization of state-of-the-art cycling technology; the mass protests by the Basques in the Pyrenees and the farmers; and to make sense of the doping controversies, the agenda behind them and yes, the geopolitics (the US was condemning everything French).

The TV production featured excellent production values, far superior to the other tours, utilizing as it does four helicopters, two aircraft and a small army of motorcycles providing live video from the road. The broadcasts in English-speaking countries, including Canada, were live, called by the inimitable team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen backed up by the jocular and former cyclist Bob Roll.

A few years ago the Bell oligopoly cut the sports channels (the race is telecast live by Rogers Sportsnet in the morning and repeated in the evening) from my subscription. But this summer I am back at it. So much has changed; the incomparable Alejandro Valverde Belmonte, now 39, is still racing through the insufferable heatwave in Europe, but there is a new generation of riders and corporate teams. As I write, the race is tighter than ever with the top six riders within two minutes of each other. The monopolistic Team Sky (now Ineos) of England, winners of five of the last six tours, has been reduced to second place and for the first time since 1985 a Frenchman may actually win the tour on Sunday.

The biggest loss for me is the mellifluous commentary by Mr Liggett and Mr Sherwen, the former aristocratic, the latter down-to-earth, sometimes clipped. Memory sometimes plays trick but mine is that together they were free of hyperbole and cliche (“Are you kidding me?”), knowledgeable, friendly, respectful and civil, multilingual, seldom over the top. They were everyman’s guide not only to the race and the athletes but the country, culture and stunning scenery of France. In their place, two young bucks with a thick English accent, strident and false excitement and unbelievable hyperbole. But what had happened to Phil and Paul? I was greatly saddened to discover that Mr Sherwen had passed away in December 2018 at the young age of 62.

I am reproducing for the information of readers an obituary by IAN AUSTEN from the New York Times of the life of a remarkable man. It omits their defence of Lance Armstrong with whom the broadcasters seemed to have been personal friends since he first joined the tour. Historically, the exploitation of the athletes and the pressure by moneyed interests to win at all costs has been savage. Given the murky circumstances of the campaign against Mr Armstrong until his confession, characterized by innuendo, slander and character assassination by the Anglo-American sports media of both the individual, the sport and the Tour de France, it is somewhat understandable to me. Our belated though ever-sincere condolences to Paul Shewren’s wife and family on their loss. – Tony Seed

***

Paul Sherwen, right, and his longtime broadcast partner, Phil Liggett, addressing the media during a news conference at the San Diego Yacht Club before the 2016 Amgen Tour of California.

Paul Sherwen, right, and his longtime broadcast partner, Phil Liggett, addressing the media during a news conference at the San Diego Yacht Club before the 2016 Amgen Tour of California | Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Paul Sherwen, who raced in the Tour de France and then became a longtime voice of commentary on that and other major cycling events for the English-speaking world, died on Dec. 2 at his home in Kampala, Uganda. He was 62.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Katherine Love Sherwen, said.

For 33 editions of cycling’s most famous race, starting in 1986, Mr. Sherwen teamed with Phil Liggett to provide live commentary for broadcasts in English-speaking countries, including the United States. Even casual cycling fans knew who “Phil and Paul” were.

With Mr. Sherwen behind the wheel, the pair would drive to the finish line of each stage of the three-week Tour de France and squeeze into a tiny booth packed with television monitors, cameras, lights and computers inside a two-story trailer.

“They are hot and stuffy, compact working quarters,” Mr. Liggett said in a telephone interview from South Africa, where he lives.

While Mr. Liggett generally called the race, particularly the final kilometre, Mr. Sherwen drew on his time as a professional racer and seven-time Tour entrant to explain cycling’s sometimes opaque tactics to viewers and otherwise fill airtime during broadcasts that, for some stages, ran on for as much as six hours.

