Sorry for the Picture Break Up - A tribute to Paul Sherwen

Rapha Mondial: Sorry for the Picture Break Up

A tribute to the legendary cycling commentator and former pro Paul Sherwen, who passed away last weekend.

04 December 2018

Paul Sherwen was the consummate pro, one formed in the true northern European style. I first met him in the 1982 Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, a race full of cross-winds and narrow, cobbled roads, where Paul was part of a powerful La Redoute team (Cofidis today) going blow for blow with the famed Ti Raleighs of Jan Raas. Paul had that sleek, track racer look: patent leather Binani helmet and custom Verbrugge shoes matched to a perfect position on his bicycle, all clean and polished to a military standard. His racing career seemed most famous for his “time-limit races” at the Tour, but I remember him as a true hard man, expert on the cobbles and able to infiltrate any echelon – a commanding tactical presence for his team.

When we (ESPN) first went to the Tour in 1992, one of our producers heard then Motorola Team Communications Officer Paul hold court at a press conference. The producer, Jerry Vaillancourt, a true pro who had covered every major US sport, told me later that he’d never heard such an authoritative, confident performance at a presser and that Paul had completely captured the room. That was the thing about Paul, he was so very deeply respected by everyone in cycling and his confidence was earned. He could mercilessly tease the Dutch in an exaggeratedly guttural version of their language, handle Tour Director Jean-Marie Leblanc man to man (it helped that Paul was in fact a northern French rider like Jean-Marie), and have the network TV producers bow to his will. And no one minded because you knew that if Paul wanted it then it was the right thing to do. Even Lance listened to him, no small feat.

"His wonderful, bantering rapport with Phil Liggett seduced television audiences across the English-speaking world and made them fall in love with cycling too."

After the final stage of the 1994 Tour our ESPN team was tearing up nighttime Paris, bar hopping and letting off 30-days of pent up steam. There were about eight of us, the night was late and we found ourselves in a dead end street in front of a closed bar. Turning to leave, we found ourselves face to face with a very rough and somewhat menacing group. We were outnumbered and there was real tension in the air. Paul didn’t miss a beat. He immediately formed us into a conga line and started singing – and we all joined in at the top of our collective lungs – the Spanish victory song from the Champs-Élysées. “Indurain, Indurain, Indurrrr……ain! Indurain, Indurain, Indurrrr……ain!” We conga-lined past the astonished ruffians to safety thanks to Paul’s quick wit and thinking. That was him in a nutshell.

As excellent as he was on television, Paul did have one Achilles heel in the business: the standup. A standup is the hardest thing to do in TV, especially a “one-shot” which is a solo performance as opposed to a “two-shot” where he would be with Phil Liggett. The one-shot is just you, holding the mic with the sound and camera crew staring at you, sometimes with an impatient producer tapping their foot. Throw in an unruly crowd trying to get into the shot as well to complete the picture. It’s your job to be so charming and interesting that the audience will stay on ESPN as they surf through the channels. Paul had the ESPN record for takes (or attempts at getting it right): 27. He was quite famous for it. One day we were all set up for his standup and Paul was having some difficulty. Finally, after a couple of takes, he ripped one out. Perfect, balanced and tight, not a hitch in the delivery. Except, it was in Swahili. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life and all of the crew were similarly destroyed. Gosh, I wonder if anyone ever kept that tape, it was simply amazing.

What’s less known about Paul was his long history of mentoring aspiring racers. He was part of the Parisian system, racing for the A.C.B.B., that famous pro-creating factory, and his comportment earned him so much respect that his word on riders became gold to the French. One of his first successes was in getting Sean Yates into France, which, since Sean was a monster of a racer, opened the floodgates for the Anglo riders. Paul kept it up throughout his career, mentoring David Millar among others. That’s a great legacy to leave behind.

Paul did so much for cycling, the sport he clearly loved. His racing career served to help so many young riders. His wonderful, bantering rapport with Phil Liggett seduced television audiences across the English-speaking world and made them fall in love with cycling too. He set a remarkably high standard of professionalism, in television, in racing and simply in the way he carried himself through life. Paul Sherwen will be deeply missed.

John Eustice is an American race promoter, broadcaster and cyclist. Twice US champion in the early 80s, Eustice raced with Sherwen in Europe as a professional before they became cycling commentators.

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