I’m sitting here at my computer in Austin, Texas on a Monday night, staring at the title I just wrote, and now, the blinking cursor. It’s taunting me to sum up in 500 words (usually many more, in my case), the life, times and relevance of Paul Sherwen. He died at his home in Kampala, Uganda last night at the still relatively young age of 62, cause unknown. The simple fact is that no one’s life can be summed up so tidily. But in all the years I watched the Tour de France, it was his voice, along with that of Phil Liggett, that provided the narration to that epic race and many others. He did it with style, grace and panache, and forever won the hearts of legions of pro bicycling fans. He was also a racer himself, finishing five of the seven Tours he entered, and winning the British road racing championship twice. Born in Kenya, but living in Uganda, he was a staunch advocate of African cycling, and a humanitarian to boot. All I can do from my tiny corner of the internet is shine a little light on his life if you haven’t heard of him and to chime in.
A Class Act with Some Funny Phrases
Paul and Phil are known for an approachable announcing style that educates, enlightens and entertains viewers of the English broadcast of Le Tour and other races. The first time I watched it, I forget what year but probably around 2000, when that guy from Austin was riding and winning, I was floored by their announcing. Not only was he very knowlegdable about biking in general, the Tour route, and all the riders, but he also knew French well and provided most of the travelogue commentary about the castles and churches and much more.
Some of the language Paul and Phil used was qute colorful, and in Paul’s Queen’s English with that mellifluous voice, I was enchanted. It would be many years before Paul’s fellow countrymen would dominate the event with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and now Geraint Thomas winning the overall classification. You could always tell the extra pride when speaking of an African rider. But he was fair to all and praised a good effort no matter who made it.
It’s hard to tell who whether it was Paul or Phil who originated which statement, they are such peas in a pod, commentating together for 33 years. They uttered gems like: “He’s dancing on the pedals in angah!” and “Ooooh! They better look out for that nasty bit of road furnitchah!” and “He’s really having to dig deeply into the suitcase of courage.” These and other bon mots communicated Paul’s knowledge of and devotion to the sport as well as a playful spirit . While often the more serious and factual of the two commentators, and often overshadowed by the elder Phil, he was always just there, patiently waiting for his moment, and calling it how he saw it.
There’s lots being said about Paul on the internet as tributes come in. When someone dies still young with lots of life left in them (beloved Texan actor Bill Paxton comes to mind), whatever downsides to their life tend to get swept aside. And unless someone’s a real asshole or done heinous things, that’s as well as it should be.
Of course I never met the man, so I’m sure he had his faults. The longer nature of the stages lends itself to some boredom and repetition. But if there’s one thing you could tell as plain as day from listening to his announcing , it was that Paul truly loved the sport of cycling. Sure, it was his livelihood, but he also raced it, managed a team, and in many other ways, lived the sport. That wasn’t the only thing he was into; he was a business partner in a gold mine, in addition to being a husband, dad, and he wore many other hats. I suspect he brought that sense of energy, enthusiasm to all his endeavors.
Lessons from Paul
There are probably a number of lessons to be learned from Paul, and if I knew him better I could impart those. From what I do know of the man, the one that leaps out at me is simply to live fully. He wasn’t perfect but he put his mind, body and soul into everything. During the Tours he’d often comment about his own limitations as a racer, saying he hated the hills and he wasn’t any good at them. But reading accounts of his time as a professional bike rider, you get the sense that he was quite well- respected because he worked hard and supported his teammates.
One story tells of him having a crash straight away right at the beginning of a stage of the Tour. He had to ride for six hours by himself, with just a motrcycle in front of him. He didn’t finish within the time limit, and was eliminated. But the judges saw how hard he had worked, and considering that and his crash, they reinstated him. Now that’s grit, and guts, and just plain fucking grinding it out. No matter where the cards were going to fall, on that day, he chose to go for it. That to me is a sign of a true champion, whether you win the race or not. Bicycling, it is said, is suffering. He certainly did that and showed his humanity in the process. That’s an aspect of sport that I think is universal, because people can relate to the effort involved in some way, even if they aren’t a participant in that sport. And when you are, you can relate to the person even more.
For me, as a truly, madly ordinary bike rider (borrowing from Ortensia’s blog title) who has got into the sport in mid-life, with plenty of challenges like being a fathlete, I will never ascend to Paul’s level. He was very accomplished but would be the first to admit that he was not ever in contention for winning a grand tour. Nor would I even try to become a master’s level (old guy) racer. Hell, I don’t even go on shop rides anymore because they’re too early, too cold, and too fast. But there are times I push myself, and it’s guys like Paul who inspire me to do that. There’s been many more than one occasion when I was on a long solo or charity ride that Paul’s voice popped into my head, egging me on. “A Dude is turning himself inside out to beat his best time on this nasty little climb!”
I and millions of cycling fans will miss that voice quite alot, I’m afraid. Hearing the 2019 Tour without Paul will just be sad. For whatever reason, it was his time, and it came too soon. But the ride will go on, and all you can do is keep on pedaling until the end. That’s what he did, and that’s my guess what he’d say. So, the next time you’re out on a bike, give a thought to Paul Sherwen, and how glorious it is just to be able to be cycling. I know I will. Thank you, Paul, for all you gave the sport, your fellow participants and fans like A Dude. I imagine you’re dancing on those pedals wherever you are, and not in angah, but in joy.
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