Part of Mr. Sherwen’s job involved gently correcting Mr. Liggett’s errors, like misidentifying riders on the screen — an inevitable part of live commentary. And when helicopter-mounted cameras fixated on ancient buildings or particularly striking landscapes, Mr. Sherwen turned into a tour guide, if an occasionally mischievous one. When an impressive chateau appeared onscreen, he would sometimes say that King Louis XIV had slept in it, whether true or not.

The two men rarely spoke over each other. Mr. Liggett said he would signal that he wanted to speak by squeezing Mr. Sherwen’s knee. Mr. Sherwen’s sign was pointing a single finger in the air.

Sherwen competing in the 1980 Tour de France. A seven-time entrant in the tour, he later became a popular television commentator | John Pierce/PhotoSport Int., via Shutterstock

“I just clicked with him,” Mr. Liggett said.

Mr. Liggett approached Mr. Sherwen to be his on-air partner early in the 1985 season at the Paris-Nice race. The British broadcaster Channel 4 had planned to introduce daily live coverage the next season, and Mr. Liggett, a cycling journalist who had been commenting for brief packages of prerecorded highlights since 1978, said he thought he needed help in the announcers’ booth.

Around that time, Mr. Sherwen said that he was leaving European teams behind to race for Raleigh Banana, a small British-based squad that would not qualify for entry into the Tour.

Mr. Sherwen retired from racing in 1987 after taking two British champion titles, but he remained tied to the sport. He became the manager of Raleigh Banana and later served as spokesman for the American team sponsored by Motorola, the first to hire Lance Armstrong, who became a friend.

American broadcasters began using the duo — first CBS, then ABC and several cable channels, and now NBC Sports. The Tour de France organizers eventually included the two men’s commentary on the feed sent to international broadcasters.

More races were added to their schedule over time, and eventually Mr. Sherwen and Mr. Liggett traveled the world to provide commentary for most of the major races, starting each year in Australia during its summer. Mr. Sherwen once estimated that they spent about 150 days on the road each season.

John William Paul Sherwen was born on June 7, 1956, in Widnes, England, near Liverpool. His mother, Margaret (McGowan) Sherwen, was a homemaker; his father, John, was an industrial chemist with Imperial Chemical Industries. When Paul was 7, Imperial Chemical moved the family to Uganda, where his father ran a fertilizer factory.

After attending boarding school in Kenya, Mr. Sherwen moved back to Britain, where he discovered cycling. Unusually for a European professional cyclist, he went to university, receiving a degree in paper technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

After Mr. Sherwen graduated in 1977, he became the first of a wave of English-speaking riders to follow what would become a standard apprenticeship for turning pro in Europe, joining the Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt in suburban Paris. An amateur team, it was affiliated with the venerable professional squad sponsored by Peugeot, the automobile and bicycle maker.

Life with the team was far from glamorous. Housing was spartan, and the non-French riders received no funding or food. But Mr. Sherwen showed enough promise that he turned professional the next season, with a team sponsored by the rival carmaker Fiat.

As Mr. Sherwen and the other English speakers made their way to the Tour de France, they came to be known as the “Foreign Legion.”

Mr. Sherwen spent most of his European career with a French team that was sponsored by a mail-order clothing house, La Redoute. His job was not to win but to assist the team’s stars. Because Mr. Sherwen was open and optimistic in an environment often marked by suspicion and disappointment, and because he spoke several languages, Mr. Liggett said, the team often relied on him to boost morale.

Mr. Sherwen met Katherine Love, then an ABC Sports production assistant, during the 1989 Tour de France. In addition to her, his survivors include a daughter, Margaux; a son, Alexander; and a sister, Jayne Sherwen Adey.

After years of visiting Africa, Mr. Sherwen moved his family to Uganda in 1999. He took over a gold mine there with a friend of his father’s, running it while pursuing his broadcasting career.

“To bring a little baby to the middle of the bush, that was a bit of a shock to the system,” Ms. Love Sherwen said. “But it was a beautiful thing in the end.”

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